Throughout the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola was the heir apparent to Orson Welles. He wrote like a devilish angel. He directed marvelously complicated, challenging pictures. He became an impresario and produced interesting work for others. He had control — control of opera and theatre and radio and publishing; control of sound stages and vineyards and distributors and high-tech gizmos he could only fantasize about as a child; and control of his own studio, Zoetrope. Even in his days as an undergrad phenomenon in the drama department of Hofstra University and then at the film school of UCLA, Coppola had been impulsive and inspired, a magnetic personality.
He started by making little sex films (called “nudies” at the time) just to get work, to get film in the can, but his first real opportunity came from Roger Corman, for whom he would write and direct a trashy formula horror film, Dementia 13. Already, a Coppola trademark was apparent: the picture reeked of family dynamics — specifically, fraternal tension. Four films very much of the 1960s followed: a zany coming-of-age story, You’re a Big Boy Now, which Coppola wrote, produced, and directed at age twenty-seven; an awkward attempt at a musical, Finian’s Rainbow; and a provocative, improvisational road picture, The Rain People, which found Coppola working with George Lucas, James Caan, and Robert Duvall for the first time. His screenplay for Patton, announcing his obsession with power and his finely tuned perceptions of it, won an Oscar the following year. Clearly, Coppola was emerging as a force.
But nothing could have prepared his audience for the work that followed. The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather, Part II, and at least the first three-fourths of Apocalypse Now represented the highest level of cinema art. Storytelling that was classic and yet inventive, subject matter that was broadly important and yet passionately personal, a dazzling command of craft that worked in service of great performances instead of swallowing them — these were the touchstones of Coppola’s 1970s work. At its best, it had the power of myth and the depth of great literature: it was rich. And so, once the box office receipts for the Godfathers had been counted, was he.
But his agonizing, protracted experience making Apocalypse Now in the Philippine jungle left him emotionally and artistically rudderless. Somehow, he emerged from that jungle and that film as part Citizen Kane, part Colonel Kurtz, and in no shape to oversee the running of a studio whose assets teetered precariously upon the success of a little love story musical which Coppola had perversely turned into an audacious formal and technological experiment. One from the Heart felt like one from the lab, and laid an egg of such gigantic proportions that Coppola would spend most of the 1980s scrambling it, just to regain his footing. He worked on small projects, some of which (Rumble Fish and Rip Van Winkle) were interesting as stylistic flights of fancy, and some of which (The Outsiders) were simply dull. And he worked as a director-for-hire: on modest successes, like Peggy Sue Got Married, and on expensive wrecks, like The Cotton Club. Even his return to personal subject matter — the family — in his Life Without Zoe proved a well-deserved embarrassment.
By the end of the 1980s, Coppola seemed an irrelevancy: serious people didn’t care enough about his movies to argue about them, or even see them. Indeed, in that decade of disappointment and disaster, Francis Coppola lost his studio and his audience and his fortune; lost his artistic instincts and his confidence; and lost, above all, a son. His oldest boy, Gio, was killed in a boating accident just as Coppola began shooting Gardens of Stone, a film set in a cemetery. But one thing Coppola never lost was his desire to make art.
Unfortunately, given his position as a rusted boy wonder, he had to make more than art: he had to make commerce. The Godfather, Part III represented his bid for both financial and artistic redemption, his ticket to the third act of his own life. With the film released on Christmas Day of 1990 to the riotous orgy of opinion that Godfather movies have always provoked (the first two pictures, now acknowledged as masterworks, in fact opened to widely mixed notices), Coppola found himself with an uncomfortably sharp stone in his shoe. The casting and performance of his daughter Sofia, in one of the film’s key roles, had provoked a barrage of criticism. That Coppola would risk so much on family — for family — says everything about a man for whom the border between life and art long ago collapsed.
I talked with him about such matters in November of 1990, just a month and a half before the release of Godfather III, in the penthouse office/bedroom of the building he owns in San Francisco. Coppola was gracious and soft-spoken, and, at first, defensive. Eventually, over the course of five hours in two days, he breached his own battlements and revealed some kinds of emotional truths, making the interview, if not definitive, at least one from the heart.
In Godfather II, consigliere Tom Hagen, upon finding the dead prostitute, says, “The girl has no family. It’s as if she didn’t exist.” And he repeats it, like a mantra. It’s one sign of the centrality of family in your work — that family is how you do exist — so I’d like you to start by talking about yours.
Well, I was born in 1939 and raised in a second-generation Italian American family, so my infant memories of World War II and that era were the first things to consider. Also, because my father was a musician, we traveled a lot. It was my father’s gypsy nature not to stay in any one place too long. We were always moving — we thought in regard to his career, but really it was his nature.
Our moving every year and the many schools I went to because of it tended to let me encapsulate time differently. Because when I was five there was one set of friends and impressions, and that was very, very radically changed each time we moved. In some way it allowed me to remember things in a much more vivid way than kids who are just raised in one neighborhood. I went to twenty-five different schools before college. Each one was a little episode of my life — ages four, and five, and six, and seven — like a separate movie with a separate cast of characters. My childhood, and my memories of my childhood, have always remained very vital to me and very accessible. I may have only been in a particular neighborhood for six months, but I still remember what the pretty girl’s name was and what the bad boy’s name was. Those memories are more vivid for me than for other people, who are always amazed that I can remember this stuff.
We were a family of five. An older brother five years older [Augie] and a younger sister six years younger [Talia Shire]. My mother [Italia] was an extremely good-looking woman and my father [Carmine] was very handsome, and in a glamorous profession — I saw him dress in a tuxedo. My initial memories of them were very idealized and very full of love. My brother was very nice to me, and we had all sorts of uncles and aunts in that sort of second-generation Italian family.
My first impression of family was that it was very much like a fairy tale. And we were taught that Italians had great culture: that Meucci invented the telephone, and Fermi the first nuclear reactor, and Verdi, and so on. And my father was the solo flute player for Toscanini. So there was always an element of glamor and romance to my family, and to this day, if I do gravitate to them or they are the wellspring of my fondness, it’s because from when I was a little kid, they were.
Yet there was a lot of tension there as well. Your father dominated the scene, and there was always the risk that he was failing or would fail. He was dissatisfied as an artist even if he was at a fairly high level.
He was at a high level as an instrumentalist, but in those days it wasn’t like today, where a virtuoso flute player is on records and is a celebrity. He always had ambitions to write music and write songs, to do Broadway, to conduct opera. He longed for recognition in areas other than playing the flute. So he weaned himself off of that nice comfortable career as a symphonic instrumentalist and started to branch off into other areas. One was movies. In fact, when I was born he had just gotten back from Hollywood. He’d been there a couple of years and had tried to get started as a film scorer, making connections. There was a phone call from some musician friends — he heard that he was being fired off of his job — and so rather than deal with people thinking that he might have gotten fired, he left Hollywood and drove across the country to Detroit, and that’s why I was born there. So that was the flavor of the kind of family it was.
Was his level of frustration, what he perceived as his failure, painful for you?
Oh yeah. Yeah. Literally, when we said our prayers, at the end we said, “. . . and give Daddy his break.” Even before I knew what “his break” was. I thought it was the brake of the car! The way they saw things, getting your break was political — it was who you knew. Even to this day, I take great exception to this attitude. I always felt it was your talent and your willingness to keep working: if no one will hire you to do a play, then go do the play yourself anyway. A glancing difference between my father and me is that I feel talent can be realized by hard work and imaginative application. It’s not politics, it’s not who you know.
It’s sort of ironic that he got his big break scoring your movies — he did know you.
[Laughs.] I know. We were very involved in my father’s talent. That was the focus of our family. If I went to school and said my father was a soloist for Toscanini, people thought I was special, even though I was new in the neighborhood.
He, during a very black period, threatened to put his hands into the lawn mower in your back yard.
No. He, during a period, had an accident. He was mowing the lawn and was stupidly adjusting the mower and cut off the tips of his fingers. We took him immediately for plastic surgery, which he needed to keep playing the flute. I, later, always thought what a Freudian thing that was: that a man who hated the instrument, who thought the instrument had held him back, who resented it, had done that.
You idolized your older brother, Augie [Nicolas Cage’s father]. He was older than you, better looking, smarter, more successful socially — but wasn’t it hard not to resent him for that?
But he was always so kind to me. And so affectionate. And so generous. He didn’t have to take me to the movies, and introduce me to his friends. He was such a good older brother. Rather than be competitive with him, I just wanted to be like him. So my impression of my brother was always very golden. If anything, I was more concerned that one day I would have to look out for him. I didn’t want the bad kids to beat him up, so there was anxiety on that level.
There’s a real sense of fraternal dynamics in your work — in even your first film, Dementia 13, through the Godfathers, to the Tulsa films — The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. By the time of Rumble Fish, dedicated to “Augie, brother and best teacher,” there’s a sense that the younger brother has to make his own mark, and throw off the influence of the older.
Well, you know, I’m sure that I cannot give a clear picture of it. I can only tell you from my feeling. If my father wrote some music and people insulted it, it would really hurt me. If anything happened to my brother — he was always full of great schemes, he was like an Errol Flynn guy — my feeling was always not to get past him but to protect him, and to be like him.
I had a dream when I was a little kid. It was so vivid that I never forgot it. The bad kids were putting my brother in a big manhole, and I was running to all the houses to get the phone. They were going to cover him.
He was like a hero to me. And when I got a little older, more adolescent, he was so kind: he would tell me about life, about sex — which my family pretended didn’t exist; if you asked a question, you’d get hit — or he would tell me about books, or how to dress and be attractive to girls. And he would share his dreams with me, his crazy inventions. And I was trying to copy him. He would encourage me. He liked the fact that I was good at drama because I was sort of the black sheep of the family — they didn’t know what kind of profession I would go into. They would say I wasn’t college material. He would always stick up for me.
Augie has said that you’ve often regretted your successes, because they were meant for him.
Without a doubt.
So that must have given a really bittersweet twist to the successes you’ve had.
