Lisa Immordino Vreeland is a woman who enjoys the the world of art. Vreeland has already shined her light on two creators already, in her 2011 debut Diana Vreeland: The Has to Travel as well as her 2015 work Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, and looks at the man who made nearly every facet of popular culture turn. Love, Cecil is an incisive look at author and designer Cecil Beaton, lifting the veil to explore a man fraught with insecurities. Vreeland talked to Film Radar about Love, Cecil, falling in love with the “bright young things” of the 1930s and more.
If you look at Vreeland’s three films, along with her television series, Art of Style, the documentarian is enthralled by art and beauty. While she doesn’t feel there’s pressure on her as a female filmmaker, part of the advantage of producing her own films, one is able to see “a femininity” in the way her features are presented. This “feminine hand” is evident in Vreeland’s assembling of the film, which takes Beaton’s techniques of scrapbooking and collage to make things “come alive.” “We were so lucky to have such beautiful material,” Vreeland says, including Beaton’s own diaries. While “the narrative was always going to be from his own writings,” there is a multimedia approach to Love, Cecil that employs his original spreads for Vogue magazines, as well as numerous portraits he took of celebrities and personalities from the Queen of England to Marilyn Monroe.
Though Beaton is the third subject Vreeland’s documented, and the first male, he was almost her second. She initially thought of doing a “character study” on him “between Peggy [Guggenheim: Art Addict] and Diana Vreeland.” For the documentarian it’s “the person that attracts me” and Beaton came complete with “a rich life” full of “ups and downs.” Vreeland makes a point of saying “I’m not a scholar.” Her crew and her don’t employ a researcher, so when sitting down to wade through the wealth of material on Beaton’s life it’s about looking at the physical texts on hand. “Beaton wrote 38 books; I read them all.” She also took “precise notes” organizing them into a foundation for the narrative, which Vreeland states is always at the forefront of her mind – how the narrative will be shaped. Editor Bernadine Colish works alongside Vreeland in this regard, helping tweak the story to her desired specifications. Certain things that might have been focused on – like a specific portrait of Audrey Hepburn – might be thrown out during the assembly process as Vreeland and her team think of better ways to assemble their points. The finished work truly becomes “a feast for the eyes.”
But the strongest element in Love, Cecil are Beaton’s own words. Narrated by actor Rupert Everett, the words of the great author dazzle, lighting up every frame in which they’re used. The inclusion of the diaries was planned from the get-go, according to Vreeland. “The narrative was always going to be from his writings.” The actual physical diaries are “big books” that number “over 100” and presented the director with a bit of a challenge; “His handwriting is really difficult to understand, [so] I didn’t even attempt to read those diaries.” Instead, Vreeland went to the diaries that were published by Beaton, and if she needed more information on something Beaton biographer, Hugo Baker “would translate them to me.” This was particularly beneficial when looking at claims that Beaton was anti-Semitic, a problem that got him fired from Vogue. “That was a page in the diary [and] I sat next to [Baker] while he read it.” Vreeland also says she was “fortunate” that Everett agreed to narrate the film in Beaton’s voice. Fans who want more of Everett’s narration as Beaton (which I told Vreeland warrants an audio book) be sure to drop by the movie’s Instagram for a brief behind-the-scenes snippet.
In talking about Beaton, Vreeland and I discussed the world of the ’30s itself. At one point interview subject Hamish Bowles mentions being jealous of the people Beaton knew during the time period. When asked what she thinks attracts people to that time Vreeland says, “they were these people working outside the box….they were setting the tone for certain things.” She hoped to show “a new generation” these personalities, letting audiences know “Why were they leading their lives in a certain way? What motivated them?” It’s also hard to ignore the vibrancy and vitality Beaton and his crew express in the photos assembled. They presented “a little taste of life,” as Vreeland explains. Beaton was described as many things, but for Vreeland she finds herself drawn to the dandy side of her subject. “What inspired me was [Beaton] the talented creator, the artist.” She sought to showcase “how he managed to look at everything in his life with this artistic eye” yet become bogged down with insecurities that plagued his personal life.
But as for Vreeland, the creator and artist, things are different. She describes herself as one who’s “very off-the-grid” with “no connections in Hollywood,” something she acknowledges she should probably make more of an effort to get. Yet this exclusion of Hollywood gives the documentarian a certain freedom. “I don’t want somebody [telling me what to do]…I just want to do quality content.” This isn’t to say Vreeland wouldn’t like to segue from documentaries and enter narrative filmmaking at some point. “I have some ideas, but I also like to have my freedom. I’m not gonna shop [a project] around, it’s not in me to do that.” Vreeland is hard at work on her next documentary though, looking at another legendary personage, author Truman Capote. For Vreeland, this is a chance to show Capote in a new way. “We all have seen his downfall and I don’t want to poke at it.” Now that there’s a certain level of trust established between Vreeland and the people who offer her material for her work, there’s no doubt it’ll be just as awe-inspiring as her previous films.
Love, Cecil opens on Friday, July 20th at the Nuart Theatre.
Q&A with filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland on Friday, July 20th at the 7:15pm show.