Rose Queen
The Prince and Me, released in a special edition DVD on Aug. 10, is director Martha Coolidge's latest motion picture in a long career of varied themes. From her breakthrough movie Valley Girl to the sexual characterization in Rambling Rose to Neil Simon's poignant Lost in Yonkers, Coolidge stands out as a director whose work is consistently driven by character, plot and humor.

Her movies also tend to enhance the cast's careers: then-newcomer Nicolas Cage in Valley Girl, Laura Dern in Rambling Rose and Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. The woman who was once told to forget about making movies has directed Oscar winners Duvall, Lemmon and Dreyfuss. Interviewed at her California ranch, Coolidge—who's related to the late president Calvin Coolidge and actress Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blonde)—discussed philosophy, art and making money.

Box Office Mojo: What motivated you to become a director?

Martha Coolidge: I love to take a story, whether it's joyful or tragic, and make it meaningful.

BOM: How do you regard the state of today's movies?

Coolidge: We have definitely experienced a dumbing down of material. The disappointment I feel in going to the movies is, I think, shared by the audience in general. I mean that. Whether they express it or not, you go to a movie, even a movie you like, and you do feel that it isn't as smart as it could have been. With all this testing, re-testing and changing the movie—[someone says] there's too much talking and you have to take it out—you're getting less story, less character, less complexity and, really, where it hits is at the end of the movie. Endings are dumb—because you haven't been able to set things up.

BOM: Do you consider The Prince and Me a romantic comedy?

Coolidge: I would call it a romance with comedy. If you look at comedies today, the comedy is the main thing—the romance is light. The Prince and Me was always meant to be a romance.

BOM: Does humor spring from that which one takes seriously?

Coolidge: Yes. There's physical humor, verbal humor, wit, character, dialog, and then there's humor like in The Prince and Me. One the biggest laughs is when [the Prince's royal assistant played by] Ben Miller is ironing his underwear with that deadpan look on his face. Even that is funny because, while it's ridiculous to iron underwear, we know that it's real to his [aristocratic] character. I would love to direct a movie based on a play by Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward—but people don't make those kinds of movies today. I've directed [works by] Eudora Welty and Neil Simon—the language is great, and it's always more real, it's deep and it has tremendous literate and structural aspects to it. I favor physical humor—like Walter Matthau, whose look is just funny, [while he's ballroom] dancing in Out to Sea.

BOM: How was directing Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon?

Coolidge: Those guys were just fun. The differences between those two men are just extraordinary. They respect each other deeply and at times in their lives they were best friends—at other times not so much. They were getting along great during Out to Sea.

BOM: Valley Girl was your breakout movie. How did that happen?

Coolidge: [Writer] Andy Lane told me all about this movie that he was going to be doing. It was called Valley Girl, and, though he had written it, he told me that he and his partner didn't really understand girls and they wanted me to consider directing it. So I took [the script] home, hoping and wishing it wasn't too horrible an exploitation and it wasn't; it was a decent, respectable script. I worked on the script with him. We did the film and it was great. By this time, I had so many possible projects and transitions—and women were so rarely even hired—I knew that Valley Girl was my big shot. It was about Hollywood, where I'd been hanging out, studying the rock and roll scene for four years, and I was a part of that scene. I was listening to the Go-Go's at L.A. clubs—and New Wave music was exciting. Everything from X to the Plimsouls. It was a really interesting time. So I conceived this movie as a Romeo and Juliet story integrated to the music scene—helped conform this to that, put a couple of more emotional scenes into the movie and started casting—and I knew it would change my life. It was like cotton candy and I took it seriously. It was everywhere. It was suburban culture, whether Long Island or the [San Fernando] Valley.

BOM: Have you stayed in touch with Nicolas Cage?

Coolidge: Oh yeah. In fact, he's amazing in the Special Edition DVD version of Valley Girl. We did an interview together.

