INTERVIEW: Francis Ford Coppola

Posted by · 11:36 am · June 10th, 2009

Francis Ford CoppolaThe words sound like they might be spoken by a young up-and-comer experiencing his first big break, someone fresh off the bus with stars in his eyes and the unbreakable, still unsoiled spirit of art coursing through his veins.

“Here I’ve finished this film and now I can dream up some new adventure that I know I can finance and keep doing that and learning from it and learning how to make movies.”

Except this isn’t a young up-and-comer experiencing his first big break.  This is a filmmaker whose contributions to the cinema have altered the course of the medium.  And only now is he able to do what he really wants to do.

At 70 years old, Francis Ford Coppola is embarking on the career he says he thought he was going to have from the start, back when he was a post-UCLA film student training as an assistant to filmmaker Roger Corman.  When he and colleague George Lucas established American Zoetrope in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, the sky was the limit.  But life had other plans.

“In a sense we never really got it going,” he says.  “We were all there at Zoetrope in San Francisco wanting to make personal films and films that were not usually expensive so they could afford to be more extravagant in ideas and freedom, and yet I was never able to get any money to do ‘The Conversation.’  In the despair of the on-coming poverty I took this job that was offered to me and it turned out to be ‘The Godfather’ and it was like getting hit with a tsunami of success.  I didn’t know that was going to happen to me and that opened up all sorts of possibilities.”

Possibilities that came with fiscal consequences, of course.  The next thing Coppola knew after a wave of creative successes in the 1970s, he was in debt and “had to make a movie every year for 10 years in a row.”

Even though it had been 10 years since “The Rainmaker” when “Youth Without Youth” finally made its way to screens in 2007, that doesn’t mean Coppola wasn’t trying to reboot his career the entire time.  Intense pre-production on an ambitious re-imagining of “Pinocchio” hit the skids when Warner Bros. presented ownership of the project’s rights.  The nasty case played out in Southern California courts in the summer of 1998.  “Megalopolis,” meanwhile, was meant to be Coppola’s futuristic vision of Utopia, but the events of September 11, 2001 put a damper on any such New York-set vision.

“A whole bunch of years went by that were frustrating and costly,” Coppola says.  “Plus the movie business was changing.  It was becoming much more averse to risk, making a bunch of sequels and superhero theme park movies.  So I thought, ‘Who is going to finance a movie along the lines of what I was doing?’  I really began to think, ‘God, I don’t what my place is.  Should I just stop making movies?'”

(from left) Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Youth Without YouthIn his readings Coppola stumbled onto a short story by Mircea Eliade that inspired his screenplay for “Youth” and finally he got back on the saddle.

“I said, ”Well enough of this,'” Coppola says.  “For the money I lost on those two films I could make a whole film.  I’ll just not tell anyone and I’ll run off and use my Roger Corman experience and make a film that I can afford to finance myself.”

So began Coppola’s “young man’s career,” as he calls it now, his second stab at the filmmaking trajectory he was aiming for under Corman’s wing four decades ago.  And the next step in that progression is the multi-hyphenate’s first original feature screenplay since 1983’s “Rumble Fish,” the familial drama “Tetro.”

“I told a story that was heartfelt for me,” Coppola says of his latest.  “The movie is hand-made.  The style I’m attracted to now is a non-moving camera, almost a series of beautiful photographic frames.  The movement and the staging all happens through the structure of the editing.”

Like “Rumble Fish,” “Tetro” is filmed in black and white (“Youth Without Youth” photographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. is back behind the camera).  Coppola offers merely that “it felt right for the story” when asked about the choice, but it becomes clear while talking to him that there may have been a desire to be as simplistic as possible with his imagery.

“Tetro” is, in some ways, Coppola’s most thematically on-the-nose effort to date and might be seen as an intriguing companion piece to the abstract “Rumble Fish.”  The film wears its heart, if not its plot particulars, on its sleeve.

“It could very well be that that was the way I saw it or that was the way I needed to discover it,” Coppola says.  “It all depends on how it strikes you.  The imagery of the film I think of as being beautiful.  The film starts in more simpler terms but as you learn more about the background, obviously there’s some mystery to the family.”

“Tetro” tells the story of a curious young man and his jaded older brother, who’s shared father, and the success that came with his incredibly successful career as a symphonic composer, cast a burdensome shadow on their lives.  It’s an intriguingly inverted representation of Coppola’s father, Carmine, himself a composer.

The cast and crew of Tetro“I grew up in a house with a man who was more wounded and frustrated by his career,” Coppola says.  “My father was pretty much a frustrated musician who dreamed of being a well-known composer and only got to realize that dream after I made ‘The Godfather’ when he was already 60.”

But things aren’t what they seem in the film, and though the narrative of “Tetro” isn’t as compelling as the artistry that goes into conveying that narrative, the film ultimately becomes a fascinating, twisted menagerie of love and angst…certainly not of a piece with that string of projects Coppola took on in those debt-ridden days so many years ago.

From here Coppola will no doubt continue doing exactly what he wants to do.  Without studio directives and financier woes troubling his creative process, he is free to succeed and fail as he pleases.  A few days back I mentioned how such an environment breeds the necessary spirit of novel filmmaking.  From his perch in Northern California, Coppola has had his sights set on that spirit for a long, long time.

“We originally moved there to try and be more independent and yet be close enough to use the resources that were in L.A.,” he says.  “It is refreshing to not live in a place that’s just so dominated by one industry.  In Washington it would be politics.  In L.A. it would be entertainment and movies.  And in New York it would be media and business.  If anything, where I live is dominated by the wine business, but there’s also interests in venture capitalism and Silicon Valley and so forth.

“For me it was a good decision.”

And finally it’s paying off.  Better late than never.

→ 4 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Interviews

4 responses so far

  • 1 6-10-2009 at 1:12 pm

    entertainmenttoday.. said...

    You know I watched him on The View yesterday and was amazed that he admitted to never have watched The Sopronos. Its amazing how the mind works. Here’s a guy who directed The Godfather trilogy but had no interest in watching one of the landmark achievements ( in the same genre) in television history. I don’t get it!


  • 2 6-10-2009 at 1:19 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Had the chance to interview Coppola a few years ago and it was an incredible experience — you just had the feeling you were in the presence of greatness — nice guy, great stories, vast knowledge of cinema — a genuine sadness about him, perhaps over the death of his beloved son — seems to me to be almost Shakespearean in his career, falling from such great heights — had he never directed another film after the seventies he would still be thought of as one of the greats…and today despite some failures, in my book…he is among the greats.

  • 3 6-10-2009 at 8:00 pm

    Adrianna said...

    I love the way he says that his daughter Sofia inspired him and showed him again the way to make little movies. The DVD extras on “Youth Without Youth” show a group of extremely talented and totally engaged artists working in an environment of mutual respect. I love the way they’re all on the same wavelength, especially when it’s such a out of the mainstream wavelength.

  • 4 6-10-2009 at 9:05 pm

    rosengje said...

    This is a great article- I just wish the film was deserving of it. Aside from Alden Ehrenreich and the admittedly beautiful, if stifling, photography I found very little to recommend about the effort. When you describe the last act as a “fascinating, twisted menagerie of love and angst” I just find myself thinking about how contrived the ending felt. I wish the story had stuck to the simplistic techniques mentioned instead of trying to add false depth with twists.