Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola

February 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

There’s not much need for an introduction. Francis Ford Coppola has been a towering presence in cinema over the last forty years, a director whose passion for filmmaking has brought life to some of the genre’s greatest characters – Pacino’s “Godfather”, Brando’s “Colonel Kurtz”, Gary Oldman’s “Dracula”… and the list goes on.

The 70 year-old maverick now heads both a filmmaking dynasty (son Roman and daughter Sofia carry the torch) and a winemaking empire. The latter has allowed him to make his most recent films entirely outside of the studio system that made him famous.  2007’s Youth Without Youth and this year’s Tetro (starring Vincent Gallo) were made autonomously –  with Coppola working entirely on his own, in order maintain pure exploration and total experiment.

Q: You have another new film, Tetro, which you’ve made entirely independently, including working off your own script, something you haven’t done since The Conversation.

Coppola: I never really got the chance to do the kinds of movies that I hoped to. I’ve of course had many interesting adventures in my career.  But generally I found I was not interested in making the kinds of movies that the industry was making.

Q: What do you think was the reasons for that?

A: I lived in San Francisco, my style was independent, and I didn’t have an agent.  I think to be in the film business on a successful level you have to swim in those streams and cultivate friendships with important actors that might want to work only with you, or certainly an agent would be very important. I didn’t have all those things and I didn’t want them. And so as a result, if you took all of my more personal, more interesting films, any of the ones I wrote – like Rain People, the Conversation, Rumble Fish, if you add the profit they wouldn’t pay for what the fruit is costing on this junket!

Q: But those are now considered classics.

A: Of course, they made a big impression over the years for people who are interested.  But ultimately they couldn’t compete with a commercial movie.  And probably even Apocalypse Now only did as well as it did because it had some great action sequences. It had this definitive helicopter battle that was the reason half of the people went to see it, because it was spectacular.

Q: Would you do things differently if you were a young filmmaker starting out now?

A: I feel like I had a great career and I’m pleased that I got to do what I did, but I don’t harbor the desire of doing it all again. Moviemaking is so full of obstacles and so demanding. I realized it was becoming harder and harder to raise money for a film that was going to be in any way unusual. It had been difficult with Apocalypse Now to raise funds, even with my success and a ton of Oscars; still nobody wanted to underwrite it.

Q: So now, with Youth Without Youth and Tetro, you have the advantage of being the underwriter of your own work.

A: To make a long story short, I made a great fortune in another business quite by accident. And just like anyone, what would you do if you won the lottery? Well I would make personal films and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.  These last two films I’ve done are is like a second career for me.

Q: And what issues and personal stories are you exploring in this new career?

A: Well, there is so much to learn about moviemaking.  I make films to learn, that’s the only reason I do it. I am not doing it to have success or make it a career, and I’m certainly not doing it to make money because I don’t need to make money and I wouldn’t make any money with these films anyway.  I’m doing it because it’s a thrill to learn. The amazing thing about cinema there is so much to know and learn because this is still a young medium and the technology has changed so much.  It evolves through experiment.

Q: Do you think experimentation is possible for filmmakers working within the studio system?

A: The language of moviemaking always depended on pioneers. But little by little we have started to get into a dictatorship to what a movie is and that experimentation that created the medium isn’t allowed much anymore.  Studios today have really sophisticated methods to control everything and decide what everything is, from what the script is or what the casting is.  And if you’re an important director you can certainly get some freedoms, but only within those parameters. Now, with my own films, made outside those parameters, as a filmmaker and writer I feel like a total virgin – there’s so much to learn!

Q: And what have you learned about filmmaking in the past few years?

A: Primarily, I’ve learned that it’s amazing thing to have a free range of imagination. And whenever possible, it’s important to have the script write itself, because if its about interesting things and if those things are there at the heart of it, then writing it is really just letting it happen. But the whole filmmaking process is like that, you have to be available to what’s going to come out and able ignore all the thousands of pitfalls.

Q: And with the last two films, you seem to be exploring some of the same themes you’ve always been interested in – in relationships, family, morality.

A: Youth Without Youth, I thought of myself as having one more chance to make a really bigger personal film.  So suddenly I read this little short story from Mircea Eliade that was set in Romania. I had the benefit of having a great author that I could learn something from, relative to questions that interested me, such as the nature of consciousness. I’m always interested in consciousness, how do we have that extraordinary conscience? What does it have to do with the existence really? Because our existence is what it is – because we are able to conceptualize.

Q: And with Tetro your exploring themes of family and emotions.

A: Exactly. I said I’d like to do something really emotional and I was going to have to think of something that I was emotional about, which was my own family.  There are themes of my family that are very interesting, because there are many creative people in my family. So I was interested in that as a theme because it had an impact on my immediate life and my childhood. By making this type of personal film, or any personal film, your asking questions and you don’t learn the answers until you’ve made the film.  And in making a film like Tetro, I really understood a lot of things, which were issues with me. I believe that any obsession, if you go to it and look at it and you get released from it.

A: And what happens then?

Q: You explore the next obsession! As you get older, one thing that I’m sure of, is the real pleasure in life – it’s not being famous, it’s not having your own jet plane, it’s not having a mansion, it’s not having your family think you’re a big deal – the real pleasure is to learn something.

Q: And so you continue to do that through your work.

A: Certainly filmmaking is a way to learn, about not only the cinema, which is totally magical, but also about yourself. And learning is one of life’s great pleasures that isn’t bad for you… If you eat too much you’re going to get fat, if you run around with all kinds of women everyone’s going to get mad at you, etc. But learning, about music, about art, literature, cinema and yourself, that’s pleasure without any pain!

Originally published in Dazed and Good magazines

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