‘Frank Capra: Mr America’ Filmmakers On Why Their Candid Doc Of A Complicated Hollywood Legend Will Speak To Modern Audiences — Venice
EXCLUSIVE: Frank Capra has long been considered one Hollywood’s most successful, influential and complex film directors and, in the new feature documentary Frank Capra: Mr America, which is premiering at the Venice Film Festival later this week, audiences will get a chance to view previously unseen archives that examine the Sicilian-born director’s rags-to-riches story whilst unpicking his complicated relationship with America.
The documentary, which is screening in the Venice Classics section on September 1, is the debut feature from British director Matthew Wells. It chronicles Capra from his humble beginnings as a young and penniless immigrant who rose through the ranks of Hollywood to become one of America’s greatest storytellers through films such as Oscar-winning It Happened One Night to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the now Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
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Producer Nick Varley, former co-founder of UK-based back-catalogue and classics distribution outfit Park Circus, first brought the idea of the project to Wells during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Having stepped down from Park Circus in 2018, Varley – who has a wealth of experience in working with studios and their film catalogues – knew that Sony Pictures had its centenary coming up in 2024.
“I just got to thinking that there hadn’t really been any major film or documentary about Columbia Pictures and what a better subject than Frank Capra, the man who really helped put Columbia Pictures on the map?,” Varley tells Deadline, who is producing the title via his Ten Thousand 86 banner. He approached the studio about a potential project on Capra and Sony agreed to fully-finance the $500,000 documentary.
“It’s unusual for a studio to take on a relatively small project like this but I think they saw the value in terms of the heritage and the value of Capra and the role he played in the formative years of the studio and still to this day,” says Varley.
Varley and Wells had previously worked on 2019 short film Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb, which Varley exec produced, and Wells directed, and when Varley brought the idea to Wells, the Bristol-based director was immediately intrigued. (The duo are also currently producing the as yet untitled Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger documentary that Martin Scorsese is exec producing and narrating.)
“I had done a lot of research on Frank Capra and had seen a lot of his bigger films and loved them but the thing that clicked for me was realizing how complicated a man he was,” says Wells. “And that posed a challenge, which got me really excited.
“When you revisit Capra’s films, you start to realize how relevant they would seem to audiences at the time who were living through difficult times. He was a mythmaker, overtly so in the propaganda films he made during World War II but also in his signature films of the 1930s. The films offer an idea of America and did so during a time of great hardship and turmoil – the Great Depression and the Second World War. It’s not surprising that people responded to his work so forcefully and in such huge numbers.”
Frank Capra: Mr America takes a deep dive into how Capra embodied the idea of the American Dream both in front of and behind the camera. “His life embodies the same myth that his films are creating so it seemed very logical to try and look at the two things in parallel to his life story.”
The project was born in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, which both Varley and Wells admit was a “curious time” to begin work on the documentary.
“You’re looking at these villainous, populist political figures in the films and it was like, ‘Ok, we’re living through some of this stuff now,” says Wells. “So, it just felt really timely and kind of knotty and that got me excited about it.”
He adds, “Capra’s films offered an idea of a country that was worth struggling on for and maybe we can recognize a version of that way too, in the way today’s populist politicians talk about their countries.”
When it came to researching the project, “it was all about having good luck in the archive,” notes Wells, who says that Sony had access to a huge amount of material that the doc could build upon. In 1972, Capra donated his 14-acre ranch in Fallbrook, California, to Caltech, where he was an alumnus. Within this estate, there was locked room in a shed which eventually uncovered a huge amount of home movie footage, which was digitized and used for the film.
“We had some good luck with things like that that really made the film as well as searching through all of his personal archives,” says Wells.
Intimate audio recordings about his early life reveal how Capra fought to escape his Italian American roots and eventually made his way to Hollywood in the early years of the studio system while interviewees in the film include friend and archivist Jeanine Basinger, his biographer Joseph McBride and well as writer-director Alexander Payne among others.
What becomes clear is that Capra, while a household name early in his career, was a true pioneer in the sense of being a celebrity film director. His later life saw him join the talk show circuit while he was in the process of promoting an autobiography, a book that Wells describes as “very charming but not particularly accurate.”
Fortunately, the filmmakers were able to find material where Capra is much more candid and less controlling about the image he was putting out into the world. “I didn’t think we would necessarily find that, and I thought were going to have to unpick his interviews and do much more fact checking but we did find these materials where he is being very unguarded and he’s talking about his life so that was a very welcome surprise,” says Wells.
Wells adds, “He seemed to be able to channel people and the hardship that everyone was living through and show it in his films in a way that didn’t diminish it but that also made them entertaining movies. There’s a real darkness to his films but they aren’t bleak – they’re fun and it’s kind of an amazing skill he had.”
“I do often wonder what kind of director he would have evolved into had he not gone off and done the Why We Fight films and if he’d stayed in Hollywood as many of the directors of his generation did,” says Varley. “Capra’s life is just so interesting, right from selling newspapers in Los Angeles and not having a lot of money up to all the way to the end of his life where he’s growing avocados in a kind of exile from Hollywood and nursing a bit of a grudge – the range of his life is really fascinating.”
Frank Capra: Mr America premieres in Venice on September 1, 2023, at 5pm at the Sala Casino.
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