Definitely bittersweet. Augie’s always on the verge of some incredible success. I think he got trapped in the academic world, getting the Ph.D. It was a practical thing. He was the first one to get one in our family, but like for many people the academic world was a ticket to nowhere. I was lucky to get into drama, and when you do it for so many years you become expert at it.
Yeah, but Francis, a lot of people get into drama and don’t do what you did —
But he had all the same ingredients that I did. A lot of feeling, strong feelings, a lot of imagination and ideas. Willingness to work hard. He has all that. He just hasn’t found his niche — yet. But he was the prototype, the one who first looked towards creative literature, philosophy. Things I would have had no way to know, I knew because I had an older brother.
You did something odd when you were fourteen, when you were working at Western Union that summer. You knew how much your father wanted “his break” from Hollywood, how much success meant to him, and yet you sent him a fraudulent telegram from Paramount Pictures telling him he’d been selected to score some big movie.
It’s a true story. I delivered the telegram. And it was only after doing it and seeing how happy he was that we were going to go back to California, that I began to sweat, and realized, “My God, how am I going to tell him?” And I told him and he was very disappointed. I thought I could just give him his break. Kids are sensitive to what’s wrong with their parents. And I wanted my father to get that telegram, and I wanted my family to get that telegram, so that he would be happy and we would be happy.
But you knew it wasn’t real —
That’s the madness of it. It’s sick.
Wasn’t the madness really anger under the surface of the wish? Anger that your dad and his “talent” were always the focus of attention and that you were not considered as talented as him or Augie?
I never had a big competitive thing. I just wanted to be accepted by them. I never had those kind of needs to be a famous person. I don’t think there was any anger connected to it, because for me, my ambition was more to have a year’s subscription to Popular Mechanics. I wanted to be a scientist or an inventor.
We’re going to cut to the record, Francis. When you were nine, you wrote your mother a note that said, “Dear Mommy, I want to be rich and famous. I’m so discouraged. I don’t think it will come true.”
She has that note. I think I was older, and already pursuing the drama and show-business world. I always felt I had a lot of gifts, but that my gifts were somehow not easily showable. I always felt I had a lot of stuff in my heart, but that I didn’t have the skills or the obvious talents of kids who can play an instrument, tap dance, or draw. I always felt like I had a little vein of gold, and that if I could follow it further down I’d find a deposit of it. But I was not good at anything, except science. I always felt I put in a lot of perspiration, rather than had a God-given gift.
But I feel you can have a person with a God-given gift and a person that works hard, and in the end the person that works hard can make the more profound art. I love the fact that in art, you can see a turkey actor and five years later you see him and think, “God, what happened?”
Yeah. And I’ve seen that happen. The most talented guy in high school is inevitably the failure at the reunion. And there are reasons for this.
You had polio and were paralyzed for a year when you were ten, and described yourself as “a lonely ugly duckling, sad and sick and thinking.” How much of that kid do you still carry around, or did you carry in your formative artistic years?
Well, I would say that my childhood years are very vividly what I’m like now. And what happened after that didn’t make much of a difference. Polio, and the fact that I was the new kid in school every year, and that my name was Francis, which was a girl’s name. And I was very skinny, and looked like Ichabod, gangly. And I had a very big lower lip — which was the bane of my life, my lower lip. Of everything, the thing most profound to me is the shape of my lower lip. Everything that happened came from this condition.
And in 1949 I was struck with polio, taken out of school, and didn’t see another kid except my sister. Sitting in that room paralyzed, watching television, listening to the radio, playing with my puppets, cultivating a kind of make-believe private life, augmented by technology. I became obsessed with remote control. Obviously, if you’re paralyzed, how to turn the channel of the TV is very important.
Do you ever think now, sitting off the set in the Silverfish [Coppola’s high-tech Airstream trailer, from which he monitors the shooting], that the idea of “remote” and the idea of “control” have been realized in a quite substantial, quite personal way?
There’s no doubt that it goes back to that year I spent in bed, looking at a monitor, listening to radio. I spent a lot of time with my puppets; I became quite a puppeteer. I’m sure that my taste for this kind of work, and also the position of the director — and how I am the director sometimes, being this person doing it all by remote control — probably comes from something I was comfortable with as a kid.
You also had fantasies about listening in to other people’s conversations elsewhere in the house.
Not so much a fantasy. We did bug the bathroom one time. That was all from my idea of Captain Video, high atop a mountain, fighting for Good, using Modern Technology! I was very susceptible to those stories. I wanted to be Captain Video. I wanted to have a TV studio. And not long after I recovered from polio I went down to our basement and I built out of wood the sound booms and the television cameras and a window, where you could “play” television. I was crazy about television.
I always lived in my fantasy life. I felt like an outsider at school. I’d get tremendous crushes on girls that I didn’t ever get to talk to. You would see her, but you wouldn’t have the wherewithal to meet her. So I lived a tremendous fantasy life, all my life. And I still do. [Pause.] I spend most of my time by myself. And I do the same kinds of things I used to do: I play with the technology, I edit, I make believe, I write and read. The same things I did in the garage.
Was there a Rosebud in your youth — something unrecoverable? A feeling that you’ve never been able to aquire again?
I would really say that the five-year-old Francis, who was the best Francis that there ever was, is still here, intact, whenever I choose to be comfortable with that. I do still approach things with that enthusiasm. And in a man, the line between enthusiasm and megalomania is very blurry. Is that person just enthusiastic about what he’s doing, or . . . ? During the Apocalypse Now period, I was identified as a megalomaniac.
But I think that I was able to retain a young kid’s point of view with an older man’s experience and, hopefully, emotional togetherness. But very much I can be that little kid I remember. If all kids could start that way, they would make better people.
You’ve talked about the advantages of being successful early in life, but I get the feeling you never sat too easy in the saddle of your own success.
Well, it doesn’t ever seem that when you make films that are real famous, or that become part of the culture, you really think of them so possessively as “my film.” You’re well aware of what collaboration it took, and how many people put how much into those pictures. I don’t believe truly that I’m a person who’s so interested in my own aggrandizement. I want to be part of something exciting. I do feel I’m an element in this creation, and that I’m playing a part of it. But when you do something really beautiful, it does reflect what’s already there. I feel like we’re more the custodians of this art form. Some guy wakes up in the middle of the night and he hears a tune. Did he make that tune, or was he made to be sensitive enough to hear it?
My proudest thing, if people were really going to butter me up — if they said I was a person who was imaginative, I’d like that. Because I feel I am. If they say I had ideas, I’d like that. Or that I like to work with kids. But to say that you’re so good at something — fumbling through it, obviously, I don’t see it that way. I always chastise my father: What is this ego thing of yours? You’re just part of this whole thing. Why are you so obsessed when someone says, “Oh, I love that music”? Sure, it’s nice to be connected with something that’s successful, but why is it such a cause célèbre? He’s always been that way.
But earlier in your career — you were a very ambitious, very driven man — you felt like the greatest thing around if people liked a picture, and an abject failure if they didn’t.
Very much so. Over the years, I’ve had people like my stuff and not like my stuff. More not like my stuff, in truth. In its time, when my stuff comes out, even The Godfather, and certainly Godfather II, and certainly Apocalypse Now, in their time, inevitably they’re not received very well. I think it’s because they’re a little different. My impression is I’m always sweating an uphill thing, trying to convince the powers that be (if there are powers that be) to kind of come in my direction.
So, in terms of my ego, at age fifty-one, as someone who’s been around a long time, I’m aware that people regard me as a venerable old grandpa, and I like that. Like Leonard Bernstein. He wasn’t stuck-up about his abilities. I’ve had such a backward and forward controversial reception, and very often related to other stuff than what I was actually doing. And I really have taken myself off the market in terms of ever really being gratified, in the way I saw, let’s say, Peter Bogdanovich gratified once when I went to see the L.A. screening of The Last Picture Show. I remember that very vividly. Boy, that audience saw that picture, and that audience was with that picture in such a fabulous way that when it was over, everybody in that theatre, including myself, stood up and gave him a standing ovation. It was thrilling to be there. But I’ve never experienced anything like that. Except once, when I did a college play, the cast gave me an ovation like that. But never again since. And I sort of have reconciled that that will never happen to me, except maybe when I’m eighty years old and they trudge me out to give me some humanitarian award. In other words, I have taken myself “off the hook” on a number of issues that young people fantasize about. And that’s one of them.
Was your son Gio’s death a part of taking yourself off the hook, in a way?
Well, sure, but I’m not sure I even totally understand that event, because I’ve never been able to look at it in front of my eyes. I always look at it this way. [Looks out of the corners of his eyes.] And as the years go by, I realize I don’t want to look at it.
After that, I realized that no matter what happened, I had lost. That no matter what happened, it would always be incomplete. The next day, I could have all my fondest dreams come true: someone could give me Paramount Pictures to organize the way I would do it, and develop talent and technology, and have my dream of dream of dream of dreams, and even if I did get it, I lost already. There’s no way that I could ever have a complete experience, because there will always be that part of me missing. It makes you react to things with more of a shrug. If you told me that people saw Godfather III and they thought it was the greatest thing since chopped liver, and for the first time in ten years I can go out and buy a car without figuring out how I’m going to pay for it, I would be happy, I would be happy, but in the end it would make me sad.
Right now, listening to you, you seem like a very different man from the one who said, just before going into the jungle to film Apocalypse Now, “I know more about every aspect of filmmaking than any other filmmaker in the world, and that’s not a boast.”
Yeah. But I still might say that, though, only because the areas I’m in are so diverse. But that’s not to say I’m the best filmmaker in the world, or know more about filmmaking, but in terms of every aspect of filmmaking — from orchestration to foreign deals, to running your own company, to understanding how electronic editing really works — yeah, I have an extremely broad and comprehensive view of this profession I’m in. The accident of my makeup: that I come from theatre, that I was a boy scientist, that my father was a musician, and I had some business and political smarts, may make that statement very true — although it may sound like that of a megalomaniac.
If Godfather III is a great success, would it make you sad?
