FRANCIS COPPOLA GOES BACK TO BASICS
by Alex Simon
Perhaps more than any other filmmaker in history, Francis Coppola has tasted the fruits of phenomenal success, and also suffered the tortures of the damned. After becoming arguably the most successful director of the 1970s with his quartet of films that are regarded as the pinnacle of American filmmaking (The Godfather I & II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now won a cumulative 11 Academy Awards), Coppola’s life in the 1980s was met with a series of professional disappointments and personal tragedy: a series of ambitious films from his Zoetrope Studios were financial and critical disasters. In 1986, his eldest son, Gian-Carlo, was killed in a boating accident.
In the interim, Coppola never stopped working, with more than 30 films to his credit as director, nearly 70 as producer, and 25 as screenwriter (Coppola won a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1970 for Patton). In addition, the Coppola family has joined the ranks of the Fondas and Hustons in the number of talented progeny they have sired over several generations: Coppola’s sister Talia Shire is an Academy-Award nominated actress; his late father Carmine Coppola was an Oscar-winning film composer; daughter Sofia is an Oscar-winning screenwriter and the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Director; and nephew Nicolas Cage (real last name Coppola) is an Oscar-winning actor and has been a renowned international star for nearly 20 years. Son Roman is also a successful filmmaker and producer.
After a ten year hiatus from directing, his last feature being the 1997 John Grisham adaptation of The Rainmaker, Francis Coppola returns to his avant-garde roots that began in the mid-60s with films like You’re a Big Boy Now and The Rain People. Youth Without Youth stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, an elderly Romanian man in 1938 who, just before he is about to commit suicide, is struck by lightning and miraculously survives. Not only does he survive, but he finds that his body has begun aging in reverse, making him a young man again during the rise of Fascism in Europe of the late 1930s. Gifted not only with a second chance at life, but also renewed youth, Dominic finds that he has the rare gift of having the body of a young man, but the wisdom of an aged one. He re-expereinces a first great love affair, and a series of moral choices that dictate the course of his second life. Based on the writings of religious and philosophical scholar Mircea Eliade, Youth Without Youth offers some of the most stunning imagery (equal parts beautiful and repellent) put onto film in recent memory, and refreshingly asks more questions than it answers. Not for every taste, to be sure, and in no danger of being set up for sequel to be helmed by Michael Bay, Francis Coppola seems to have come full-circle with this fascinating, and challenging cinematic work.
I sat down with Mr. Coppola recently, during a short respite before he was off traveling the world once again, this time to Argentina, where he is in pre-production on his next film, Tetro.
This is one of those films that has many different layers to it, both conscious and unconscious. Was it the complexity of the story that drew you to it?
Francis Coppola: Absolutely, but I’m not sure that it’s such a complex story. My feeling was always that, like Hamlet, we all know what’s going on here: a guy’s father is murdered and the guy plots revenge. That’s what Hamlet is on the surface. The story of Youth Without Youth is exotic and certainly a lot of crazy things happen, not unlike an episode of "The Twilight Zone" in some ways, but it’s not difficult to understand what it’s about.
But it’s really more about the subtext than the context.
Well, the subtext is a different story, and what I think is the real fun of it. You can think about it and relate to it in terms of where you are in your own life, maybe see it again at different times in your life and each time it will take on a new meaning. That’s what’s fun for me.
I feel like I might have to see it a couple more times to really feel as though I’ve seen the film.
But I would argue that you didn’t miss any of the story the first time you saw it. What you missed perhaps, were some of the implications, but you’re supposed to miss them. Again, not that this is Hamlet, but you could enjoy that play simply on the level of a murder mystery, and you should. You shouldn’t feel that you can’t enjoy it because it’s somehow over your head. It’s not over your head. It’s over everybody’s head. It’s meant to be a positive thing that the story can always be changing and taking on new meaning for you as your life changes and things take on new meanings. We live in a time of dramatized criminology where we have to have all the clues and have all the questions be answered in sixty minutes, or less. But this is not that kind of a story. Some of the mysteries here have to do with the nature of existence and who could pinpoint that? You could get into a long conversation about why you can’t, and that’s something that I enjoy doing.
