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Q&A with Paris: The Luminous Years Filmmaker Perry Miller Adato

By Michelle Michalos
Friday, December 10th, 2010
  • comments (11)

Perry Miller Adato

Inside Thirteen recently had the opportunity to sit down with veteran filmmaker Perry Miller Adato, whose successful documentary film career spans nearly six decades.

Among her most successful films are Dylan Thomas: The World I Breathe and Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me, for which she won an Emmy Award and two Emmy nominations, respectively.

In her latest film, Paris: The Luminous Years, Adato explores the unique time from 1905 to 1930 in which gifted artists (such as Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, and Gertrude Stein, among others) settled in Paris and revolutionized the modern arts.

Paris: The Luminous Years premieres Wednesday, December 15 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Inside Thirteen: What first interested you in making Paris: The Luminous Years?

Perry Miller Adato: I have wanted to make Paris: The Luminous Years for 30 years; actually, it’s a little more than 30 years.  What happened was, I’ve made five films in Paris, and I made a film, which is still my favorite film – Gertrude Stein: When This You See, Remember Me. That was on the air in December 1970.  At that time I began to find out in doing my research for the film, all these artists who were in Paris.

Then, in 1980, I was interested in doing a film because the Museum of Modern Art was doing an exhibit on the work of Pablo Picasso.  I got all the cooperation in the world from the museum.  I worked a year on that film [Picasso: A Painter's Diary], and I had, for the first time, unlimited money to get incredible research and books and pictures from Paris, and I began to find out – all these people from every country, how many people were in Paris all at the same time!  It turns out that from 1905-1930, I would say that anybody who did anything which is important in any of the arts at that time were there.  It was the place to be.  As Gertrude Stein said, “We all came to Paris  – it was where we had to be.”  It was the first really international avant-garde in history.  It was the beginnings of modern art – the center of the storm was Paris.  Artists all over Europe knew what was happening in Paris, and they wanted to be there.  For however long they were there, it changed their life and it changed their work.

IT: Is there anything that this diverse group of artists had in common?

PMA: I think what they had in common was the feeling, that this was the 20th century, and the world had changed so much that suddenly even recent art, like Impressionism, seemed obsolete.  We needed forms that expressed the new, modern world.  That’s what they had in common.  They were exposed to all the new things that were going on in Paris and this affected how Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, and others wrote.  It was in the air.  Innovation and experimenting with new forms – Paris was a laboratory for trying new things.  Paris not only allowed you to do something new and astonishing, but demanded that you do.  You felt that you had to do something new, because that was the new world.

IT: What was the hardest part of making this film?

PMA: No question about it – it’s cutting it down to size.  There was so much marvelous material that I couldn’t use.  If you’re going to do a film about two hours long, you have a rough cut of three hours.  The whole time, there was this pressure – “Perry, how long is the film now?” my executive producer would say.  The things that you have to give up, that’s the most difficult thing.  And then a few things that I couldn’t get that I was unhappy about. Some things you just can’t clear.  But, on the whole, we were very lucky.  One of the exceptional things about the film is the footage that we have of all these people while they were alive.  I wish that I had time to use more – I mean there are people that should be in the film, but you had to make choices.  When I started working on the script, I knew that I could not do everything.  I handled it by thinking about who were key people in that period – the most influential.

IT: You have had a long and successful documentary film career.  What keeps you motivated?

I don’t have just a general urge to make films – there’s a film that you want to make. In this case, I wanted to make a film about Paris in that period.  Sometimes it’s your passion, and sometimes somebody comes to you and says, “we would like a film on such and such.”

IT: Are there any topics or people you still would like to cover that you have not yet?

PMA: I always wanted to do a film on Cézanne.  Not a very original subject, but I always felt that was a great story there.  It’s always the story that you have to look for – what is the story?  What is the struggle?  Before you can do a film, you have to find that out.

  • ilene karp

    I have always been interested in the expatriats in Paris and the other artists who lived in the era of the documentary. I am anxious to see it this week on PBS. As a former English teacher, I like the connection of writers and painters/sculptors of the day. Thank you for making the documentary as a follow up to your Gertrude Stein piece.

  • Dr. Lana Elizabeth Hamon

    I am most interested in your documentary, not only as a French teacher but also as a former American in Paris for nearly twelve sparkling years. It will be a treat for me to share it with my students who, unsurprisingly, hunger for compelling films on the City of Light.

  • Tony Paris (joe derosa)

    My dream growing up in NYC was to one day go to Paris and study the people who were in the creative arts. I was to be The American writer of the 1950′s in Paris. my nom de pluom was to be Tony Paris.
    Sorry but the dream never materiakized, But my Heart will always the Paris of my imagination.

  • Alex M.

    My question for Perry is why did she leave the American Expat focus to the end. Also, why did she gloss over the musical history of the period? Where is Antheil? Where is a serious discussion about Ezra Pound? I felt the documentary did not truly explore this era, it did a college art, music and literary class review of the time. I wanted to learn more and I got a lot of the same.

  • Harold Mayer

    Dear Perry, Lynne and I just saw your film. Bravo! It’s great. I hope this message gets to you. I’d love to hear from you.

  • Harold Mayer

    Dear Perry, Lynne and i just saw your film. It’s great. I hope this message gets to you,. I’d love to hear from you. Harold

  • Richard Fink

    I liked the content of the program which included everyone who impacted on the arts for the next 50 years in the arts. One major suggestion for editing is add the names to the screen of the people on the screen at the time. This is for people with hearing disability.
    Great job nevertheless

  • Max Gysi

    Hi Perry, thanks so much for a great documentary on Paris. Sadly, PBS.org doesn’t seem to have a companion Web site for the documentary to point viewers towards other material on Paris and its cultural glory years. I’m off to see if you have a Web page that fills this gap…

    Thanks again!

  • Paul Bonsey

    Hi Ms Perry
    I’d like to know more about the woman in your documentry with the “f” holes tatooed on her back
    Can you help me

  • Michael Ambrosino


    Another great document in the arts and done with intelligence and grace. Thank you for a career full of wonder and delight.


  • carole resnick

    Please!!!I know I should recognise this-but what is that lovely,melancholy tune playing during the introduction of Paris-The Illuminous Years?