These days, it seems like everyone and their mother has become the subject of a documentary film: Valentino, Joan Rivers, Anna Wintour, Vidal Sassoon, Bill Cunningham and soon Diana Vreeland, to name a few. But, with her new project, first-time filmmaker Angela Ismailos has tapped into a pool that has so far evaded the cameras — the very people behind them.
“Great Directors,” which hits theaters in limited release Friday, features 10 distinguished directors, including David Lynch (“Mulholland Dr.”), Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liaisons”), Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused”) and Agnès Varda (“Cleo from 5 to 7”) speaking candidly with Ismailos about their craft. (Clips from their work are interspersed throughout to provide context.) Highlights include Lynch recalling how he scored his gig directing “The Elephant Man” because producer Mel Brooks believed him to be “a madman,” and Frears describing his experience as a precocious young cameraman in the Sixties at the BBC, where network execs “sort of wanted [me] to misbehave.”
“These directors tried to destabilize the norm and the formalities of what cinema should be,” says Ismailos, 42. “They did exactly the kind of films they wanted to do.”
The same could be said of Ismailos, who conceived of the idea for this project five years ago while doing research for what she was planning would be her first film, a feature called “The City of a Dead Woman.” “I had so much information and archival work that I’d been collecting for years,” she says. “I had this idea and was very passionate about it.”
But not every idea for a film comes to fruition. Fortunately for Ismailos, she had a few advantages over other ambitious artists. Born and raised in Athens to shipping magnate father and arts patron mother, she grew up attending the opera and ballet and watching independent films. “I was always exposed to the arts,” she recalls. After earning a law degree from the University of Athens, Ismailos moved to New York, where she indulged her creative side full-time, taking acting classes at Juilliard and studying cinematography at the New York Film Academy. In 2004, she independently founded her own production company, Anisma Films, which she runs out of the tony Park Avenue apartment she shares with her husband — also in the shipping industry — and their teenage daughter. (Her original intent was to use it to fund “The City of a Dead Woman.”)
For all her financial and social assets, Ismailos faced challenges during production, including convincing a camera-shy Lynch to sign on board. After several carefully composed letters explaining her vision for the project, she eventually won the director over. “I have no idea how I did it,” she says.
Landing a distributor proved a bit easier. Paladin picked up the film, without any reservation from owner Mark Urman regarding Ismailos’ lack of professional experience behind the camera. “Of the several Academy Award-nominated documentaries I’ve worked on [including ‘Spellbound,’ ‘Murderball’ and ‘Born Into Brothels’], most of those were first-time filmmakers,” says Urman. “That’s the least interesting thing you could tell me about Angela.”
There was certainly no question about Ismailos’ ability to promote the doc. This spring, after “Great Directors” was screened during the Cannes Film Festival, Ismailos hosted a party aboard her sleek 164-foot yacht, Barracuda. There are also fetes for the flick in New York — once earlier this month at MoMA for a crowd including Fran Lebowitz and Chuck Close and again this weekend in the Hamptons, where Steven Klein and Jay McInerney are expected.
This may be Ismailos’ first foray into filmmaking, but it certainly isn’t her last. Up next, she is planning to finally get around to directing and starring in “The City of a Dead Woman,” a story about a woman’s complicated relationship with her priest. As Ismailos sees it, she’s a pro by now. “When the camera starts rolling, that’s when you’ve become a filmmaker.”