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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché   Mia Bays interviews director, Pamela B. Green

This film is long overdue. Alice Guy Blache deserves her place in cinematic history and a place in the canon. As director Pamela B. Green points out, she was also one of the first to use close-ups, hand-tinted images and synchronised sound. It’s not necessary to accept all these claims to recognise that Alice Guy, who would soon marry Englishman Herbert Blaché, was an extraordinary woman who deserves to be better known. As Green keeps asking: why haven’t we heard of her? We know why now : managed decline of female directors careers, questioning whose work gets preserved, questioning who writes history etc. This film redresses the balance – and we feel is a must for film aficionados especially those keen on equality in film.

SYNOPSIS

When Alice Guy-Blaché completed her first film in 1896 Paris, she was not only the first female filmmaker, but one of the first directors ever to make a narrative film. In Be Natural, Pamela B. Green acts as a detective, revealing the real story of Guy-Blaché and highlighting her pioneering contributions to the birth of cinema and her acclaim as a creative force and entrepreneur in the earliest years of movie-making.

Narrated by Jodie Foster, the film features commentary from Diablo Cody, Geena Davis, Julie Delpy, Ava DuVernay, Michel Hazanavicius, Patty Jenkins, Ben Kingsley, Andy Samberg, Agnès Varda, Evan Rachel Wood and more.

“A love letter to early cinema and a fascinating detective story all in one”  – Eye For Film

MB: Tell us about your genesis as a filmmaker – this is your 1st feature credit.

PBG: Yes, as a director.

MB: So, tell us about your genesis and how it then segues into Alice – how the two things, maybe, relate?

PBG: I never thought I was going to make a documentary, even though it’s not until you stand back and realize the genesis and how the pieces connect. I’m a detective by nature – I love it – and a journalist in many aspects – and I love archive footage and I love history.  I found out about Alice ten years ago. It was a segment on a show called Reel Models. I’d never heard somebody say that a woman owned her own studio and made her own films and did all those things so early on. I looked her up and I just felt for her – and I feel like – and I know it sounds weird, but she chose me to do this because she was determined and she needed someone to be a little bit of a maniac. I felt that I needed to do this for her. It’s more than for her – to correct her history and for the legacy to live on for younger generations. I can never take her out of the silent cinema and the cinephiles, but I can expand her audience and make her famous again, and that’s what I want to do and I’m so happy to be here because I think this is what is really going to help accomplish that mission further. She’s being written about at least once a week – you know. I visualized it, I dreamt it, I worked hard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen, that it’ll come to fruition, so, it’s exciting – I talk about it with Jodie Foster – that Alice would be so happy. She believed more women should be in these positions, so it’s nice to see that happening now – it took long enough. 

MB: But the challenges she had then – there was so many. On the technical front for instance. It was so hard for them to shoot. It really lands – the extent of the technical feat and how many tools we have at our disposal now to get it right. Boy did you not have those then…..

PBG: A journalist said Alice took the training wheels off cinema – really just yanked it out and was like: “Hey, let’s go – we don’t know what’s gonna happen, but let’s try it!’’ And I think, to me, they talk about geniuses, auteurs – I think her genius was that she’s an artist, she was also an entrepreneur – she had great business acumen – she was an amazing writer – if you ever get the chance to read her memoirs – they are available on Amazon.

MB: Yeah, I’ve got them – someone bought them for me.

PBG: And they’re missing – because if you don’t understand the context – I made an Excel file of every single thing, every single person, every single place and I went after every single thing – it really is crazy forensic Nancy Drew, Pink Panther, Sherlock Holmes work but it’s also structured like Princess Bride in a way. I know that sounds crazy too, but I’ll explain. So, when the Columbo actor, Peter Falk, talks to the little boy and tells him a story and then he says: “And then what happens?” So that’s kind of all the people asking questions of the film and then we go back to the movie, right? So I structured it where Alice is telling us stuff, the daughter is telling us stuff, Jodie takes us back to the movie, all of these voices that are telling you the story that are true and I am just the person filling in the holes as a civilian to show the audience how you can bring somebody back – and how these discoveries are unfolding before our eyes – because they were folding before my eyes. It’s an amazing feeling as it was happening and I wanted the audience to feel it. I thought I’d find the tape of the daughter and that was it, because that was very discouraging: “You’re not gonna find anything – there’s nothing…” and I pushed that throughout the film because if you’re not persistent, you’re not passionate, you don’t push, and you don’t bug, and you don’t call, and you don’t Skype, and you don’t do – you’re not gonna make it happen. Same thing with the funding of the film. So, I chose to do that even though some people are like: “Oh, why do I need to hear this phone call?” Because I’m talking to a descendent of Alice Guy–Blaché who’s gonna lead me to a treasure trove of stuff that’s interesting! Who would think to go through her address book and discover the Pinns? I personally find detective work exciting and I thought the audience would like it.