BOM: Besides casting Cage in his first leading role, you also directed Val Kilmer in Real Genius

Coolidge: Val wanted that part desperately. He made a tape of himself in character and he was great. Another actor is James Gandolfini [The Mexican, The Sopranos]. Until [Coolidge's movie] Angie, he had only done small parts. When he came in and read, he blew me away. I said "this guy's a leading man". People said "but he's fat and he's bald" and I said "I don't care—he's a leading man." How men look is not the most important thing—he's a man: funny, tender and tough.

BOM: Why didn't Angie perform better at the box office?

Coolidge: That was a mismarketed movie. I have to say that marketing is an art in itself. Marketing can distort a movie, over-promise, under-promise, how much money they put into marketing, the timing—but it's more than that. It's easy for people to look at movies and say this is what we can sell about this movie. They can be so wrong about what it is that's actually good about that movie. Angie was sold as a comedy, which was really a lie. It was always a quirky drama with comedy.

BOM: Besides Cage, Kilmer and Gandolfini, who has been catapulted by your pictures?

Coolidge: [Laughing] I gave Michael Brandon his first part in movies. He was [later] in FM and I just saw him on the Jerry Springer show! I had totally forgotten about him. His first part was in my tiny student film at Columbia [University] called The Unicorn. I'd say I'm also pretty significant in Halle Berry's career. [Berry played the title role in Coolidge's 1999 HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.]

BOM: Has Nicolas Cage's career turned out as you figured?

Coolidge: The surprise to me was that he went gung-ho to the action pictures when he has so much talent with all the other stuff—comedy, subtlety, drama. While he isn't the typical hunk, he is very [Robert] Mitchum-esque. I always thought that. I felt he was a star when he walked into the room.

BOM: And Val Kilmer?

Coolidge: He has the look and the charisma and certainly the career. Sometimes you wonder if Val hasn't been his own worst enemy.


BOM: Following Real Genius and The Joy of Sex, Rambling Rose was a turning point.

Coolidge: [Commenting on her teen sex comedies in the 1980's], I think it was the New York Times critic—someone—wrote: "when will they let this woman out of high school?" That was exactly how I felt. Critics don't realize you're a victim of the material you're offered. You pick the best of what you're offered. I was trying to get out of high school for several years. I did Valley Girl, it was a big hit and I was really hot. But I was only offered teenage comedies and most of them were really bad. I turned down Real Genius several times before [producer] Brian Grazer made enough changes that brought up its level. My assistant had read the script for Rambling Rose and told me to read it. But I'm a slow reader. I was doing other things and I didn't read it and I must have had it for months and months. I finally read it and I saw how to do the movie. Goldie Hawn was cast as the original Rose in 1972, with Walter Matthau as Daddy and Lily Tomlin as mother, but it was never made. I had seen Laura Dern in Smooth Talk and I thought her depiction of adolescent sexuality was pretty profound. I tracked her down, gave her the script and we got to know each other. She loved it. I had suggested Laura [for the lead] and [Rambling Rose executive producer] Edgar Scherick wasn't convinced. There was a key moment in the script where her character walks through town in a see-through dress—and Laura walked into Ed Scherick's office with this see-through dress that kept falling off her shoulder. She did the interview as if she was Rose, very detached and away from her sexuality and yet very conscious—it was a brilliant audition. Then it took five years to get the movie financed. One of the big challenges was that [the novel's writer] Calder [Willingham] wouldn't work with it but Edgar owned the script. Not to be stopped, we kept working on it. In the meantime, I directed Plain Clothes with [Dern's mother] Diane Ladd. I'm sitting at dinner with Diane and she has glasses on and I looked at her and I thought, you know, Diane doesn't look like Laura, and if I dyed her hair brown, she could play [Robert Duvall's wife in Rambling Rose]. Laura loved the idea. Laura started dating Renny Harlin and he was reading the script while making Die Hard 2 and he said he loved it and wanted to produce it. We went to Bobby Duvall who had actually turned us down once. Finally, we went back to Bobby Duvall with a letter from Calder that must have been brilliant—it somehow changed Bobby's mind and he loved the script. 14-year-old Lukas Haas—whose father is German and whose mother is a writer—was cast as the son. We had a first choice cast.

