Helena Coan on perfecting documentary with ‘Chasing Perfect’
Sometimes the best hidden gems are the fresh ones, like today’s featured filmmaker, Helena Coan. Coan is a London-based writer and director who just got her start in 2016, but has been blowing up since. On the side, she’s also hard at work on her solo music career, with her first single “Baptise” premiering and getting airplay on BBC Radio 1 in the UK.
Getting her start in film archiving, Coan then moved on to work with production company Chocolate Films, helping produce short documentaries for art galleries and museums. Coan’s first narrative short film, Keepsake, premiered just last year at the Underwire Film Festival and scored a nomination for screenwriting.
In 2017, Lionsgate and Salon Pictures approached Coan about directing a documentary about legendary car designer Frank Stephenson. After researching his career, Coan quickly signed onto the project and officially jumped into the freelance director world.
Coan’s first full-length documentary feature Chasing Perfect was produced by Salon and distributed by Lionsgate. The documentary focuses on Stephenson and his mark on the automotive industry.
In the music world, Coan got her start performing as part of Dios Mio, but then ventured off into the solo world. After the success of her debut single “Baptise”, Coan started work on more music during her time off from filmmaking. Both offer great creative outlets for the auteur, allowing her to reach her full potential as an artist.
With a career as long as Stephenson’s, it’s hard to connect his jumps from one project to the next. Yet Coan makes it look natural and adds magic into the history of Stephenson’s car designs. Even a non-gearheads can find the storied career of Stephenson magical thanks to Coan’s touch.
We were lucky enough to speak with Helena Coan about Chasing Perfect and her upcoming projects.
Tell us about Chasing Perfect, how you came to know Frank Stephenson, and what made you want to tell this story.
I met the team at Lionsgate and Salon Pictures in early 2017 just for advice about working in the film industry. I stayed in contact with them and then they approached me later in the year asking if I would be interested in directing a film about Frank. I did some research and was quickly enthralled by what I read. I realised I was dealing with a very special person. We soon met and hit it off – it just felt right.
I wanted to tell this story to celebrate the power of good design, but also because I wanted to give an insight into the creative process of someone I consider to be a pioneer – and because I think designers, especially car designers, are often underappreciated for the work they do.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
After I graduated from university, I worked in a film archive library (Kinolibrary) for a little while, watching and digitising 60s and 70s home movies. I’ve always been super interested in other people’s lives and stories – their motivations, idiosyncrasies and dualities – and seeing the lives of others in a visual format just made me connect with them even more.
Then I worked full time in production for an independent production company called Chocolate Films, after which at 23 I left to make Chasing Perfect, and I’ve been a freelance director for the last 2 years.
Who were your early influences?
The first filmmaker I really fell in love with was Charlie Chaplin: his beautiful writing, the economy of the shots and, of course, his performances. His films were the first I watched when I began to understand why he used certain shots for certain situations and how they created a certain mood. That taught me the basics of what I needed to know about filmmaking – I never went to film school.
Then the filmmakers that I really connected with were Stanley Kubrick, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Werner Herzog, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. I am also a big fan of TV and am obsessed with The Sopranos. There is no one particular style of film I align myself with, which keeps things exciting for me! I also read and wrote a lot as a child. Stories are so important to me – we’d be nothing without them!
How did you find working on Chasing Perfect? What did you learn from the experience?
I learned the importance of being vulnerable. When you want your subject to open up and tell you the truth, you have to do the same. Documentary filmmaking is an emotional process for both the subject and the filmmaker; it’s a place you’re going together.
Also, patience is essential in documentary filmmaking. There will be days when you feel hopeless, like things just aren’t working out the way you want. Let go of that and the seed of the story will reveal itself.
Tell us about your career pre-movies.
Before I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, I was the frontwoman of a band called Dios Mio. I still make music, but as a solo artist now. I love music and it’s a great creative outlet for me. I love making music when I’m not making films!
Where did the concept come from for your current project?
I currently have the honour of directing a film about Audrey Hepburn, someone whom I’ve admired for as long as I can remember – ultimately it’s a love story. I wanted to make a film that shows the power of love and of feminine endurance, which she encapsulates more than any other.
Tell us about your creative process.
I think the most important thing to figure out in the creative process is the essence of what you’re trying to say. I always ask myself, “Why do I want to tell this story?” Then figure out how to tell it. It should never be the other way round.
I am also a very collaborative director; I value other people’s opinions and ideas. As a director, it’s your job to inspire your crew and get them on board with your vision so everyone is committed and will do their part to make the film as good as it can be.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Surround yourself with people who really believe in you and will support you, and do the same for them. Value collaboration; you don’t know all the answers. For young women in the film industry, just be mindful of whose company you keep and whose advice you take.
What’s your next project?
I’m currently directing a feature-length documentary about Audrey Hepburn! I am super, super excited about it. The film tells the story of Hepburn’s remarkable journey from malnourished child estranged from her father and growing up in war-torn Europe, to Hollywood superstar. It tells of her many heartbreaks, concealed by her picture-perfect image, and how she left Hollywood to follow her heart.
A really unique and exciting part of the film is the choreography, overseen by Wayne McGregor CBE, to celebrating Audrey’s love of dance. The film is produced by Salon Pictures, who recently produced the double-BAFTA nominated McQueen and is being distributed by Universal Pictures and Good Deed.
Have you worked with mentors in the past?
I’ve struggled with the mentor-student relationship. I prefer working in collaboration with my peers, learning and growing together. My boyfriend is a musician and filmmaker too, and I have found my relationship with him has been the most fruitful because we are figuring things out together.
What’s the main mission in your filmmaking? What’s the one thing you want your viewers to experience when watching your movies?
I want to tell stories of people who transcend and transform their trauma into something beautiful. That’s exactly what Frank has done in his life, which we trace in Chasing Perfect. I think that’s the most admirable thing a person can do. So I hope people can watch my films and realise that they can do the same – it’s not easy, but it can be done.
What’s your five-year plan?
After my current project, I would like to write and direct a feature-length narrative film, and another feature documentary . . . or two, or three!
What filmmakers should be on our radar?
Charlotte Regan and Thea Gajic. They are two women from London who are the same age as me and are making great work.
What’s your favorite film of all time and what did you learn from it?
My favourite film is The Edukators, because it taught me that all you really need for a good film is a good story.