Eleanor Coppola met Diane Lane when Lane was starring in The Outsiders, directed by Eleanor's husband, Francis Ford Coppola. Lane was just 17; the Coppolas' daughter, Sofia, played her little sister. Francis did his postproduction work at his family home in California's Napa Valley. Lane remembers Eleanor in the kitchen cooking away, her energy "warm, patient and encouraging," Lane recalls in a phone interview.
"But she would make this joke," Lane continues, cracking up. "I was like the dog in a dog movie. You don't really play with the dog on a film set. The dog has a job to do; you don't want to distract it. Eleanor has tremendous respect for the director/actor relationship. She wouldn't intrude on that."
As the years rolled on, the women's paths crossed occasionally. Lane made three more films with Francis. She vividly remembers when his eldest son, Gio, died; she was Gio's age, 22. "When that thunderclap happened, I didn't know how anybody would ever recover," Lane says. "Thank God the family could sustain itself, and process whatever it is that grief has to teach us."
Lane's career kept growing – her 50-plus movies and telefilms include Unfaithful, Under the Tuscan Sun and Trumbo. She's played Clark Kent's mom in two Superman films and will appear in November in Justice League, the massive DC Comics mashup. Eleanor Coppola, meanwhile, directed a hit documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), about the turbulent making of Francis's Apocalypse Now. She also made behind-the-scenes docs for her son Roman's film CQ and daughter Sofia's film Marie Antoinette. But she mainly stayed out of the family business: She made art that's been exhibited in museums; wrote a memoir, Notes on a Life; and managed the family winery. "I'm a natural observer," she says in a separate phone interview. "The documentary format is appropriate to my nature."
Then, a few years ago, a French business associate of Francis's offered Eleanor a ride from Cannes to Paris, a seven-hour drive. It took 2 1/2 days. "He stopped immediately for a long lunch, where I could see he was making plans for dinner," she says. "It was such a shock to my system to be pulled out of the expected routine. We all have our calendars, we're checking our devices. To be taken on a slow journey, to be reminded of living in the moment, of appreciating life and nature, beauty and history, food and wine – it was a jolt to my life."
She told a friend who said, "That's the movie I want to see," and "some little light bulb went off," Coppola says. She was in her 70s. Writing a fiction script was a turn she never saw coming: "It met me. I thought, 'I don't have forever left, let's see if I can do this.'"
She wrote a 45-page treatment and showed it to pros she knew, who encouraged her to keep going. After finishing the script – titled Paris Can Wait – she sought but failed to find a female director who shared her aesthetic. "One day at the breakfast table, my husband said, 'You should direct it,'" Coppola recalls. To prepare, she took an acting class, a directing class. Finding the financing took six years, but she was "at a point in life where I wasn't going to say no. Every time the door closed, I found another door to knock on."
The six-year delay had magic in it, too – by the time Coppola got the money, Lane had aged into the role of Anne, the slightly invisible wife of a Hollywood producer (Alec Baldwin), for whom an accidental road trip with a mysterious Frenchman (Arnaud Viard) becomes a turning point. "Anne's in an era of life that nobody seems to obsess over," Lane says. "You've outlived your parents. Maybe you've outlived your marriage, your children's childhoods. All your old roles are gone and you're left standing on your own two feet. It's kind of a revelation."
Lane herself never stopped working, but she's a divorced mother whose daughter (also named Eleanor) has left the nest – she could relate. "For me, this phase is about waking up to more engagement in the culture I live in, and being a citizen of the world," she says. She recently went to her first march in Washington to promote climate-change awareness; she served as a juror for the Nora Ephron award at April's Tribeca Film Festival.
As well, the commodification of female youth and beauty has always concerned her, even when she was (reluctantly) participating in it. "I remember doing this magazine photo shoot to promote a movie, and I'm not a model," Lane says. "Just a minute before, I'd been looking at magazines and feeling the pressure of how we're supposed to look, what our value is. I felt like there was a portion of power I was allowed, as a woman," and much of that was tied up in "fitting a certain criteria of what is sexy or appealing or young."
And so, 34 years after they first met, Lane found herself on a film set in France, working for Coppola, a first-time filmmaker at age 80. (Paris Can Wait opens in select cities Friday.) As a director, Coppola is "all about collaboration," Lane says. "For much of her life, she's been a nurturer of others. So in that capacity, she has muscle. And she's witnessed every possible snafu that filmmaking can encounter."
"My great joy is looking into the camera, because that's what you do making a documentary," Coppola says. "But after I'd framed the shot, I'd watch through the monitor, close to the actors. My husband always says, 'The actors need someone to perform for, they can't perform for a blank piece of glass.'"
In the film's most delicate scene, a statue of Mary in a Catholic church brings Anne to tears. She reveals that she relates to Mary as a fellow mother, because she, too, lost a son. Lane admired Coppola for not flinching from the pain she still carries. "It's always there," she says. "It's just a question of, 'Do we know about it or not?'"
Coppola was grateful for Lane's talent and technique. "We only shot two takes in that church, one more emotional and one less," Coppola recalls. "I don't know how Diane does it, but she does everything with such beauty and intensity. I never had to direct her. She understood Anne better than I did, in a way."
Lane was "delighted to participate in the commencement of Eleanor's journey," and it does seem to be ongoing: In the year since Coppola finished Paris Can Wait, she's already made two short films and hopes to make more. "I think I got the family virus," she says. Waiting no more.