Times Staff Writer

Zelda Barron could hardly be called an average film maker.

She made her feature-film directorial debut with “Secret Places,” the story of young girls coming of age in a provincial English town during World War II.

She’s directed four rock videos starring Boy George, with plans in the works to do more with the English singer. She also worked in Rio de Janeiro as script supervisor for director Julian Temple on the 50-minute version of Mick Jagger’s “She’s the Boss,” produced by her daughter, Siobhan.

With her keen eye for detail, she’s proved indispensable to a number of directors--Warren Beatty on “Reds,” Barbra Streisand on “Yentl” and Michael Apted on several films, including “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Continental Divide.”


And . . . she’s a grandmother.

“I’ve worked with some starry people, directed rock videos and I’m a grandma. . . . It’s crackers!” she acknowledged with a laugh during an interview. The English amalgam, visiting Los Angeles for the opening of “Places,” chatted amiably about her unusual life as she sat in the spacious kitchen in son (rock video director) Steve Barron’s rented Hollywood Hills home.

To sit with Zelda Barron is to be enveloped in an almost tangible calm radiating from the large, handsome woman. “I have no nerves,” she explained. “I’m not nervous about meeting people, or talking to top people who may be incredibly famous. I don’t lose a wink of sleep about anything.”

If such a statement came from a Hollywood type, it would most certainly be followed by a rundown of the therapies it took to attain such serenity. With Barron, one instinctively feels that she’s always been that way. Her wide-set eyes seem to give it away--at once absorbing and reflecting everything they see with quiet intelligence.


Sometimes they twinkle, as when she told of her first encounter with Beatty.

“I was working in Chicago as a production assistant on ‘Continental Divide,’ ” she recalled. “I walked into the office one day and all the reception desk was agog. I was told ‘Warren Beatty’s called for you,’ then was handed the message slip with trembling hands.”

Barron said she ignored it. “I thought someone was playing tricks. Then I got another call and it was, ‘Warren Beatty here. . . .’ ” She chuckled. “I still thought it was the prop man.”

Beatty wanted her to work with him on “Reds,” having heard about her expertise through Streisand and others.


Barron joked: “When you have a horrible name like Zelda--much as I loathe and despise it--over the years, it was possibly a bit of a help. Everybody remembered it.”

Actually, she described her special talent as “sleeve-tugging.”

“When I worked as a script supervisor (considered a more important job in England than here), I worked with two different kinds of directors--technical and creative.

“Technical directors knew everything about the setup but had no rapport with the actors. When that happened, chaos reigned.”


Barron explained that sometimes performers would ask her for help. “If I was incredibly in sympathy with the actors and felt permitted to make suggestions, I would sleeve-tug.”

It was the same with directors. In both cases, she emphasized, “It was done discreetly--I always did it very quietly. A lot of actors wouldn’t have known that a lot of things they’ve done have been suggestions from me.”

She praised Beatty, who “really gave me so much leeway to work when he was working and acting and directing. It was the same with Barbra. They just needed another eye to watch everything else--and then them.” (Both Beatty and Streisand directed and starred in “Reds” and “Yentl,” respectively.)

Barron said that she had entertained thoughts of one day directing, but explained: “It wasn’t like I went home and kicked the cat at night because I couldn’t direct. I was always modestly pleased when someone suggested it, but it seemed no more feasible to me than being the president of France or America. It would be a nice job to do, but who’s gonna let me?”


It turned out to be longtime friends Ann Skinner and Simon Relph. “We were sitting around one day and they said, ‘Let’s form a company and make our own movies.’ In my usual toadish way, I said, ‘Why not?’ ”

At the same time, she read a review of Janice Elliott’s novel, “Secret Places,” and was intrigued. Her partners set about raising the financing while she wrote the screenplay.

“One day Ann said, ‘Oh, and you’re going to direct it.’ I thought how silly she was to think that anyone was going to let me direct it.”

It wasn’t that Barron couldn’t. “I’m no shrinking violet. I think that if you stand on the floor for dozens and dozens of films and you see great and deplorable acting and great and deplorable idiots directing, you’ve got to learn something or else you’re an absolute lunatic yourself.”


While the three waited for the money to come through, Steve Barron approached his mother with an idea. “He had been asked to direct a video with Boy George, but he was too busy with another project and suggested that I direct.”

She said that she “loved” the experience, but faulted most rock videos for “having hundreds and hundreds of cut-away shots--they’re distracting.”

Although she may well be the only woman director in England, she had no problems on “Places”: “I probably had a better advantage than most directors, since I knew exactly who was the most talented in each field--all the way to the electrician.”

She also knew exactly what she didn’t want to see on film--another dreary, gloomy depiction of England during the war.


“I wanted to use bright colors and props that were 40 years old but looked as if they were purchased yesterday,” explained Barron, who was barely 7 when the war broke out. “People didn’t stop wearing bright colors because there was a war on.”

For the self-professed “sleeve-tugger,” the hardest part of directing was “the hundreds of questions I had to answer each day” as well as the disappearance of her “behind-the-scenes” status.

Given that “Secret Places” was brought in “slightly under budget,” Barron said, “I’m hoping to do more.”

Then she shrugged calmly and smiled, adding, “I’m not wildly ambitious. . . . There’s a funny sort of part of my makeup that doesn’t let me ever get incredibly hopeful or excited about anything.”