No. It’s just that anything that makes me happy is always followed by a footnote of being sad. Because what I really wish could happen is already gone. I could lose Hollywood General Studios, where I had so many dreams, and I could buy it back in two years — probably will — but somehow I haven’t quite figured out how I could restore these other parts of my life. You can see a picture of my two kids, Roman and Sofia, taken after that accident happened, and it’s a picture of three kids. Because you can see on their faces the one that’s missing. But all human beings run into tragedy. You’re going to run into it, if you already haven’t, and I’m going to run into it again. We’re all going to lose people we love. It’s a little harder when it’s your child, more than your uncle or your grandpa, your wife or your husband. I try to understand: that’s what makes us human beings. Would you rather be a rock? Would you rather not have those feelings? That’s why tragedy is such an exalted art form.
Once the trauma wears off, you never experience the world again in quite the same way.
Aeschylus said something really beautiful, something like, “This thing pours on your heart, drop by drop, until in awful grace of God comes wisdom.” In a way, you can’t experience things in a bigger, deeper way, until you understand or have some tragedy.
I was always a magical kid. All I had to do was say a Hail Mary and it would come true. That story Fredo tells in Godfather II — every time you say Hail Mary you catch a fish — that was me! I once caught twenty-two fish because I said twenty-two Hail Marys. And then all of a sudden you say the Hail Mary and it doesn’t work, in the most profound sense you could imagine. It just makes you realize that being a human being is not to have everything go the way a child wants it to go.
In a sense, losing a kid like that, that particular kid, the relationship we had, it will just be my story. [Pauses, teary.] I always was shocked that Odysseus comes back and his son, Telemachus, rejoins him, and I didn’t know that in the next chapters Telemachus is killed. Oh! You never told me that! It gives it another slant. It’s your stripes for being a human being. You have to welcome it, understand it in the bigger sense of things. And of course, I have two great kids, and we all share the vitality of that boy, and in some funny way he still figures into things; he’s still around in a magical way. He was a magical kid. We got him for so many years. And for the twenty-two years he lived he had a complete life; someone could live eighty years and not do what he did. It’s not like I’m a broken guy. But in a way, there’s always going to be that arm missing. It’ll never come back, I guess.
If it takes the edge of the successes, perhaps it also might take the edge off the failures you’ll no doubt encounter — they might not be as devastating from now on.
I’m less interested in successes or failures, quite frankly, at all. The thing about the failures: I still have that new-kid-school thing, I hate to be embarrassed. It’s very embarrassing to be taken to task all the time in the newspapers, and all your neighbors see it and they don’t want to bring it up. I never have been such a megalomaniac that it is not very easy to hurt my feelings. And sometimes they are hurt by the dumbest things that are not important. Like a promise was made to someone, and that person thinks I broke the promise — and that person is of no importance whatsoever! — but it’ll bother me for a week that that person feels I broke the promise. The capacity to have my feelings hurt, to feel unfairly characterized, or dealt with, those things can really get me depressed. But to consider that I’m not the greatest filmmaker in the world, well, I never particularly expected to be, nor do I care. I don’t have to be the big guy all the time. I have had my share of that, anyway.
You told your British biographer that you were “embarrassed by the duality of your failure and your success.” What’s to be embarrassed about?
Well, you have someone telling you how great you are, and you accept that, and then you barely walk out of the room and you have someone telling you what a jerk you are. If they wouldn’t tell me that I’m so great, and they wouldn’t tell me that I’m so terrible, it would be easier to navigate. I never know what’s coming from whatever quarter. I never know when someone’s going to embarrass me and make me feel just awful. It’s embarrassing when someone calls me a genius. What is that? I would like it if it meant I was a unique person, one of a kind, but I don’t particularly want to be that.
Is this one of the reasons you’ve threatened to leave Hollywood filmmaking? From your second feature on, in 1967, you’ve been threatening to go make cheap little “amateur” movies on your own.
My happiest thing is to be cozy. Just to have a little place, to have my own thing, a little shop. It could be opulent, but it would always be cozy. And I would like my career to be cozy. I envy people like Woody Allen, who has found a way to function: he writes a script every year, he makes a movie every year, and people find it interesting.
That seems to have been your ideal about the time you were making The Rain People in the late sixties.
I wanted that. And if anything, I got off on the other tack, because like my father I was flexible. I could be an arranger, I could conduct an opera. If you think about my movies, every one is a different style entirely. And some are big, mammoth productions and some are little, intimate things. Some are comedies. I’m sort of a professional director. But I’m also a writer who would like to use his writing to explore personal feelings and subjects that interest me. I’m tempted to go off and do different things, rather than staying there like Woody and just knocking out my personal script. I’ve always been uncomfortable about that, and in fact I didn’t do what I really wanted to do. My flexibility worked against the coziness I was trying to find.
There was financial need, too! When you took the first Godfather film, you said, “I don’t want to do this hunk of trash, I want to do art films.”
Totally! Yeah, I wanted to do little Antonioni films, little Fellini films, and get my own theatre company and do experimental writing. All cozy and off to the side. I never planned on being part of the big stuff. I never imagined it.
When you were at the top, after the second Godfather movie, you announced that your biggest fear was that your talent wasn’t commensurate with your success.
I have a certain personality. I have a certain talent. Do I have as much talent as Roman Polanski? No. But maybe my talent isn’t just “talent,” but also application, broadness of point of view. Talent is like electricity, it’s a hard thing to talk about.
Weren’t there times, at the height of your success, when you wondered, “Is this me?” It happened in such a hurry.
I was the first one! It wasn’t like Hollywood was filled with young people. There had been Orson Welles, the boy wonder, who was an example for everyone. But generally, the motion picture industry was closed — men in their fifties who had worked in the studio system. So for me, not only was I one of the first young people in a generation that had fallen in love with film, but I also was one of the first young people to become rich overnight. And my attitude towards money was, you know, I wasn’t in London with models, gambling, I was buying cameras and I was buying radio stations and I was starting magazines. I was ahead of my time in a way. I was interested in the communication age. What was my dream here, in San Francisco, twenty years ago? I bought this building, a radio station, a theatre, a magazine, a film company. Of course, I was seeing one day where there’d be a production that could be written for the theatre, broadcast simultaneously on radio, that would become the basis of a screenplay, that would be in the magazine, and then become a film. I was already thinking about the kind of communications company that these guys are supposedly thinking about now, except I was doing it. And I was greeted with general resistance: who is this megalomaniac and what is he doing?
Well, it didn’t help that you’d compared yourself to Napoleon when you talked about power.
Yeah, but you can compare yourself to Hitler —
Which you also did!
I know. The fact is you learn from these people. When I talk about the fact that Napoleon was a person who understood that artillery was power in his time, and communications is power in our time, it’s because I was the kind of person that read all those stories of Napoleon, Caesar — those people. I tried to learn. It didn’t mean that I’m Napoleon, or that I’m Hitler by any means, but we do use the people who are the prime movers in the culture to inspire us. People confused the enthusiasm and the sincerity of what I was doing with megalomania. God, how many filmmakers who have made money have put any of that money into their love? George Lucas, that’s it. And why George Lucas? Because he is my younger brother in a way, and so George did a lot of things that we cooked up together. I don’t see any of these other fortunes going into anything other than hard securities.
What is money to me and what is position? What would I do if I had the power-of-powers in the film industry in terms of money and influence? You know what I would do. I would try to use it to create a situation where this artistic activity could go on, and young people and technology would be constantly advancing. Now it’s people saying: let’s make movies that have incredible chase scenes, that have violence, let’s make Die Hard. That’s not coming out of young men and women involved in something alive. That’s not alive.
Were you comfortable with all the money when you made it?
Well, I had it and then I spent it. I spent it the next day on the things that I loved.
But sometimes people who aren’t comfortable with money find ways to get rid of it. They give it away, lose it all on some speculative venture, gamble. You were criticized heavily by your film school peers for “selling out,” becoming instantly successful in mainstream Hollywood — and maybe it was hard not to internalize that criticism.
I think it has to do with these things that are so important to people: talent, attractiveness, beauty. So many people, especially younger people, go through private hells over these things. There wouldn’t be the industry in cosmetics if it wasn’t so. The truth of the matter is, I learned around thirty-seven, forty years old, around Apocalypse Now, the answer to the question: Was I talented? The answer came to me in one moment, and the answer was: No, I wasn’t talented in the way I defined talent. I didn’t have the God-given ability to sit down and write a beautifully written story or just draw a gorgeous picture. That kind of talent, Mozart’s talent, I didn’t have. But that’s not the only kind of talent there is! That’s easy, apparent talent. That’s Roman Polanski’s talent.
But there’s another kind of talent which you don’t even know that you have. A lot of the things a filmmaker does — don’t have the girl do that there, let’s have the violin do this — he doesn’t even think he’s doing anything, but in fact he is asserting his personality, even though it’s not in that flashy kind of way that defines talent.
Wasn’t that a comedown for you, though? From very early on, you had identified with the talent of great philosphers and writers, the people Augie had introduced you to, the James Joyces and the Thomas Manns — and you wanted to be an original writer in that way. You said, “I am a writer who directs.”
That’s what I still want.
But what you’re saying is that during Apocalypse Now you found out that that wasn’t exactly the case. That maybe your strengths were more adaptive, more interpretive —
I didn’t say adaptive, and maybe not interpretive. But that the concept of talent, the flow of imagination, meant maybe not being able to draw the perfect picture in one stroke, but to draw it fifty times, and finally say, that is right! That’s also talent, but of a different kind. It comes in the form of instinct, hard work, perspiration. I realized, after so many years of worrying that I didn’t have any talent, that I did have talent, it’s just that talent itself is different than I thought it was. It’s related to your very instincts, your very personality. There is nothing that I touched that I didn’t in some way imbue with my style. So, of course I felt bad at not living up to my own expectations, or feeling like I didn’t have the kind of gifts I saw others have. But then others don’t have the kind of gifts I have.
It’s like attractiveness. So many people are told that if they don’t look like some kind of prototype in a magazine, they’re not attractive. But then they realize that they really are attractive, because they’re them. It was that kind of a realization.
Did that realization solve the crisis of confidence you were having?
I think from that moment on . . . when I was in the middle of Apocalypse, biggest problem I’d ever had — it came to me one afternoon. Yes, I was talented. Just as I was attractive. But I didn’t fit my own profile of what talented and attractive was.
