Francis Ford Coppola is one of the undisputed masters of cinema,masters of cinema, screenwriter of “Patton,” auteur of “The Godfather” movies, “Apocalypse Now,” “Tucker,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” masterpieces married to commercial motion pictures, with the Oscars and “Greatest Film of All Time” listings to prove it.
A friend who crashed a party at a Brooklyn warehouse Coppola owned some years back related the story that the Old Master sat, drinking wine and shrugging, “I’m finished,” to anybody who cared to ask.
So when a boutique studio nabbed his “Tetro” a few years back, I tracked him down for an interview. I was dazzled by how curious he still was about movie-making, trying new things, and impressed by how he shrugs off failure (“Tetro,” an experiment, didn’t come off, I thought).
He tried running a studio. He was a breakthrough digital filmmaker (“One from the Heart”). He makes wine. He’s dabbled in opera, TV. He’s predicted the future of film, at various times, with varying degrees of success. He teaches workshops at any college lucky enough to have him.
Now he’s written a book — “Live Cinema and its Techniques” — about his efforts to marry his myriad storytelling passions — the “live” impact of theater and teleplays produced “live.”
It’s a lively read, a plea for embracing new tech and applying it to filmed storytelling techniques that were perfected during the 1950s, the era of “live” TV drama, which Coppola worships. He workshopped and shot a couple of short films, whose scripts and notes and production diaries he includes in the book.
He suggests that sports TV technology, and increasingly image-perfect digital cameras, make the idea of performing a movie (it’s actually TV, but let him have that) “live,” shooting it in order, with the odd pre-produced bit, in 90 minutes to two hours.
With 8K cameras capturing the action on the set, most of them hidden, establishing shots can be grabbed, and from them, the bytes of data compromising a smaller part of the screen blown up to allow a filmmaker to cut to close-ups from the same shot from the same lens of the same camera.
There’s a little history in the book, about film’s early days, TV’s invention, the folding modular stage sets of experimental theater, the joys of “little imperfections” that you see every week on “Saturday Night Live” (adds excitement to the viewing experience).
And there are anecdotes, little ways Coppola learned to make the limited rehearsals usually given to film production more like theater. He hit on an idea making “The Godfather,” inviting the cast to an introductory dinner, where he seated them in the pecking order of their characters. He discovered that getting actors to make a meal together, improvising in character, made the sense memory stronger and the connection between actor and character stronger.
“Live Cinema” is a quick read, a fun book and thought-provoking. Like many an old master, Coppola’s become more impressionistic as he grows older — bold strokes, not fretting over perfection or exactitude, impatient to do something quickly, with the heat of inspiration spilling over cast and crew.
It has been 10 years since the great Francis Ford Coppola made a movie, 10 years since we’ve read stories about him battling the elements, the studios, the banks, his actors and himself as he finished another project, almost always against long odds. But don’t think that the director of The Godfather movies and A pocalypse Now was out of practice, just because he was running his acclaimed winery, his literary magazine or opening luxury resorts in Belize and Guatemala.
“It’s all show business,” he says. “Whether it’s building a resort, launching a new wine or winery or making a movie. A wine is much more than a beverage and a bottle with a label on it. It’s a story, a history, a myth. . . . At a resort, you’re serving an audience. You’re conscious of their pleasure, how they react to your show.
“So was I out of practice putting on a show, making a thousand decisions a day, which is what a director does? No.”
But if there’s a message to his “comeback” film, his intimate and self-financed drama Youth Without Youth, he was somewhat “over” the whole Hollywood style of filmmaking, the big-budget “event” movies that made him rich and famous. Coppola, 68, has been making “retirement” noises since at least the late 1980s, according to Michael Schumacher, his biographer. Documentary filmmaker Stephen Earnhart (Mule Skinner Blues) recalled crashing a 2001 party for a Coppola family business just to be near the legendary director, only to hear him tell one and all, “I’m finished,” over and over again.
“I’d made movies, back-to-back-to-back, just to pay down my debts,” Coppla says of a 1990s run that included his underrated John Grisham adaptation The Rainmaker, but also the critically derided Jack and a splashy version of Dracula. “I lost a lot of my swagger doing that,” he says.
Once a rebel, now a classic
That swagger once made Coppola legendary, especially among aspiring filmmakers. Here was a creative force, a perpetual rebel, fighting the Hollywood system, risking everything including his own health and fortune, to get his movies made.
