Helena Coan: “Directing is all about vulnerability, collaboration, truth and mutual understanding”

To this day, few actors or actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood have garnered Audrey Hepburn’s status and popularity. She is still considered one of the ultimate, most elegant and stylish women to grace the screen. Through her work in films and her cult-like following as a timeless fashion and pop-culture icon, she has a most profound impact on her audience, which now also includes teens and tweens. Those new fans across the world discover her over and over, also on social media, and find out what she looked like, who she was, and what she really stood for.

With a new documentary now available, “Audrey” written and directed by U.K.-based filmmaker Helena Coan (b. 1994), we get to see sides of Ms. Hepburn that we’re less familiar with. The seldom seen archival footage and interviews with her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer, granddaughter Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer, people she had worked with and her close inner circle of friends, bring the star to life in a new and intimate look as never seen before. Sure, we all know the instantly recognizable Academy Award-winning star and gifted actress in sunglasses and pearls, and we love her portrayals as the princess in “Roman Holiday” (1953), the model in “Funny Face” (1957), the woman in black in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), the flower girl transformed into a London society lady in “My Fair Lady” (1964), Robin Hood’s Marian in “Robin and Marian” (1976) or the angel in Steven Spielberg’s “Always” (1989). But there’s so much more than meets the eye.

And that’s what “Audrey” points out so brilliantly. This film shows us the woman behind the glamorous wardrobe and all the classic films she made in her relatively short Hollywood career. Her difficult upbringing—being abandoned by her father and growing up as a malnourished child during the Nazi occupation in Holland—led to traumas that cast a giant shadow over her personal life. But she fought back and overcame those heartbreaks. Always positive and uplifting, she was able to move on, and in her final years, Ms. Hepburn’s devotion and passion as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF eventually paved the way for many other actresses, including Angelina Jolie, Susan Sarandon, Scarlett Johansson, and Emma Watson, to follow in her footsteps.

Screenwriter and film director Helena Coan. Photograph: © Simona Susnea

“Audrey” also celebrates her love of dance which is another fil rouge in this absorbing documentary, as ‘dance magnifies Audrey’s emotional landscape, it brings a heightened sense of drama to the film, and a rich visual language which has not yet been used in documentary,’ Ms. Coan says. The award-winning choreographer Wayne McGregor created the dance sequences that were inspired by Ms. Hepburn’s love of ballet.

A must-see film for her fans, film historians, and film buffs, Helena Coan’s “Audrey” is available to rent and own on digital from November 30th in the U.K., December 15th in the U.S., and December 16th in Australia. Other international markets from February 8th, 2021. For the record, last month Sean Hepburn Ferrer and his wife Karin published “Little Audrey’s Daydream,” a beautifully illustrated book to inspire young children to pursue their dreams and passions.

Ms. Coan earlier debuted with her narrative short film “Keepsake” (2018, trailer), followed by the documentary feature “Chasing Perfect” (2019, trailer) starring Frank Stephenson and former late-night television host Jay Leno (“The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” from 1992-2009). One of Ms. Coan’s upcoming projects is “Lioness: The Nicola Adams Story,” a feature documentary about professional boxer Nicola Adams, a former Olympic, World and European champion.

But first, a coronaproof and online interview with Ms. Coan, a passionate filmmaker, to talk about the making of “Audrey.”

Ms. Coan, do you remember how and when you were first introduced to the work of Audrey Hepburn?

I was aware of Audrey from a very young age. As a child I used to watch “My Fair Lady” [1964] a lot. My mum was always encouraging my sister and I to read books which now I’m very grateful for, but we also had a little TV in the back room that played VHS tapes and we had a tape of “My Fair Lady,” and I loved it. As I got older, I was this kind of skinny dark-eyed and dark-haired kid at school, and I remember my dad making a comparison with me and her. Later on, as I learned more about her, I really became interested in her. When I was in my teens, she started to make a really lasting impression on me. Just physically, at that stage, she was totally different from anyone else in the public eye. The way that she looked, the way that she spoke, the way that she was perceived was so different from anyone else I was aware of.

That motivated you to make “Audrey”?

Yes, my purpose was to show how she really was, how she struggled and how she overcame those struggles as well. A lot of the time we hear tragic stories—about Marilyn Monroe for example, people are really attracted to her story because she is this tragic figure, while Audrey isn’t that at all. In a way it’s harder to make a film about Audrey, I think, because people are drawn to this dark ending, whereas Audrey struggled a lot but she always overcame her obstacles. And I wanted to tell that story, that story of hope and transformation.

Was it a difficult film to make?

