Prolific Canadian director Larry Weinstein (Our Man in Tehran, Mulroney: The Opera) already has one doc currently in theatres with the saxophone feature The Devil’s Horn. Weinstein debuts yet another title this month when Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star premieres in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 28. The film is a lively and intimate portrait of the two-time Academy Award nominated actress and star of two of Hollywood’s biggest musicals, An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958), both of which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Weinstein’s wonderful film reveals an actress uncorrupted by fame and a woman who eluded Hollywood’s star system despite being a successful product of it.
POV recently talked with Weinstein via telephone ahead of the film’s world premiere. Weinstein chatted about hiss experience filming with this reluctant star and offered an engaging conversation about the sights of Paris, the possibility of a star system in Canada, and the value of docs about arts and culture.
POV: Pat Mullen
LW: Larry Weinstein
POV: So why Leslie Caron?
LW: I think if you make a film about Arnold Schoenberg and a film about Maurice Ravel, the next logical thing to do is make a film about Leslie Caron.
POV: [Laughs] Okay, that’s fair.
LW: [Laughs] No, it’s very odd to me. The producer, Vanessa Dylyn, and I had worked on another project together and it never actually happened. It was a wonderful project having to do with Charles Dickens. In the end, it didn’t come to fruition.
POV: That’s too bad. I would have liked to have seen that.
LW: I guess she was always thinking of me in the back of her head. She had met Leslie Caron and she knew that Caron was going to publish an autobiography. She somehow associated me, maybe with guilt over the Dickens thing not working out.
POV: Guilt’s a good motivator.
LW: Yeah. But it was odd for her to approach me as if it were a done deal that she thought I was the perfect director. Most of the films I direct are subjects that churn in my head for years and they’re all about something within my own persona. And I had known about Leslie Caron to a certain extent and I grew up really loving Gigi, as odd as it may seem. It was one of the few musicals that my family relished. Later on, when I decided to go into film, I saw Gigi projected as a film and I thought ‘What a beautiful, beautiful film.’ Especially since Vincente Minnelli painted so many frames. It looked like Renoir or Monet paintings. And Leslie is somebody who you’d have an automatic crush on when you watched her. Even though she played this girl in this weirdly creepy movie with “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” she was a strong proto-feminist who refused to be put into a mould. Then I knew An American in Paris, too, which is the ultimate experimental dance film. Since I came out of music filmmaking, I was very aware of its amazing 17-minute dance without dialogue.
POV: The film describes Caron as a reluctant star. Was she reluctant to share her life so intimately?
LW: No, no, no. Leslie was not reluctant. She was very forthcoming. She was very frank. The reluctant star aspect has entirely to do with the fact that she didn’t plan to go to Hollywood. That was Gene Kelly’s idea. She was in love with a dancer in Paris and was heartbroken by the idea. She never had those Hollywood ambitions. She wanted to learn how to act properly and she respected acting as a craft, but she did these weird things in her life. She was at the height of her Hollywood fame and she ripped herself away from Hollywood to go to England. Things you wouldn’t have to worry about now, since people travel around. Back then, people stayed put. She started making a name for herself in Europe and did theatre, but not just any play, but even a German play in Berlin.
POV: It seemed that whenever she was hitting her peak in Hollywood, she stepped back and resisted.
LW: She told me privately, and maybe jokingly, that her whole life was about bad career moves. She actually dropped out for fifteen years and was running an auberge, which we don’t talk about in the film. She only left it in 2008 when the economic crash happened in the States and she knew most of her clients were American, so she left that and wanted to get back into acting. Being in France, it was impossible because they didn’t regard her as a “French actress,” which frustrated the hell out of her.
POV: The film really gives a sense of her French character in the way it uses the city of Paris. What inspired you to have Caron take you on a tour of the city and her life?
LW: Most of those shots revolve around Gigi and I was very aware that Gigi was the first musical that was shot almost entirely on location. I knew the stories about the difficulties of the shoot. It’s funny when you think about how they’re portraying 1900 in that film, but they shot it in 1957/58, which is exactly the halfway mark between when it’s portraying and now.
POV: Oh, that is interesting.
LW: It was Leslie’s idea to do the film Gigi and it was something very close to her, but boy, was it a pain in the ass. I just wanted to take her around and let her give us a sense of that place. She was living in France when I started filming her and she finally let go and said, “I can’t be here. I want to go and be in England where my family is.”
POV: Had she arrived at that decision before she started filming or did the doc motivate her plans to move?