Today, film students see him as “a classic filmmaker, not someone particularly relevant now,” says Barry Sandler, who teaches screenwriting at the University of Central Florida.
Sandler’s UCF Film School colleague Rich Grula agrees, noting that students today “don’t really understand the maverick part of Coppola. To most of them, he’s as much a part of the establishment as Michael Bay.”
Younger and aspiring filmmakers today grew up in the years of Coppola’s work-for-hire, get-out-of-debt films. He escaped that debt. And something about his last film (The Rainmaker) reminded him of why he became a “maverick” in the first place. He wanted to cast an actor he considers “one of the three greatest actors of his generation” for the lead. He couldn’t.
“They said, ‘No, you can’t use Johnny Depp in it. He’s not a big enough star,’ ” Coppola recalls of that 1997 film. “I’ll never forget the expression on Johnny’s face when I had to tell him that. A great actor, and now he’s a huge star. But when I said, ‘Listen, they absolutely forbid me to cast you in this,’ he said, ‘But we thought you were a god!’ ”
Coppola lets out a rueful laugh.
“A lot of people think that being a name director, you do absolutely what you want to do and only what you want to do. Maybe Steven Spielberg‘s earned that right with his extraordinary career. But he would be the only one who has that type of power.”
‘A student film director again’
Hollywood, Coppola could see, wanted “name” directors to do “sure-fire projects that you can’t lose money on,” he says. “That rules out drama, which is what I do. Sequels, superhero comic book, outrageous comedies. I’m not known for that.”
He had spent years trying to wrestle a science fiction film about a Utopian New York of the future, Megalopolis, “but I said, ‘Even if I lick this, who’s going to finance it? Am I going to have to go back to begging actors again?’ ”
The filmmaker who attached “Francis Ford Coppola Presents” to everything from films to wines and vacations decided instead to become “a personal film director, making the sorts of movies I wanted to make when I was 18, seeing all those great personal films coming from Italy, Japan and Sweden. When I read this [Mircea Eliade] story, I enjoyed it so much, it was so full of ideas and yet a very simple fable about an old man who becomes young again, that I said ‘I’m going to do what the character does. I’m going off and starting over. I’m going to become a student film director again.’
“Went off to Romania, used my own money to film it. Why not?”
Youth Without Youth is an allegorical tale of an old man of letters (Tim Roth) in 1938 Bucharest who is struck by lightning, which causes him to become young again. He recaptures the great love of his youth but finds that he must make the same hard choices, between love and his life’s work (the origins of human language). Even with the wisdom of age, those choices are not any easier. The film opens in much of the country this month, and in Orlando on Feb. 15.
Youth is a film Coppola has spent the past few months finessing in the press, lowering expectations, because “not everything about it you’ll understand in one sitting.” Early reviews have been deferential to his legend, if not to his modestly budgeted film, with most reviews echoing Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Daily News: “Too passionately well-crafted in places to dismiss outright.”
It’s still “a renaissance, for me,” Coppola says. He has his next modest-budget production lined up, a drama called Tetro that he’ll shoot in Argentina later this year. And the reputation won’t suffer, even with the occasional ambitious late-career misstep. He’s still “putting on a show,” something very much evident in the documentary about making Youth Without Youth, a special feature on the new DVD release of 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, about his epic struggles making Apocalypse Now.
“I looked at my wife’s final cut [Eleanor Coppola films him on the sets of his movies] of that new documentary, and I say, ‘It’s too boring. Here we are, going through hell in the Philippines making Apocalypse, and you follow that with a film with us sitting on the set in Romania, talking about the meaning of life, singing.’ ”
The eternal showman knew how to fix that.
“They went back and stuck in this bit about me having a tantrum about wasting money on all these extra Romanian trucks on the set that we didn’t need and I’m paying rent on. Not totally on the level, but after all the drama it took to make my other movies, well, they needed something.”
He laughs. His reputation for excess, for “bigness,” precedes him, even if he’s not the same Francis Ford Coppola he once was.
“I go to places like Romania, and I have to apologize to the crew people there, because they think I’m making something much bigger than the film we’re shooting, simply because of what I’ve done in the past,” he says. “I love that people love The Godfather. But do I need permission to do these smaller, more personal things? I don’t think so.
“It’s all part of the show, really. From now on, if this movie or that one doesn’t entertain enough people, isn’t a hit, I’m the one solely responsible. It’s my money. But look at it this way. Every time you buy a ticket, or you’re staying at one of my resorts, buying a bottle of my wine, you’re signing on as my producer. I like that.”