This is a return to avant-garde filmmaking for you.
Well, that would be a privilege…
Your early films: You’re a Big Boy Now, and The Rain People were certainly avant-garde, as was The Conversation and Rumble Fish. Plus, if you look throughout your body of work, there are avant-garde elements in virtually all of your films. Obviously it’s an artistic movement which had a profound effect on you. Were those the elements of Youth Without Youth that made you want to step back behind a camera again, after ten years?
Those first three you mentioned were original screenplays, which is what I want to get back to doing. A lot of directors have a hiatus between films, usually about three years, especially if you’re writing your own stuff, because it takes two years to write something. So I don’t think it’s that unusual for a director to be absent for a while, unless you’re talking about someone who’s just a big director, who’s got three or four scripts being developed for him all the time, and he just keeps working because he wants to work every year. In my case, I was searching for what my little niche would be. I didn’t want to be a “big director” directing big, complicated movies with big stars for big studios. You know, the sort of movie that’s going to have a lot of producers and notes, and that kind of thing. You look at a movie today, and you’ve got a dozen producers listed. I also didn’t necessarily want to do a film just because I thought it would be a hit, and make me a lot of money, because I’ve got plenty of money. What I really was looking for was some kind of personal fulfillment, so I was trying to write this ambitious screenplay called Megalopolis, which was about utopia, which sort of got tough after 9/11, and I didn’t know how to deal with that story, which was set in New York, without somehow incorporating the tragedy of the Twin Towers. So I was sort of trapped, and a little depressed, and then ultimately a friend of mine who I had given my script to and was an associate of Eliade, suggested I read some of his work. Because even in Megalopolis, there were a lot of inquiry into the nature of consciousness and time, and she said “You have to read some Eliade,” and when I read Youth Without Youth it was like I had been hit by lightning, and I thought ‘Gee, I could just go off and make this. I could fly off to Romania, use my own money, and the kind of technology that I had done when I was young and made films like The Rain People, and just have all the equipment in a truck and ship it there.’ And although this is a big picture, I approached the production in such a logical way, that I could afford to make it exactly as I wanted to. In the process, I was able to fix this part of my life that was so frustrating.
So in many ways, there were parallels between your own life and that of the Tim Roth character.
Yes, and I realized that. I thought it was good that I was making a movie about something that I was going through at the time. I felt that when I was young, I was catapulted into an old man’s career with The Godfather, which I made when I was about 30. I wanted to be a young filmmaker, but here I was, a big Hollywood filmmaker. So I thought, why not at 67, try to have a young, student filmmaker experience. That’s why I tried to hire young people: my cinematographer was barely 28, and try to make a movie with young eyes.
A few months back, I interviewed William Friedkin, who’s going through the exact same thing in terms of going back to his roots, as are many directors of your generation. His latest film, Bug, primarily takes place on a single set with two characters. Throughout our talk, Billy kept commenting on how if he were in his 20s today, he probably wouldn’t be in the movie business, simply because the kinds of stories that he likes to tell aren’t being funded by studios anymore.
What would he be doing now?
We didn’t get into that, but I know for the past decade he’s been directing operas. So maybe he’d be focusing more on the stage, or on writing.
Well, I think filmmaking is the most exciting art form there is. First of all, it’s young, which means it’s going to continue to evolve, and it also encompasses so many other art forms. What Billy says is certainly true. It’s a tough time because the studios which used to owned by showmen and wacky guys like Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck who really loved movies are now owned by big communications czars who are more interested in the stock price of their companies than they are in movies, so it’s tough. There’s not a big variety of filmmaking happening anymore. Everything has got to be a big-budget blockbuster, because that’s the only way they can support what they’ve got going. I understand that it’s tough to even get a drama made today. But it was always tough, even when Billy and I started.
I think Billy’s point was, and Peter Bogdanovich made this same point when we spoke a few years ago, when you guys started out in the mid-60s, the guys who ran the studios were interested in telling the same stories that you were. Today, that simply isn’t the case.
