Q & A with Director-Editor Nicholas Eliopoulos

“Pickford” Director-Editor Nicholas Eliopoulos

“Pickford” Director-Editor Nicholas Eliopoulos

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director-editor Nicholas Eliopoulos about the making of “Mary Pickford, the Muse of the Movies”, which played one week engagements in New York and Los Angeles in September to qualify for Academy consideration in the best documentary feature category.

A Here Films release of an Earthlight, A Motion Picture Company and White Castle Productions presentation in association with Here Media, “Pickford” will receive a wider theatrical release in 2010. The documentary was well received at its U.S. Premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2008 and at its World Premiere in October 2008 at Italy’s Pordenone International Film Festival.

Directed and edited by Nicholas Eliopoulos, it was produced by Elizabeth Wood Coldicutt and Nicholas Eliopoulos. The film’s narration was written by Janelle Balnicke. Through restored vintage audio recordings, Pickford narrates much of her own story along with actor Michael York.

The film features appearances by Pickford, Charles Buddy Rogers (her third husband), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Lillian Gish, Amelia Earhart, Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Adolph Zukor (co-founder of the studio that evolved into Paramount Pictures), Roxanne Monroe (Pickford’s daughter), Walt Disney, Lionel Barrymore and “Keystone Cops” creator Mack Sennett as well as rare home movies from vintage Hollywood that provide an in-depth look into the early world of American cinema.

The Story: “Pickford” traces the life and work of the legendary silent film star, movie pioneer and shrewd business woman who co-founded United Artists Studios and was a major force in the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Pickford’s life (1892-1979) also parallels the larger story of the birth of the motion picture, itself. Known as “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford was the first actress to earn one $1 million during a single year and was the only star ever to receive a 50 percent share of her movies’ profits. Besides co-founding United Artists, she spearheaded the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 and established the Motion Picture Retirement Home.

She was the first actor, male or female, to have her name placed on a movie theater marquee along with the film’s title and she was the first to win an Oscar for Best Actress in a “sound” motion picture for her performance in the 1929 film “Coquette”. In 1976, the Academy presented Pickford a lifetime achievement Oscar. Pickford died at age 87 May 29, 1979, having made 141 short films and 52 features. Her career, which began on the stage when she was not quite eight years old in 1900, spanned nearly a quarter-century, but she did not act in a film for the last 46 years of her life. Buddy Rogers died April 21,1999 at the age of 94.

Nicholas Eliopoulos: Nicholas Eliopoulos’s award-winning career spans over three decades in the entertainment Industry. His diverse talents have been acknowledged in the areas of writing, directing, producing, as well as film and sound editing, in some of Hollywood’s most watched venues. Eliopoulos has won two Emmy Awards, two Golden Reel Awards and three Golden Scissors Awards. His credits include work on such films as “Out Of Africa”, “Nine To Five” and “Best Little Whorehouse In Texas”.

He also has extensive credits from years of working in broadcast and cable television as a director and editor. Eliopoulos is producing and directing his fourth documentary feature “Hello Dali, The Life & Paintings of Salvador Dali, The Hollywood Years”. He is an active voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and is a 25-year member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

After enjoying an early look at “Mary Pickford”, I was delighted to be able to discuss the making of the film with Nicholas Eliopoulos.

Q: How did you decide this was a movie you wanted to make?
A: In the late ’80s there was an alumni celebration at the University of Kansas, of which I’m a graduate. Buddy Rogers, who was Mary Pickford’s third and last husband, is also an alumni from way back in the ’20s when he graduated and went out to Hollywood and got to be the star of William Wellman’s “Wings” in 1927, the movie that won the first Best Picture Oscar. (Pickford and Rogers co-starred in the 1927 film “My Best Girl” which was Pickford’s last silent film. They were married June 24, 1937.)

So Buddy came back (for the reunion). Mary had passed away by then and I met his current wife, Beverly Rogers, and they were charming. When we met there, he said, “When you come back to Hollywood” — I’ve been out there for 30 years as a film and sound editor and documentary filmmaker — “come on up.” So I went to Pickfair Lodge, which is a little house — well, a mansion, really — that Mary had built for Buddy on the Pickfair Estate. They had designed it to house all of her memorabilia that she had had at the real Pickfair Estate before they sold it. When I went up to say hi and have an evening with Beverly and Buddy he started showing me all her memorabilia. I hadn’t really known anything other than her name at that point and I was just astounded. As the years progressed, he lent me some of her films and I started to learn about her.

