Francis Ford Coppola hardly needs an introduction. A godfather himself of American film, Coppola is a director, producer, screenwriter, and the force behind legendary films such as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and my personal favorite, The Conversation. He founded American Zoetrope, an independent film studio in San Francisco, Zoetrope: All-Story literary magazine, a booming winery, and even a hotel business. He has won more awards than he can hold. But when I sat down with him for what turned out to be a five-hour conversation that continued into a lovely dinner, what impressed me most was how humble and open he was. It was as if he would have answered any question I proposed, no matter how personal. I was less interested in asking questions about his films and working with Brando, though, than I was in discovering Coppola the artist.
Rumpus: Your newest film TWIXT is based on a dream. Can you describe the dream for us?
Coppola: Well I went out one night with these two sister lawyers and had Turkish raki. I had an alcohol-induced dream that was very vivid. I was in a frightening, mysterious forest and I saw a young girl walking with me. We began to speak and she asked me if I was frightened of her. We approached a sort of hotel with some odd people there, and when I entered they said that I was stepping on the “grave.” I tried not to step on it but they said it was all right, that the whole floor was the grave, filled with murdered children. Then I saw the children stepping out of the grave and playing in the moonlight as if it were sunshine. A man who was caring for them hurried them back into the grave and as I left, I ran into Edgar Allan Poe. I asked him to guide me and he bode that I follow him, and as I did I was awoken by the call to prayer coming out of my open window in Istanbul, where I was dreaming. It was great. I was getting a whole movie for free, but the end didn’t come to me in the dream. I had to figure that out myself. A movie is like answering a question.
Rumpus: Part of TWIXT appears in 3-D – what informed your choice to do that? I also saw that at Comic-Con, the 3-D glasses you handed out were embedded in Edgar Allan Poe masks, which is amazing.
Coppola: At the time of making TWIXT, there was much talk that the future of cinema was moving toward being in all 3-D. I felt that with glasses it was uncomfortable to watch a whole film in 3-D, and I preferred that only certain sections be in that format, which is what I did with TWIXT.
Rumpus: When you talk about writers who influence your work, you mention Poe and Hawthorne for this film. But what else influenced it?
Coppola: Well when I was writing this film, I reread a lot of Flaubert. I’m interested in what breaks your heart, like when there’s opposing loyalties. Take War and Peace. I always respond to novels with a heroine. If your work doesn’t have a heroine then it has to be about war. I only like novels that are about women. Natasha in War and Peace gets in such a pickle and that torn loyalty pulls at me. Torn loyalty is the theme that moves me the most. I always loved books that tear you apart. Loving two people is the world’s worst thing. That’s a killer. Better to have five women in your life than two. James Goldsmith made a great statement once: “Never marry your mistress because then you create a job vacancy.”
Rumpus: Is TWIXT being received differently here than abroad?
Coppola: It was received very positively by the French. But the French are the French – they love movies. They look at a movie differently. In America, even the critics – which is a pity – tend to genre-ize things. They have a hard time when genres get mixed. They want to categorize things. That’s why I love Wes Anderson’s films and the Coen Brothers, because you don’t know what you’re going to get, and very often you get something that you don’t expect and that’s just what a genre’s not supposed to do.
Rumpus: I wonder if that informs their decision to make films that play with genre?
Coppola: Like Burn After Reading. That movie is totally off the wall. Brad Pitt was just amazing in that film. When I go to the movies I like to come away and say, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” That’s my highest praise.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s a danger in teaching writing – formulaic scripts?
Coppola: Dramatic structure and theater plays are thousands of years old. It’s amazing how much dramatic structure is influenced by the Greeks. The novel’s only a few hundreds of years old, but in the novel there’s still so much room for invention. That’s why I was annoyed when they were saying the big thing for movies now is going to be 3-D. The cinema’s only a hundred years old, you don’t think that even in the writing of the film there’s so much left to accomplish?
Rumpus: How do you feel about adaptations?
Coppola: I don’t feel that books should become movies. I feel that movies should be written fresh and new. They should also never make remakes. With all the money and effort you should at least try to give something to the world that’s uniquely for cinema and not adapted from a book. Also, the short story does much better in translation to film than a novel. It’s already in the right shape and size. A movie is like writing a haiku. You have to be so pared down. Everything has to be so loaded and economic.
Rumpus: How do you deal with criticism?
