Exclusive Q&A: Producer Jenny Gersten talks about working on Francis Ford Coppola’s intriguing new ‘Live Cinema’ project ‘Distant Vision’

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Producer Jenny Gersten and writer/director/producer Francis Ford Coppola talk about the first successful test of his "Live Cinema" concept for his semi-autobiographical live movie performance piece "Distant Vision" Saturday at Oklahoma City Community College. Photo by Brandy McDonnell

Producer Jenny Gersten and writer/director/producer Francis Ford Coppola talk about the first successful test of his “Live Cinema” concept for his semi-autobiographical live movie performance piece “Distant Vision” Saturday at Oklahoma City Community College. Photo by Brandy McDonnell

On Saturday, I was among a small group of local media who gathered at Oklahoma City Community College to talk with five-time Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola about the exciting secret project he had been working on here for the past month.

Coppola announced Saturday the successful staging, lensing and screening of Distant Vision, a live movie performance piece created in real time. As I reported for The Oklahoman and NewsOK, the final live performance of a 52-minute version of Coppola’s semi-autobiographical cinematic story took place Friday night on the 6,000-square-foot soundstage at OCCC’s Visual and Performing Arts Center and was screened in theaters as near as Oklahoma City’s Bricktown entertainment district and far away as Paris, France.

“Ultimately, this experiment at OCCC was an attempt for me to try ‘Live Cinema.’ We started out with these scenes, and as we began to progress, I typically, as what happened with Apocalypse Now, I overreach,” Coppola said at an on-campus press conference attended by several of the students and faculty who worked on the project. “Reach higher than you can do, and then that moment when you may fail is where you achieve the sublime. And that’s what we did in this little workshop.”

The esteemed writer/director/producer selected OCCC as “a private place where no one’s going to give me any pressure if I fail” to put together a “proof of concept” workshop for his new groundbreaking, proprietary cinema concept of “Live Cinema,” a sort of hybrid of live theater, television and film. (Producer Gray Frederickson, who worked with Coppola on The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now, is an Oklahoman and artist-in-residence for OCCC’s film and video program.)

“I realized that it’s hard to grasp really what this is, even for myself and I didn’t know how to do it. … But I had this 170-page script called Distant Vision, which I wanted to do as ‘Live Cinema’ and ‘what is that?’ And when I tried to explain it, they really either kind of didn’t get or didn’t think it was possible,” Coppola said.

Coppola and OCCC turned the live experiment into a special three-week class, with more than 70 students serving as camera operators, grips, costumers and more and gaining course credit for it. Professional actors cast from the Oklahoma City and Dallas areas performed the short version of the epic drama, while OCCC alumni Cait Brasel and Jon Shahan were working on a behind-the-scenes documentary on Coppola’s live cinematic project.

“He fully explained what we were going to be doing, and kind of explained the difference between live TV and what he wanted to do. So, I think we were all kind of on the same page of what we wanted to do … and started to understand it fully after a while,” OCCC film student Logan Conyers told me. “From a technical standpoint, like the camera shots and the lighting were all different (from TV), but even like the story and the storytelling part of it was definitely like what a movie would be. It’s just really a cinematic project.”

Distant Vision tells the story of three generations of an Italian-American family whose history spans the development of television. Much of it is loosely based on Coppola’s own family, which has been in the movie business for five generations.

While the story was playing out on a series of sets on the OCCC soundstage, 22 cameras were capturing it. Although technical issues hampered a closed screening for OCCC representatives at Harkins Bricktown 16, it was successfully shown live at theaters in Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Napa, Calif., for Coppola’s colleagues, friends and family, including his Oscar-winning daughter Sofia Coppola and Oscar-nominated son Roman Coppola.

The Distant Vision workshop was produced by Jenny Gersten and Coppola. Gersten comes primarily from a theater background: She is the former artistic director of Massachusetts’ Williamstown Theatre Festival; she was the first woman to play that role. Her father, Bernard Gersten, was executive director of Lincoln Center Theatre from 1985 until his retirement in 2013, but he has some cinematic ties to Coppola, too.