LW: No, she had just made her decision and I went and filmed her. I wanted to film her packing her books and talking about her frustrations with her life in France. The film didn’t really affect her in that way. It made her think back. She had just written her autobiography so this was all in her head. She was so frank about things, so open about things, but she was never this older lady looking back in a nostalgic way. Everything was contextualised.
POV: She has a very good outlook too. On that note, the film comes out on the heels of two other Canadian docs celebrating mature women, The League of Exotique Dancers and Tempest Storm. Do you think we’ve become more comfortable with celebrating age?
LW: I haven’t seen either. It’s really awful. I want to see them. They seem really interesting. My daughter is actually a filmmaker right now and she’s making a film about people’s obsessions with mermaids. They’re mostly older women who used to swim and perform as mermaids. Now it’s about transformation and age. There’s also a transgender mermaid. I also have to tell you that I’m repenting for my sins because I just finished my film The Devil’s Horn, which is about the history and the curse of the saxophone. In the end, I didn’t have any female saxophonists in the film, so people were noting that I didn’t have any women. I forgot to mention to them that my next film was entirely about a woman.
POV: That’s good balancing act.
LW: I know that I have sinned! [Laughs repentantly.] But when you talk about those films, I wish I had a chance to make a longer film. I wish there was more verité in the film, but I was restricted by the length requested by the funding broadcasters, but maybe even more by the fact that we filmed in 2013 in France and then we picked up again in the end of 2015 in London and France. November 13 was the last day of filming and that’s when the shootings happened in Paris. And then the next month we went to England and, in between those two shoots, I think her life caught up with her. I think because she danced so much, she developed a bad back pain and had to have an operation last month, so I couldn’t walk with her as much as I had. She was very spry when I filmed with her in 2013. She still has a dance bar in her apartment to stretch like a dancer.
POV: She’s very lively. How much time did you spend interviewing her? With the amount of scene set-ups and clothing changes she has, it seems like you had a lot of footage.
LW: I always complain that I didn’t have enough time with her, but then when I see the film, I go, what was that? 72 interviews? I filmed her in a couple of interview situations in 2013. What happened was we walked around Paris a bit and she whenever we had a shoot she felt like changing her clothes.
POV: That definitely fits the idea of a star.
LW: It’s interesting filming a film actress who understands film language. The very first day I filmed her in Paris walking her little dog Chichi outside her apartment in Paris, and I didn’t end up using the shot, but she lived right across the street by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris by the Seine. She was walking Chichi and we were filming and went around for another angle of her crossing the street and she came over to me and said, “You know you just crossed the axis.”
POV: So she was almost directing you!
LW: Exactly. She also knew there was a lack of continuity with light and I thought it was wonderful.
POV: That probably adds some insight to her experience as an actress.
POV: I was also surprised to see that she receives a writing credit.
LW: Me too. [Laughs.]
POV: How did that come about?
LW: I’m going to rationalise that by saying that I was constantly reading her autobiography, and there’s so much information in that book. In a way, so many of the questions were derived out of her memoirs that she, in effect, became a writer. But it is an odd thing because she didn’t do any direct writing for the film.
POV: That’s interesting.
LW: There are three writing credits for the film, but I think you could argue that there are in fact no writers in this documentary. If there is a writer, it should be the editor, David New, because so much of documentaries are formed in the editing room. He was magnificent.
POV: Caron is a product of the Hollywood model, to some extent, because it gave her a contract and whatnot. Do you think Canada would benefit from a star system in its industry, sort of in the manufacturing of stars?
LW: I think there’s been an attempt at that in Canada. Like in Quebec, you see the same faces repeatedly. In the rest of Canada, I think people are trying to manufacture their own stars, with someone like Paul Gross. We do have a very reluctant star in someone like Sarah Polley who could appear in all sorts of stuff if she wanted to. She’s world class. I think it’s just different, especially with funding. It was different with studios when there was a constant run of films. Like Leslie says in the documentary, she finished one film on Saturday and started the next film on Monday. Those faces just became these stock actors who were paid very little—and it’s shocking how little they were paid. That’s a whole other problem. And it’s so hard getting films off the ground now. And it’s such a different process of making films, let alone casting them. If it can work in Quebec as well as it does, it would be great to see Sandra Oh in ten films a year—
POV: I would love that! A star system’s something you hear bandied about now and again, and since this is a Canadian film about a star, it got me thinking.