Coppola: Reading reviews is like pulling on a sore tooth. Sofia [Coppola] doesn’t read reviews. She makes a personal style of film that doesn’t fit in all the time. As with everyone there’s people who love them and those who hate them. What filmmaker doesn’t have detractors or the five films people hate? In the end it’s totally irrelevant. We live in this strange world of this Internet – it’s a little bit like people in traffic honking their horn. The only thing about the Internet is that the decorum and the politeness really hasn’t been worked out yet. You can say anything you want and there’s no accountability. I’d like a little bit of politeness. To be a human being.
Rumpus: What’s your personal code of ethics?
Coppola: I have a couple rules in my life. The first is never to lie. I was impressed by a line, I think it’s Joseph Conrad: “Nothing is more repugnant than the stench of lie.” Lying always leads to a pyramid of lying, and after a while you don’t know where the lie was yourself. But if you have a rule never to lie, you can never get caught in a lie. If someone asks you if they’re beautiful and they’re ugly, you can always just say that it’s an inappropriate question to ask. I always taught my kids good character building things.
The second [rule] is when you take a piece of paper out to always put the date in the corner, because some day in the future that date might help you track something down. A lot of times you write something down, you don’t think there’s going to be any value to them. Like today I’d write 8.9.12 and here I would put SF or, even further, the penthouse of the building. Very often the scrap you write down turns out to be of value to you and if you have the date, at least you have the lead of where you were and when it was and it’s such an easy habit to get used to. Sometimes that scribbled thing turns out to be a great piece of what you’re working on.
Rumpus: Of all your work, what do you feel the most personal connection to?
Coppola: In my earlier career I liked The Rain People, because that was my first film where I got to do what I wanted to do. I was young; I wrote the story based on something that I had witnessed. Few people know that film. It’s about a young wife who loves her husband but doesn’t want to be a wife, and one day gets in her station wagon and leaves a note with his breakfast and takes off. In a way it preceded the women’s movement. It’s curious for a guy like me to do. Then I made The Conversation, which was an original as well. That’s what I wanted to be doing. The Godfather was an accident. I was broke and we needed the money. We had no way to keep American Zoetrope going. I had no idea it was going to be that successful. It was awful to work on, and then my career took off and I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be.
Rumpus: What did you want to be?
Coppola: I wanted to be a guy who made films like The Rain People and The Conversation. I didn’t want to be a big Hollywood movie director.
Rumpus: What was your reaction to suddenly having all this fame?
Coppola: Well, it was the first time I had any money. I was always a starving student and money was always a big problem. Suddenly I had all this money. I bought this building, and I bought a nice house. I didn’t want to ever do a second Godfather. I was so oppressed during The Godfather by the studio that when Mr. Big, who owned the whole conglomerate, said, “What do we have to do to get you to do it?” I had suggested that I would supervise it and pick a director to do the second Godfather. I don’t know why there should be a second Godfather. It’s a drama, it’s the end, it’s over. It’s not a serial. When I went back and told them I had chosen Marty Scorsese to do it they said absolutely not. Finally I told them I’d do it, but I didn’t want any of those guys to have anything to do with it. To see it, to hear the soundtrack, the casting, their ideas, nothing. So I made Godfather 2 because I’d always been thinking about trying to write something about a father and son at the same age, two stories juxtaposed. I had total control and it was a pleasure, I must say. I did that and won all these Oscars and had all this success for doing that.
Then when I wanted to do Apocalypse Now, no one would do it. I couldn’t believe it. I was so disgruntled that I had played by their rules and won, yet they still didn’t want to make it. So I just went on myself, and took all the money and property I had, went to the bank, and made Apocalypse Now myself. When it came out it was very dicey. People didn’t know what to make of it; it got bad reviews. My films have always gotten a lot of bad reviews. I was very scared that I was going to be wiped out because the Chase Manhattan Bank had all my stuff. I decided I would make a movie that would be very commercial. Every time I’ve tried to do something commercial it’s always failed. So I made One From The Heart.
And what happened was that Apocalypse Now, little by little, started to be a big success and thought of as a classic, a great movie. But by then I was already making One From The Heart and that was a big flop and I lost everything. So from age forty to age fifty I just had to pay the Chase Manhattan Bank all that money, and I just barely ended up holding onto everything. So ironically, the thing I did to solve the problem ended up causing a problem. All this takes a big emotional toll. It took ten years of making a movie every year to pay off the bank.
Rumpus: Was that depressing?
Coppola: Yeah. I wanted to be making other kinds of movies. When you do movies like that for hire, you’re a prostitute. If you’re a prostitute you’ve got to find something about the client to enjoy. Nice eyes, a sense of humor, nice hair. You have to do that with the movies. You have to find something to fall in love with because it’s a process you can’t do without loving it. Every year I had to go get a job to pay off the bank.
