Monday, March 14, 2011

Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies. My Interview with Director & Editor Nicholas Eliopoulos

My recent research into Gordon Parks found me having the good fortune to meet director and editor Nicholas Eliopoulos. In 1968 he was a student at the university of Kansas and visited the Fort Scott, Kansas set of The Learning Tree as a student reporter. After that experience he was inspired to set out to Los Angeles to begin inroads towards starting his own career in the film business. He has been a an editor since the the late seventies and has directed four documentaries. Most recently, Mary Pickford: The Muse Of The Movies. Here is my interview with Mr. Eliopoulos about the film.

What was the impetus that made you want to decide to devote a significant amount of time to create the documentary on Mary Pickford? 

Well, when I went back to a reunion in the late 80’s at the University of Kansas, there was another fellow who showed up from a class “way” earlier than mine.He was Charles Buddy Rogers who had starred as a young actor in the first movie to WIN the Best Picture Oscar WINGS – 1927. Buddy was Mary Pickford’s third and last husband, and even through Mary had already passed away, Buddy invited me up to his home Pickfair Lodge when I returned to Hollywood, and there were all of Mary’s Oscars, memorabilia and great collections she had gathered during her life and movie career.

At that time I knew very little about Pickford, only that she was a silent actress… as I became friends with Buddy, he lent me many of his and Mary’s films to watch. When I learned that Mary had purchased the rights to almost all the films in which she had starred, and they were housed in the Pickford vaults in Hollywood. I began to realize no one at that time had done a comprehensive documentary on her enormous contribution to the Cinema as a whole. The more I learned the more it fascinated me. My first interview for the documentary was with Buddy. He introduced me to Lillian Gish (Mary’s best friend and fellow actress) who was still living at the time. Lillian gave me a clip of film she had done mentioning Mary. So that began my collection of footage…. Almost 15 years later.. this is the final film you have just seen.

I understand that the process took almost two decades, could you talk about some of the challenges you faced trying to create the film?

The largest challenge was finding the funding to complete the project. Buddy and the Pickford Foundation helped with his initial interview, and then I spent almost 5 years looking for a funder (movies about the silent era at that time where not a sure bet for documentary funding). After many searches and false starts, I found Elizabeth Wood Coldicutt, my fellow producer, and her husband Thomas Coldicutt who served at Executive Producer.

We did several additional interviews with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and, in a fluke visit to Las Vegas, I was able to locate Roxanne Rogers Monroe, Mary Pickford’s adopted daughter and conduct the only “on camera” interview she had ever given about her mother. Roxanne has since passed away. For various reasons, some financial and other unexpected events, my work with the Coldicutts had to be put on hold for
almost 4 additional years. I had been searching and collecting footage and Mary Pickford audio interviews during the down time as well.

Then in 2002, we started on the documentary again, with additional funding, only shortly after that to have Elizabeth and Thomas suffer the tragic loss of their only daughter at the young age of 17. Elizabeth could not work for almost two years while she healed from the tragedy. She has since become stronger and started a Foundation for the Arts in honor of her daughter Caroline Victoria Coldicutt to whom the film is dedicated. You can visit her Foundation’s Web Site: When we got rolling again in late 2005, we were able to complete this extensive work.

The film also serves as Elizabeth’s Master’s thesis in American History. We were accepted and premiered the film at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival, and then were invited for its European Premiere to the Pordenone International Film Festival in Italy later that year. In 2009, we had our Los Angeles Premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Ms. Pickford was one of the original founders of the Academy itself.

One of the great aspects of the film is how you incorporated Mary's voice along side Michael York's narration. Could you talk about the process of tracking down the audio clips. What condition were they in? How much work did you have to accomplish to ensure they would be of a good audio quality? Could you talk about the process you had to undertake to "clean up" the sound?

Long before I began the film, I was on a trip to London and ran into Kevin Brownlow in the lobby of the BBC one day. Being a fan of Kevin’s many books on the silent era; I told Kevin that I was up to raising funds to do a feature documentary on Pickford. Kevin told me that he interviewed her in the late 50’s and recorded the interview on an inexpensive home recorder. I asked him if I could listen to the interview.

Months later Kevin lived up to his promised and about 5 cassette tapes arrived to my house in LA by mail. As I listened to Kevin’s interview, and how business savvy Mary Pickford really was, and also how well she expressed herself (even though the recording was very low volume and had other people talking in the background) it gave me the idea “why not have Mary, herself, tell her own story”. Kevin had only made the recording for information purposes for his book “The Parade’s Gone By”. He never intended to use the recording as it was of such poor quality. Kevin’s initial interview with Pickford sent me on a quest to find other audio recordings where she talked about her career and the beginnings of the film industry.