What triggered this?
Some of the turning points that were going on at that time. I was very crestfallen that during Apocalypse Now America didn’t see me as “Francis Coppola, the American director, on an expedition for America.” I wanted to be thought of as American, and that America would be proud that, if I had $30 million of my own money, I would fearlessly invest it in a movie that had serious themes. And I was so destroyed when I saw the perception of me in the press as a wild man, ridiculing what I was doing. In those days, if a movie cost $30 million, much ado was made of it. But there were a lot of movies that cost that much — the film industry had changed. And I was just crushed that they ridiculed Apocalypse because it seemed to be an out-of-control financial boondoggle, and yet for Superman, which cost much more than Apocalypse and was about nothing, there was respect.
I realized that being really respected in this culture is not about being courageous and having imaginative ideas, but it’s about being financially successful. I mean, the real decision on Godfather III, about how good that movie really is, will be made on the basis of how much money it makes. It’s sad.
We’re living in an age where box-office grosses are printed in the daily papers.
Why is that? Because people are more comfortable with sports. They want a score. A batting average. It will be announced soon that I’m taking steroids.
It tells you to go to the number-one-grossing movie because more other people are.
And don’t go to the number-six-grossing movie, which really has value. It’s such a disservice, this new attitude of scores, of grosses, in the paper. Even the obsession with how much a movie costs. When you start to make a movie, really, ninety-nine percent of what people want to talk to you about is how much it costs.
Why do you feel people were rooting for you to fail with Apocalypse Now?
Because I had had a big success with The Godfather, and then I tempted fate and had another success with Godfather II. That’s enough. That’s enough. Look at David Lynch. Here’s this guy, a real artist, totally on his own wavelength, and already I read articles sniping at the guy, just because he’s been successful. We should be proud of David Lynch! I’m proud of him.
Some people felt that you came back from Apocalypse Now thinking for the first time in your life that you were a genius, and that you haven’t been the same ever since.
How can someone think that? Never in my life have I even wandered on the threshold of thinking of myself in those terms. When I came back from Apocalypse I was really depressed. And rather than thinking that I was a genius, I was thinking that I was in trouble, and that the film wasn’t working and I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it work. It was a time in my life I was having a little bit of marital problems and that made me really depressed.
Was it painful to you that your marital problems became as public as they did? That your wife, Eleanor, published her journal?
More I would have to say that it was all a state of confusion for me. I was very frightened: I had taken all the money I had, $30 million, and had it all riding on this mad project. Two, I realized that I was starting to be portrayed as a megalomaniac surrounded by “yes men,” when in fact that’s never been what this company has been. Never. This portrait of me as this Hollywood executive gone mad à la The Bad and the Beautiful is so easy to say: I had my own studio and things were moving fast. You have to remember that we were in terrible shape financially. Even One from the Heart was just to get one more deal going in case we lost all our money on Apocalypse. So it was frenetic. We had such lofty ambitions. So people chose to see me as this guy going mad, but I don’t think it was ever like that.
To be fair though, you yourself said that during Apocalypse you had turned a bit into Kurtz, although you said you were a “nice Kurtz.”
Yeah, but by being Kurtz, I started to get the idea that life was made up of a million things that are most important to you, which are usually around the corner. What’s going to happen to the film? What do they think of me in the United States? No one likes to be ridiculed. But what’s really important to you is whether you’ve got the glass you like, the toothbrush you like, do you have a window to look out of where you like what you see. So I became like Kurtz because I became very cozy in this little place, and began to be more obsessed with the details of life that touched me. So I would send home and say I’d like a certain kind of glass sent over —
And air conditioners and steaks, and it led to Eleanor saying you were setting up your own little Vietnam over there.
No, that isn’t the case. It wasn’t steaks and air conditioners, but it was a good hi-fi preamplifier. My feeling was that if I had to be in this jungle situation, it would be nice to have the glass that I like. People are always quick to fill in the blanks when you’re acting supposedly irrationally, but if you really think about it — if I were to take you with me and say, “Here’s my little house, and here’s where I want the loudspeakers and here’s where I’m doing my cooking” — you’d say, “Well, the guy is just making himself cozy.” It was more that we had become really famous, and we were putting our own money into a movie that no one could really figure out, and everybody wanted to be involved with me.
What saved your marriage?
I think bottom line is that a man like me operates with a kind of lodestone of loyalty and commitment to his family that in the end is not easily disrupted. In the end, you do what you feel is right and what you feel is right comes from your upbringing, your family. In the end, I realized you could change wives every ten years and be in the same situation. And that it’s better to just have one wife. That marriage is best in the long term.
But you certainly risked losing that many times?
Well, not many times. I became involved with someone who was extremely worthwhile. The people that I went out with were not like chorus girls. They were like real human beings who also had a lot of value, and in the end, even to be thrust into such an exotic life — I’m in the jungle filming, I’m famous, I’m this kid from Long Island, I’m rich, I’m not rich — there was a state of confusion. I always gravitated to warm personal relationships in my collaborators and my friends. It’s true, there was a little empowerment, of me saying, “In the end, I gotta do what I gotta do, and I shouldn’t be bound by everybody else’s opinion of what I should do.” I wasn’t sticking pins into animals. I was reading, and listening to music and talking about the future and becoming interested in electronics. Everything I was doing was good! There was nothing decadent or wasteful. Even the romantic involvement wasn’t a weird one; it was more like a relationship with a schoolmate who shared my ideas in a way that empowered me. Mostly, I throw out ideas and
people dismiss them. So to have someone say, “Gee, that’s interesting!” is a very powerful thing.
My problem was that my wife always was very conventional in her thinking, like everybody else. A lot of things that I do at first are not popular, and I am hungry for some approval or encouragement. In fact, my story in regard to the country, basically, is that I’d like a little encouragement. It’s true you can tear me down. All living things need some sustenance. Rather than being called a genius, which is another way of calling me nothing — because no one knows what one is, anyway — I’d rather be encouraged for what I am doing good. I do try to put a lot of myself into things, I experiment, I don’t give people one formula project after another, which other directors do. All I want is a little encouragement. I don’t want to be adored. It would only embarrass me. Sure, you can break my spirit. Sure, I can lose my confidence.
One from the Heart was supposed to be your way of channeling your romantic angst — you said, “Everyone knows love kills” — and putting it into a creative project.
I was interested in something on the subject of love more as I had personally experienced it. I was working on a very different project. But the little fable-like story of One from the Heart, written by Armyan Bernstein, echoed my themes, simple as they are: the man, the woman, the other man, the other woman. Elective affinities. It’s very simple. My mind then was just sure that the motion picture industry was going to turn into a worldwide electronic communications industry, that television was going to be international, that satellites were going to make any part of the world as viable as any other part of the world, that advanced editing and forms of high-definition television were going to allow filmmakers to cook up what they had in their heads cheaper and easier, and there was going to be a great golden age of communication. And I wanted to be in on that. And I wanted that studio!
But this story for that ideal?
Listen, the way I think, if you said to me now, “Hey, Hollywood General Studios is available, and if you can be on the stages in three months with a big picture, the rent for working there can be the down payment for buying the studio, and we got this script — I don’t know what it is but it’s sort of about something you’re interested in,” I might very well do it. Or I did then!
My idea was to get the studio and equip it and then do Tucker on those stages. And my problem was that One from the Heart, rather than just staying as this little love story, got turned into fuel for this whole other thing. And my associates are all insane. The art department went insane. They weren’t supposed to build all of Las Vegas. The photographer went insane. One of the good things about me is I give everybody else the same empowerment that I have. And I have a lot of talented, crazy people working for me. And I was always interested to know more about the Hollywood musical, and was it possible to have a musical without people singing but where the songs sang for them, and there was enough right about the decision that I just blindly made it, and figured, like I normally do, I’d just swim as hard as I can to get out of it. Sometimes I pull it off, sometimes I don’t. But One from the Heart suffered from the perception of me as some wild, egomaniac Donald Trump type of guy, and once they think about you that way, it’s just so many months before you’re brought down.
True enough, but once people sit in a theatre and watch the film, if it works magic on them, they forget about budgets and news stories.
Don’t you think that the way something is presented to an audience affects them? I’m not going to argue about One from the Heart: to some people it was magical, to many others it wasn’t. But it was a controversy before it was finished. People were looking at early prints. In the end, how many people who were sure One from the Heart was this embarrassing failure had really even seen it?
Looking back, don’t you wish you had made it a more personal movie? After it was over, you said you didn’t really care about the characters and you didn’t really care about the story. And that showed.
I think it was a mistake that I got into the project for the reasons I did, and that it was somebody else’s script. If it had been more personal it probably would have been more realistic. But was it a disgrace? I don’t think so. I thought it was an interesting and an imaginative experiment. But it’s a little bit like a cigarette lighter. If it doesn’t light, it doesn’t light. But that doesn’t mean it won’t light.
One from the Heart left its mark. Things looked like it after it was over. Television looked like it. It did things that no one had done. Kurosawa made a little innocuous love story and people hated it as well. I just wanted to do something sweet and innocent. Would Singin’ in the Rain have been better if it was personal? Did you really get under those characters’ skin? One from the Heart didn’t get much of a chance. It was doomed from the moment I started it. And so has my career been since after Apocalypse Now, because of the way people perceive me. It’s enough. But it’s not enough to stop me from what I’m doing. I think if One from the Heart had done well [commercially], people would have respected it. I think it was a much better movie than some giant, successful movies. You want to talk about Kim Basinger in Batman? You want to talk about that role, that film, that story? But they hired the guys who did Batman to run Sony! It wasn’t if the film was any good or not.
When you make twenty films in your career you’re bound to make some that don’t glance off the public right.
Which of your films are closest to your heart?
I tend to like the ones I wrote, like The Conversation, and the ones that weren’t such a hassle. I like Tucker. It was another kind of show, another kind of device. I happen to believe movies can be different from one another. How can you compare Tucker to Rumble Fish to The Godfather to Apocalypse? Four totally different filmmakers made them. I like to think that the punishment suits the crime: I like to ask myself if the stuff I make the movie out of can be what it’s about.