They’re not even interested in telling stories anymore. They’re just interested in making money, which they always were, but with a difference: if Sam Goldwyn could do a picture like The Best Years of Our Lives, he was proud to do this beautiful drama, and to have it make money. But success today is defined differently, I think. The prize is the big stock price, and the G5 jet, and whatever it is. They’re not show people so much. They’re business people. I mean, Zanuck was a writer for many years, and Warner and Goldwyn had come out of the early days of exhibition, so they were coming at it from a different mind set. Harvey (Weinstein) is like that. Harvey is the most like the old guys: he’s tough and vulgar and it might be a nightmare to work with him, although I never have, but still he loves movies and he wants to have the best movie of the year, every year.
So when your kids Roman and Sofia expressed interest in entering the business, you didn’t discourage them at all?
No, I disagree with Billy on that. I think it’s still the most exciting art form in the world, and I don’t think kids should be discouraged from anything they want to do. I mean, what’s the point of life, to see who dies with the most toys? My answer would be to die with the best memories.
I agree with you, but I don’t think a lot of the power structure of Hollywood does.
No? What about somebody like Mark Cuban? He seems like he likes his toys.
He’s also got good taste. He’s put his name on some interesting pictures.
Yeah, that’s true.
Let’s get back to Youth Without Youth. It’s a picture with an epic scope. Was shooting in Eastern Europe with a crew from that region make it a different experience than shooting in the U.S. with Americans?
The crew was amazing but the primary thing that made it different was the fact that it was a masterpiece of production: because I put up my own money, I was able to eliminate a lot of the waste that comes through banking arrangements and completion bonds and various studio affiliations…you’d be surprised how much creative financing goes on. So the trick was I said ‘We’re going, and they money is there,’ and because of that, we didn’t have to jump through other people’s hoops. And the crews there also work for far less than the crews here. We made it with a 100% Romanian crew, with the exception of hair and makeup because I knew that would be important and I wanted the very best. Those two people for hair and makeup wound up costing me almost as much as the entire rest of the crew! In terms of everything else, it all becomes fewer: the number of people you have to have on-set, the number of people making decisions. It was really wonderful.
Tell us about how you like to work with actors. I’ve been a fan of Tim Roth for years, and he does terrific work in this.
Tim is one of those actors who’s always done good work, but has never had his day in the sun, where they say “Wow! Look at what he can do.” They did it with Nicolas (Cage) finally, after Leaving Las Vegas. And Tim gives a tremendous performance. He had to be 24 and he had to be 94 and every age in between. Plus, he had to have a heartbreaking love story, whereas he’s largely played villains before. Plus, his head is wrapped in gauze during a big chunk of the film, so he’s just acting with his eyes.
You’re known for giving actors a great deal of latitude. Is your philosophy to cast well, and then get out of the way?
Well, it’s more complicated than that. I always do a couple weeks of rehearsal and I have a theory that during the early phase of the movie, one-by-one the actors find their character. Once they find their characters, then they are the person. For example, if I said to you ‘Alex, I want you to go down the hall and slap the press lady,’ and you said “Well, okay. If I have to.” You would do it as Alex would do it. But if you’re Tim Roth and after two or three weeks you’ve arrived at who your character is, whatever I ask you to do, you’re going to do it in character. You’ll know the character better than I do. So in that sense, I do give the actors a lot of leeway because I want the best for them, and I want their characters to come alive. But I do lots of things to put you in the context. I love using props, and laying them on actors, in a way making very narrow the path that you’re going to go through. So if you Alex are going to play Dominic, I’m going to surround you with Dominic props and Dominic stimulus and give you a Dominic labyrinth to go through. So you’ll be acting in a very free way, but you’re also in a route that’s been made for you that can’t miss.
And sometimes you do that on the spur of the moment. I heard that you’re the one who dropped that cat into Brando’s lap during the opening scene of The Godfather to help him get into character.
Yeah, and it was a cat that just happened to be wandering around the soundstage. It helped Marlon to focus. He was talking to the other person in the scene, but he was also focusing on petting and playing with the cat that was on his lap. It put him in the moment.
