Audrey Hepburn: an icon of film

by WSNXT Team

Written by Jade Scott

 

Audrey Hepburn is the epitome of an icon, “I have been in countless cafes, restaurants, and even in people's homes where they have a photo or painting of Audrey on the wall, but don't really know who she is and what she stood for...” The words of Helena Coan, director of the Audrey Hepburn documentary ring true and really make you stop and think.

Now, on the US release of the film, AUDREY, more than an icon, WMNBSS talks to the female team that brought Audrey to life in a whole new light.
 
Audrey as Holly, as Sabrina, as Eliza, delights on screen and has done for decades. Her charm, wit and scrappy humor transcends the limits of the screen and captures people in a way so unique to Hepburn herself. Her comedy - sharp, her elegance - overt, Audrey Hepburn is iconic to so many, but can they really pinpoint why? It is a classic case of placing beauty and allure on a pedestal, ignoring the human element and inevitably, the human themselves.
 
AUDREY, more than an icon, is the latest documentary to come out of UK based Salon Pictures, the studio which brought McQueen, the documentary, to life.
 
Annabel Wigoder, Head of Development, and Helena Coan, Director, AUDREY, share with WOMANBOSS how the film took the female lead and formed a positive culture on set.
 
There is so much conversation around Audrey and her life, many often assume they know the story of the actress and humanitarian. Unbelievably, there had never been a documentary, as Annabel explains, Salon specializes in biographical films and we’d discussed making a definitive feature documentary about Audrey Hepburn – because somehow, despite the fact that she is one of the most iconic people of all time, no-one else had done it! We knew there would be an audience for this film, but hadn’t quite worked out what the angle would be, or the best way to make her life relevant to modern viewers.

"We were working with Helena (Coan) on another documentary, and she happened to come into the office and see Audrey’s name written on a whiteboard of possible subjects. Helena is a big fan of Audrey and knew exactly the story she wanted to tell. She wrote a detailed treatment, approaching Audrey's life from a new perspective, and including dance sequences, which we envisioned as an artistic way to elevate the documentary and bring Audrey’s story to life.”

 

Audrey on the sofa with Robert Wolders - Image courtesy and credit of John Isaac

Having a team of female filmmakers seems such a natural choice for this film, and Annabel was determined from the beginning, “I always look to hire female HODs and crew where I can, but particularly with this project – a film about one of the most iconic women in the world.
 
“Helena’s instant connection with the idea and her understanding of what made Audrey’s life a story worth telling made her the perfect fit. Once Helena was on board, we wanted to hire a female cinematographer – I’ve been on sets with a very alpha male production crew, and it has made for a different and sometimes difficult experience, especially with less established female directors. I’ve had experiences where the cinematographer actually refused to get the shot the director asked for! We went on to hire a female archive producer, and we also had a female production manager, focus pullers, and so on. It felt right to have women behind the camera, telling Audrey’s story in-depth for the very first time.”
 
Helena’s approach to directing is steadfast and consistent, regardless of gender, only focusing on the subject point, “I approach all of my films with a lot of passion, perseverance and patience. When actually on set directing I don’t think about my gender, I just focus on making the best film I can with the best team around me.”
 
And the vibe on set, according to Helena, was very special “It felt like Audrey was with us throughout the process. Filming the dance sequences was particularly special as we were bringing her story to life in a new and original way – inspired by Audrey’s own passion for dance – and watching phenomenal dancers tell her story through their art form was incredible to be a part of. It is a priority of mine as a director to create a very supportive and collaborative working environment and to make sure everyone on set is having a good time. Film-making is hard but it should always be fun too. We only hired and work with people who we felt would contribute to that energy. No big egos allowed!”
 
With an ‘egos need not apply sign’ firmly in place, Annabel and Helena could set about creating the most exquisite documentary, reflecting a more poignant and delicate view of Audrey’s story. With beauty at its heart.

 

Helena Coan (director) and Simona Susnea (cinematographer) on location in NYC

On their travels around the world, filing interview footage, Annabel recalls the reception they received, “Helena, Simona (the cinematographer) and I traveled the world together filming interviews, and it was constantly remarked on that we were all women. I was never asked ‘where’s the producer?’ but it seemed to come close at times!
 
“On the dance shoot several crew members told us that the shoot was especially fun and relaxed – I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And of course, we also had some great, talented men working with us, including an assistant producer who got the full experience of working with female filmmakers, being sent out to find emergency tampons in the middle of rural Italy! "
 
Period products aside, this was a film with an important story to be told, with authenticity a must for the team. Helena was committed to showing the truth of the narrative, but with a female perspective, “Like all the other iconic female stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Audrey was never directed by a woman. She was always viewed through the male gaze: produced, shot and directed exclusively by men. As a filmmaker, whether I'm making documentary or fiction, I am most concerned with trying to get to the truth, or essence of the story, so having the opportunity to explore Audrey’s life from a female perspective, with fellow women producing and shooting the film, was really exciting."

 

“Audrey Hepburn is a prime example of an amazing, multifaceted woman being reduced to a 2D portrait. So many women are reduced to reductive, overly simplified figures, and I think Audrey is the most prominent example of this. I have been in countless cafes, restaurants, and even in people's homes where they have a photo or painting of Audrey on the wall, but don't really know who she is and what she stood for. She is viewed as a paragon of perfection: I want to show the audience that this is a reductive perspective and there’s no such thing as a perfect person.

Audrey’s life is an inspiring tale of transformation: everyone experiences trauma and adversity, which can be used as fuel for good and positive change - that pain can be taken and transformed into something beautiful and enduring, which is exactly what Audrey did. I also wanted to give a message of hope and comfort in what is a very, very difficult time for a lot of people.”
 
It’s true, Audrey is such an enduring figure in our pop culture and this new perspective will certainly offer her ever-captivated audience an opportunity to look at the peeled back layers of this icon. “Audrey’s image remains prevalent in pop culture because her appearance is so striking and was nothing short of revolutionary at the time. She was physically very different to the most popular actresses and models at the time and offered up a different type of woman to the world – enabling others who felt and still feel like they don’t fit into society’s accepted beauty standards, to see themselves represented. Beyond physical appearance, she’s an iconic figure because she stood for love, and love is timeless.”
 
On plans for this female team, the future looks bright. Annabel enthuses, “We are working on another feature documentary together about Nicola Adams, the first female boxer to become an Olympic champion after winning gold at London 2012. We’ve chosen a female cinematographer for this too. We are also developing Helena’s first narrative feature film."
 
AUDREY is available to buy on DVD now and on digital download from January 5 2021.