It really was, for a number of reasons. She’s one of the most photographed people that have ever lived, there are so many photographs of her, there’s so much footage of her, and going through all of that was overwhelming. But I always knew that I wanted to tell her story from her perspective and through her words. My editor Mark Keady and I built the story and the timeline around her interviews, from her first to her last interview, so we interweaved all the archive footage through that, and then we decided to include dance as well as part of the film to portray her internal world. And what really triggered me to make this film, is the idea that she’s the perfect person to make a documentary about: she’s somebody that everybody knows—everyone knows her from her eyes, her eyebrows, her silhouette. To analyze that myth of who she really was, was very fascinating. And then we got her son Sean [Sean Hepburn Ferrer] on board, and his daughter Emma Ferrer [Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer], that meant a lot, because their involvement was very important and enabled us to connect with people like friends and family who had never been interviewed before. Because of her story it was harder to make the film—she isn’t that ‘doomed’ tragic figure that documentaries often focus on. But I believe she was a hero because she transformed her trauma into love—you can see this most clearly through her UNICEF work. I was very intrigued to tell a story like that.

Helena Coan during one of the interviews she did for “Audrey.” Photgraph: © Simona Susnea

Can you tell something about all the footage you were able to find?

The finished film has footage from over 70 different archive providers. It was a huge archive job, and the struggle was finding footage that has never been seen before, but we were really lucky. Obviously Sean gave us access to some of his father’s footage, of him as a child and of Audrey at home, which is all so beautiful, and it’s also different from the kind of polished portrait that we usually see. Sean also remembered that Gary Cooper’s daughter Maria had some footage of Audrey and Mel, so we got hold of that and that’s also in the film. I emailed loads of journalists and asked if they ever recorded the interviews they did with her, and one person got back to me. He had recorded the whole interview, it was two hours long. That was an unheard piece of audio of her talking about everything, from her time in the War through her divorces and her UNICEF work. That really changed the direction of the film.

So in the end, it seems that you got what you hoped for?

Yes, I really wanted to tell the story of her whole life, and it was important to see how her life went full circle. Obviously she started off in a very wealthy aristocratic family, but we start with her story in the War and her as a starving child, and then it kind of full circle comes back her to being in Africa, fighting for starving children. Obviously we couldn’t talk about all of her films—some people may be unhappy that they’re not all included, so we focused on her most famous films to reinstate and reinforce what her cultural impact was, while also mentioning her less-known work as “Wait Until Dark” [1967], “They All Laughed” [1981] and “Always” [1989]. There were all kind of stories that we had to leave out, that was painful, but if I had kept it all in, the film would be about ten hours long.

There are a lot of very interesting interviews in the film. Did you do all of them yourself?

Yes. We flew to America, Italy, went to Paris, Switzerland, Germany—everywhere. It was an amazing experience.

Were you also able to reach out to Richard Lester who directed “Robin and Marian” [1976]? He’s 88 now, I don’t know if he’s still available for interviews.

I think we did. We also wanted to get in touch with Albert Finney [Ms. Hepburn’s co-star in “Two for the Road,” 1967], but just before we did, he had passed away [February 2019]. The same with photographer Terry O’Neill: we were in touch with him and I wanted to interview him, but then he also passed away [November 2019]. Very sad. That was a big challenge for this film: most of Audrey’s contemporaries are very unfortunately no longer with us. So it was such a pleasure to meet Peter Bogdanovich [director of “They All Laughed”] and Richard Dreyfuss [Ms. Hepburn’s co-star in her final film, “Always”]. Film critic Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian didn’t like “Audrey” because he wanted to know about her films and her film career, but the whole point of this film is that it’s about her, that was always my focus, and I wanted to find people who could give me that portrait. And obviously, Sean and Emma were such a blessing. Our interview with Emma was such a special day. We flew to New York and I interviewed her for like ten hours. That was just amazing, she’s a very good friend now. She’s very smart, she’s a great person and an amazing artist. But I also wanted to reach out to Pierluigi Orunesu and Marilena Pilat who lived with Audrey at La Paisible [her home in Tolochenaz, Switzerland, from 1963-1993] and who have never spoken with the press before, and her friend Anna Cataldi who was her neighbor in Rome. That was very interesting and very challenging, because Audrey’s friends and family are so protective over her. But the people I interviewed really opened up and gave me insights into what she was really like.

And you were able to do all of that before the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak?

Yes, thankfully. We were very lucky that we were able to manage it before all of that hit.

You wrote and directed “Audrey,” but how do you exactly write and direct a documentary?