So do you block during your rehearsals?
No, we do more improvisations and games and odd things that I think of or other things that people suggest that might lead the actor to click into who they are. I’ll tell you a Billy Friedkin story. On The French Connection, Gene Hackman was playing the part of Popeye Doyle. He said in the first few weeks, he had no idea who he was. He said “I put on this funny porkpie hat, and was talking fast…and at one point in the morning, it was cold and I went to craft service and got a cup of coffee and a donut and I dunked the donut in the coffee, took one bite of the donut and then I tossed the donut in the street. Then I heard a voice say ‘That’s him! That’s Popeye.’” And it was Friedkin, who had watched the whole thing. So sometimes, some little moment can give you the key to the entire character.
Now that DVDs have become the new cinematheque, and you’ve recorded commentary tracks for some of your most famous films, is it easier for you to watch your work with some time behind it?
I don’t watch my work, really. Once in a while I’ll be in a hotel room, and I’ll notice they’re playing one of my films on TV. Last I was in Lima, Peru and they were playing Jack, with Robin Williams. And I liked it, and remembered liked working with those kids. When they ask me to do a commentary, they sit me in front of a screen and I usually haven’t seen the film, as with Dracula most recently, and then I just say whatever I think while I’m watching it. Once I finish a film, I’m usually done with it. I’m much more interested in the new one than I am in the old one. Although sometimes it’s a very pleasant experience. One of my films that’s one of my favorites is Rumble Fish, made in the period when I supposedly wasn’t making good movies, but I think Rumble Fish is as good as any movie I’ve ever made.
But oftentimes artists are their own worst critics. I’ve interviewed many filmmakers who have gone back to their work that was excoriated at the time of its release and they think that it’s actually pretty good. I’ve also spoken with others who’ve had the opposite experience.
Yeah, I don’t agree with what a lot of the critics have said about my work. Certainly, The Outsiders would fall under that category and the version we put out on DVD with the extra footage I think is really terrific. Even Jack, which I watched last week, I realize that nobody liked it, but I must say it was a production where I was a director-for-hire, I thought it was a very sweet movie. And Big, which was essentially the same idea, which was my first objection as to why anyone would want to make Jack, with a film as good as Big already out there. I think Big is certainly the better film of the two, because it was the first time that idea was done, and maybe Robin wasn’t the best for that kind of mawkish character. He can be absolutely brilliant, but maybe I let him be a bit too sentimental in Jack. People seemed to resent the fact that a guy like me, who is supposedly a more intellectual, avant-garde filmmaker, would make a film like Jack.
Yeah, that was the reaction that I remembered. When people see a Francis Coppola picture, they’re raising the bar higher than they would for most other filmmakers, and they want something more serious, or at least something that’s perhaps somewhat elevated from the rest of the pack.
But there are all kinds of movies…
I agree with you. But human beings, especially critics and scholars, like to pigeonhole people.
Definitely. And from the artist’s point of view, that can be very frustrating, and hurtful.
I know a lot of your work has been heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realists: Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini. Who are some of your other influences?
I love Fellini’s films, both the pre-La Dolce Vita films, which was a revelation and the films he did after that. I love Kurosawa because he just made so many great films. He was a case where his new film was as great as anything he’d done before. I don’t know how he was able to do it. I loved the French New Wave and Truffaut, and Antonioni, and Rossellini was like the father to them all…Visconti with Rocco and His Brothers…
One of my favorite films.
That’s the kind of movie I’m making in Argentina next. It’s the story of brothers.
I read somewhere that the banquet scene at the end of Visconti’s The Leopard was what influenced the wedding scene at the opening of The Godfather.
No, on the third Godfather I looked at The Leopard a lot, but on the first one, I based it on my family weddings. (laughs) I quite loved Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds which is quite possibly one of the greatest films ever made. I love G.W. Pabst. I love the silent films: Murnau’s Sunrise.
Did you study Murnau’s Nosferatu before doing Dracula?
