Martha Coolidge, Director
One of America's most prominent female directors, Martha Coolidge began her career making documentaries in the early 1970s and then moved into feature films as a protegee of Francis Ford Coppola. She emerged in 1983 with an improbably deep interpretation of Valley Girls, which became a surprise hit. The result was a flood of offers to do more teen sex comedies.
Her big breakthrough came in 1991 with Rambling Rose, a quiet film about a troubled beauty played by Laura Dern, who comes to live with a respectable, if eccentric, Southern family presided over by Robert Duvall and Diane Ladd. "Coolidge takes this essentially lurid story and frames it with humor and compassion, putting sexuality in context," commended Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. Coolidge's subsequent films include Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, Angie, Three Wishes, Out to Sea, and the HBO movie If These Walls Could Talk 2.
Her skill in depicting the South is again evident in The Ponder Heart. Though Coolidge is a Yankee herself, certain eccentric qualities perhaps run in her family since she is a distant cousin to one of our more idiosyncratic presidents: Calvin Coolidge.
Martha Coolidge recently talked with Masterpiece Theatre about The Ponder Heart and her admiration for its beloved author, Eudora Welty, who died at age 92 on July 23, 2001.
Did you have any interaction with Eudora Welty during the production of The Ponder Heart?
No, she was bedridden and not allowed to have visitors, but I read as much as I could about her and I talked to as many people as I could. When you're working with an author you admire, you try to do as much as you can to honor her work. Of course, film is a different medium; so I wasn't making a novel, I was making a movie, but one very much in the spirit of Eudora Welty.
Do you think your work on Rambling Rose, another movie about an eccentric Southern family, influenced your selection as director?
That's certainly possible. People do tend to say, "Let's see: Eccentric Southern family? Martha Coolidge!" I have to say that Rambling Rose and The Ponder Heart are two of the best written pieces I have ever had the privilege to direct, so accepting the job was a no-brainer.
Uncle Daniel Ponder must have presented problems, since he could easily be depicted as a simpleton.
Yes, that's true. Peter MacNicol and I approached Daniel very carefully, relying a lot on Peter's natural instincts about the character. Daniel is a product of how he's been raised and his background. His strong connection to his family makes him a tremendous symbol of the South; he's almost a karmic figure. He's not a simpleton at all, but sweet and innocent about things that other people may be cynical about.
Bonnie Dee seems to be another role that could be played as a cliche.
More dangerously so, yes. Bonnie Dee is a sort of magical character. She comes into their lives and just turns things upside down. Is she a simpleton? Is she an exploiter? We had to go back to the book to answer those questions. Characters are not just good or bad. If you look at her background and how she was raised, then the way she behaves makes sense. She's not stupid; she's uneducated. But she's smart in her own way, and she certainly knows what she wants.
Daniel's cousin Edna Earle narrates the story. When you hear such wild tales as these, you have to wonder if she's engaging in that famous Southern penchant for exaggeration.
That's the wonderful, playful, magic of the novel; that the fantasy and the reality are all mixed up and you can't know the difference. I tried to make sure that the magic in the book is in the movie. One example is the fireball during the storm. It's something that became a hassle in production and people wanted to drop it, but I just insisted that it had to stay because it was so important to the spirit of the book. A couple of people on our crew had seen balls of fire. I talked to a number of eyewitnesses and got them to describe it so we could be as accurate as possible.
Another realistic detail was the southern accents, particularly Brent Spiner who played the district attorney.
Oh yes. The vast majority of the cast were either local actors or from Texas.
Where was the film shot?
We filmed in Canton, Edwards, and Raymond, Mississippi, which are places around and about Jackson where Eudora lived and where she used to take pictures. Her photographs turned out to be quite useful in understanding how she observed people. The hotel we used was in Edwards. The house was in Raymond, where there was a famous battle during the Civil War. These are places that have never been used in films before.
Is there a great deal of interest in Eudora Welty around there?
Absolutely. Everybody knows who Eudora Welty is. They're very familiar with her work.
You say that she was bedridden. Was she aware of this production?
Yes, she saw and approved the script, and I'm sure she saw the final film. She also signed a copy of the book for every single member of the crew.
There was a successful stage production of The Ponder Heart in New York in the 1950s. Did it influence either the script or how you approached the film?
No, but I did work with a couple of the local actors who had actually been in that production. A stage production is very different from a film, and I felt that in the movie I had to be very careful to follow the tone of the book -- a tone that you don't necessarily have to maintain in a play. In a play you can overplay something -- and very beautifully so -- but in a movie that doesn't work.
What sort of considerations went into how you adapted the book?
The book itself has its own eccentric structure. It rambles on in a charming way about the family, and then things come together at the end. You can't do that in a movie, where you're driven more by plot. So you try to maintain the spirit of Eudora Welty and get the best out of the book. One of the things I did was insist on going back to the original ending of the book, where Uncle Daniel gives away his money. That had actually been changed in the script because people didn't want it to seem as though he'd bought his way out of the trial. But I felt I could do it without giving that impression, and I think I succeeded.
Every culture has its eccentricities, but there seems to be a special appreciation for Southern eccentricities. Do you think there is a danger of overplaying it?
I think there is. I resent campy, insensitive, overplayed interpretations of great writing. It makes me crazy. So I try to be careful. Who knows? You may think I overplayed it in The Ponder Heart, but I just try to understand the author's original intention and the poetry of the writing, because I do believe there is a lot of poetry in Southern writing.
What are you working on now?
Right now I'm directing the second season finale shows to Sex and the City. This is my first time on that series. I think the sensitivities needed in these particular two episodes were quite suitable for me.
In general, do you think male directors in the industry lack those sensitivities?
It's too bad, but I think that's generally true. I'm attracted to material where the female characters are extremely well written, like The Ponder Heart and Rambling Rose. A male director might treat it more superficially, while I prefer to mine the depths of it with a talented actress.
You had a difficult time breaking into the movies as a woman director. Has it gotten any easier?
It's easier for me now because I'm established. On the other hand, in the last five years it has gotten incredibly tough for women directors. We do exist, but the hiring of women directors has plummeted like a stone. It's bad enough for women actors, but there will always be parts for them. They may not necessarily get leads, but they'll play supporting roles. That's not true for women directors. You don't have to have women behind the scenes, if you know what I mean. You do have to have some women in front of the camera.
What standard advice do you give young people trying to break into directing?
My standard advice is there is no standard way to do it. You emphasize the things you do know. If you want to be a director, you should definitely study acting. Meet as many people as you can, and make a movie eventually when you know that you can make a good one.
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