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Angela Ismailos Loves Great Directors

Bertolucci. Lynch. Varda. Breillat. Haynes. Linklater. Loach. Cavani. Frears. Sayles. A young filmmaker goes off in search of her idols in the aptly-titled documentary Great Directors.

Great Directors
Angela Ismailos interviewing Bernardo Bertolucci


For her simply titled debut documentary Great Directors, Greek-born cineaste (and opera singer!) Angela Ismailos spent 2 ½ years of her life doing something many of us have probably fantasized about: traveling across the world, getting to know revered titans of filmmaking. The result, an official selection at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, is an expansive portrait of the last four+ decades of film, including the historical contexts (where relevant), various trends in filmmaking, and the wildly diverse personalities one finds behind the camera.


Ismailos’ subjects range from old-school European masters (Bernardo Bertolucci, Agnes Varda, Ken Loach) to American indie gods (Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, John Sayles) to modern goddesses (Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani) to uncategorizable geniuses (Stephen Frears, David Lynch). Through her interviews, Ismailos weaves in film clips from each, plus additional clips of the directors cited by her subjects as major influences (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ingmar Bergman, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to name a few). [Side note: I knew Fassbinder died young, but I had no idea he made 41 films in 14 years before that happened!]


It’s a treat to spend 86 minutes exploring these fascinating lives—Bertolucci, Lynch, and Varda are particularly endearing—and we wanted to learn more about the filmmaker who dared to go behind the curtain and expose the wizards. To do so, we recently caught up with Ismailos on the eve of her film’s theatrical U.S. release.


Great Directors: Angela Ismailos
Director Angela Ismailos

Tribeca: Tell us a bit about your background. Did you attend film school? Have you always been a cineaste?


Angela Ismailos: My love for cinema started from a young age—my parents were big cinephiles. As passionate cineastes, they introduced me to all sorts of different genres: from Jean Renoir's first silent movies to Russian Eisenstein's cinema; from Rossellini's neorealism to Godard's nouvelle vague; from Shohei Imamura to Bergman; from Buñuel to Dreyer; from Tarkovsky to Kurosawa; from Federico Fellini to Antonioni; from Dziga Vertov to Jean Cocteau... They were my cinematic teachers! Every summer my parents used to take me and my brothers to a little open theater in Athens. The intense odor of jasmine has been engraved forever in my memory… when the lights went down, my magic escape was beginning!


Tribeca: What prompted you to make Great Directors as your first feature? It’s quite ambitious!


Ismailos: While I was developing my script for a feature film, I had a lot of archival footage from the French New Wave and the Neorealism [movements]. I was inspired to create a contemporary documentary on living directors. So one project fed the other.


Tribeca: In the film you interview a diverse and eclectic group of filmmakers. How did you choose your subjects? Did you start with one giant wish list and narrow it down based on certain factors?
Ismailos: Though Greek by nationality, I reside in both New York and Paris, so, naturally, I gravitated toward European and American filmmakers, and part of my exploration was to discover and discuss the correspondences and contrasts between the two. I wanted to include diverse directors from different countries and different social backgrounds.
I started in Europe and picked Bernardo Bertolucci, who has a talent for putting the human soul under the microscope. We have all seen this evolution coming across in his cinema for over four decades: he is a poet, a romantic, and an anarchist, and he lives for film and thinks cinematographically.


Catherine Breillat is one of the most controversial women in contemporary art; her leading female characters are involved in erotic and emotional battles. Breillat has been challenging audiences throughout her career.


By choosing Agnes Varda, I paid homage to the grandmother of French Cinema, the precursor to the New Wave. She is a female director who has developed her own notion of cine-writing and feminist cinema.


The classic British director who has occupied British society is Stephen Frears, who is able to reflect people living within society's social fringes.   


Tribeca: How were you able to gain access? Were the directors immediately open to the project? Or did it take a lot of convincing?


Ismailos: The first directors I asked to participate were Bernardo Bertolucci and Robert Altman. Altman was the first to accept; however, due to his health, his office kept postponing the shoot. Bernardo was the second to accept. He personally called me after he received my letter and said, “I am very touched by your thoughts.” Then he invited me to come to Rome, and I entered the world of Bertolucci.


Great Directors
Angela Ismailos interviewing Todd Haynes


Tribeca: What was your interview strategy? How did you break the ice with these amazing icons?


Ismailos: There were no strategy or set questions. I went by how the director made me feel. I cared for who they were as artists and for the shared passion we had for art cinema.   


From the outset, I determined that I would use two cameras for shooting: one camera that would focus solely on the director, and one that would be available for all kinds of different shots. It was Bertolucci who asked me to sit on camera with him, and there was a huge benefit for me to be seated next to the director, as opposed to being behind the camera. The director felt very comfortable opening up, and he felt as if he were talking to another filmmaker and not a journalist.


Tribeca: Who was the toughest nut to crack? Who was the most open from the start?


Ismailos: David Lynch was the hardest director to get in the film. Bernardo Bertolucci was very open, and we connected immediately on so many different subjects.


Tribeca: What was the most daunting challenge you faced in making the film? How did you overcome it?


Ismailos: Editing over 340 hours of amazing footage. I had to read through the long transcripts and be tortured for two years about what to take out and put in. I dream of going back and adding more footage to the film one day.


Tribeca: What was the greatest stroke of good luck that happened?


Ismailos: Getting the first director to agree to be in the film.


Tribeca: What was the most important lesson you learned while making this film? Any advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Ismailos: That you become a director on the set. As a filmmaker you always leave a door open for your imagination to come in, and nothing should be pre-set in your mind. Never give up. Study. Look at the works of legendary directors. Investigate society and the human psyche. Care about human beings. Never surrender to consideration of human society. Break moral standards. Be daring. Be different.


Tribeca: What’s up next for you? Did Great Directors inspire you to make a classic narrative feature next?


Ismailos: My favorite director of all time is Bergman. Since Bergman is a woman's director, my next feature is a feature that I wrote called City of a Dead Woman.


Great DirectorsGreat Directors opens in New York this Friday (July 2) at the Quad Cinema, the United Artists (Regal) at 64th & 2nd, and in the Hamptons at Sag Harbor Cinema. The film opens in LA on July 9, and expands to other cities throughout the summer. Check out the official website for all the details.








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