BOM: While you were trying to cast and fund Rambling Rose—and Plain Clothes didn't do well at the box office—were you scared?

Coolidge: Sure.

BOM: You were doing something radically different while your other movies weren't performing well—

Coolidge: I just knew that if I didn't get out of high school movies, I was a dead duck. It was very conscious. Rambling Rose was a truly profound script. I don't know how many times in one's life one gets writing like that. I've worked with some great writers but with Rambling Rose, every scene is so deep and literate. You can get lost in it.

BOM: What is the theme?

Coolidge: It's about higher love. That boy's ability to love for the rest of his life. He's devoted to [Laura Dern's character]. But his interest is carnal at first. He's a 13-year-old boy who wants to know what she did as a prostitute—he wants all the details: he wants to know what it feels like, what it looks like, what it is like, all the sexual details. When she starts crying and he starts feeling her pain, and he starts understanding her dilemma, he's lifted above his carnal interests into his sudden identification with this girl and he loves her. He wants to protect her. It's about the boy becoming a man and [in a wider sense] a man's ability to love, as an integration of sex and love—of the mind and the body. Sex and love go together. These men are learning to love.

BOM: Were you pleased with its success?

Coolidge: We made it for $7.5 million, $3.5 million below the line at the time. It was respectable at the box office, though here's what happened: it came out and, one week later, Carolco basically went bankrupt. After one week of release—it was released through New Line Cinema and we'd gotten unbelievably great reviews—there was no money for advertising. They dragged it out for another week or two and it ran until Christmas in some locations with no ads—just on word of mouth. But because of the bankruptcy, it wasn't promoted. People were talking about an Academy Award—and at that time no independent movies were being nominated—so we had a book made, we bought 4,000 videocassettes with our own money and we went to friends in the industry and we did a guerilla [marketing] campaign. We sent cassettes to actors and directors, using one major studio's mailing list. A friend in a studio's art department did the ads as a favor. Laura Dern's agent did the mailings. And Renny's and my agencies did the screenings. We used the campaign as publicity and we ended up with two Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.

BOM: What lessons did you learn—that you ought to start reading scripts sooner?

Coolidge: That's true. Yeah. You do learn. And it's an important thing to do but it's hard because you'll get scripts on speculation—and you'll get scripts from the agent saying this is going at Disney so you have to read it—so those are the ones you read right away, some dippy duck movie or something. I keep scripts around and I do try to read them. I'm not a fast reader. I just don't want to read five, ten scripts a day. I am one of those people who do like to finish a script. Another lesson was "Don't go by the log line." I had been told that Rambling Rose was about a girl who comes to work for this family and she's an au pair. It didn't sound riveting.

BOM: Is the work its own reward?

Coolidge: Yes. There are other things you struggle with about this business—that when you're hot, you're on top and, when you're cold, you're not—you don't want to believe the bullshit and you don't want to believe you're no good, either. You've got to really keep an even keel. But to me, it's the process, it's the work. I love shooting—not every director's favorite thing. It's fully engaging. I feel like I'm dancing. I set the stage, design the set, get the actors to prepare, I conceive, I set all the stuff in motion and then it's dancing the dance. To watch those actors take off, which is what it's all about—with the script, the camera—now, it's them. My dance is with the actors. Can I help them do better? Do they not need me? Is one in trouble while the other one's not? Is the joke working? Is the subtext working? Is it coming from where it should come from and going where it ought to be going? It's the art of what's happening in the moment.

BOM: Can you account for why there aren't more women directing movies?