The writing is very different. That is kind of an ongoing process. You don’t sit down, write the script and then go out and shoot that script. I know the difference because I do narrative films as well. With documentaries, your script is a treatment, a rough outline, and you work with your contributors. I wrote the dance scenes for the film and the narrative scenes like little short films, so it’s all much more diverse. The same with directing a documentary. Basically it’s all about people getting to trust you, and allowing people that you’re interviewing to feel vulnerable enough to tell you the truth. The way you do that is by being vulnerable yourself, being open and honest about your own experiences. And I do think that’s the same when you’re directing narratives as well: you have to show your own vulnerability to get the best out of your actors, I think. For me, whether you’re directing a documentary or a narrative project, it’s all about vulnerability, collaboration, truth and mutual understanding.

Preparing one of the dance sequences in “Audrey.” Photograph: © Simona Susnea

Was it easy to fund “Audrey”?

It was relatively easy because of who Audrey Hepburn is. Her fan base is so huge and so massive that the film is going to be released all over the world. After I had written the treatment and had developed it with my producer, we took it to Universal, and they immediately said they wanted to do it. Originally the film was supposed to be realeased in cinemas, but because of Covid that won’t happen. Yet we decided to not hold out until cinemas reopen, because then it would have to compete with huge films. And maybe most people prefer to watch documentaries at home, although it would have been lovely to see it on a big screen. But I’m really excited that people can actually see it, because the more people it can reach, the better: I think it can bring comfort to people in what has been a really difficult year. Hopefully they can turn their trauma into love and live their life filled with love. So in the end, I’m very happy and very grateful that we even got the chance to finish the film—and even got the chance to make it in the first place. I’m a young filmmaker in a very difficult industry, I just feel grateful to have had this opportunity to make a film about a woman I’m so passionate about.

Does Audrey Hepburn also inspire you as a filmmaker?

Absolutely. When we did the film, there were times when it was really hard. It was not easy to get this film made, and I wondered whether it would even be released. During those times, she was like a constant presence for me, she was this reassuring voice. She went through such awful tragic things in her life, she overcame them and they made her stronger and more loving. I think that when you’re seeing how she—as a woman in a different era and in a different world—was going through those difficulties and you see how she dealt with them, it’s very inspiring and comforting. My next feature documentary—and I’ll also be making my first narrative film—will be about Nicola Adams [“Lioness: The Nicola Adams Story”]. She’s a boxer who got Women’s Boxing in the 2012 Olympics and was the first female boxer to become an Olympic chamion. She’s another really inspiring person, someone who fought for what she believed in. And Audrey Hepburn was the same, especially with her UNICEF work. She was so angry and so ashamed that after World War II, the U.N. promised this would never happen again when they introduced The Rights of the Child, and then she was catapulted forward to Somalia in the late 1980s and early 1990s where she saw the exact same thing happening. And also, she is seen as this symbol of perfection and beauty, but she wasn’t perfect, she struggled with her insecurities, her abandonment by her father, her own body, and it’s inspiring to know that when everybody thinks she’s perfect, she isn’t perfect, and she has suffered. That suffering had made her who she was.

You know her very well now, don’t you?

I think so yes, and I would have loved to have met her, but in a way I feel I did, because I spent two and a half years living with her, even if it was just inside my head. I feel like I got to know her as a person, as a woman, and as an artist. It was such an honor being that close to her.

Zoom interview
November 26, 2020

Trailer, “Audrey”

FILMS

KEEPSAKE (2019, short) DIR – SCR Helena Coan PROD Ryan Bennett CAM Felix Schmilinsky ED Rachel Durance MUS Jim Stewart CAST Patsy Ferran, Bryn Mitchell, Alan Williams

CHASING PERFECT (2019, documentary) DIR – SCR Helena Coan PROD Nick Taussing, Paul Van Carter CAM Felix Schmilinsky ED Hendrik Faller CAST Jay Leno, Frank Stephenson

AUDREY (2020, documentary) DIR – SCR Helena Coan PROD Annabel Wigoder, Nick Taussig MUS Alex Somers CAM Simona Susnea ED Mark Keady MUS Alex Somers CHOR Wayne McGregor CAST (interviewees) includes Sean Hepburn Ferrer, Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer, Clémence Boulouque, Molly Haskell, Peter Bogdanovich, Andrew Wald, Clare Waight Keller, Michael Avedon, Richard Dreyfuss, John Loring, John Isaac, Edith Lederer

LIONESS: THE NICOLA ADAMS STORY (2021, documentary) DIR – SCR Helena Coan PROD Annabel Wigoder, Nick Taussig, Laure Vaysse CAM Nathalie Pitters ED Mark Keady CAST Nicola Adams