MB: Yes, it makes it much more accessible. It makes it a very universal story. In a way it’s quite a feat to do that because so often filmmakers making films about other filmmakers chose to exist in a very academic cinephile space, and I think the beauty of what you do is you speak to that, but you speak to a much wider audience without speaking down to either.

PBG: I don’t like being spoken down to. I don’t like it when I watch a film and I am left out because there’s things that I don’t understand, and I don’t always watch films at home, I go to the cinema, but at home I’m like what are they talking about and have to look it up because it bugs me – so, if you’re a plumber, you’re an architect, you make furniture, you will be able to watch this. It’s also from a hundred years ago – context is so important – so you could see how amazing her story is, within this pond that she’s creating in. A lot of filmmakers, they go after a slice of life or somebody who a thesis or historians go after a piece of the pie – I went after the whole pizza! That’s why I took so long too, because I felt like I want to know, I want to understand – because, if I don’t understand, it’s unfair to the audience to do that, and I need to know what I’m doing. It’s kind of learning on the job, obviously, because I’d never made a film before. You edit, you see what works, see what doesn’t work. I’ve had editors send me their walls: “Can you do this?” with the cards and everything, and I’m like, “You mean like this?” A lot of underestimating, being a woman, at the time. Then you have people like Walter Murch who I showed the film to and I get a whole thing back with time codes: “I love this…I don’t know what this is; make it longer so I understand…” Respecting the landscape that I’m creating – trying to make it better instead of trying to turn it into: “Hey, get rid of the detective stuff – just have Jodie narrating and that’s it.” No. I’m not doing that. 

MB: How did Jodie get involved. How did that happen?

PBG: I was sitting with Joan Simon (an authority on Guy Blache), who I contacted, because you can’t start a project until you know what happened before, and, to be very clear, I stand on many other peoples’ shoulders, because, whether it’s academic or not, somebody had to do the work. So, I contacted her, We met in LA, coincidentally, and we talked about narrators – and she said: “What about Jodie Foster?” And I said: “Oh, my God, absolutely, she speaks fluent French – she was in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s ‘A Very Long Engagement’.” She’s also a director and super intelligent – you always have to be ten steps ahead of her. So I emailed her and said would you be interested in being a part of this, and she said: “I don’t know what I could do apart from narrate.” So she came over and she narrated the trailer and then I didn’t see her for five years. And I was always terrified because I was finding all this material, but I’m like, Oh my God, she’s going to hate it and she’s not going to want to be a part of it. Because the movie – you know, as a filmmaker, it’s like a Frankenstein [monster] 

MB: Exactly. It becomes its own thing in a way.

PBG: Yes, it’s ever evolving… She stuck it out all the years and then I showed her this cut that was a discombobulated 2hr and 45 min, just to get it [in] one piece, because Joan was only supposed to be somebody who I would talk to here and there, and then I dragged her in and we co-wrote the narration together. I was literally hiding under my desk waiting to hear back from Jodie – what she thought…and she loved it! She gave me some comments, but she’s somebody if she’s going to do it, she’ll do it and she loves Alice and it’s important to her and she’s wonderful in it.  I think Alice would approve.

MB: Can we get back to Alice’s story. The two big points are: who decides what gets preserved? Who writes the history? This film is so much about that. How do we change who decides this? 

PBG: More stories like this. It’s important. It shouldn’t just be about money. Every year, there needs to be a certain amount of films or any kind of restoration or showings of women films from all eras to keep it out there. Because the AFI for example – their catalogue they didn’t have any women directors and they said it’s because the movies weren’t good. No, it’s because the movies weren’t shown. The movies weren’t distributed.

MB: And who decides what is ‘good’?