Coolidge: I ask myself that question all the time. I know how I did it. I knew I was a director, from the time I directed my first play in high school. It was like a religious calling. It wasn't like I wanted to be a director—I was a director and I simply had to make what I knew to be real happen. I was the happiest directing and I was the most effective person while I was directing. My big challenge in life has been to make myself happy when I'm not directing. I will say this: it was incredibly difficult for me to do what I did. I had no clue that I would be up against the endless challenges beyond what a male director is up against. I hate people telling me I can't do something. I don't like it. When I applied to graduate film school, Scorcese's big mentor said to me "you can't be a director, you're a woman. You're wasting your time, you're wasting your money and you just can't do it." I was shocked. It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me. He accepted me, though—or maybe he didn't. I don't know, but I got in. It was shocking because it was so against what I knew was true [about me]; that I was a director. I'm stubborn and single-minded.

BOM: Is it also possible that women don't want to be directors?

Coolidge: No. There are a lot of women who do.

BOM: Where are they?

Coolidge: I can give you examples of directors who are women who have done much more than their male counterparts have. We live in a world filled with gender discrimination. When I walk in for a job, they look at me and I'm a woman. I can't lose that. I can't change that. And the assumptions of the people in the room will color their interview with me. They may assume women should be in the kitchen—what is she doing here wanting to do an action picture?—and then they don't even interview me.

BOM: Do you want to do action pictures?

Coolidge: Are you kidding? Of course I do. I love action pictures.

BOM: Can you name one you like?

Coolidge: We'll have to go back to some of the greats; they're not just pure action. Lawrence of Arabia

BOM: Few men are likely to describe Lawrence of Arabia as an action picture.

Coolidge: It's what used to be [considered] an action picture. It's an historical epic. I'd like to do big, operatic Westerns. Movies have action—actions are an extension of people. Look at Braveheart. I also love science fiction. I was going to do Eaters of the Dead, which was a Michael Crichton book that later became The 13th Warrior. It was not a good movie—but it could have been a good movie. I had it for three years. Carolco would have done it with me, and Renny [Harlin] was going to produce it. It's an interesting, intelligent, almost Zorba the Greek type movie. It had hand-to-hand combat, which I love. Not just techno stuff. I like good characters. The person who knows this about me is [Titanic director] James Cameron, who asked one day if I still wanted to do science fiction. I said yeah. So I read the [script] treatment for his Mars miniseries, flipped out over it—it's brilliant—and it's kind of gone into limbo. It was really an amazing piece but we never got the script right. And then a lot of Mars movies came out.

BOM: What's the theme of the Mars plot?

Coolidge: The first manned mission to Mars, set slightly in the future. It's a heroic, five-hour miniseries. What I love about Jim's material is that he tells very small, intense human stories in a big setting. The human story here is about discovering life in every way.

BOM: What's your next project?

Coolidge: I have a script with Nick Kazan, which is a quirky comedy about the first nuclear reactor meltdown in the United States. It's a comedy of heroes and errors.

BOM: How can you make that situation funny?

Coolidge: It's a small incident but it is Pandora's Box, like a chain reaction.

BOM: Is it going to be anti-nuclear power?

Coolidge: No. This is about people. The meltdown is a fact in the movie—it's something that happens—I'm a realist in that sense. I'm not pro- or anti-nuclear but it's here and it's real.


BOM: Do you agree with Aristotle that art ought to present man as he can be and ought to be?

Coolidge: Yes. That's why I ended The Prince and Me the way we did.

BOM: Is graphic violence acceptable in movies—while sexuality is not?

Coolidge: Yes. I have a real problem with that. You should have heard my conversations with the ratings board about [sexual scenes in] The Prince and Me. We had weeks of negotiations and cutting the movie up. It ended up with a PG rating—and then Mean Girls with a PG-13 rating makes all the money—but PG was too young an audience for this movie. This movie is not a typical Cinderella story. And you know what? The reason we got the PG is women. That's my own disappointment. I go to these preview screenings, I read every [response] card and it isn't the girls—it's the women. They say 'oh my daughter is going to see it!' Well, their daughter is living in a world where she turns on her computer and sees far worse than that. It's Puritanism.