On Sunday, after traveling back home to New York from Oklahoma City and before she headed out to Radio City Music Hall for the Tony Awards, Gersten and I did a follow-up Q&A on Distant Vision just for this blog:

Q: It seems really ideal to have somebody with a theater background on that kind of project.

Gersten: I think you’re right. I think Francis really recognized that. … Even though this looked and smelled a lot like a movie project, especially with Francis Ford Coppola directing and writing, he really understood — and he explained it this way when he first called me — “This is really a live performance and so I need someone with a theater sensibility. I don’t want a first AD like they have in cinema; I want a stage manager to run the set.” He talked about this yesterday in the press conference, he said we started looking at repertory theater companies, and when we started talking about Austin (Texas) and Oklahoma, I said, “Look, we’ll just make our own repertory company. We’ll just hire some actors, and we’ll make our own theater.” And that’s basically because of my background working in summer theater especially, which is this mix of professionals and students coming together to creative live performances.

Q: I saw you have a film credit for New York Stories. Is that correct?

Gersten: (Laughs) I do, yeah, that was when I was in high school, I think — or maybe early college, I can’t quite remember. Francis and I have known each other since 1981 because my father was one of the producers of One from the Heart and was Francis’ executive vice president of Zoetrope Studios back in the ‘80s. Just prior to Lincoln Center, he did four years with Francis. …

I was a dialogue coach. I worked on Sofia’s movie for New York Stories, because remember that has three different directors and three different writers. Sofia and I grew up together; we were friends in the ‘80s when my dad was working there. So, Sofia had written a screenplay and Francis was directing it. So, Francis had me on set to work with the young girls, who were basically playing versions of ourselves in the movie.

It helped me a little about being on set, but I had been around movie sets before, just from my experience at Zoetrope as a kid.

Q: Did you catch the idea of what Francis was going for and how it was different than, say, live television right away? Or did you have an a-ha moment somewhere in there?

Gersten: You know, he described it a lot, and I didn’t really understand what it was until one of the first run-throughs I watched in the soundstage at OCCC, it must have been five days ago or six days ago. They did one of their first no stopping, all 22 cameras making their shots, the live mix, all of that happening at once. And it was totally exhilarating. And it was clearly unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

I stood there and marveled, first of all, because this whole group of people — people who had come from theater backgrounds, from film backgrounds and television backgrounds — were all speaking the same language. They were all completely generating something that came out of Francis’ head – and it was pretty magical, I have to say.

Q: Tell me what the feeling was Friday night whenever you’re seeing this not only being played out live but you’re also seeing it on the monitors and seeing how it’s coming together as a film and not just as a sort of theatrical project.

Gersten: There was obviously exhilaration among those of us who worked on it to just have had it gone well because, you know, with a live experience, of course, anything can happen. We certainly we had plenty of, you know, the boom operator bumping into a prop and the glass globe from the lamp crashing on the floor; you know, we’d had plenty of mishaps in the live run-throughs in the past. So just having gotten through it without any major hiccups was exhilarating in and of itself.

But what was fun on Friday night was we had not only the people watching in the screening rooms, but there were three guys from Major League Baseball — MLB — who had come to set up the live feed to the screening rooms for the friends and family. Major League Baseball provided the satellite hookup, so I was hanging out in the MLB truck. And all the guys from baseball were like, “Wow, this is really cool. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is really interesting. It’s beautifully done.” They really appreciated it, and they didn’t really have a context for what Francis was doing. They were watching it without any of the background. So, it was really fun to see them watching it as just pure audience members and see it work as a piece of art without the workshop sort of laboratory part of it, which is what the experience was for us: Is this experiment gonna work?

None of us walked into that building knowing, first of all, what was really gonna happen, because we didn’t really understand it, and if it would work — including Francis.

