Martha Coolidge on Reconstructing Sexual Assault in 1976’s Hybrid Documentary Landmark Not a Pretty Picture
“This film is based on incidents in the director’s life. The actress who plays Martha was also raped when she was in high school. Names and places have been changed.”
Thus begins the harrowing and uniquely personal 1976 16mm feature Not a Pretty Picture by director Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl). A narrative/nonfiction hybrid in which the filmmaker casts actors to dramatize the sexual assault she experienced as a high school student in the 1960s, Picture toggles between semi-scripted scenes of Martha (played by Michelle Manenti) with her friends and eventual abuser (played by Jim Carrington) in the fall of 1962 and documentary footage of the filmmaker as an adult directing her cast in a New York City loft. The film is both an autobiography and a guide for steering actors through extremely sensitive material: Completely open to discussing the events of her assault, Coolidge is also a great listener, allowing her cast to have frank discussions about the psychology and imbalanced power dynamics inherent in sexual abuse. At times, the film feels like a time capsule of conversations society no longer has.
Hard to find outside of the occasional repertory screening, Not a Pretty Picture screens tonight at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in a brand new 4K restoration from the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation. It’s one of 50 restorations making their world, North American or Los Angeles premieres in the series Present Past: A Celebration of Film Preservation, which runs through December 19th. Along with certain thematic ties (each Thursday will feature independent films, Fridays showcase experimental work and Sunday afternoons host documentary shorts), the program will use the Museum’s Ted Mann and David Geffen theaters to host talks and recent restorations from established auteurs (Pedro Costa’s O Sangue, Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia) and those whose identities remain unknown (lead by an all-Black cast, the 1949 western Come On, Cowboy! has neither a writer nor director credited). While the series will primarily feature work overseen by the Academy Film Archive, restorations from other institutions such as Anthology Film Archives and Permanencia Voluntaria & the Cinema Preservation Alliance are also represented.
Whether the series will become an annual or biennial event remains to be seen, but the hope is that new restorations will continue to have an exhibition home at the Academy Museum. “What’s most important for me is that we’re able to highlight the work of preservationists and archivists, who often don’t get the spotlight,” K.J. Relth-Miller, the Academy Museum’s Associate Director of Film Programs notes, “and allow them space on our stage to talk about their work and highlight and celebrate their work in our theaters as part of an Academy that’s unified in its efforts to save film history.”
A few days before the premiere of Not a Pretty Picture‘s restoration, I spoke with Coolidge about her career at the time of production, the catharsis involved in a project like this, her thoughts on Intimacy Coordinators and much more. Our conversation below begins with Coolidge taking me back to the mid-1970s to describe the impetus for her film.
Coolidge: I was a documentary filmmaker at the time and fairly well established, going on speaking tours and participating in the annual Flaherty Film Seminar. The seminar was where a bunch of filmmakers would get together and talk about films, and when I was there, they screened Mitchell Block’s narrative short, …No Lies, which was about a young woman who recounts, to the filmmaker off-screen, her experience of having been raped [the film is shot in the style of a cinéma vérité interview]. The cameraman is a character whom you never see and he films the woman in her apartment, getting ready to go out when suddenly she confides in him her experience of sexual violence. What Block shows is the cameraman exploiting the girl [in] how she reveals herself. The film caused a great deal of discussion in the group, and it seemed to me that there were really three kinds of exploitation taking place here: the exploitation of the actress by the cameraman, the exploitation of the character by the person who had raped her and the exploitation of the viewer, as they’re being taken along for this exciting, somewhat scintillating rape movie that shouldn’t necessarily be so exciting. Anyway, it was something I noted and I thought I could do better.
Prior to that screening, I hadn’t thought about putting what had happened to me on film, but when I did, the first thing that came to mind was the format. I felt that my movie would have to have a sharing aspect, where the people who are working on it are talking about their own personal experiences—the way a director talks with their actors, the way actors talk with each other. I also had to go through my own personal memories [from my experience], archivally, and “work on all of that” so that the memories wouldn’t come back, hit me, and make me feel like I shouldn’t have gone through with [the film]. After that, I quickly put together the concept of having these narrative scenes paired with documentary scenes about the [making of the film]. That’s how I explained it when I filled out a funding application, and after we received the money [from the American Film Institute (AFI)], we found an additional backer who backed me equally from what I had received [from the grant]. In the end, I made Not a Pretty Picture for not very much, almost $50,000.
I shot much [of the film] where I was living at the time, with friends from NYU and with organizations I would help start, like the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF). The first thing [we shot] was the rape scene, with all of the actors together in the New York City loft. We had a few discussions before that point, some of which I used in the script, then finalized the schedule of the shoot—needing one day in the loft and dressing the set, etc. It was some friend’s big loft that we rented out and had to reset and put a wall up to break a hole through [the hole in the wall is used for certain characters to walk through to establish the room where the rape will take place] and I decided to change the feel of the movie so that the viewer is placed in daylight, when in fact [the rape actually occurred during the] nighttime. I did that on purpose, to never take you all the way into the narrative portion of the film. I then took the rest of the footage, which included documentary interviews with the cast, and scripted the rest. It isn’t that I changed much, but because it was an improv-heavy set, I wanted to know how the film was going to play out. After the shoot, I spent months editing it and submitted the film to the American Film Institute, where it was accepted to screen at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. I was very flattered!