But if you want to make movies that are what they’re about, how does that figure with One from the Heart? What it was about was love, really, but what it was was an amazing formal and stylistic technological experiment.
But even that’s interesting. To tackle the theme of love and avoid it completely. If I were a painter you’d think that was pretty interesting.
Okay, a structured absence. But for a film audience watching a narrative movie, they don’t just want the style, they want the sentiment.
Well, was Love Story about love? What are we talking about here? Those kind of movies aren’t about it either. One from the Heart. I paid for One from the Heart, millions of dollars, ten years of my life. My idea was good: to do a film in that formal way, to use music and images in that way; the idea was worthwhile. It was more worthwhile than ninety percent of the movies that come out. But had that film not devastated me, Tucker would have been a very different movie. It was just an experiment for Tucker, really.
As it turned out, Tucker turned into very much an autobiographical movie.
Superficially, not really.
You didn’t think in telling his story — the ways he succeeded and the ways he failed — you were telling your own?
I knew that, superficially. I was interested in Tucker years before, and all those stories about guys who thought they could do something, and tried and failed, or succeeded. That’s the kind of story I like. Sure it’s true there’s some of me in Tucker, and some of me in Godfather III and some of me in Kurtz. What else is new? I’m the guy making it, and I’m going to make it out of my own body and out of my family and out of my children, and make it out of the stuff I feel strongly about. And if I didn’t, I’d be a formula filmmaker, which I’m not.
Tucker’s story was a tragic story, and yet you presented it with a strangely optimistic spin.
Because I want young people to know that if they have good ideas, they shouldn’t have to think they’ll be beaten out of them. As culture evolves, more and more, people with creativity and ideas are going to be important in the world. In America’s case, our creative people are our number-one asset. If we turn our back on that, we’re in trouble. This person, the Tucker kind of person, is going to be very important to the future of the country.
Speaking of love stories, the absence of sex on screen in your films, given how out in front you’ve been in other ways, has been remarkable.
It’s an interesting subject. I’ve thought about it a lot myself. I have a theory about it. When I was young, I directed a couple of nudie films. My attitude is that when you’re trying to portray erotic situations, it’s almost a real advantage to sort of not care and be very blasé about it. It’s like going out with girls when you’re very young. If you radiate a certain feeling of shyness, or “respect for the girl” as my mother taught me, the girl gets that vibration and she behaves with you in that way. Whereas she might be going out with your friend, who doesn’t treat her in that way, land be doing everything.
My feeling is in those situations on the set I tend to be very shy, and very protective of both my own feelings and the actors’ feelings, and feel very inhibited about trying to pursue the erotic. My point is that it may be that those for whom that area of life is not so overwhelming in their own lives are a lot better in bringing it out on film. But people who have a lot of it going on in their own lives, or it’s tempestuous, or it has great power for them, may just prefer to avoid it.
So the more important it is in your own life —
— The less able you are to deal with it in film. Let me give you an example. If you go on a set, and you say to the girl, “Okay, now, I really like you in this moment, take your shirt off,” she can sense your discomfort about it, and you give to the actor a certain inhibition because you yourself value that. People who really love love are private about it. People say, “We’re liberated, and we’re so sexy!” Well, if it meant so much to them, maybe they wouldn’t be so able to just throw it out there. So, in a way, the director who can shout, “Okay, honey get your shirt off! Get her boobs out!” may make the actor comfortable, ‘cause it’s no big deal. And I have the feeling that those few times I attempted to do love scenes in movies, I have not really been able to put on the screen my own attitudes about eroticism. I have never felt comfortable. Somehow I was never able to set the environment, even for myself. If I was ever able to do that, it could be that I might be able to make a real contribution to erotic film.
What do you think is the source of the discomfort?
I think at a very early age I was told by my parents not to think bad thoughts, and that deviants thought them; they were shamefull. I never made advances in high school because I thought I was showing respect to the girl.
As far as your own sexual identity goes, you’ve said you’re very “feminine, almost effeminate.”
Not effeminate, but feminine. Yes. I’m a feminine person, I really am.
And yet the point of view in your films is very masculine.
I don’t know the answer to those questions. It would be interesting if I would really try to deal with a subject that dealt with masculine and feminine, and sex, and romance. I think maybe I could do something very beautiful if I could find something comfortable — something I had written, and could be encouraged not to be shy about it. That’s a new frontier for me. I’m a man fifty-one years old who always saw his life in terms of romance and, certainly, the feminine ideal of women. I have many more personal feelings about that than I do about gangsters and violence. I am not the slightest bit interested in gangsters or violence. I am interested in power. But I’m interested in legitimate, constructive, Faustian power. Building cities, and new systems that bring people together in some joyous way. I’m not interested in power to be Ming the Merciless.
Well, one could be interested in power and make a movie about relationships.
I could make a movie about relationships. I might really be able to make a movie about relationships. I haven’t done it. I have more to do.
You’re fairly chauvinistic: family, children, the man at work, the woman at home. Those are the things you still value.
Oh yeah. But I tried when I was very young, I made The Rain People thirty years ago, even before women’s liberation. It was my own original idea, of wanting a woman heroine — a woman who loved her husband but didn’t want to be married. That was pretty remarkable for a twenty-four-year-old guy. But even that film, I didn’t hit it off very well with Shirley Knight [who played Natalie, the lead]. Whereas I wanted the character to be a well of feeling, I found her very masculine, very abrasive.
It’s interesting, because while you send your heroine out on the road, her destination is always to get back to her husband.
Well, that may be the destination. Also I was the first one to hire a woman to be the head of a studio, Lucy Fisher. My teacher was a woman, Dorothy Arzner. We had several woman directors’ programs when there weren’t any. So while it’s true I have the family/children/wife, maybe I’m trying to keep my hands on all the good things. Just like I’m so interested in technology and the future, and yet I’m so traditional about books and old-fashioned things.
People are always most interesting in their contradictions.
Characters certainly are. [Coppola tries to turn on a light in the darkening room, but it doesn’t work.]
See, technology, Francis! It’s not gonna save us!
[Laughs.] It’s not reliable. But neither is anything else.
The women who leave the family in your films, they pay a price for it, a great deal of guilt and anguish in the face of leaving, and they return. Natalie does in The Rain People, Franny[Teri Garr] returns in One from the Heart, Peggy Sue [Kathleen Turner] returns even when she has a chance to do it over again, a different way, in Peggy Sue Got Married, and even in Gardens of Stone, a very independent woman played by Angelica Huston improbably commits to a man who’s just about to leave her to go off to Vietnam. Even the few strong woman characters you have, always return to their men.
It would be interesting to see how I treated subject matter I wrote myself — not about gangsters or about war; I got sort of waylaid on The Godfather, so I spent six or eight years of my life on it, rather than the two I thought. I was interested in directing Agnes of God, I guess because of the whole Catholic thing. I’m a very emotional person. I’m very moved all the time, by things I witness. I would like to make some films that are more emotionally the way I feel. Sometimes I hear a piece of music, like a piece of Spanish music, and it rends my heart. I would love to make a film like that. I didn’t care much for the Peggy Sue project or Gardens of Stone, but in that one I was struck by the honor and sweetness of the army, that appealed to me, I was moved by it, maybe because I went to military school. These were projects I was doing to try to get through the debt payments I had. I never did anything, even Peggy Sue, that I disrespected. I always try to find something, one concept about it I can latch onto, and in Peggy Sue it was “Our Town.” A lot of it is the deal of the deck.
I would like to do a project dealing with eroticism, dealing with women, that deals with the subject of a woman’s femininity. I would feel very pleased to study it, learn about it, do the research on it. That’s the secret: film directors choose their projects by what they want to learn about. I would love to be able to explore how to put my feelings on the screen about love and romance.
You have a big project called Elective Affinities.
No one’s going to hire me to go do that now. They’re going to hire me to do something like Bonfire of the Vanities, not these cockamamy movies I have in my head. But if I am able to be wealthy and powerful, through the success of other work, then I’m going to get the chance.
What about doing these movies the way you’ve always talked about wanting to do movies — really small-time, like an “amateur”?
With the facilities here, what we can do with post-production, all electronically, and what we have in Napa, it is possible for me to operate more as a, quote, “amateur.” Maybe what’s going to happen is that I’m going to do a big picture, then a little picture, a big picture, then a little picture. Maybe that’s my destiny.
When you went to Tulsa to do The Outsiders and Rumble Fish you were really down on the world of adults.
I’m always like that. I get along well with kids, and adults I find much more arch in the way they organize their opinions and their relationships. Most adults worth knowing still have a lot of kid in them. I really believe children are born wonderful and good and full of everything we admire and it’s only in this period of education that we knock them to hell, and we do it generation after generation. To the extent adults keep this point of view, they’re wonderful.
Now, your own kids are no longer kids, but young adults. If Sofia was a kid when Godfather III started, she’s certainly not anymore.
No, she’s retained it. She had a big finger pointed at her, and she was tough enough. I wouldn’t have subjected her to it otherwise. What you must have figured out by now is that I made a casting choice. She was right for the part and no one else on the horizon was. That character has to do something very specific. I was thrilled to have gotten Winona Ryder [his original choice for the role]. I went way out of my way to accommodate her, ‘cause she was coming late to the picture. And so when she couldn’t do it, I had nowhere else to turn, and I reached out for my daughter, more as I always do with members of my family, because I knew I could count on her.
Paramount has never known anything about these Godfather pictures, and they were much more curious about what star could they put with Andy Garcia, and they were ready to just fly Madonna in there. It’s got to be Diane Keaton’s daughter! It’s got to look like Al Pacino! If you’ve seen the stills, she looks like their daughter. It was casting. If she had not been my daughter, but had been the babysitter that I had seen on the set, I might have done the same thing, if I had felt that the girl had enough stuff to come across.
There were some associates close to you who were upset with you for putting your daughter through it.
