We all went a little crazy

Filmmaker looks to next adventure

Published: Apr 07 2014, 01:01:am

Sunday, October 7, 1979

    I don't like work — no man   does — but I like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever really know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.
— Joseph Conrad, from
Heart of Darkness (1899)

NEW YORK — In private, Francis Ford Coppola is forthright, expansive, wry and funny. He admits to having fears and problems, many of his own making, "My wife tells me I put myself in these tight spots to justify my own anxiety. ''
    In public, Coppola (pronounced Coe-pole-ah) can be tense and defensive. On the morning following the official press screening of his multimillion-dollar epic Apocalypse Now, he faces a room full of reporters with forced good humour.
    His film is a triumph. The reporters are, for the most part, in awe. And yet Coppola, looking for all the world like a community college social-psychology teacher behind his black beard and glasses, is a bundle of raw nerve endings.
    He finds it difficult to hide his annoyance when asked his opinion of the Vietnam war. "My movie is my opinion," he says emphatically.
     The premiered version ends differently from the work-in-progress print shown at Cannes. What does this mean?
     "That's the end of my movie, guys. Whatever you take away, that's what you take away."
     Coppola is known to have agonized over the film's finale. At least three different versions were tried out. Sneak preview audiences were invited (via a three-page questionnaire) to participate in the shaping of the final film.
    The reporters press him on this point, and Coppola gives way to his anger. "It's offensive to me to come in with a film I've worked on for five years, and find that people are having a controversy about the ending."
    During the picture's long gestation period, Coppala has felt used and abused by the press. The bearpit format of the press conference serves only to magnify the antagonism.
    Outside the crowded room, in a one-to-one conversation, the filmmaker is congenial and relaxed. "Sometimes I think: 'why don't I just make my wine, do some dumbbell movie every two years and take trips to Europe with my wife and kids?'
     "I've had it in terms of going to incredible extremes, half-blowing my personal life, just to make a movie. I'm always going to bed in a cold sweat. 'Will that star do the picture? How am I going to film this scene? Will they like it?' I know that feeling translates itself into your insides. I know I'm losing years off my life."
    Eleven years ago [1978], a few hours before the world premiere of his Finian's Rainbow, Coppola expressed similar feelings to Newsday reporter Joseph Gelmis. "I've come to the point where I just want to get out altogether.
    "I just want to do my own thing,'' he said. "And I may do that. I'm fed up. It takes too much out of you . . . I think a lot of people are jealous of me. Basically, my contemporaries.
    "They say 'well, there he is, 28, 29 years old, he's got a lot of money and he's making movies.' They wouldn't want it.
    "Not much. They want it.
    "They just think I'm living this golden life and they don't realize that I am, really straining and endeavouring to find some honest balance with myself in terms of the work of the future. I'm more interested in the films that I'll make when I'm 40 than I am now. "
     On Saturday, April 7 [1979], Francis Ford Coppola celebrated his 40th birthday. The future is Apocalypse Now.

*   *   *
    No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one's existence — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone . . .
— from Heart of Darkness

    If Coppola's work has any recurring theme, it is aloneness. A visual, visceral director, he is preoccupied with emotionally isolated characters caught up in desperate, dreamlike circumstances.
    In The Rain People (1969), Shirley Knight plays an expectant mother who gets out of bed one morning, gets into her car and sets off across the country. She is an adult runaway. Her journey is an attempt to come to terms with an unbearable emptiness that she feels but can neither understand nor explain.
    In The Conversation (1974), Gene Hackman plays an obsessively private electronic-surveillance expert. When his work draws him into a human involvement, the results are tragic.
    Then there are The Godfather films (1972 and 1975). Coppola has said that they are "about power and the succession of power," but their key images serve to reinforce the theme of aloneness.
    In Godfather II, there is a long, lingering study of the nine-year-old Vito Corleone (Oreste Baldini), an immigrant in an Ellis Island isolation cell. The Godfather ends with a door closing between husband and wife, as Don Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) shuts a bewildered Kay (Diane Keaton) out of his life. The final shot in Godfather II  shows Don Michael frozen in absolute, self-imposed isolation.
    Apocalypse Now is the story of a military assassin (Martin Sheen) who willingly accepts a mission that "does not exist, nor will it ever exist." He sets off on a journey, during which he is keenly aware of his aloneness in an increasingly unreal world.
    There is a paradox here. Francis Ford Coppola describes himself as a "romantic." He asks rhetorically "why are my films so cold?"
    He is almost religiously devoted to the idea of the family. ''I'll make it real for you," he told the young actors on location for Apocalypse Now. "You just be a family.''
    His own family life was something less than the all-American ideal. Born in 1939 in Detroit, Michigan, he is the second son of Carmine and Italia Coppola.
    His father, a symphony flutist, had difficulty keeping a job, with the result that the family was almost constantly on the move, A small, sickly child, Coppola was once bedridden for a year with polio. He had lots of time to be alone with his dreams.
    He went to college (Hofstra) on a drama scholarship, transferring to the UCLA film school on graduation. "I lived on $10 a week, which my father sent me for expenses," he recalls.
    Coppola hustled and hustled hard. To get the feeling of picture-making equipment, he moonlighted making nudie movies. To get some professional screen credits, he went to work for exploitation director Roger Corman.
    During a filmmaking expedition to Ireland, he convinced Corman that he could make a saleable picture. With $20,000 of the producer's money, he wrote and directed his first feature, Dementia 13 (1963). The art director on the project was a young woman named Eleanor Neil, who would, within the year, become Mrs. Francis Ford Coppola.
    Although he could have made a comfortable living writing scripts, Coppola wanted total control over his creations. Gambling that he could actually make it as a writer-director, he produced a fast-paced comedy called You're a Big Boy Now (1967). UCLA decided that it was acceptable as his master's thesis in film, and Warner Brothers was pleased to distribute the picture commercially.
    Coppola's career seemed to be taking off. He was hired to direct a $3.5-million adaptation of the musical Finian's Rainbow (1968). Between that film's completion and its release, he talked the studio into letting him make a $750,000 '"personal film," The Rain People. He took along his assistant from Finian's, a young USC film school graduate named George Lucas.
    Finian's flopped. Fortunately, Coppola still had his reputation as a screenwriter. Warners was willing to put up $400,000 so that Coppola and Lucas could set up American Zoetrope, a San Francisco-based company that promised to make imaginative, low-budget films.
    Zoetrope was a bold, ill-fated experiment. Coppola had hoped to attract a "family'' of young filmmakers, artists with the same combination of hustle, talent and commercial savvy as himself. Like flower power and the summer of love, Zoetrope soon went sour.
    The company's first feature, Lucas's chilly science-fictional THX-1138 (1972), horrified Warners, and the studio withdrew its investment dollars. In need of money, Coppola agreed to direct a ''cheap gangster movie'' for Paramount.
    As it turned out, The Godfather was something more than that. Under Coppola, it became a classic. It was also a family affair.
    By now it is well known that Talia Shire (Connie Corleone in the film) is Coppola's sister. Less well known is the fact that the director's mother, father, daughter and two sons are also seen in the picture.
    Also included were members of Coppola's extended family, actors James Caan (a schoolmate from Hofstra) and Robert Duvall, both of whom appeared in The Rain People.
    Between Godfather projects, Coppola wrote and directed The Conversation, and executive produced  Lucas's American Graffiti (1973). Then came Godfather II which is, among its other achievements, a remarkable example of filial devotion.
    In a scene shot, but not used in the final film, Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) visits a former Italian army gunsmith, now practicing his trade in New York's Little Italy. As the godfather-to-be talks weapons with the old craftsman, we hear music. A small boy, sitting on a stool in a back room, is practicing his flute. The gunsmith introduces Vito to his son, Carmine.
    In April 1976, Carmine Coppola shared (with Nino Rota) an Academy Award for best original score. "After I'd spent a lifetime with a frustrated and often unemployed man who hated anybody who was successful," his son recalls, "to see him get an Oscar . . . it added 20 years to his lifetime." To date [1979], Francis  Ford Coppola has personally collected five Oscars — one for producing and one for directing (both for The Godfather II), and three for screenwriting (Patton; The Godfather; The Godfather II).
*   *   *
    I remember we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts . . . There she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding . . .
    — from Heart of Darkness

