Interview: Iris Apfel, Laura Coxson & Jennifer Ash Rudick on ‘IRIS’

Iris Apfel and Albert Maysels share a moment before filming IRIS. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Iris Apfel and Albert Maysels share a moment before filming IRIS. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Courtney Howard// Film Critic

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In director Albert Maysles’ documentary IRIS, audiences get a glimpse at what makes fashion and interior design icon Iris Apfel so special. Nicknamed “the rare bird of fashion,” she’s been rocking glam outfits on the red carpet for decades. She’s never met a statement necklace or a giant, chunky bracelet she doesn’t like – nor not wear all at the same time. Valuing color and spirit above all, she is an inspiring life force with an equally loveable and colorful husband, Carl, by her side.

When Maysels first approached Apfel, she turned him down.

“I said, “No.” Jennifer [Ash Rudick] started the whole thing.”

Producer Laura Coxson jumps in,

“I wish I could say it was our idea. I’d been at Maysles and Jennifer sent us an email and then we set up a meeting. That’s where the spark started. I don’t know that Iris was completely on board, but I could tell there was a palpable energy between the two of them. There was a feeling of camaraderie from that initial meeting.”

Producers Jennifer Ash Rudick adds,

“Like most people, Iris was hesitant thinking what story do I have to tell. As I got to know Iris better, she’s very unexpected. People think they know her from her pictures and Iris is just so exceptional and normal all at the same time. That’s kind of how Al wants to humanize everyone. It was so clear to everyone that Al would be the perfect person to humanize Iris, because she was a public figure and she is very private. I think she could trust Al. It’s hard to do an honest portrait that isn’t a pat, puff piece. No one walks the line like Al.”

Coxson credits Maysles for ultimately convincing Apfel,

“After meeting Albert, you’d be hard-pressed to say no to him or to not trust. But there was an immediate empathy. I can’t tell you how many people I met with him – from Larry Holmes, the boxer, to other people on different projects that maybe were reticent at first to have him work with them. It took awhile – it is putting yourself in a really vulnerable position and I don’t think it’s an easy decision to make. He really had an energy that was hard to deny.”

Filming IRIS proved to be quite a challenge. Though Apfel concedes she was “completely bound” by her producers, Coxson says filming on a sporadic schedule was dictated by the budget.

“Handling the budget and figuring out the right shoots that made sense. There were a lot of logistics that were involved that were not easy. There were shoots with parties that didn’t work and it’s not what Albert wanted to film. But also Albert’s whole style is to film things as they’re happening. Sometimes if we couldn’t have things as they were happening, like the Met show already happened, maybe we would get Iris talking about it, but also Harold [Koda] talking about it. Trying to arrange situations where we could have Iris talking to someone else so it’s not just an interview. That’s what we strove to do to get those more natural moments that aren’t as staged.”

Rudick mentions as filming went along, more intimate moments emerged.

“As we went along, at first they were more even driven. Iris was very kind and let us in on her schedule. As time went on, they were more intimate shoots in her apartment – in her house. I think those are the more interesting parts. As a subject, you don’t always see where things are going – and we didn’t always know where things were going. She would say, ‘Why would you wanna come to my house and watch me make soup?’ She put a lot of faith in the process. That’s a reoccurring theme for all of us and the film.”

For Coxson, filming was completely different than the previous five films she’d shot.

“This was radically different than any other film. Most films, you hire people that if you don’t make the shoot, they still charge you. Right there, from the budget perspective, we were constantly canceling shoots or finding out about shoots the day before. We didn’t know what we wanted to get. We wanted as much time with Iris as we could get. When you don’t have a huge budget, you can’t just film for three weeks straight. That didn’t make sense for this film anyway.”

Apfel proved to be the filmmakers lucky charm when filming at The Met. Ruddick explains,

“It was also unusual when we were filming, somebody would say, ‘You’ll never get into The Met.’ And it’s shocking where you can go when you have Iris and Al – where you can get permission to shoot. It’s an honor to be shot by Al and people love Iris. That was a nice experience.”

Apfel’s self-confidence is the first thing that disarms anyone that meets her. It’s a quality that she humbly never thinks of.

“I guess I must have always had it but it’s now more so.”

Though it may seem she favors fantasy over reality when it comes to fashion, she’s actually very practical.

“My head’s always been in the clouds and my feet have been on the ground so there’s a big stretch in between. But that’s how it’s always been. I’m very practical. While I love fantasy and all that, I’m very pragmatic.”

Apfel, who’s radiant skin still glows at the age of 93, credits “Cetaphil from the drugstore” and a good “lipstick” as her beauty regimen of choice and doesn’t believe in must-have fashion lists or trends.

“Don’t give a damn about any trends. It’s pointless. Trends come and go – they don’t really matter. If a trend suits you, it’s good. Otherwise, who needs it. Forget about it. Keep what looks good on you and what you’re happy wearing. I can’t stand these columns “The Ten Things You Must Have.” Why?”

Apfel’s business acumen as well as her style are things young women continue to be inspired by. She thinks they need to form their own individual identities first.

“I think they need to know who they are and what they can tolerate and what they can handle – and not just slavishly follow what other people tell them to. You can’t do your own thing unless they have a thing to do, so they have to develop something and learn something. Being yourself is the most important thing – not living in somebody else’s image.”

IRIS is now available to watch on Netflix Instant.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.