Not really. I looked much more at Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, which is quite different. Nosferatu is quite obviously the greatest vampire story ever made. I couldn’t get 100% with Bergman, but there are some Bergman films I adore, like Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries…there have been such great movies made in the hundred years of their existence, even in the first thirty years. But G.W. Pabst was always one of my favorites. Eisenstein is another one.
I know you got an early break working for the legendary Roger Corman. What was that like?
It wasn’t so much a break, as it was a real job. I had never worked so hard for such a small amount of money in my life. The thrill of it was, you really were learning the reality of production and how to really get out there and make movies for a little money and how not to waste money. Roger clearly was a businessman. He was a Stanford engineer, a good guy, and he was doing it because he was smart. I treasure the years I worked for him. I started out as his assistant, and he was a wonderful character.
Tell us about the new picture you’re doing in Argentina.
It’s a very personal film made on a similar scale of Youth Without Youth, although not quite as big. I have Matt Dillon, Javier Bardem, Klaus Maria Brandauer. It’s a story of brothers and fathers, sort of like a Greek myth, or so people have told me. A lot of it is taken from my own memories. I’m consciously going into my Tennessee Williams period, which I’ve always wanted to do. I’m praying for the ghost of Elia Kazan to come and occupy me, because there’s no greater director of actors that ever lived.
Yeah, I also think he was one of the great blenders of cinema-verite style realism and pure cinematic filmmaking.
Yeah, he made so many great movies, but look at Baby Doll, and how striking it still is, 50 years later. What’s the one he did with Lee Remick and Andy Griffith about the radio personality?
A Face in the Crowd.
A Face in the Crowd! Splendor in the Grass, which was one of the most heartbreaking love stories you could ever tell.
He was also one of the great discoverers of screen talent. You’ve also always had an eye for discovering new faces.
I’ve been lucky enough to have some wonderful associates. Fred Roos, who helped me with the casting of The Godfather, and we still work together. Listen, it’s such a privilege to be able to make films, and I’m so grateful that I got wealthy through some surprise of fate that allowed me to finance them. Speaking of, Billy could finance his own movies. He’s rich. He should.
Which brings us back to the beginning of our conversation: how so many of the so-called “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls” are returning to their roots as filmmakers.
There’s no question. For so long, there were filmmakers like the late Michael Ritchie, Fielder Cook, Hal Ashby, there was just such a great heritage of filmmakers who were once out there. Now, speaking for myself, I just want to make personal films and the phrase that you keep using, which I’m going to steal, which is “avant-garde” films, that’s what I want to do. I want to make films you haven’t seen before. I’m so tired of going to a movie theater and seeing a story I’ve seen before. Even if it’s an important director like a Michael Mann, they’re clearly in it to be a part of the studio mill. I know there are a lot of my colleagues who feel the same way I do, and want to make personal films. Maybe a lot of them have been married a lot of times, and can’t quite afford to do what I’m doing. If you’re supporting five families, it’s hard to stop making a lot of money. Look at someone like Brian De Palma. He just keeps making movies, and finds ways to get the money from a variety of sources. I wish George Lucas would take some of his fortune now and make some personal art films, because he’s a very talented filmmaker. No one even knows what George is truly capable of.
It seems like he’s focused more on developing the technological side of his business.
It’s this kind of silly blockbuster competition of who has more billions of dollars. But George is a fabulous avant-garde filmmaker, and the day he just walks out there and takes three 16mm cameras…it’s just one of the greatest wastes of talent that he keeps making Star Wars over and over again. Star Wars was a stunning achievement but now, I wish George would show us the other side of him.
It seems like Spielberg is someone who does do that. It’s like a “one for them” and “one for me” philosophy.
Yeah, Spielberg did Empire of the Sun, which was one of the better films of that period and also discovered Christian Bale as a child. Even Munich I thought was the best film of that year. He took some flack for it, but to have the guts to say the unsayable that maybe everyone in that whole conflict is partly to blame, and he tried to do that. I have nothing but admiration for Steven, and for all filmmakers who make personal films. That’s why we got into this in the first place. That’s why we’re here.