Look, we make decisions every day that my associates banter and argue about. To be quite honest with you, Tom Cruise didn’t get a bigger part in The Outsiders because Fred Roos [Coppola’s long-time producer] wanted Rob Lowe. And we made a trade-off there. What went on in this movie is no different. A lot of times I put people in movies who I have a gut reaction about, who other people don’t see. Al Pacino in the first Godfather movie is the biggest example. There wasn’t a chorus of approval.
I know you had to fight hard for him. You had to fight hard for Brando!
I could give you fifteen examples. I didn’t want Talia to play Connie, because I thought she was too good-looking. I thought the sister should be like the homely Italian girl — that’s the way I understood the character — and my sister is really pretty in my eyes.
With Sofia, all these Paramount guys were hovering around, and they didn’t have the right to make the decision, to question me, but they did — on the angle that it was for my own good, and that they wanted to be sure I knew what I was doing to my family. It was bullshit — they wanted to have a famous chick in there with Andy! It got very weird. I said, “Look guys, get off my set. Get out of here. You had nothing to do with the first two Godfather pictures, don’t bug me now.” And Sofia cried. I talked to her that night and said, “What do you think, Sofie? Do you have the guts to try this, ‘cause I think you’re right for the part, and if I don’t cast you I don’t know who I’m going to cast. I’d rather cast you — and we’ll do it together and nurse our way through it — than have them send some thirty-five-year-old actress because they want to put her on the cover of a movie with Andy Garcia.” And she said she’d do it. She had the guts to do it. The thing about Sofia is she’s real, she’s authentic.
[Pause.] You know, I was never sponsored by anyone. If I had been, I might have been able to do things in a more methodical, orderly way. Usually, we’re using our resources to their limits. We’re borrowing $10,000 and I have to use that $10,000 as if it were $50,000. We’re independent. It’s probably foolish that I haven’t tried to become more ensconced with some business interest. But I’ve never been portrayed as anything but a guy on a tightrope, which is an interesting story, but it’s not the whole story. I’ve been on a tightrope for twenty-five years. I have not been able to find a place to be a comfortable part of the American film industry.
But being a part of that system was something you had never been comfortable about.
But I want to be part of America!
Okay, you want to be part of America, but as far as “the system” goes, you were on the phone to Warner Bros. when you were out on the road in the sixties making The Rain People telling them that the system was going to fall under its own weight. Yes, you didn’t have that sponsorship, but in large part because you never trusted that sponsorship.
Uh-huh, and I don’t! I was a kid of the television era. I know all of the history. I was raised in show business. I thought day and night about it. Whatever happiness I’ve had, I’ve been given by show business. But to see people come along who are Johnny-Come-Latelies, and to see them enslave it, and mislead it, and who aren’t interested in it — it makes you feel like that. It’s not that I don’t love the system, it’s that I do love the system. And it seems like it would be so easy to have it be right. It’s a frustration I can’t get my hands on.
Not that it was so great under the old studio system, but parts of it were. Those studio gates are always closed, and I don’t understand it. A little studio like Zoetrope, if we had been allowed to survive, would have come to our equilibrium. In fact, it’s a better company today — more fertile, productive, and better run — than it ever was. But it takes a while to learn those lessons.
Don’t you think part of the reason sponsorship has been hard to find is that in the heady days in the beginning of Zoetrope, both in the late sixties in San Francisco and then in the late seventies in Los Angeles, you were pretty combative about what you said Zoetrope’s place would be in the industry? People resented you for it.
There’s no question that they resented me.
You said in the late sixties that within a few years you’d be “bigger and more important than any two Hollywood studios combined,” and when you finally got your Hollywood lot ten years later, you said it was going to be the survival of the fittest and that “the long-established studios will be brought down.” Maybe this made it kind of pleasant for the powers that be to taste your failures.
Yeah, my failures . . . as long as they don’t tell me there’s some spot on my X-ray and I have to stop. I think I’ll always be cooking up ideas and having those passionate feelings. Whether I try it again, or am in the position to try it again, or whether I would try it again, if I get to live another ten years I’ll do ten years of interesting things. I never made it a secret that I wanted to run things along the lines that I tried. Whether I was too rash about what I said . . .
We did have a high school apprenticeship program, we did develop technology, we did give women opportunities, we were doing what we said we were going to do. Even in this crippled time in the last ten years, we’ve been doing these things.
Do you see renewed expansion of Zoetrope along the lines you had imagined? It’s been a one-director studio for a while now.
Yes, in terms of famous directors, we haven’t had the clout to attract others. I’m clearly a little different at fifty than I was at thirty. I think a lot more about the country than I do about the Hollywood system. It’s all one subject, of course. Running up against the Hollywood system is like running up against the State Department.
Do you want to make movies for the rest of your life? After Tucker you hinted that you wanted to try sculpting.
I just didn’t want to make movies anymore then, that was such a heartbreak. I don’t know. I’d like to be an inventor. I like to get excited about projects. Like the old days of theatre in college: it was the only place on the campus where you could go at night, work, and pretty girls would be there, and you could stay up late, you could go to the opening. In the modern world, this building is full of electricity. Where else can young people go? They are pretty much closed out of everything. I like generations interacting, like a family. Old people’s destination is their own death.
You still have as much faith in technology as you’ve had in the past?
It’s somewhat paradoxical, given that the first movie you produced, George Lucas’s THX 1138 warned — very strongly — of the dangers of technology, and in some ways your most personal and greatest film, The Conversation, does the same: warns that technology is very much a double-edged sword.
Without a doubt. Someone once said to the great Goethe, after drinking too much, “You poison yourself.” And he said, “Too much of anything is poison. If you drink too much water, or eat too much bread, it can be poison. However, a little bit of poison, in moderation, makes you feel good.” What I get out of that is that technology, this incredible stuff we’re dealing with, requires balanced human beings to embrace it and function with it in a positive way. If we produce human beings who at a young age are taught to be out of balance, then you give them technology — and all other stimulants — of course they’re not going to know how to deal with it. Because they’re not healthy themselves. We’re going through a transition in the family itself. So many kids are from broken homes and live away from their family . . .
The way in which you’ve talked about technology is so grand. You said, at the Oscars ten years ago, that all this new stuff was “going to make the Industrial Revolution seem like an audition in a small-town theatre.” That’s a great line, but it hasn’t.
Well, I was trying to talk to them as show business people!
Your attitude reminds me of the modernist architects in the early twentieth century, who felt that because building technology was changing, people would be changed. Because we’d remove ornament, people wouldn’t lie; and because we’d have glass walls, people would have to tell the truth — there would be no room for hiding. That the technology would actually change people’s souls. Well, that didn’t happen. And it seems like you have the same kind of born-again faith in technology, that it will in some way free us.
Don’t forget I’m a theatre director, a film director. You need technology in world communications because technology makes it possible. The other part of the formula is, you need a constant stream of artists that have developed. Even the home video cassette. You will see — mark my words! — a tremendous amount of talent come from the fact that everyone has the technology, cheap. The whole film industry is going to be astonished that in six years some little fourteen-year-old fat girl in her garage in Akron is going to emerge as Mozart! Because of the technology that’s spread around now. Some lonely little kid is gonna do their own thing, and do something beautiful of gargantuan proportions. I believe in this. Even in that Oscars speech, I was trying to make it clear that it’s technology united with the human spirit, and not to be afraid of it. It can be the servant of the artistic community.
But that’s all it is, and it’s a dumb servant. Synthesizers certainly haven’t made music any better.
Artists just work with the technology they have. If there’s only eggs, you have to use yellow paint. Matthew Brady’s photographs are not inferior because he didn’t have a Nikon. All I’m saying is that you have to use the technology that’s there.
You’ve predicted that soon film production will go twenty times faster. How so?
I believe this. Look at modern movie production, in New York, with Bobby De Niro and Harrison Ford: they get a shot for twenty minutes, then they go back into the trailer for two hours. Now, if you could figure out a way for all those creative people to not sit in their trailers for four-and-a-half hours a day, if there was a way they could go in and just do their thing, it would go incredibly faster. And the actor would prefer to be acting for six or seven hours, like a musician. But the stop-start part of mechanical filmmaking drives everybody crazy.
But what’s going to change it?
Well, I always believe that modern filmmaking will be a synthesis of film techniques: cinema style (especially as it relates to editing), and live television, sound-on-sound modern recording, and videotape production and theatre. And that the best of those mediums, due to the extraordinary revolution in things related to technology, would make a sort of new medium possible. And together it would give the film artist such incredible control and flexibility. Because sometimes now making modern movies is like trying to climb Everest. Everything is so hard.
Here you are climbing Everest again with Godfather III. Yet at the end of 1987 you were still saying you had no interest in gangsters —
— And you would not do Godfather III because you’d just have to tell the story again, which you were loath to do. By the end of l988, you were in. What changed your mind?
[Pause.] I do everything by my feelings. If my feelings are hurt, I’ll do something stupid, to try to get some relief from that. I’m a person, probably a manic-depressive person: I’m either very enthusiastic or I really get sad, and I regret, or I feel badly. I showed Apocalypse Now, unfinished, because my feelings were hurt because everyone was bugging me that I didn’t have it finished. I pulled One from the Heart from theatres because I was so hurt by what happened with the picture — that it was reviewed before it was done, and everything else — so I pulled the picture back to lock it up in a safe so that no one would ever see it, and that someday, years from now, if anyone wants to see it, I’ll show it to them. (But I didn’t know it had already been sold for videocassette!) Everything I do is because of my feelings.
What changed your feelings about doing Godfather III after resisting for so long?
Over the years, I had heard about them doing scripts, with different people being involved. And I was shocked that they would do that without consulting with me. And they said they didn’t because I’d told them I wasn’t interested — which was true. But, still, the real reason they did that was because it was the cheaper, easier way for them to control it. So for sixteen years I heard of developing things, and they never once came to me and said, “You can do anything you want to do.” They always said, “Will you do this script?” and it was always some stupid script. I was the one that made the first film, and I made the second one just out of the top of my head. I was sort of hurt that they never came and said, “Francis, we offer you Godfather III, do it any way you want.”