    Apocalypse Now began as a low-budget American Zoetrope project. Military buff John Milius worked up an adaptation of Conrad's 1899 tale of colonial Africa, Heart of Darkness. George Lucas planned to film it in 16mm to capture the feeling of a television newscast.
    It remained on the shelf until 1974. Lucas was totally involved with Star Wars, so Coppola decided to rewrite and direct it himself. In 1976, he described his plans to Ms Magazine's Susan Braudy.
    "The jungle will look psychedelic," he told her. "Fluorescent blues, yellows and greens. I mean, the war is essentially a Los Angeles export, like acid rock. Like in Heart of Darkness, Kurtz has gone savage, but there's this greatness in him.
    "We are all as much products of this primitive earth as a tree or native whooping around. The horror that Kurtz talks about is never resolved. As Willard (the assassin sent to "terminate" the renegade Kurtz) goes deeper and deeper into the jungle he realizes that the civilization that has sent him is more savage in many ways than the jungle. I mean, we created that war."
    In March, 1976, production began. In retrospect, Coppola admited to me that "the jungle took over. We all went a little crazy."
        Part of the craziness was an affair that Coppola had, that was revealed in Eleanor Coppola's recently published diary, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now (1979). Despite the strain on their relationship, the Coppolas remain together. Shortly before the film's premiere, Coppola told the New York Times that now "there is no other woman."
    Discussing press reaction to Apocalypse Now, Coppola explains that "I'm a theatre person.'' Traditionally, theatrical properties are shaped in tryout performances. Indeed, Vancouver film people were among those invited (by actress Talia Shire, who made friends in B.C. during the filming of 1979's Prophecy) to the private, rough cut screenings.
    His unorthodox, public approach to post-production, combined with the film's much delayed "official" premiere, left Coppola vulnerable to gossip, speculation and just plain cheap shots. Now, with the picture officially released, that phase is over.
    "I'm done with easy, predictable projects," he says jokingly. "Having gone through that, I think I want to tackle things that will be all the more unorthodox and ambitious. I just couldn't go back to making genre movies, Every new project will be an adventure."
    A deal, involving a $1-million down payment, is now pending. It would give Francis Ford Coppola control of the Hollywood General Studio lot.
    "I want to run a movie studio,'' he says with some relish, "and we're going to have our own.''

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Coppola continues to make movies, his most recent feature being the 2011 thriller Twixt, with Val Kilmer and Bruce Dern. Though none of his 14 subsequent films have  achieved the dizzying prominence of The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, each one has demonstrated the ambition he spoke of in our interview. Wine, or more precisely a winery, has contributed to the balance he has found in his life. In 1975, he used his Godfather earnings to buy a home and adjacent vineyard in California's Napa Valley. His hospitality enterprise prospered, and today includes resorts, a restaurant and lifestyle products. Then there is family. Earlier this year, the Coppolas celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. Immediate family, including his daughter Sofia and sister Talia Shire, had roles in all three Godfather films. (In her own right, Sofia Coppola has become an Oscar-winning writer, and a director nominee.) Roles in three Coppola movies helped his nephew, Nicolas Cage, establish himself as a feature film actor.