Rumpus: When you returned, you developed a new set of rules for your filmmaking process – that they be based on your own original screenplays, involve a personal component, and be self-financed. How did you arrive at this set of rules and what have been its challenges and rewards?
Coppola: I wanted a clean slate so I decided to embark on a series of “student films” for myself to begin anew. I thought, “How do you be like a student?” Easy, you have no money. If you have no money to pay for everything, that’s when things get interesting. The films I make now have to be inexpensive enough that I can finance them myself. This was how I made a new beginning for myself. There’s a scene in a Kurosawa movie where they get this guy, and they practically kill him, and he’s in a box. He just has this knife, and these leaves are blowing, and he throws the knife and tries to get the knife to go through a leaf, and that’s how he builds himself up. I had to do that: be broken in a box and have a second life. To do that I needed to be a student. I thought I should try to make movies with nothing. No money, just whatever I have. So I made Youth without Youth, then Tetro, which was very personal, then this wacky film TWIXT. I really wanted to make this last film to have fun, but even that got personal.
Rumpus: What was your life like growing up?
Coppola: I didn’t grow up with anyone. I lived in a different place every six months. I went to 24 schools before college.
Rumpus: How did that affect you? Your social skills?
Coppola: I didn’t do well in school. I have no social skills. I didn’t have any friends. First of all, I was always the new kid. Second of all, my name is Francis, which was a girl’s name. And also there was a famous series of movies called Francis the Talking Mule, the predecessor to Mr. Ed. I got picked on but I had one thing on my side: I could beat them up. I didn’t lose any fights. I didn’t go looking for them, either, but I could always get them in a headlock and win.
I wanted friends, though. For a couple years, I was paralyzed with polio. I always had this yearning to be part of a group. That’s why I think I gravitated towards theatre, because there’s a tradition of being part of a troupe. You do the play, rehearse together, have coffee together, work on the sets late at night, there’s a real sense of camaraderie that film doesn’t have. Film school was like “every man for himself.” It’s always been a mystery to me that in every film school in the world they want nothing to do with the drama department. I mean they’ll go out with the girls in the drama department, but there’s a different culture. They just don’t gel. Theatre people are considered weird by the film people.
Also, in those days, the young men in film were all about camera, films, and editing, and that’s the least important thing. Orson Welles said once that you could learn those aspects of film in a weekend. The hard parts of film are acting and writing. Most film students know nothing about acting. Acting for film classes starts boiling down very quickly to marks on the floor and acting for the camera. The big advantage I had is that I had been a theatre major, and that made me have to work with actors. I never wanted to be an actor, but I was interested in knowing how to help them.
Rumpus: That seems to me to be one of the most interesting things about being a director, working with actors.
Coppola: If you look at the statistics of all of the people who become movie directors, the success rate is the highest by far among actors becoming directors. It makes total sense, because acting is fundamentally one of the two main ingredients: acting and writing. You never hear of a movie that’s so wonderful because of the photography or the art direction being great. It’s usually the acting or writing; without those two things you don’t have anything.
Rumpus: I was thinking of Terrence Malick. Take The Tree of Life or The New World, for example. How much acting is in those?
Coppola: He’s in his own world, but like in The New World, that young girl inhabits that film. That’s acting. She radiated her essence. During Tree of Life I thought, this is another way of telling a story, so understated and subtle. In that family there was so much being said that was unsaid. He’s truly unique. My big thing is that movies are only 100 years old. The movies about to be made will blow us away. Malick’s movies are a new way of telling a story that I never thought of before. That whole thing in The Tree of Life where the son takes the underwear and buries it was so full of mystery.
Rumpus: His movies are so dreamlike that you’re allowed to participate in the creation of them as a viewer.
Coppola: That’s important because radio used to do that. It wasn’t all done for you. Today, in movies, everything’s done for you. The difference between radio and television is that [with] radio you could sit and imagine what was happening, and it was great because you were seeing it in your own mind. Terry’s films are like that.
Rumpus: So many aspiring filmmakers are daunted by how much money films cost to make. Does that ever deter your ambition?
Coppola: In terms of money, I have a magic box. I do. In that box is an infinite amount of money. So when I have a worthy project I just go in that box and I take out the money. The box doesn’t exist and therefore there’s nothing in it. But I believe there is. And ultimately that’s what happens. At the time, if I ever have a script doing what I wish that it could do, then I would figure out where to get the money.
Rumpus: What are you currently working on?