PBG: Exactly! So, one thing that is good is that on Rotten Tomatoes we now have 500 new more diverse critics reviewing the film – that’s fantastic, we contacted critics ourselves at a certain point – that’s how we got certified first – we didn’t wait. We were contacting distributors all over the world – her films need to be seen. And, even though they are found, doesn’t mean they’re available. The BFI  got them digitized, but that’s not enough. It would be great to do a compilation with them scored and then get more of them on Netflix. 

MB: How could we do that. Can we help? We’d love to help.

PBG: We could do a fundraiser together.

MB: Yeah, let’s do it. 

PBG: Yeah. All of her French films are on DVD, but DVDs are dying. And not all of the films that are in the film are on there. Then you have the American films that are not on any collection at all. That would be the first thing to do.

MB: So, what do they exist on? A mix of formats?

PBG: The dream would be – let’s get everything – all of the American – let’s get a composer – maybe the female composer from The Joker – let’s get famous women composers to contribute  – put it together – maybe some commentary – not necessarily historians – could be people in the industry – and get it uploaded – as an example, Rosalie Varda has been great about her mom – getting all the stuff out there. She also loves Alice – she’s known about Alice since she was a kid. Maybe she can help us as well. It’s going to open in March, in France. Yeah, that’s next. I’ve been wanting to do it, I’m just a little exhausted.

MB: Of course you are! I mean, God, it’s a life’s mission isn’t it?

PBG: Yeah, because it doesn’t stop. It’s still theatrical in Key West because I pushed it through – we have this going on – in Germany, we just sold it, and it’s going to be sold in Brazil, more in Spain, Italy and we’re contacting other distributors.

MB: It’s a fulltime job – just this bit.

PBG: Yeah and I have my day job and my next project. But Alice is so important not just for Alice Guy–Blaché, but…

MB: For all of us. For cinema – everything

PBG: It cracks open silent cinema making it accessible again. Kevin Brownlow said this is the first time in 50 years that a film about silent cinema will be theatrically released.

MB: That’s amazing! That’s quite a feat.

PBG: I know! And hearing that from him, made me happy. He loved it. He’s in that group of historians, but he’s special, because he believes in the new research and we were in contact the whole time…

MB: And to open films up to a new audience… new generations…

PBG: And open to new ways of research etc… Alice’s Great-Great-Granddaughter, Tatiana – who’s in the film – she would love to help. She lives in the Netherlands – so if we could have her do a video to help with the fundraiser etc. She looks like her too. She was trying to be here, but she had a meeting. She’s pretty smart…

Also,  my funders are already spending a million dollars for her to have a pillar in her name at the Academy, and that’s all because of Be Natural. And, I had an argument with them at the museum – make sure she’s there at the birth of cinema, not shows up later and she’s not segregated with just women – I don’t want it to be too gendered – it’s important – people walk in – a little boy and a little girl, I want to see a woman and a man…

PBG: That’s the exciting part. To Google her name and just see stuff in there – OK Alice, we’re getting there!

MB: And the Hitchcock point as well. 

PBG: That was Joan Simon who found that. I didn’t see the Mark Cousin’s documentary – that’s how I put two and two together – he did the story of film and a segment on Eisenstein, and I wondered if he watched her stuff, and the person I was working with was like “no way!” And I’m like you know what – check it because there is nobody else at the time making that many films.

MB: Right. What else would he be watching?

PBG: So, starting out that was really for me – getting her films together – her legacy – who she could have influenced – who she worked with – it’s always better that other people talk about the person than – you know – so it’s believed. The poster was found two weeks before I went to Cannes – of her standing there – and that whole Life of Christ section in the film. All the new photos that were in the film were sitting at The Société de Photographie, and they say that someone else directed Life of Christ, but you see her on the set, in the film, directing so, you know. After me the baton should be passed on [inaudible] in the audience to fill in the rest of the holes. I think it’s not just about her, it’s about helping other women to get the courage to speak up to go out there and do it – get your projects made and don’t put up with anything

MB: The whole kind of marriage break up – there’s a big thing that always seems to – it’s external forces and internal forces always in women’s careers, and that whole kind of adversity can be the making of us’, but it absolutely can be the thing that takes us out and in Alice’s story it seems to be such a big problem and it’s still relevant.

PBG: I’m single!

MB: Me too!