I went to the Library of Congress in Washington and found several radio shows. Elizabeth, Thomas and I traveled back to London where we found more recordings in the BBC Archives. Then we traveled to Paris and visited Charlie Chaplin’s Foundation where we discovered some gems. Other audios came in from Australia, some from Mary’s own vaults. I went to the George Eastman House in Rochester New York and found an oral history that George Pratt had done with Pickford. And finally Professor Arthur Freidman at UCLA had also done an oral history with Mary as well as interviewed her for his radio show. I spent an afternoon with Professor Friedman and he kindly gave me his radio show to use in our film. Now the hard part was balancing, restoring, and equalizing all the many interviews to come as close as possible to making the differences unnoticeable by the viewer.

I had worked with the sound guru at the Post Group in Hollywood, Steve Michels, before on a documentary I had done on the history of Russia. Steve is amazing in sound and music, and the mixer Troy Smith is the best in the business! For sure! Troy mixed and equalized the tracks. Mary’s voice was higher when she was younger, and as she became older her voice dropped almost a full octave. All that technical part was difficult and time consuming but paled in comparison to editing and ordering the sound bits and her many interviews so they “told the story” of Mary and the Cinema. I think had I not spent years as a film and sound editor in Hollywood, I could have never achieved the great task of having an actress (no longer living) co-narrate and tell her own story. It was a grand feat accomplished in the editing room and took quite a few of the 15 years just to get that one aspect done.

The amount of archival footage you also compiled is mind-blowing. This had to be a daunting task.
Where did you start compiling the footage from?

Again, almost close to 50 percent of the footage had been collected by Mary herself, in her own vaults at the Pickford Foundation. She was an avid fan of the movies, and oddly enough went about buying up the rights to ALL her own films with the idea she was going to have them “burned” upon her death. She was deeply afraid that future generations might laugh AT them rather than WITH them, and she didn’t want any kind of ridicule of her “little girl” or the “silent era” to happen.

When sound came in it left a deep mark in the psyche of those professionals who did not make the transition to the new medium, and with the change in projector speed from 18 frames per second to the sound standard of 24 frames per second, now all these great silent stars of the silver screen were projected faster which made them look like cartoons characters rather than stellar performers of the early art form. Mary was determined to have them destroyed rather than have them become a laughing stock. Thank goodness at the funeral of the great D. W. Griffith, Mary shared her plans with her dear friend Lillian Gish who talked her out of the idea. Now they are all donated to the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute as a record and preservation of an era gone by.

What did you learn about Mary Pickford that you did not know before you stated the research for the film?

So many things, well for starters, America's Sweetheart and the first female movie star of the cinema was actually Canadian. Mary Pickford was born in Toronto and proud of it. Mary was the first actor (male or female) to ever have her name in lights on a Cinema Theater Manqué with the Film’s Title.

Mary Pickford was the only star to ever receive a 50% profit share of her Movies. She was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a co-founder of United Artists’ Studios, which was the first company ever owned and run by actor themselves. She created the Motion Picture Country Retirement Home to care for the aging of the movie industry, and even invented the “baby spot” lighting technique that is still in use today.

It was Mary Pickford’s idea to have “hand and footprints” outside the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and with her then husband, swashbuckling hero of the screen Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the duo were the first to immortalize their prints in that theaters cement.

Mary starred in over 52 feature films, and 141 shorts, producing over half of them through her own Company. She was perhaps the most powerful woman in early motion picture history and that was long before there was television, and even before there was radio.

There has never been someone quite like Mary Pickford. She was a shrewd Hollywood pioneer and business woman at a time when there were only men attaining such heights in this new emerging industry. That was just a few things I began to learn as I looked into Mary’s life and career.

The film has been on the festival circuit and has won a lot of critical praise and awards. What is the future of the film? Do you have distribution?

Right now we are negotiating with several distributors to put our film out to into the world. We have a top notch Web Site:, and we are going to put out a “limited edition DVD” on our own which will benefit the Caroline Victoria Coldicutt Foundation, and the sale of a “rose” Elizabeth developed in honor of her late daughter, The Caroline Victoria Rose:

You will be able to order our DVD on line at our Web Site: and can
go there now to sign up under “contacts” to be informed of its release.