What would induce a woman with a successful entertainment and motion graphic design business to put it all on the back burner and become, in her words, “an official poor documentarian?” For Pamela B. Green, who produced titles and graphics for such productions as The Bourne Supremacy, Twilight, and “The 83rd Annual Academy Awards,” it was a television show that included some information about a woman who would come to dominate her life for more than a decade—Alice Guy-Blaché.
“I had seen a show on AMC about women pioneers in cinema (“Reel Models: The First Women of Film”),” says Green, “and one of the women was Alice. What struck me about her was that she was a writer, director, producer, and she had her own studio. And it irritated me that I had never heard of her.
“Here’s the first woman director,” Green says. “We’re trained to not even think that way. I think Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola. It’s just the norm—men. So there’s this woman, and what is this?
“I put it aside, and then I got this Canadian documentary that was made in the ’90s, very academic, called The Last Garden, and there was footage of Alice talking. Once I saw her, the way she was talking, I felt that she was misplaced, that she wasn’t being represented the way that she would have wanted.”
The experience spurred Green to read Alice’s memoirs, which she found fascinating but full of holes about her life. “I finally said, ‘I’m going to do something because I felt like she was robbed in a way. I wanted to change her ending. It became my mission to finish what she wasn’t able to do for herself, which is restore her legacy.”
Green set off down the rabbit hole of research and hard work. The result is Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, which premiered in the Official Selection of Cannes Classics 2018 and is gaining wide release in the U.S. and other countries this year.
Making a “New” History
Green, who did not attend film school, found the going tough. “When I started, it was a mess. I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. She made a fortunate connection when she contacted Joan Simon, who was the curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art from 2004 to 2009 and who had put on a retrospective in 2009 called “Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer.”
“She was my entrée into the archive world,” Green says, but it was a constant struggle to get access to Alice’s films, photos, papers, and other material. “Some of the stuff you see in [my film] had never been seen before. The Empress had been sitting at the Cinémathèque Française. I had to argue with them for three years. I paid to get it transferred. I paid for another film that was sitting at the Library of Congress. The whole section of The Life of Christ, was discovered and recovered two weeks before I got [my film] in the can.
“With AMPAS, I asked to look at their scrapbooks of Louella Parsons. I remember at the time the head of their library said, ‘Why would we give you access just to see if there’s a mention of Alice? There’s probably not going to be a mention.’ And as you can tell in the film, she mentions her many times.
“I wanted to find new films, but I was really looking for more information about her and any material I could find to close the gaps and fill in the holes,” Green says. “And I wanted the detective story to be the driving part of the story. I wanted to prove that everything she was saying was correct. I started going after every single movie, every single actor and producer she mentioned in her memoirs to find descendants. And who would go through her entire address book and look up every name? You have to be out of your mind, a little bit.”
Encouragement and Help
“Here’s where I give credit to my partners, people like [executive producers] Geralyn Dreyfous, Regina Scully, Jamie Wolf, Hugh Hefner, so many people on this long list that were part of my detective work. Jamie Wolf paid 700 euros just to see the glass slides of The Life of Christ. We got the scans in an email, and we ended up seeing Alice on set.
“I worked with a wonderful woman, Kim Tomadjoglou, who used to work for the Library of Congress, and she had done a lot of work locating exactly where all Alice’s stuff was. Some things are still on nitrate. I needed to take them off the shelf and make sense of them.
Jodie Foster acted as an executive producer and narrator for the film. Green remembers how she and Foster came to work together: “Joan Simon reminded me that she spoke French. I said, ‘Of course, she’s perfect.’ She was wonderful. She gave me amazing, amazing advice. Many times I wanted to give up, but she stood by me and the project for five years.
Connecting with Alice
Green, who bears a striking resemblance to Guy-Blaché, said, “I had an immediate affection for her. I definitely relate to her because she was very passionate and determined. It was an emotional ride. She felt like a family member by the end.”
That familial feeling comes through strongly in the film. “I wanted people to connect with her,” Green asserts. “She accomplished so much—she was a mother, she was a wife, she was a businesswoman, she was the head of a studio. But at the end of the day, she was a human being. She’s charming, she’s charismatic, and she’s funny, too. It’s definitely a love letter to her, for sure.”