Filmmaker: What was your casting process like? Obviously, your lead actress would have had to have gone through a similarly harrowing experience as you did and be willing to reveal that in the film, so what went into casting Michelle Manenti?
Coolidge: I definitely wanted to find somebody who had [experienced what I had experienced]—which, by the way, was not so hard to find. I had a casting person and we held casting calls and cold reads, and that’s basically how I got my cast, but some people I [previously] knew through various organizations. I knew how to organize that aspect [of casting], where I didn’t have enough money to pay all of the people who worked on the film. I just couldn’t. Some people were paid something, some were very low-budget and some worked for free. This was admittedly all done in a rather opportune way for me, but not for them. They would shoot for one week, then we’d stop and look through what we had. I had to organize the footage we had shot and that took time.
Filmmaker: Was it made clear to them that they would have to be very open and honest about their own personal experiences and have to share those in the film?
Coolidge: Yes, and that was part of how I cast the film. In the casting process, we spoke about them and their personal experiences and how they felt about it. Their [stories] contributed so much to what you see in the finished film.
Filmmaker: Anne Mundstuk, who plays herself in the film (albeit at a younger age), was a former roommate of yours, correct?
Coolidge: My former roommate, yes. One day, about a week before filming, I’m walking down the street in New York and run into Anne, who didn’t live in New York. I was shocked to run into her, and we talked there on the street and I asked, “How would you like to play yourself in this movie I’m doing?” And she agreed to do it! It was incredible, and the opportunity allowed her to come to grips with certain things in her own life. So, it was helpful for us both in that regard.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the “car sequence” that takes place [prior to the rape scene]. I believe it’s the longest narrative scene in the film and it allows the viewer to sit with these characters for a long while before we’re eventually brought back into the rehearsal process.
Coolidge: We included [that sequence], because I felt that if I didn’t establish the main characters like a traditional movie does, then the viewer wouldn’t really get to know them. That wouldn’t be good for the film, and [it would also mean] I couldn’t establish them in the “present day” nonfiction footage. I wound up doing extensive rehearsals and rewrites of that driving scene, because there were many elements that needed to be included—the bullying and intimidation of where they’re driving to, the discomfort and fear inherent in that. I wrote the scene by feel, as it wasn’t the type of thing I’d ever written before. But it was a comfortable way to work, especially as I wasn’t particularly estranged from the material.
Filmmaker: In showing the rehearsal process, you’re letting the viewer in on the tough conversations you had with your lead actors, some quite raw and intimate. When Jim Carrington gives his rather frank musings about what we would now classify as “rape culture,” he isn’t demonized. In promoting discussion and serving as moderator, you allow him to come to his own realizations.
Coolidge: Yes, I was doing was what you said: encouraging them to talk, and whatever came out of that was good. When things came out by surprise, I tried to get to the bottom of that, too.
Filmmaker: Was that also true of the improv nature of some of the sequences, where they’re exploring the space/set and you allow them to take control of their scenes?
Coolidge: That was to make it feel fresh and real, so that when surprising elements entered into a scene they could follow through. I gave the actors certain [blocking directions] about where to go—”You go over here, then go over there”—but I didn’t want to completely set them up, restrict them and tell them how to act. The cameramen knew where the actors would move. Looking back, I love how I was, unexpectedly, filmed watching the actors. That was really striking.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about that. There was no direction for the cameraman to pan over and get your reaction?
Coolidge: No, we just had a great handheld cameraman [the film was shot by Don Lenzer and Fred Murphy] who noticed me watching the scene, observed the contrast apparent there and instinctively filmed me putting my hand over my mouth. It was an interesting choice, as it wasn’t something I was conscious of at the time of filming.
Filmmaker: The film concludes with a heartbreaking admission about how your experience of being raped has continued to affect your life, now at [the time of filming] 28 years old. Ending the film on that note somewhat re-centers the story to remind us of exactly whose story we’re watching.
Coolidge: Yes, it does, and I felt that if I didn’t share that, then what was I doing? The movie has a story, and that’s a part of the story. I felt I had to share that.
Filmmaker: Was toggling between the narrative and nonfiction sequences a thematic structure that became clearer in the edit?
Coolidge: Well, I had already laid everything out and knew pretty much where the transitions would work best, so I did plan for a few of those. But yes, it did come out even further in the editing room, because there are certain associations you begin to make only when you’re looking at one thing and then your mind begins to think of another. Even so, it’s important to be very instinctive about all of this.
Filmmaker: Do you know how many hours of footage you shot in full?
