Working Hard Is What Women Do: An Interview With The Producers of “Iris”

by Kerensa Cadenas


When Iris Apfel was wheeled into a small meeting room in the Four Seasons Hotel, I was instantly in awe of the lavender-haired 93-year-old force. I wasn’t alone; she left every journalist in the room moony-eyed.

Apfel is all clanking bracelets, multitudes of beads, a brightly patterned jacket topped off with her iconic glasses. Even more impressive than Apfel’s singular style is her sense of humor and utter lack of bullshit. When asked about fashion, her answers, coming from a woman who is solely known to many as a fashion icon, were unexpected: about her skincare regime, she simply said she uses “Cetaphil from the drugstore,” and she will not tolerate trends: “Don’t give a damn about any trends. They are pointless.”

She’s the subject of Iris, directed by the late legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, best known for documentaries such as Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. Apfel’s refreshing IDGAF attitude is what draws us to her; her witticisms are paired with spot-on observations about life. However, much like Apfel herself, Iris is a film that can’t really be easily defined. It’s a fashion documentary filled to the brim with droolworthy outfits and cameos from people like designer Dries van Noten, and it’s also a love story between Iris and her husband Carl Apfel, showcasing the swoony banter and lived-in love between a couple who have been together for 65 years. Above all else, it’s the portrait of a woman whose tireless, inspiring work ethic brought all kinds of experiences into her life. From her early career running a textile company with Carl to gaining international notoriety in her 80s as a fashion icon/business woman/designer/art curator/model/muse/professor, Apfel is the definition of hustle and swagger.

During the press conference, I asked Apfel what motivates her creatively. “Well, I just like to experience different things. If a project comes along and I think I could learn something or I could contribute or for whatever reason, I just do it.”

That idea of just going for what she wants, to me, is the backbone of the film. Apfel’s work ethic reverberates in speaking with the group of phenomenal women who produced Iris — Laura Coxson, Rebekah Maysles and Jennifer Ash Rudick. I spoke to them about the process of making and producing the film, the legacy of Albert Maysles, and the work of women.

Why did you want to make a film about Iris Apfel, and why did she decide to participate?

Laura Coxson: I was working at Maysles Films with Albert and I had worked with him on a couple of projects before. One day we got a cold email from a woman who was friendly with Iris, with this idea for a potential project. That woman was Jennifer [Ash Rudick]. Albert, Iris, Jennifer and I met and really clicked and went for it, not with a clear vision at that moment of what the film could be, just that we all really got along and it seemed fun.

Jennifer Ash Rudick: If you asked what would make Iris a good portrait or interesting, for me, having known her first from her image in newspapers and magazines and then knowing her as a friend — she’s very unexpected. People assume that she has someone answer her door, pay her bills or whatever, but Iris does everything for herself. She’s extremely practical. And while she loves fashion, she’s not a fashionista. She’s just a bundle of contradictions. She’s an incredible inspiration that goes way beyond fashion. I think fashion might be a nice vehicle — a nice backdrop to tell a story of an incredible person.

Laura: From a film side, she was never unnatural in front of the camera, she was very much herself. Even though we really had to push to get closer and more intimate with her — that really took the four years of filming — it never felt unnatural.

You shot for four years, how much footage did you end up with?

Laura: In the end, I think there were 35 shoot days — a couple of the Florida shoot days were really pared down, just a camera person and one of us. And there were a couple of New York shoots and we went to Tampa for HSN. So about 300 hours.

We usually had two cameras. Albert obviously, and one of the second cameras would be Sean [Price Williams] or Nelson [Walker].

You mentioned that when filming began there wasn’t necessarily a story you wanted to tell — was there a point during shooting where it started to gel and you could see what the film was going to become?

Rebekah Maysles: I don’t think until we started editing it. I think it was a project that was made because we all really liked working together, we all really loved Iris, and it was really fun. We knew that there was something there because she’s really interesting and creative but we didn’t really think of it in a structured way.

Laura: I was going to say, we’re all going to have a different answer for this. I really felt something in Tampa. Sean and I met Iris and Jennifer for the HSN show and I just remember swimming with him in the pool, talking about all his footage. They had a great rapport too and I just felt all of a sudden it becoming something in a way it hadn’t before. There was a click in my mind like we were really getting her at work on that shoot and up to that moment we hadn’t really got her doing her thing yet and that was really important to us in the process of the film, showing rather than interviewing or telling. So much of her story is before we met her, so it was the first moment I felt that we really saw her designing and working with HSN. I really got a sense of how in control she is of everything in her life — in a very good way, a very strong way and a very aesthetically clear way.