PBG: I couldn’t make Alice with somebody in my way – it was too difficult 

MB: Right

PBG: Because – women, we are strong, we’re focused, but we can’t do it all – it’s not possible, and in her case – she was brilliant – older. And directing is all consuming, you know and he saw that and had a wandering eye and he’s like “why, I can’t do that?” It’s not cool, because it wasn’t cool for her at the time – it was really hard, but to be in that situation when you have two children – you have all these responsibilities and then you have to take care of them – she chose the route to raise her children and give up her career, because at 50, almost, going back to France with nothing, finding out you’re forgotten, you can’t resurrect yourself in that era, in that time, work full-time and raise your children – it’s not possible. So, I feel for her that she went with the wrong guy – we all go through that. It’s hard if you’re a strong woman to find somebody who’s really going to be compatible in that way and be as strong as you are.

MB: Not threatened.

PBG: Yeah, co-exist – Bill and Melinda Gates – that’s very rare. So, I think it’s a lesson for the audience to make sure that you surround yourself [with] people that help you along the way that are there for you and you share the same thing in personal relationships. It’s definitely a lesson for me.

MB: But what’s interesting is when – also, she came back – but in that era you can’t keep yourself alive in the minds of the press and in the minds of people – all the tools that we have now aren’t open to her, but still it feels like she was punished for leaving and punished even more for returning – and eradicating her contribution doesn’t feel accidental.

PBG: Its gender and its time and the progression of cinema. Thank God the films were distributed because we found them later and her children didn’t want to have anything to do with cinema – they were anti that, she was also somebody that kept travelling with her daughter  – so it’s not like there’s a GPS system to figure out where she was – so even if she was to be interviewed – where is she? I just think that the world wasn’t ready to bring silent cinema back to the forefront of restoration – it was just the beginnings of it. And she was at this event, the anniversary event with all the archivists – and they didn’t realise who she was, and she didn’t realise that they had her films until later, because  there’s no directing credit! Thank God that one guy, that collector had something like two films and a fragment, it’s better than zero – and she didn’t save the work, like all her posters – she had very little. Men were much better at that.

MB: That’s interesting

PBG: They were very big on self-publicizing. Recently I overheard somebody talking and she said, “there’s no correspondence with her, but he has all the stuff about himself.” I turned and I was like: “Yes! Men always… that’s what they did.” That was the way of the world back then. None of these women saved anything because they didn’t think of it.  At least she was smart enough to save some of it.

MB: Fascinating, because it’s not just who writes the history, but who preserves their own history in order for it to be passed on.

PBG: When I was accepted to Cannes the NY Times wrote an article – they mentioned Jodie as a quote – they mentioned the film – they didn’t mention my name. I was like woah! Again! I called the person – contacted them to say: “Hey, can you add my name?” And they’re like:“No – it’s too late.”

MB: The history of exclusion continues to this day as we know.

PBG: Yeah, so you have to keep fighting – double-checking, triple-checking. We corrected all day long – we see something, we’re like: “No! That’s misspelled”… etc. I mean there was a picture of Mary Pickford for the longest time that showed up if you Googled Alice Guy–Blaché. I think Getty had attributed a picture of Mary Pickford to being Alice. So that is everywhere – we spent six months correcting that.

MB: Well, Pamela, I’m sure Alice would be delighted to meet you. It’s amazing. One of my favourite quotes is: “Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences.” Which is JG Ballard. So, I agree with you – she chose you, you were given this assignment.

PBG: She needs to get off my back though ha haaaaaa!

MB: You can clock off. You’re allowed to clock off.

MB: Also what I wanted to say is that we find so often with films we want to show – even really well-known films – that they are not archived, or a digital version exists but it’s not on DCP, and then you go: who makes these decisions? Like that archivist from USC says in the film: “Thirteen different versions of Metropolis…”

PBG:  You just gave me a weird idea. I have a crazy idea. I’m so tired of seeing DVDs, compilations of just women. What if we mixed it? What if we had Méliès and Alice so that we break this like…? You know I’m Jewish? So why do you need the women upstairs, and the men downstairs – that’s what it feels like. How cool would it be to mix it?

MB: Yes, that’s the next step really.

PBG: Yeah, because you want to not have the division.

MB: She had a seat at the table. She was there at the birth of cinema.

PBG: She’s part of carving the table and the chair that she sat in – the last supper!

MB: Yeah, massively significant. No one invited her, she was there at the same time as all of them.

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