Coolidge: Holy shit. Because some of the documentary interviews were on film and some were on tape, I had to go through, transcribe all of them and keep them on hand in case I needed to reference something specifically, which I often did. We then shot the documentary footage of the rape sequence I don’t know how many times, but an awful lot, which took up about 16 rolls of film. When we shot the narrative sequences, it was much closer to a shot by shot kind of experience, accumulating maybe 20 to 25 rolls of film per day.
Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned the film premiering at the Kennedy Center and later it screened at the very first edition of the Sundance Film Festival (known, at the time, as the Utah/US Film Festival), although the film never received distribution outside of its festival run. What was the experience of showing the film where you could? Were you at every public screening?
Coolidge: I was the person with the flyers, doing all of the press and all of the interviews and yes, I tried to be there every time. The one event I failed to attend was when it was chosen for a special screening in France at Deauville, as I couldn’t afford to go there. But aside from that, I pretty much went to them all, and it was a great experience. Not only that, but I also met other victims of rape, including many male victims. I didn’t go into [the project] thinking about men all that much, but when I would meet men who had been raped, it became an amazing experience for me. The screenings encouraged the kinds of discussion I wanted to have by all different kinds of people.
Filmmaker: Today we have on-set roles like intimacy coordinators for sex scenes in narrative films and drama therapists for films that wrestle with intense subject matter. These roles were obviously not in existence at the time of Not a Pretty Picture, but I was curious about your feelings on their inclusion today.
Coolidge: What’s interesting is that when these things eventually came up and these roles were established, I wasn’t having many scenes like those in my films, so I’ve never had those roles [on my sets]. I’ve asked other filmmakers about their intimacy coordinators, because at first I was immediately put off by the idea, as it adds another person between the director and the actor. However, I now see how it can be very helpful, and I can see how it can be very interfering. Either way, it just depends on the people [on set] and your understanding of what their job is. It would’ve been a pain in the ass on Not a Pretty Picture, but had I known about it ahead of time and knew that was going to be going on, I would’ve built that into our process. It would have taken more time, because then you’d have to explain yourself to another person and they’d have to get involved and explain themselves to the actors.
Filmmaker: Looking back on your experience with the film, was it personally helpful for your well-being? Did it help to present it in this doc/narrative format?
Coolidge: I think it was good to put it in that format, because it meant that I had to understand it more clearly for myself. I had to be able to explain [what had happened to me] to other people. It was a very good thing to watch and listen to, because when actors are doing something, it becomes much more real than just imagining or replaying it over in my head. You are watching something that’s happening in front of you and that makes it very real. Sometimes you have to interrupt it, because it’s just going the wrong way, or because it’s being done so effectively that it’s going to affect all of you. I think where it took us emotionally was the discovery for this film.
Filmmaker: With the film now being restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation, I was curious if there had been long gestating plans for this restoration and to get the film back in circulation. If nothing else, it certainly feels ripe for rediscovery.
Coolidge: What you hope for as a filmmaker, when you’re proud of a film, is that you’ll be able to keep it in its best shape. Unfortunately, as things get older and older, it tends to pick up cracks or tears or little things like that. In the case of this film, I had my original material kept in a vault, because I’m a bit of fanatic. I eventually shipped the 16mm print to where I am in Los Angeles, where I then put it in my own vault. I then spoke with the Academy and went through my vault and pulled out all the material I would need for reconstitutions. First they did Real Genius, and that restoration was released right away. Then I pulled out Not a Pretty Picture. I had so much stuff! The only thing, so far, that I blame myself for is losing the soundtrack to Old Fashioned Woman. I don’t understand what happened to it: the original is gone, but I do have what’s on the actual film itself, so I can copy it. It’s just a frustrating thing, but that’s the way it goes. You try to keep track of everything and you can’t.
Filmmaker: Do you think that news of this restoration will lead to Not a Pretty Picture eventually screening elsewhere and potentially having a new life?
Coolidge: What’s amazing about filmmaking is that you can make a film that’s very personal, as this one was, and then it will take on a life of its own. You put the film out there, it makes friends, people become fans of it and develop their own love for it. It’s amazing how films form a reputation on their own. By the time it comes back to [the filmmaker], it already has all of these people saying, “We want to see it again!” It’s great, it really is. These films become like a separate person, a separate entity.
What made things really hard was that because there was a big limit on how many prints existed, the film really became constricted. Now with this restoration, it means we can finally make more prints. I’m very happy about that, and it should open things up a bit. I’ve always tried to make the film available to everyone. If people wrote to me, I would get them the film, regardless of where they were located. But that was a big pain, pulling it out and shipping it. It’s great to think about this restoration bringing a new life to Not a Pretty Picture, and also to Real Genius simultaneously. These two films are of a certain age, but they can definitely find a place together. I’m very happy and excited about that.
Filmmaker: It will be quite the experience seeing Not a Pretty Picture with an audience in a theater again and hearing the discussion afterwards.
Coolidge: And the laughs! There are laughs in the film. The film gave me the chance to [examine] a certain part of my life—my experience in this dormitory and in this school—that was sort of nightmarish. By making it dramatic and putting it into a narrative story, I limited it to what was real, and that was good.