Jennifer: It’s so funny to hear everyone’s reflections on the process. I mean it might be naiveté, but I never really thought it was a story. I think part of it was my faith in Albert’s process. I just felt like if you film enough, everyone has a story. I felt like as long as we had the footage it would somehow make a beautiful portrait, a little arc of a story. And this ending up being a little bit of a love story about work, passion, engagement — it was all there. When it came to the editing with Paul [Lovelace], and Rebekah sitting by his side, it really bubbled up into a story without much of an arc but a progression.

Laura: Part of the fun is making all the hard work look easy, but it’s really hard! I like that the story isn’t forced — there’s no forced dramatic apex, which I’m not really a fan of anyways.

Rebekah: I think it’s a lot like Iris’s process: she says she just throws things on, but she does take a long time to get ready, really thinks about things and has a system. It’s funny because a few days ago, we were on a panel talking about how much fun we had together, and then I was thinking the time we took her shopping and it was torture. She’s a really good shopper but she has a technique and it’s about wearing people down and figuring out how to bargain.It’s amazing but we were there for like five hours.

Laura: I think she would make a really good editor. She didn’t really understand the process but in some ways the way she works is really similar to how the film works.

It seems like Iris’s work ethic really influenced the fabric of this film. Did this influence the energy on set while you were filming, being influenced by her and by each other? Having three women producers on a film is fantastic.

Laura: It is fantastic! And our executive producer is also a woman. Albert loves women. There was a lot of trust, not a lot of ego in any of us. I think there’s a lot of faith. Albert hated the title of director, hated to see himself in that way. It’s not like a Hollywood film. His films really are films that are by himself, the editor, the producer — he’s very collaborative. Whether you are the sound person or the production assistant, everyone is involved. Iris was aware of this in a lot of ways — making sure everyone ate. There was a camaraderie.

Jennifer: Iris really enjoys seeing the process unfold. If there are too many trappings or too much glitz, like some of the commercials she’s done, she’ll say “it’s fine! It was a fun day!” But she really prefers to be right in on it like this crew does. She likes to know the cameraman, to know everybody. I think it really suited her and Al for sure. I didn’t have any film background, and to be able to go along on all of this and for them to feel like I had anything to offer is really rare. If I had gone to any other production company, I’m pretty sure they would have told me, “Sorry, you don’t know anything about film.”

Since this was Jennifer’s first film experience, Laura and Rebekah, was this a different experience from other films you’ve worked on?

Jennifer: It was all new to me. I do write for magazines and newspapers, so telling a story and having faith in the process was all the same stuff, but film is so different, so wonderful. It was much more experiential and more of a shared experience, so I would say that I fell in love with it. But I know this is a super rare situation.

Laura: For me, this was my 4th or 5th [project] at Maysles Film, but I had done a little bit of freelancing too. I had an idea of how different the experience of [working with] Maysles really is. It’s special, it’s intimate, it’s communal. I’ve produced a lot of things, but never to this degree or this much responsibility or excitement. It really was my baby. Albert loved the project, but I really wanted this to happen. It feels like my first production even though it’s not; for me it made me really excited about the possibilities and learning about what producing means to me.

Rebekah: I come from a little bit of a different background because I’ve always been involved in Maysles the past 20 years. And I’m just a person who figures out how to make things function and to make sure the roof doesn’t cave in, so this is my first experience in that way. I learned a lot from it and thought it was a really interesting process. It’s a hell of a lot of work, and if I think about what a producer does, I think it’s what a lot of women do all the time. It’s basically making sure everything gets done. Making sure that people get fed.

How do you think that Iris continues Albert’s legacy?

Laura: It comes up a lot with Grey Gardens, but it really is the rapport, the collaboration, the sense that the subject is part of the filmmaking process and not just the lens view. You feel Albert on the other side of the camera and almost as much as you feel the person who is the subject. He didn’t care if people were famous — he really just wanted to get as close as possible. I think in this film we get as close as we possibly could with her.

Rebekah: I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy now, as I run Maysles Films. And it’s him — it was him and his brother when they were working and continued that. I just think what’s really beautiful about Iris — is that it is about these two spirits and I don’t know how you figure out how to continue that to be honest. There’s this really beautiful understanding that I think is really rare.

Jennifer: I think Al always wanted to humanize people whether they were famous or not famous. People have assumptions about other people. Al just wanted to humanize them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kerensa Cadenas is a writer based in Los Angeles. She always wants to talk about weird snacks, Drake and, if she’s being honest with herself, the emotional truth telling of Taylor Swift.