Faye Dunaway's biggest battle: Directing a film on Maria Callas

The Oscar-winning actress has struggled for years to finish her film

Despite several setbacks, Faye Dunaway is as determined to direct her first feature film – a biopic on Maria Callas – as she was to become an actress.

“Well that girl from Florida, was an awfully determined girl,” she says about the mindset needed for the daughter of an army officer and housewife to make it in Hollywood. The 72-year-old has had one of the great acting careers. When recently given a lifetime achievement award at the Locarno Film Festival, Chinatown and Network were played in her honour. A host of other films would have been equally good choices: Bonnie and Clyde, The Thomas Crown Affair, Little Big Man, Three Days of the Condor, or even Mommie Dearest.

But trying to direct a movie is proving far more challenging than becoming the darling of New Hollywood Cinema.

In 1997, Dunaway played diva Maria Callas on stage for a year in Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play Master Class. It was great casting given the similarities between the career and personalities of Callas and Dunaway; they were both seen as perfectionists whose run-ins with directors had them castigated as prima donnas. But Dunaway argues: “That woman changed an art form and not many people can say that. Callas is to opera what Fellini is to cinema.”

The play received great reviews, so it was no surprise that a screenplay adaptation was mooted. Dunaway, who made a short film in 2001, has for some time harboured directing ambitions. Watching Warren Beatty originally inspired her to make the transition behind the camera. “When I was first offered the role, I said that I would play it only if I could buy the rights,” she says. “I finally bought the rights as I wanted to own something and pick the team, and sometimes when you pick the team you can make the wrong decisions.”

The production has been a disaster. Originally a release date was announced for 2010, but has been put back so many times that for some time it was believed that the project had been abandoned. There have been lawsuits, “I learned that I can't do everything myself. I never expected to do everything myself. But I never found a producer who didn't cheat me. The first producer committed fraud in Detroit. Luckily I've always had Fred Roos, who works with Francis Ford Coppola, as my guardian angel. It's obviously a daunting task.”

The latest on the Callas project is that, “about three quarters of the film has been shot, we are going to film the rest of it soon”. As to when it will be ready or the next segment will film, she says: “I won't tell you that. I will know more about that in the autumn.”

Dunaway stars as Callas. Liam Dunaway O'Neill, her adopted son from her second marriage to the British photographer Terry O'Neill, plays a student learning the craft of opera. Dunaway has been married and divorced twice and famously had an affair with a married Marcello Mastroianni in the late 1960s. Financing the project has been one of the many obstacles. “I want to do it my way,” she says. “I'm not going to sell it out to a studio. You have to raise money. You have to get private investors and it takes a long time to get it right. It takes 10 years. People hear Faye Dunaway and think she has a lot of money, but I don't because I've spent a lot. Not tonnes. I spent what I want to spend on this movie and you have to have skin in this game. You have to take risks.”

Her preparation for directing has involved making what she describes as a “sweet short film” – The Yellow Bird, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. She has also been watching films by her favourite directors over and over again. “I've seen David Fincher's Zodiac 21 times, always taking notes.” Similar efforts have been made watching works by Martin Scorsese and Ingmar Bergman. On her own acting career, she says, it's pretty much over.

“The reason I turned to this [directing]... one of the reasons... is that acting just takes chunks out of you and, at a certain point, you know how to do it so why repeat yourself. Jane [Fonda] doesn't feel that way, she was always a phenomenal go-getter, getting roles written for her and everything.” While there are fewer roles for the older actress, she says: “There is always television. Sally Field does that with success. I don't want to play those kind of roles. I am more interested in going deep into the craft of acting and making something significant there.”

Looking back on her career, the Roman Catholic convert says that she had a God-given gift to make the right career choices. “That is where I was lucky. My instinct doesn't fail me. Sharon Stone is brilliant and, somehow, after her breakthrough role she made the wrong choices. She's a good friend of mine. I made the right choices.”

Making good calls is also a problem affecting the young actress she feels is the best talent working today. “The best one out there is Lindsay Lohan,” she insists. In addition, she also likes “the red-haired actress that Al Pacino discovered, Jessica...” She struggles to remember the surname of Jessica Chastain.

Dunaway was no stranger to grabbing the wrong sort of media headlines herself. She famously fell out with Roman Polanski during the making of Chinatown. There was even a rumour that she threw urine in his face. In the past, she has walked out of interviews when asked if this incident was true, arguing, “that doesn't deserve the dignity of a response.”

On her run-in with Polanski she says: “[Polanski] is that way [dictatorial]. He knows what he wants and he is collaborative as well, but he has a manner that is off-putting sometimes. We were still in my time used to kindness and to consideration and all that. Roman in a mad moment couldn't get rid of a hair from my face. It offended me, obviously, but it was way too much made out of it. It was only one hair. But I did enjoy working with him, he's a great director.”

The director she felt most akin with is Elia Kazan, who directed Dunaway in The Arrangement in 1969. “He taught me so much. He said one wonderful thing to me because I was alienated from my emotions for a while. I was worried about crying or showing anyone that I was in pain. He said: 'Your emotions make you strong. You don't know that... you think they make you weak. They don't, they make you strong' – and I never forgot that.”

One thing Dunaway would have liked to have done is more comedy, “I was so mad with the director of Supergirl, Jeannot Szwarc. Every time I tried to do something funny, he wouldn't let me. He said, 'you have to be the straight person'. Also, Stanley Kramer did this with me on Oklahoma Crude. He said, 'George [C Scott] is supposed to be the funny one'. I always wanted to do comedy but it's daunting when you've not done it before.”

As for directing, Faye Dunaway refuses to be discouraged.

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