The Last Movie Stars: An Interview with Emily Wachtel

By Tyler Thibodeau

Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman: two of the most iconic film stars ever to grace the silver screen. But more than that, they are the parents of six children who continue to share their legacy with the world. On July 21st the world will finally be able to see their incredible story first-hand, thanks to acclaimed producer, writer, and actress, Emily Wachtel.

Through Wachtel’s dedication and hard work, she was able to get Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke in the director’s chair, and enlist the help of industry legends like Martin Scorsese, Sally Field, Joanne Woodward, and herself, along with countless others.

Here at Greenwich International Film Festival, Emily Wachtel serves as a member of the board, and was kind enough to talk with us about the upcoming six-part docuseries.

 

When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in the film industry?
As a kid, I was luckily exposed to film and theatre often. My mother was a fan of the arts and we had artist friends so it was a big part of my life as a child. I did crazy shows (which in hindsight was a version of stand-up comedy and a variety show) and charged the neighbors for tickets to my shows. Anyway, the truth is I don’t think there was anything else I wanted to do but be involved in the process of making films. I would go to movie theatres all day as a teen and see whatever different films were playing in the Cineplex. It wasn’t a choice it simply had to happen.

What steps did you take to make that dream a reality?
I began as an actress and went to drama school and studied drama at Sarah Lawrence College. But later, when I couldn’t get acting jobs— a friend from Westport encouraged me to write my own show. I pivoted and became a producer/writer. It happened kind of naturally.

You’ve acted in films since Regarding Henry in 1991. Your first film as an executive producer was Shepard & Dark in 2012. What made you want to take that leap and get more involved in film production?
A producer I was working with, on Lucky Them, asked me to help her with Shepard and Dark. She basically said if I helped her with that film she’d help me get Lucky Them made. And so that was the way it went. Funny, once again, it wasn’t a choice. It was a road.

The following year, you wrote the screenplay, produced, and acted in Lucky Them, which you screened here at the Greenwich International Film Festival. How was it to tackle so many key roles on a film of that scale?
Lucky Them was really the beginning of my career (albeit late in life) because the film took 10 years to make. I went through every kind of rejection (although I’ve gone through more of it now) that you can go through and I learned to keep going. There’s a great documentary called SEDUCED and ABANDONED about pitching a film in Cannes. And Martin Scorsese (who EP’s our Current film) said something I never forgot. He said, when you are making a movie you have to keep saying “What’s the next thing? And the next thing?” you have to get through the slog. So, whatever production obstacles and roles I had on Lucky Them—I just took them on. I had a team of course, who helped realize the film, but I kept the eye on the prize. I learned fund raising, and casting and location scouting and then, of course, trying to solve all the issues that come up on set. It was endless and thrilling. I have loved every moment I hated and cherished every moment I loved— on that film. It was film school and a job at the same time. I am still incredibly grateful for the opportunity and the experience of Lucky Them.

Fast forward to now, how did The Last Movie Stars come about?
The Last Movie Stars started in 2015 when I woke up and said to my now husband, “We can’t
just let the Woodward/ Newman legacy fade away. It’s historic. People in the future need to know who they were/are” Originally it was going to be just about Joanne Woodward. But I couldn’t pull a team together that would work, and eventually we realized it was impossible to do Joanne without Paul and vice versa.

What made Ethan Hawke the perfect fit to direct the documentary?
When we were having trouble finding people who had an interest in the Woodward/Newman’s— it occurred to me that an actor would at the least know and understand their impact on the world, and in this country. I was looking for actors who had directed a documentary before, and saw that Ethan Hawke had directed a documentary called Seymour. I watched it, and fell in love with it. I called my best friend, Clea Newman and said you need to call Ethan Hawke. I’ll find his number but you need to get him to meet with the producers, Lisa Long Adler (my partner on Nook House from 2015) and Adam Gibbs (from Greenwich and Lucky Them) Clea spoke with Ethan and set the meeting. We met with Ethan and his producing partner and wife-Ryan Hawke, and the rest is history. That was in 2020.

What made this story one that the world needed to hear?
People need to hear this story because the world needs modern day heroes. And they were that. They were real people who were great at what they did, had a family life and gave back to the world. At the end of the day—isn’t that pretty much all we can ask for?

How has the story of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman impacted you and your work with the industry?
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman were people I grew up with since the age of two. I was best friends with their daughter. We are still best friends to this day… They have shaped everything I have done. I wish I could have achieved more while Paul was still here, and Joanne was more present. But, they are with me in spirit every single step of the way. I feel like my taste for the unconventional comes from them. And they certainly educated me in the arts.

What are you hoping audiences gain from the experience of watching the film?
I hope The Last Movie Stars reaches a younger generation. I am not sure that it will —but it would be nice for them to see what kind, generous, talented thoughtful people used to be like in this world. It’s also just a piece of film history. All the writers and artists of the 50’s/60’s/ and 70’s on up. The Newman’s worked with Kazan, and Lumet and also Pixar and Merchant/Ivory. They really did it all —and they did it with grace. It would be nice if the snapchat/tiktok generation could integrate some of that artistry into what is going on artistically now. We know the older generation will probably watch this film. They can look at it with an appreciation and understanding. It’s the younger ones that we are hoping will find its way to this movie. After all, it is the younger generation that is inheriting this planet with all its complex problems. Maybe The Last Movie Stars will give some of them ideas both artistically and philanthropically how to give back to the world. That would be a wonderful thing…

When will the series be widely released for all audiences?
The series airs on HBO Max July 21st.

A huge congratulations to Emily Wachtel and the entire cast/crew of The Last Movie Stars, tune in July 21st to HBO Max when the docuseries airs!

 

 

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3 Responses
  1. Hello! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading through your blog posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same subjects? Thank you so much!|

  2. Donna Sorbello

    A huge thank you to Emily Wachtell!!! I, too, found it unfathomable that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward did not still loom large for everyone; that so quickly there was no longer an awareness of their films, the sincerity of their acting efforts, their fame, and their philanthropy. I hated thatsuddenly they seem to be missing from the world . . .my world. My theatre students do not know who they are!!! Unimaginable to me as I never missed a Paul Newman Film. Through him, I felt the need to see what his wife was in and I came to appreciate her dedication to the purity in seeking what’s honest in the work. (I saw that last play they did together in NY. My much older sister understood that even though I was a kid, Paul Newman was a kind of God to me and got us tickets .College-aged, I saw the actual statue of Michaelangelo’s David and was thrilled that Paul Newman could have been the model for it, from the jaw, to the hair, to the hands. This documentary has revived all my own early yearnings and memories of my first years in New York — the hope, the struggle — the sense of reaching for the art, the process of discovery, of thinking that this acting work was the most important, crucial thing in my life. Years later, I saw them in the audience at Circle In The Square, attending a play directed by their college friend, Nikos Psacharopoulis. Across the arena of seats, they glowed, as if painted by a Renaaisance artist. What inspiration these two are. They never seemed to settle for mediocrity, and if they failed it was not for want of trying for truthfulness. THANK YOU. You were right. These are two people that should not have just drifted off –unforgotten. THey were indeed lucky, but also smart, talented, and thoughtful in creating the life they had. Lastly, the series, from those first images and words, has made me very, very sad. It reminds one of such losses, and even if not immediate friends or relatives, we carry the weight of these losses, these changes.. Seeing them glow so bright and then . . . disappear . . . -evokes a mourning for them and, in ways, for ourselves and our dreams.

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