Q: I’m fascinated at how much of a coalition it was in terms of theater people, film people, television people and then sports people working together. Do you maybe see that as a something in the future of entertainment: these coalitions of experts from different fields coming together to make a different kind of art?

Gersten: You are spot on. I really do. I said, “Look, we’re like a model UN because everyone is speaking a different language.” Like what you call it in theater, you call it something else in TV, and you call it something else in film entirely and they’re completely different roles. And we all had to learn that language.

And I think you’re right, I think in general in the performing arts, you’re gonna see a lot of blurring of media. You’re seeing already much more video and projection in theater and opera and even dance, and I think we’re gonna see novelists and pop stars writing musicals. It’s all happening, and it’s gonna be bigger. And who knows where it’s gonna go. I’m not as visionary as Francis by any means … but I think the future is the boundaries just going away.

Q: What do you see as far as your role in the project going forward? He talked about going back and writing a long version of Distant Vision knowing what he knows now from the live test here in OKC …

Gersten: I don’t know. I mean, I would love to keep working on it, but it’s up to Francis. So we’ll see what happens.

Q: From the reactions of the executives, friends and family, including some who are filmmakers, who screened the test run, what do gauge the interest level is in terms of pursuing this in the future?

Gersten: He’s not just writing it, I think it’s moving forward. I mean, I’m quite sure of it.

I think that his friends and family were very encouraging, as were the few executives and other people who support Francis in a business way. There was just a lot of enthusiasm. … His kids and his wife were all really positive.

It’s just very interesting. I know that word gets overused, but what he’s doing, it’s unusual. And no one else is thinking about it this way. So I think everybody wants to encourage him to keep going.

And I think he’s been enthusiastic about this idea for years. … He said this when we were on our way home yesterday, ‘These three weeks have been some of the happiest of my life,’ because it was something that was in his mind that he really got to build. And I think that was very energizing So, yeah, it’s definitely moving forward.

Although the elder Coppola didn’t allow any press to view the Distant Vision test, everyone I talked to described a project that was hard to describe but did come out as a hybrid art form, something that was clearly live and definitely cinematic in its look and scope, but that owed much of its DNA to advances in live television, especially sporting events. As Gersten says, it will be interesting to see where this concept goes from this first successful test.

Quick hitters

– Speaking of the Tony Awards (that’s what delayed my weekly post here), as I reported in my Tonys live blog, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori of Best Musical winner Fun Home made Tony history Sunday by becoming the first all-female writing team to win a Tony Award for Best Original Score (music by Tesori and lyrics by Kron). Kron also won Best Book of a Musical. To read the full list of winners – including Oklahoma native Kelli O’Hara, who finally won her first Tony on her sixth nomination – click here.

– Melissa McCarthy outsmarted a bunch of guy movies, scoring her first No. 1 weekend box-office debut as a leading lady with the $30 million opening of her espionage comedy Spy, The Associated Press reports.

McCarthy left the guys of Entourage and their movie adaptation far behind in adding to the string of successes for the comedic actress and writer-director Paul Feig, who first united on the 2011 hit Bridesmaids.

– The New York-based Independent Filmmaker Project and Phosphate Productions have partnered to create a new prize, The Phosphate Prize at IFP. The $25,000 grant is designed to encourage writers and directors of indie features to create complex female characters, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

American directors or screenwriters working in narrative feature film are encouraged to apply. Feature-length narrative scripts should be budgeted below $2 million and can be submitted by writers and directors, regardless of gender. The deadline for submissions is July 15.

– Olive Films is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray this week three films starring “cinema’s first female action star,” Pam Grier: Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975).

– Women in Film’s Finishing Fund, which is marking its 30th anniversary, is accepting applications for grants, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Women In Film will give up to $25,000 cash, in-kind and consultation grants for films by, for or about women in documentary, narrative, animated and/or experimental films, shorts or feature length.

Applications are being accepted beginning June 8, and the application period runs through Aug. 7.


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