That led to my finding out that Mary had purchased nearly 90 percent of her films, which were in the vaults. As they lent them to me to watch I was just amazed the more I knew. So I started this little project. (Laughing) God knows, if I knew it would take me 15 years I may have never have started it.
Starlet Mary Pickford

Starlet Mary Pickford

Q: So that was 15 years ago?
A: Actually, even longer. My first interview with Buddy was in 1990. Lillian Gish had given us a clip for the documentary just before she died (in February 1993). (Pickford introduced Gish and her sister Dorothy to director D.W. Griffith in 1912, who hired them to act in films he was making then at Biograph Studios in New York.) Because these things are difficult to fund, it took me a long time to find complete financing. Once I did, Elizabeth Coldicutt, my producer, stayed with me the whole time. We’d be down for a couple of years and then we’d be up. Then we’d start over. It’s a whole movie to see the behind the scenes of how this movie got made.
Q: How did you put the financing together and find all the visual material?
A: It was all private. I have to acknowledge my fellow producer, Elizabeth. She was with me the whole time. She raised the money privately — most of it’s her own money — because she loves Mary Pickford, too. Then I scoured different libraries and archives and found lots of different footage that Mary didn’t have. But the bulk of it comes from her own library. Because I started as a sound editor in the early ’70s in L.A. I went and got all of the audio interviews I could find and I restored them and re-edited them and together with my writer, Janelle Balnicke, we fashioned Mary to be able to narrate 50 percent of her story. So that took a long time. We’d go back and forth in the editing room between writing and editing. Mainly, I put it together in the chapters (that make up the film) and Janelle, who’s written the narration on my other two documentaries, also wrote this one.
Q: Besides all the footage of Mary, you have visuals in the film of a number of other people who are legendary Hollywood names, but that we really haven’t seen footage of — like Adolph Zukor and D.W. Griffith.
A: And Amelia Earhart with Mary. I had never seen her speak. It’s just a fascinating travel through the times. And then when I discovered that Mary was born in the same year that Edison invented the movie camera, I went, “Wait a minute! These are two stories that go back and forth — the birth of the movies and the career of Mary Pickford — and they intertwine. So it’s not a movie just about Mary, but about the first 25 years of cinema.
Q: It was fascinating to see some of the footage you have in the film — like the exterior of the Biograph studio on East 14th Street in New York, which I’d never seen anywhere else. Where did the footage of Adolph Zukor talking with Mary come from?
A: He’s sitting in the living room (at Pickfair). That was a little afternoon visit that Mary had with Zukor one day. And Amelia Earhart was shot in the backyard at Pickfair. You can see Fairbanks (Mary’s second husband, silent screen star Douglas Fairbanks) come up there at the end. A lot of those home movies of Chaplin and Fairbanks kidding around together (were shot at Pickfair, as well).They had filmed that (visit between Zukor and Pickford many years after they’d worked together) and that had never been shown. (In 1913 Pickford was signed by Zukor to star for his Famous Players studio for $500 a week, about $10,870 in 2008 dollars. By 1916 Zukor was paying her $10,000 a week, about $196,000 in 2008 dollars. Zukor died Jan. 10,1976 at the age of 103.) There’s another (filmed meeting) in the USC Library film department of Mary and Zukor that’s much older, but it wasn’t quite as good (in terms of its condition).
Q: What I found particularly interesting is how little things have changed in Hollywood since those very early days of the movie business. It was a star driven business from the beginning. You had Mary and Doug, who were Hollywood’s golden couple back then, who divorced their spouses so they could marry in 1920. Today we’ve got Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.
A: Or Angelina and Brad. It’s very true. I think that’s why a lot of the young people who see (the film) relate to it. They go, “Oh, wow. This is how it started and this is a lot like the way it is now.”
Q: Mary’s salaries in those days were enormous for their time, but in line with the kind of compensation that stars get now.
A: The average minimum wage for a wage earner today versus what Brad Pitt or Angelina get for a movie is completely stretched out of proportion and Mary’s at that time was also. She was actually the first actress ever to earn a million dollars (for a picture) and that’s like, what, a hundred million today. One of the more beautiful things about back when Fairbanks and Pickford and Chaplin made their fortunes was that it was before income tax.

