The Prince & Me
Keeping It Coolidge
Interview with Martha Coolidge
interview by Dan Lybarger, 16 April 2003

Director Martha Coolidge has several notable achievements, but she's best remembered for a couple of films she directed two decades ago.

That's not to diminish her term as the first woman to serve as the president of the Directors Guild of America (from 2002-2003). She's helmed a pair of first rate literary adaptations: Calder Willingham's Rambling Rose (1991), which won her the Best Director prize at the Independent Spirit Awards, and Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers (1993).

Her work for television has been even more formidable. He directed the pilot for the cult police comedy Sledge Hammer! and earned an DGA nominations for the "1972" segment of If These Walls Could Talk, Part II starring Michelle Williams and ChloŽ Sevigny and for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which netted Halle Berry an Emmy. She's also directed episodes of the hugely popular Sex and the City.

Still, the films that people constantly site around her are the 80's comedies Valley Girl (1983) and Real Genius (1985). Both opened to unexpectedly strong reviews. On the audio commentary track for the new DVD edition of the former, Coolidge admits that it was originally designed as an exploitation film (trying to capitalize on the song by Frank Zappa), but the backers were pleasantly surprised when she delivered a "real movie." The movies also launched the careers of two green actors named Nicolas Cage and Val Kilmer. Despite the time that has passed, both flicks are still remarkably popular.

In a roundtable interview held last month in Kansas City, she recalled, "Valley Girl and Real Genius are really like anthem pictures for certain people of certain age groups. They've grown. They've grown. It's more people, because I think they did it with that age group and younger. When I first started going to Washington to lobby for artists' rights. It was the young aides. We'd go in with all these elderly directors. All the Senators and Congressmen oooh and ah over all these elderly directors, and then the aides would be all over me. 'Oh, my God! Real Genius!'"

80s Redux

Coolidge was in town (and even wore an appropriate "Oz" ring to boot) to plug her latest movie, The Prince & Me, which is also aimed for a younger crowd. It features Julia Stiles (Mona Lisa Smile) as a workaholic college student whose plans for medical school get derailed when she starts falling for a rich, seemingly spoiled Danish playboy (British actor Luke Mably, 28 Days Later), who turns out to be the heir to the throne of his native land.

With all the time that has passed between her breakthrough films and her current offering, it was tempting to ask the 57-year-old director how young people had changed over the last two decades. She immediately replied, "I hate to say it, but the 80's are back. It's really weird. I even took a bow to the 80's and put The Cars in The Prince & Me. I don't know what it is.

"First, this music is still being played, which is really interesting. Secondly, I think the real change is even though the 80s came out of a punk era and the glitter rock before it, and in that sense it was real rebellion. The punk era was a real reaction to all that glitter and glam of that other world.

"We've been in a really cynical time. All these styles are kind of styles. They're adopted. They're kind of pushed by everything from Paris to marketing. It's kind of marketing styles. I don't know how real the rebellion is except for rap, and that's all been adopted, too. I think it's a hard thing to find what it is that you can really make a youthful rebellious statement with."

Indeed, rebellion may not be much of an option for her two main characters because the pressures young people face these days are much different. Coolidge even felt some affinity with her career-oriented female protagonist. "I think that those two characters are representative of the kind of perspectives that young people can have today," she explains. "I really do. In order to have a career, a woman has to be so focused. Boys know it, too. It's hard. Companies are asking you to work 16, 14 hours a day. I know people who say I chose not to go into the stock market because I didn't want to never be home. I know in the film business, forget it. It's 16-20 hours a day.

"You can get waylaid. You get off track. You start doing the wrong thing. I knew if I had a baby young, how am I ever going to become a director? It wasn't even in the cards. I couldn't even consider it. Now, I don't think I was emotionally ready to either. But I absolutely identify with that aspect of her character." It should be noted the director now has a son, whom she named after he hero, fellow filmmaker Preston Sturges.

In an odd way, the director also has something in common with male protagonist as well. You could even loosely say she's royalty, because she's a distant cousin of President Calvin Coolidge. "My grandfather was his cousin, not first cousin, but knew him and tried to model his life after Calvin's life. When (my Grandfather) ran for governor, he lost," she said. "I don't know what it has meant to me in my life except that I never questioned that I was American. I was used to having American history being personal to me. In other words, when we talked about the Pilgrims, I felt that I was related to Pilgrims, or as my grandmother kept telling me, 'Puritans.' The fact that she could make that differentiation tells you something."

The Coolidge Touch

Although she has rarely taken a writing credit for her films, Coolidge's personal experiences repeatedly influence her movies, no matter where they might be set. For example, she based the dining room scenes in Rambling Rose on dinners she remembers attending at her grandmother's when she was a child, and her first noteworthy film, Not a Pretty Picture (1975), for which she is credited as a writer, is a semi-autobiographical account of an experience she had with date rape.

Even The Prince and Me features an interesting on camera reflection of her own life. Toward the end of the film, Julia Stiles' character flies to Copenhagen to pursue the Prince. "I did that. I was 22," she remembered. "I fell in love with a French Canadian in New York City. I left the country, moved to Montrťal and stood in line and emigrated without really even finding out if he really wanted me there. [I] found out that some people who like long distance relationships, really like them long distance. On the other hand, I got a really great job at a TV station, and I worked for television for a year and a half and came back to the States[DL1] ."

The Talent Scout

Coolidge has been known for introducing up-and-coming male performers to wider audiences. For example, Angie offered a memorable early role for Sopranos star James Gandolfini (who landed the role in part because he was one of the few actors who auditioned who was taller than star Geena Davis). "I loved him. I thought, oh, my this is a leading man. I couldn't hold out," she said.

In The Prince & Me, however, she discovered Europe. In nearly three decades of filmmaking, she had never worked there. Although the "Danish" scenes in the film were primarily shot in the less expensive location of Prague, Coolidge recalls a visit to Denmark helped cement the country as a setting for the story. "I expected some cold, dingy, Hamlet-y-looking, Elsinore, gloomy gray castle. And what do I find but glorious fantasy. It's a fairy tale land. It's got spires and dragons on the lampposts of the Stock Exchange, these incredible castles that don't look like any castle I've ever seen," she recalled. While she loved the locations, she did find adjusting to Czech working conditions a challenge. "The people were great in the Czech Republic, but they were very inexperienced because there were a couple of other movies in town and you've got a lot of young people on the crew. They don't really have the same system. In fact, it's arguable that in certain departments they don't have any system. Consequently, you're coming in and you're teaching, I don't like to say that because it sounds condescending, but you are trying to organize something that isn't inherently organized, and the way they do it is they don't have the tight schedules to shoot it."

Coolidge is proud to have made some darker and more substantial films like Rambling Rose, Not a Pretty Picture and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which dealt with the troubled life of the real-life African-American singer-actress who demolished several racial barriers through her work. Still, the cheerier new film appealed to her. "That's sort of why I wanted to make it. I get to my razor blade tolerance level, too. I like those [kind of] movies, but I reach a point." 

 

 


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