BOM: Is The Prince and Me successful?

Coolidge: The movie cost about $20 million [to make] and it's going to make a lot of money—it's already made over $28 million in domestic box office and it will make more on DVD.

BOM: Does the director have creative control over the DVD features?

Coolidge: No.

BOM: What are your thoughts on The Joy of Sex?

Coolidge: It was my first movie after Valley Girl. I took this movie thinking I could be a hero—with no script and eight days until we had to start shooting—and it was National Lampoon's Joy of Sex, not based on the book [The Joy of Sex]. I made this movie and [Paramount] took it away from me and re-cut the movie. They finished with no money and it's like schlocko. I haven't seen it in years. I should have taken my name off it. It certainly isn't my movie. Even National Lampoon took their name off it. But it keeps playing.

BOM: How do you regard Plain Clothes?

Coolidge: That was a bad experience, too. It was Paramount—a very different Paramount than it is now, with different people [running the studio]. I had been the director of Some Kind of Wonderful and, four days before shooting, John Hughes—who is a mysterious man—made up with his friend Howie Deutch, with whom he had a falling out months before, and he decided to give him the movie as a gift. So he fired me four days before shooting. I was completely rehearsed, storyboarded, prepped, scouted, everything was ready. It was [slated to star] Mary Stuart Masterson, Eric Stoltz, Kim Delaney [in the role played by Lea Thompson] and Kyle Maclachlan [in the role played by Craig Sheffer]—those were the two couples in my movie. Howie came on, fired me, fired Kim, fired Kyle and started shooting four days later. At that point, John Hughes was a very big talent for Paramount and they couldn't say no to him. So [Paramount] switched me over and had me do Plain Clothes, which I would not have normally taken. It was a good script. We went up to Seattle and made it, but when it came back, they had hacked it—they had taken all the underlying storyline out. They released it for one weekend in ten cities and that's it. I'm not embarrassed by the movie—though they took all the meaningful things out of it –—but every movie I made after Joy of Sex was a better movie.

BOM: While directing Lost in Yonkers, did you work directly with Neil Simon?

Coolidge: Yes. I spent a lot of time with Neil before we started casting. He sat in most of the casting sessions. We discussed characters and actors. He came to rehearsals and—writers should listen to this—he continuously re-wrote. He would listen to me—he would say show it to me, don't tell me what to cut, show me what you have in mind. It was released as counter-programming, which was a mistake; it's an art movie, Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

BOM: You directed episodes of Sex in the City

Coolidge: I loved working with the crew—they were so smart—and I love shooting in New York. Everyone is so smart. They talk about Broadway and acting. I enjoyed it tremendously. Then we wrapped and the next day was 9/11. This sounds bizarre, but I'm more happy that I was there [during the attack] than not because I lived a significant portion of my life in New York and [otherwise] I would have felt extremely divorced.

BOM: Did Three Wishes do well?

Coolidge: Yes—it [eventually] made a fortune. Looking back on that movie, it had significance and, much like The Prince and Me, it's a fairy tale, though it doesn't work as well. I don't think the script made a commitment—it was caught in that same place—is it a children's movie or an adult movie? They sold it as a children's movie because it had dogs and children in it. What I realized later is that if you want to make an adult fairy tale then you have to make it very adult.

BOM: Do you think about box office while you're making a movie?

Coolidge: Only in the sense that if you're going to make a movie that costs $180 million and has a couple of $20 million stars in it you better think about box office. It's the director's job. You're not making a movie to lose money. To me, it's combined with the artistic process. But that's what I like about filmmaking: it's a business. To me, it's my responsibility to make stories that people care about—why would I spend all this money on making a movie that people don't care about? It would end my career and it's a year or two of my life.

BOM: Do you follow box office?

Coolidge: [smiling] Now I do.

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The Prince and Me

Out to Sea

Three Wishes

Lost in Yonkers

Rambling Rose

Real Genius

Valley Girl