It wasn’t until 1917 and 1918 that (the big income tax bite on earnings) really started to come in so what they earned (earlier) they kept. That’s how they were able to buy all that Beverly Hills property like Pickfair (a former hunting lodge in the hills above Beverly Hills) and do so much more with their money. I was trying in this movie to stress the great contribution that Mary made to the movies and the highlights and great moments of her career.
Starlet Mary Pickford

Starlet Mary Pickford

Q: One of those big moments that you have some very good footage of is the founding of United Artists in 1919 by Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith.
A: What I had noticed was that all of the documentaries I’d seen before always had Chaplin or Fairbanks signing. It wasn’t until I started this and looked in Mary’s vault that I actually found the footage of her signing the documents. Also, it was her idea to start the Motion Picture Home. We have her to thank for that today. (In 1921 Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith began the Motion Picture Relief Fund to assist film industry workers in need of financial aid. The MPRF evolved into the Motion Picture and Television Fund.)
Q: Although I’m not sure what its future is. They seem to be closing part of it and that sounds horrible.
A: I know. A lot of people that came to the premiere like Joe Bologna and Diane Ladd and a few others are fighting to keep everything open. This kind of gave them a new sort of energy to do that — seeing Mary’s work and looking back.
Q: It sounds like you probably had more visual material to work with than you possibly could fit into the movie.
A: Not to toot my own horn, but I am very happy that at a little over 90 minutes people say, “Wow, it really flies by. It doesn’t feel as long as it actually is.” The challenge was to (focus on) a huge figure like Pickford (but) with her stature in the industry you can’t just knock something out. To try to condense an 80 year career into 90 minutes is a task. So it was almost (a question of) what to leave out and how long do you stay on each point? And that took a long time to figure out in the editing room.

To really grasp her relationship to the entire motion picture industry, itself, and the birth of it (was a major challenge). I went back to studying my ancient Greek history with the nine muses and that’s how the title came about. I felt Mary was all nine muses in one. Actually, the chapters (in the movie) are nine different chapters that sort of correlate with the nine Greek muses. (The challenge) was breaking it down and trying to really condense a huge career into a short amount of time.
Q: And now you have hopes of being a nominee in the best documentary feature Oscar category.
A: I felt because she was one of the founders (of the Academy) and because it’s a movie about the movie industry that the documentary committee might appreciate it. It’s certainly different than what we’ve seen in (the way of documentary nominees) in a lot of years, which focus on (subjects like) problems about the ecology or starvation (which are all) very worthy subjects, but it’s a bit different and there’s room for everybody to tell all kinds of stories. So I thought let’s run the flag up and see if anyone salutes.
Q: Well, it might be helpful in terms of getting Oscar voters to see the film that Mary Pickford was one of the founders of the Academy.
A: There were 36 founders and she was one. She was so instrumental in birthing things. She’s the one who brought the novel “Robin Hood” to Fairbanks. She’s the one who told them about Zorro. She’s the one who started the Motion Picture Home. She’s the one who had the idea for putting footprints in front of Grauman’s (Chinese Theater in Hollywood). She also invented the “baby spot,” which is still used in (lighting) movies today. One day her little makeup mirror was on her desk and the sun came in and shot her from below. She wanted to be younger because she played young girls so much and she said, “That really takes years off.”

So she goes out there and her cameraman and all the people she worked with went, “Now Mary, we have always lit from above like in the theater. That’s impossible. We can’t light somebody (from below).” She said, “Okay. Do one take like yours and do one take where you put the lamp below me and let’s look at it in the rushes.” So they humored her and, don’t you know, they were astounded. Out of that came the “baby spot” and it’s still used today.
Q: What haven’t I asked you that’s important?
A: Well, I owe a debt of gratitude to Buddy because even though her great love in life was Fairbanks, he (Rodgers) was so devoted to her and made her last third of her life so comfortable. He was such a fan that if it hadn’t been for his energy and his excitement about Mary I may not have (gotten the film made).

We dedicated our film to Caroline Victoria Coldicutt, my fellow producer Elizabeth’s daughter who she lost at a young age. This tragedy put us down for a couple of years, but then Elizabeth came back and we finished our documentary as a tribute to the artistic memory of Caroline.