Coppola: I’m working on this longer, more personal, ambitious piece. I’m thinking this year of going abroad to work on it. For some reason I had a fun time in Beijing, so I think I’m going to go there, rent a house, and work on my script. I don’t know anybody there, and when you know people inevitably your feelings get hurt. That’s why I write in the morning, because early in the morning no one’s had time to call me up and hurt my feelings.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you’re pretty sensitive?
Coppola: I don’t think I’m thin-skinned or anything, but I do have an emotional life. It’s possible to hurt my feelings, and if my feelings get hurt then I don’t work very well. I brood over whatever slight that was.
Rumpus: How do you compose your screenplays?
Coppola: Sometimes when I write screenplays I first write them in prose so I can enter into the characters’ thoughts. I guess in the old days that was like a treatment. I write it as if it were a novel, then adapt into a screenplay. It’s how I find out about the piece and the themes.
Rumpus: After all you’ve accomplished what are your remaining ambitions?
Coppola: I don’t have any real ambitions besides making a great film, the one. Whether that will happen, I don’t know. Even if I don’t get to make it, working on it is its own reward.
Rumpus: Do you show anyone your work?
Coppola: I’m sure I’ll write a draft of this script and then be careful about getting an opinion. I remember showing The Godfather to all the film cognoscenti of San Francisco, and they all came out after the film and only one person said that it was something good: Bob Towne, the screenwriter. He wrote Chinatown. He was the only one who thought it was good. So all these people who buzz around the film business know nothing. No one does.
Rumpus: Is there anyone outside of the film world you trust to read your work?
Coppola: I have to say I really don’t have anyone. I wish I did. I’d give anything. But I also wish I had a movie studio to call home, like United Artists, which was such a great company which was destroyed. If I have time I’ll try to resurrect United Artists. There’s a lot of people in my life who I love and care about, but whose ideas about film and scripts are very conventional, and I don’t think they’d see things in front of them. I’ve got to think about someone who I could really show it to. That’s a big question.
Rumpus: Do you ever get critical of your work when still writing it?
Coppola: Oh, I’m very critical of it, but I have a rule. When you write six pages, you turn it over and don’t read it until you’ve written the whole thing. A young person, any person really, has a hormone injected into their blood stream that makes them hate what they’ve just written. It gets better a few months later when you read it. Do it, write it, and turn the pages over and feel good about it. Then the next day pick up from where you left off. A lot of times when you’re writing you can get lost in making revisions to things that later you’re just going to cut out later. If you decide halfway through the character isn’t a man but a woman, then just change it later. But don’t go back. Go forward because you have no idea where it’s going to go. Let it tell you what it’s going to be.
Rumpus: How do you compare yourself now with yourself as a young filmmaker?
Coppola: It’s dangerous to try to compete with myself as a young man. All those things I did then, I did then. I don’t want to run after that. I want to see things different. The best thing I can do is start over again.
Rumpus: I’m reminded of the opening to Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” How are you both an expert and an amateur?
Coppola: I am an amateur in that I do what I do out of love and I go blindly wanting above all to learn. I am an expert in that I have done this kind of creative work all my life and know that even though I am perhaps lost at the moment, ultimately I will find my way.
Rumpus: Do you think risk is involved with your artistic growth?
Coppola: Yes, without risk I don’t think there can be art.
Rumpus: What’s the best advice you can give another artist?
Coppola: Suspend your self-doubt, do only the work you love, and make it personal.
Rumpus: You’re at the age now where a lot of people sit back and rest on their laurels – what keeps you creating?
Coppola: Somehow I haven’t done (in cinema) what I always dreamed of doing, and am ever hopeful that now I’ll be in a position to accomplish that. I wish to write something big and as full of emotion as I feel I am. I am learning so much about writing and am hopeful that I am on the verge of accomplishing this goal. I wonder if when I get all this done, if I’ll be able to take the leap beyond melodrama and stand back and say to my incorrigible imagination, how can I take this to a level not like the movies I grew up with, but beyond that? I want to make a film that breaks your heart, but I’ve never done it.
Rumpus: Are you afraid of dying?
Coppola: I have no fear of death whatsoever. I used to do a little experiment for the fun of it in my elevator here, when I go down to the first floor. I can control the elevator so when I go in, I shut out the lights and I’m in total darkness. I think, when I get to the first floor that I’m going to be dead. As I go down, I think, I had such an interesting life, I got to be a movie director, have a wife and children, had so much fun with them, got to be in the wine business, go through everything, and as I’m lost in all these interesting thoughts, the door opens on the first floor and I’m not dead. I walk out.