So, finally, when they came to me and said that, I realized that if I could pull it off, I could once again have an audience. All movies have a style. And I think if Tucker had been a little more conventional, and emphasized more naturalistic acting, it would have been more successful. So I didn’t know who my audience was. The kind of film I liked wasn’t the kind of film the audience at large did. And I really felt that if they gave me carte blanche to do Godfather III, I knew the public really liked that style of film, and I might have an opportunity to do something artistic, as I did with Godfather II, where I worked an old screenplay idea of mine about telling of a father and son at the same age. So, in a sense, Godfather II was just an opportunity to do that.
Here they were, offering me once again the opportunity to have an audience. All I needed was a concept to be interested in, so I wouldn’t think it was just drivel. And then I started to think about all that had happened to me — now that I’m older — all those thoughts that a man has: God, I’ve made mistakes. Will my children love me? Am I leaving anything, really? And I realized I could approach Michael Corleone more as that kind of man. That he could be older, that he could be a kind of King Lear.
And then I began to read about the Banco Ambrosiano scandal and the Vatican scandal. I felt I had a fertile story context that wasn’t just going to be about Venezuelan drug lords and machine guns. And so with those two things I started to find myself speculating about it, and so when they really said to me, “Would you do it?” I had an angle. I didn’t have an angle before that. That’s all you need. Something that gives your heart permission to pursue it.
In doing this, were you in some way saying it was okay for you to return to the field of classical storytelling, and that you were accepting that you were very, very good at it?
I return to the field of classical storytelling in a story that should be told that way. I’m not eschewing certain types of movies. It’s just the tyranny where all the movies are the same that really bugs me. The fact that, as Godard said, you could cut the main titles off the ten most acclaimed directors in America and all the movies would be in the same style. Whereas if you go to the East Village and take the ten most acclaimed artists, they’d all be different. I don’t understand why our art form has to be enslaved. It’s big enough, it’s broad enough that it can afford to have a little variety and variation.
Well, it has something to do with the intersection between commerce and culture.
Oh, it’s economics, without a doubt. Those studios, at the time when I wanted a studio and I was conspiring to see if I could get Fox — those studios were selling for $300 million. Now they’re selling for $6 and $8 billion. Let’s be honest: it’s a profitable business! And the studios are run by people who are, generally, not geniuses. And they make a lot of money. It’s more profitable, with more upside than there’s ever been. And now it’s going to be the whole world. It is the whole world! What was the question you were asking me?
We were discussing why all those ten movies look the same. What kind of “programming” is being done?
It has to do — yes! — with some type of slavery. I know that. Some enslavement. My only point about the fact that these movie companies are worth so much is: among those great profits, isn’t there a little bit to develop talent and allow for a little variety, to do lower-budget films? Isn’t there a little bit for R & D that can go back into the film industry? There isn’t anything. They don’t put anything back into it.
Are you still happiest when you’re writing? Is that still your greatest joy?
I just enjoy imagining things. Daydreaming. Daydreaming is nice, before it’s checked. An idea can give birth to another idea before it’s prematurely killed. I found in dealing with people, with society, that you barely get an idea out into the room before there are four or five reasons why it should be killed. Sometimes good reasons, sometimes not. Nonetheless, if you kill off an idea too early then you never get to places you would have gotten to. I like very much the imagination process. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found I can do it much better alone.
When you write, do you turn off the censor completely — the critical mind — on the first pass through?
According to my biases, I have it off. And it’s only when I’m educated by someone else to why something is a stupid idea that I can see that. I just feel that everyone is too soon to say “No.”
Despite what you learned in the middle of Apocalypse Now, do you still feel like a writer first and a director second?
Well, like an inventor, a creator, an instigator of ideas.
One of the things you’re known for is a more improvisatory style during the actual production of a film —
Yeah, I call it collaboration. All projects are a combination of structure and improvisation. There’s the comment that a script by me is like a newspaper — you get a new one every day. On Godfather III maybe the script was a newspaper because the news was coming in every day: Robert Duvall will not be in the picture; we don’t have enough money to do the funeral scene; Winona Ryder won’t be there for this or that scene. So I kept trying to make changes so that the script would hold water. I don’t think if I was directing “Streetcar Named Desire” that there’d be a new script every day, unless Blanche maybe will not be there for the nervous-breakdown scene.
But even on Apocalypse, while you were making it, you were wrestling with what you wanted it to be more than probably most directors would allow.
We started out making it from an existing project, and I was trying to find my own personal take on it. We had a John Milius screenplay that had a lot of great elements but hadn’t gone through the final gestation process, even with that writer. The last quarter of it was unresolved. The way that script usually ended was: Kurtz [Marlon Brando] and Willard [Martin Sheen] meet up and the next thing Willard knows, he’s side-by-side with Kurtz, fighting in the trenches. It wasn’t appropriate anymore for what we had done.
Again, there’s a big difference when you’re dealing with an existing piece of literature, a play or a novel, because that piece has already gone through an improvisatory period. Kazan, Brando, out-of-town tryouts evolved “Streetcar Named Desire.” Any performing art goes through that process where everyone contributes. When we make something like Godfather III, we’re not just trying to make a movie, given the serious nature of this drama; we’re trying to make a little piece of literature, and do it on demand. So of course, unlike an existing novel, it’s going to go through all sorts of rewrites.
Let’s talk about your decision to make this “little piece of literature.” The end of Godfather II feels like as much of an ending as one can imagine: Michael Corleone may have become one of the most powerful men in the country, but he’s, as you once said, a corpse. And not only is he a corpse, but all the thematic strains that you’ve worked through both movies have been resolved — the immigrant saga, the story of American business and the entrepreneur, the sociopolitical tableau, the family saga — all have been beautifully resolved. Now here we are sixteen years later, and you’re going to breathe life back into that corpse and make him walk. Did it ever strike you that this was something you shouldn’t be doing, that there were great risks involved?
I didn’t see it from the point of view of risks so much, but I did see it from the point of view that I made Godfather II to end the thing. For many reasons, I wanted to end it. It’s not an episodic adventure along the lines of Indiana Jones. I couldn’t just start a new adventure. I’d have to do it with the human being, Michael Corleone, and he was effectively Richard Nixon. And I didn’t know how to do it, and I didn’t know you could do it. That was maybe part of the reason I didn’t want to tackle it again.
But when I finally accepted the job, I thought I had one last card to play, which is Michael’s dialogue with himself about his morality. Was he a good man or a bad man? If he was a good man, how does he feel about how he stained himself? If he was a bad man, how does he feel about his hypocrisy, in relation to his children? With younger people, you want to portray yourself as a good person because you want them to believe in good. So, just in itself, that was interesting to me. And then I began to think I could do it like a Shakespearean play. So I thought if I work on it, if I stay up enough nights on it, maybe I’ll be able to get a handle on it. And that’s why I attempted
to do it. And if I am able to bring Michael Corleone to life, and he’s a man in the third act of his life, then it will have been a success.
You said yesterday one of the reasons you hadn’t done it sooner was that your feelings were hurt they hadn’t come to you and said, “Francis, it’s your ball, go play with it.” But you had announced any number of times and in any number of ways that you had no interest.
That’s true. And I didn’t want to do the second one, either. First of all, understand that the things I say — a lot of times, and maybe you can see this in my talking to you — as I discover things in talking, I get excited about them. And I may say, “And I tell you without any doubt!” because I myself am in the moment of discovery. I’m an emotional person. I speak and I say things without thoughtful consideration. And nine times out of ten there’s truth in what I say, because it does come from intuition.
Let’s go back to your period as a director-for-hire: The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married, Gardens of Stone. Was that a dark period for you?
Well, I knew that I was in trouble. That was a period where I was fighting to keep my home. And a lot of things in my life were falling apart. And my response to trouble is to work hard. That’s my conditioned response. I was digging myself out of a hole. I enjoyed making Rumble Fish very much, being able to make a stylistic flight of fancy. Peggy Sue was very easy. Tucker was pleasant, being with George Lucas again. But clearly, I felt there would be a point in my life where I was going to go with a very low-budget, amateur-type, hi-8 production or I would find myself in the industry where they would allow me to do what I had done on Apocalypse, where I take a big subject my own way.
Your heart wasn’t really in those movies.
I wouldn’t say that —
Well, I said a lot of things. I didn’t like Peggy Sue, I didn’t like the script. But it’s like, with a girl, and she isn’t really “the one,” but after you get to know her you find something about her that you like. I can’t say I dislike any of my films, at all. Every one of them has something endearing, or interesting, or sweet, or that I was able to enjoy.
Did you ever feel in those years like Natalie in The Rain People, who says, “I used to wake up and it was my day . . . and now it belongs to you”? Did you feel then that your day belonged to the accountants and the studios and the lawyers?
I’ve felt that throughout my career. I felt that on Godfather III. I thought there were unreasonable demands being made on me, as far as time went.
I thought that if I could have made it over a slightly longer period of time I could have finished the script before we were cast. I feel like that little bit of rush turned a difficult job into an even more difficult job. Every day and every night I have to be worried about something? Would it really have been a less good work if it came out six months later? What’s the difference? Paramount waited for sixteen years — they couldn’t get it together — why do I have to do it in sixteen months? [Pause.] At the same time, I also know that pressure can bring out good things that wouldn’t come if you didn’t have your back up against the wall.
Did you make any aesthetic choices on the films between Rumble Fish and Godfather III that you’ve come to regret?
I can’t say that.
One of the things you said before making Life Without Zoe was that “this is going to be as bad as the horse’s head.”
What I was expressing was that I have a feeling there’s tremendous biases and prejudices out there, especially about something on a little rich kid. I knew that a little rich kid who sips a martini with her father, who likes to go shopping, was going to be considered improper and wrong. It was prejudice. A little kid like that had a good heart — she kept her promises — so what that she sips strawberry daiquiris? Well, obviously, that stuff was all based on my kid. I always thought my kids, when push comes to shove, are always real loyal, true blue, honest, won’t let down a friend. That’s much more important than whether she loves Chanel clothes. Sometimes she can’t afford Chanel clothes. I was trying to do something that I knew was not in the popular culture to accept. That’s what I meant by my comment. There are people who aren’t interested in their children, who have nothing to do with their children — right away they have all these strict, condemning ideas. And I, who am with my kids, and live with them and play with them and drink with them and live with them: I know more about children than they do because I really do it. That’s what I meant. People are very quick to condemn, but they don’t always have the right to do it.