LW: If you think about Don McKellar, for instance. Don McKellar has the Bruce McDonald connection too. It’s nice to cast your team of people again and again and have a relationship. It really has more to do with the audiences if you think about it. People going, “Oh, look! Another Audrey Hepburn film! Another Spencer Tracy film!” It’s a matter of people following stars, even directors—that doesn’t happen much.
POV: It would be nice if people were running out to see the new Sarah Gadon. I guess it happens more with Canadians who find success in the States.
LW: It also implies this constant creativity without impediment and that would be a great thing… I think Leslie Caron will come back dancing. She’s in the new series The Durrells and it was renewed, so I think she’ll have an even bigger role.
POV: It would be nice if she had a revival, like how Downton Abbey worked for Maggie Smith.
LW: Maggie Smith is one of her friends, as is Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s very aware of the Grand Dame British actresses and how much respect they get. She craves that.
POV: I wanted to ask you about the films within your career as a whole. Many of your films spotlight arts and culture, but I find there’s almost a trend in the doc community, critics at least, that doesn’t give docs about art and culture fair credit. I think back to the debate surrounding 20 Feet from Stardom versus The Act of Killing in the 2013/2014 Oscar race, and how much the subject matter weighed in people’s opinions of the films. Why should docs about arts and entertainment be taken more seriously?
LW: That’s funny. You know my first film, Making Overtures, was nominated for an Oscar, and it was about a community orchestra. It lost to a film called Witness to War. I always thought that we couldn’t have arts themes if we were going to win awards. They had to be about war and ‘war’ should be in the title. Then I made a film called My War Years: Arnold Schoenberg and one called The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin, but they didn’t win Oscars, although I have to admit that War Symphonies did win an Emmy.
POV: That counts.
LW: I’m very aware of what you’re saying. I’ve made many films about the arts, especially music. The one I did on Kurt Weill, September Songs, won more awards than any film that Rhombus ever made and was invited to more festivals than any film we ever made, so it got a lot of respect. Maybe because Lou Reed was in it and Elvis Costello. With collaborators, I’ve done very serious research for the films and found all kinds of things that people didn’t know about the past, about composers, about certain music. News things came to light because of our film. It was like a doctoral thesis in a way, even though we were presenting it in an entertaining way.
That kind of film, documentaries in general, don’t have the gravitas of books. It was funny. Just last month, Julian Barnes’s book came out, which was about Shostakovich and his life under Stalin and it quotes my film. It doesn’t acknowledge the film, but it quotes it. He admitted that he saw some stuff in the film and it affected him.
POV: That’s funny. That’s good to see.
LW: For me, film is about entertaining people and each film’s subject that you do should be different from the last one. Even though I’ve been in the genre of films about music and performance, they’re very different from one another whether they’re original operas to verités, to performance films to hybrids, and every one of them has a different way of telling a story. I think some people in the documentary world think hybrids are so way out or egotistical. It’s not that at all. I find that too many documentaries are too damn journalistic.
POV: It’s always refreshing when the style of the movies engages with the subject itself.
LW: The point of a film is to play with the form as well. Most of my films were shot with the same cinematographers, editors, post-people and it’s like, “Come on, let’s go on an adventure together. Let’s do things we haven’t seen before.” You just try things and try to get to the heart of things. It’s ingrained, actually. I think all of us as documentary filmmakers have that wonderful honour because people trust you.
POV: Did going over Leslie Caron’s career make you reflect upon your own?
LW: Leslie is far younger than me in terms of her mentality. She has a very positive outlook on life. She talks about taking chances and continuing to try when things go bad, and things have gone very bad for her. I’ve had weird stuff lately. I was a partner at Rhombus for 36 years and we separated and it’s a very insecure thing for me. I started when I was in university and it’s a strain, but then you realise what a privileged life this is, so you don’t concentrate on anything that’s less than positive.
I remember when I started making films, it felt impossible to fill half an hour, but here’s a film that’s 53 minutes that I always imagined would be longer. It’s so hard to keep films off the ground, so I always want there to be lots of joy during the shoot, and just the sheer joy of being around Leslie and hearing her insights. She really opened up. One time she even stopped and said to me “Is this a film interview or have you taken me through a therapy session?” That felt so good!
Leslie Caron: The Reluctant Star premieres at TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 28. Larry Weinstein will introduce the film and participate in a Q&A.
Weinstein’s films Mozartballs and Making Overtures: The Story of a Community Orchestra screen at the Lightbox for free on July 5, and The Music of Kurt Weill: September Songs screens for free on August 20, both as part of the Canadian Open Vault series.