I’ll speak for myself: I wasn’t offended by the world of rich kids being depicted — it’s an interesting world — but I was troubled by the kind of un-ironic celebration of status, wealth, and materialism.
Well, what happened was, it was a longer play put into that format. Disney pretty much liked the “Eloise at the Plaza” thing, and through each cut, all the darker stuff, about the little girl’s relationship with her father, was just cut out. If you wanted to see the real version, I have it. But you can’t talk about that. The original screenplay had a lot of dark parts about it. And in the attempt to make it delightful and charming, they were eliminated.
It leaves an awkward feeling. You have a scene with a homeless man — who’s in a box, never seen — that feels gratuitous. Because this little rich girl gives him a bunch of Hershey Kisses, he says, “She’s why I love New York!”
It’s not that she gave him Hershey Kisses, but that she promised that she would and she kept her promise. All throughout the story she kept her promises. She was always trying to do good things for people. At that point, not that I didn’t care, but I knew a certain kind of people in New York were not going to like it. I feel there’s more to it. That particular project was also very personal, and I have a lot of insights that nobody cared to get. And I accept it. I don’t mean to say that all of my films people should like. One from the Heart, Life Without Zoe are the acknowledged failures according to the people that declare failures. But I know, having made the film, that there is something there. I know that I am especially not popular with New York writers.
Just take all my work and clip the New York Times. There is a certain mentality. It’s very predictable. It was stupid of me to do that film. I really only did because I wanted my daughter to design the costumes, just like I only did One from the Heart because I wanted to have my studio. I sometimes do things like that. If you could read the whole screenplay or see my cut, before Disney cut it, you might think there was something there, but the way it was received was extremely insulting. So I’m sorry you saw it, but I like the version I have in my house that I can show people ten years from now.
Also, we had other problems. We had Dominica Scorsese [Martin Scorsese’s daughter] playing the part, who was much more like my daughter, but we had to replace her with a second girl. The whole thing didn’t happen the way it was supposed to.
Yesterday you said you’re not interested in gangsters or violence. Of course, after The Godfather you vowed you were never going to make another violent movie —
I said that? You heard me say it? You read it in some article?
They’re all lying, Francis. Every journalist you’ve ever talked to has put words in your mouth!
No, but thirty-five percent are. That’s why I think journalists ought to let you read what they write before it’s published. You’d have an opportunity, not to change what they say, but to point out a mistake they’ve made. But they have a fit about that.
Let’s follow this lead. There was a period, maybe vendetta is too strong a word, where you and the press were definitely not getting along.
The press didn’t like me. What did I do?
Well, you didn’t like them either. You told Gay Talese in Esquire magazine that a rampant press was the scourge of the country.
Well, a lot of people feel that.
Let’s consult the record, accurately, on this. You said, I quote, “The press is a millstone around the country’s neck. It is not a force for honesty, ethics or truth. It is a bullshit racket.” And Talese said, “Yeah, but the press brought down Nixon. “And you said, “I think that having Nixon in power would be better than a rampant press.”
I believe that. I’m very worried, because, first, the press is a business. The press has a board of directors that runs like the one that runs Paramount, or any other company. And they’re very sensitive to what’s good for their business and what’s bad for their business. So that’s a factor. The press likes to represent itself like a public service, but we know that it’s not. Secondly, there’s about a sixty-five-percent chance that what goes on is represented correctly. Consequently, when I read about the Middle East or Iraq I really wonder about that thirty-five percent. There’s more to the story. And a third thing: very often journalists already have their story, or photographers already have their picture, and the encounter is more to get you to fit into the position they have. Plus, there is another kind of psychology at work, in that the press is not a thing, it is a lot of individuals, and certain kinds of individuals: they’re smart, they’re ambitious, they’re usually from a certain kind of social strata. They’re the children of taxicab drivers, people who now are in the position, if they’re with the New York Times, to call up Carl Icahn and he’ll answer their call. So there are a lot of factors that make the press extremely complex and a very powerful entitity.
It’s the power of the press that interests you. It’s power that really interests you, period, and your greatest work fundamentally concerns its use and abuse.
I think all people share an interest in power, because all people are subject to it. Anybody who’s ever had someone park in front of their house wishes they had the power to say, “You can’t park in front of my house.” Children are very sensitive to power; men and women are very sensitive to power. Living in the world, your power relative to the other forces is a concern. But I don’t think I’m obsessed with it. I’m also interested in other broad things: beauty, imagination.
What have you learned about power through your exercise of it?
I learned: don’t scare the natives. Don’t let them be afraid that your power will be bad for things. I think after World War II there was a movement in philosophy to shun the charismatic individual. In fact, to go the other way, to think more about generality and plurality.
History from the bottom up.
Yeah. And beware the unusual individual. So I do feel we, as a culture, have turned from being attracted to that type of individual to being distrustful of
it. There will be another period where there are charismatic political leaders, until there’s another Mussolini and everyone’s hurt. But there is a distrust for people like me in this period. So therefore a person like me should try to be a little more prudent. Go slow. Don’t frighten anyone. My exuberance is mistaken for megalomania.
What else have I learned about power? The value of partnership, and the value of being vested with the previous power. To really make it in our world you need to have a godfather. You need to have an old . . . what they call an alter cocker, or godfather. That Lew Wasserman should like you. That Herb Allen, that Charlie Allen, Sr., should take an interest in you. That there are kingmakers. Like Mexican politics. There is no way around it. Unless you strike lightning in the bottle, like Steven Jobs. Even a man like Ted Turner — it was only because he was so right about media that he survived.
Everybody knows that power in America is economic. And that five percent of the population controls some incredibly percent of the wealth, and that the real political power of the country is vested in other forms not immediately apparent.
How do you feel about being a part of that five percent?
Well, since I’m always on the verge of total extermination, I don’t think of myself as a wealthy, powerful person. I feel sort of like the guy in “The Fugitive” on television. I had the happy accident that my home turned out to be a very valuable asset. Since that got put on the line in every transaction I made, the issue was, was I going to lose my house? And I was always running, out of that anxiety. I’ve really wished sometimes that I just had a little regular house somewhere. [Coppola has residences in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Belize, in addition to his estate in Napa.] The smart move for me after One from the Heart would have been to go bankrupt. But I didn’t want to lose my home and the rights to my movies.
But even the businessman who’s making $100,000 a year is in that top five percent of the American pyramid, and by world standards, he’s in the top fraction of the top one percent —
Without a doubt, without a doubt. But if he’s really sweating that he’s going to lose his house and they’re going to take away his job, it’s hard to portray him as being in power. Because he’s gotten himself into a position of being more vulnerable than my friend who lives in a sixty-five-dollar room and just lives his life.
There’s all kinds of power, too. I would more like to be, now, this kindly old guy where somebody might once in a while ask me my opinion and value what I say. That’s a kind of power that I think I would like, because that’s a soft power. Let’s face it, as the great people die that we have in our culture, people my age are being promoted into being the kindly grey eminences.
And people might like the fact that I don’t have axes to grind and might want my opinions. And that’s the kind of power I want a lot more. No one’s frightened of it, and everyone loves that kind of person.
Let’s go back to what we were speaking about yesterday, the duality of your failure and your success. I’m interested in your feelings about being successful, when you were. I’m going to bring up some things I guess there’s a sixty-five-percent chance you said. After The Godfather, you said that you were as rich and successful as you’d ever want to be, and because of that, all your motives would have to change. What had your motives been before that?
I wanted to have a niche for myself. I wanted to be considered an interesting filmmaker who wrote his own stuff. And all I wanted was a million dollars to invest, to know the rent was paid, and not have to use my family’s money to buy cameras and stuff. And then when I got more than that, it opened me up to another threshold. That’s just the way it is with wealth and power. You always want just that, but each time you’re on a new threshold, there’s always another flight of stairs to go up.
And then after Godfather II, you said some things that reflected back on your family experience. You said you had finally lived out all your “hopeless childhood fantasies.” You also said, “I’ve got my name in the paper, I’ve got a big house, but those are my parents’ dreams.” That you hadn’t yet made a movie from your own heart.
It’s true. Coming from the family I did, I wanted the approval of my father and my mother a lot, and so consequently their dreams, that generation of dreams, was pretty conventional. Be rich and famous, have a mansion, drive a Cadillac. You’re at a party and you’re talking to a girl and she’s impressed to know you. All those things I did have. But what I started to realize is that I like very much to be cozy and secure and in a small place. If you see my house in L.A., or my Volkswagen I go camping in — this penthouse is very opulent because it’s the vision of Dean Tavoularis [Coppola’s production designer], but it’s still a little tiny bedroom — you see that I really prefer to be secure, in comfortable, cozy quarters, to be by myself, to explore my different interests, working on an invention or working on a script. That’s my real nature. And I don’t need to have so much of the other stuff. Although for anyone, it’s a kick to be put into a big suite in the hotel in Paris. Maybe you wouldn’t want to live there.
Let’s talk about your filmmaking technique. First off, your desire for extensive rehearsal.
I always get what they give me, which is two weeks. I always ask for three. That’s a theatrical thing. A play has six, seven weeks. I think more spatially, less linear. So I need to see the whole thing in order to be motivated to go on. I’m not a good one-two-three-four-five personality. I want all of it at once, to bring it up, like the way a Polaroid comes out, and that’s very different.
I add scenes in rehearsals — not in the shooting script — to give the actors “memories.” One thing I often do is have a scene where two characters meet for the first time, even though in the story they’ve already known each other for a while. I find that giving the cast sensual memories always helps them. As artists, as they’re playing a scene, just the fact that they share a memory — it becomes like a little emotional deposit in their bank account that enables them to better know each other.
You really like long takes, to let a scene build, rather than to chop it up into smaller pieces.
Well, when you have really talented actors, and they have been properly prepared and properly rehearsed, you never know when something you couldn’t have planned, or couldn’t have caused, might happen. You keep adding stimuli to invite that kind of accident. When I was a young director, as soon as something weird would happen, I would say “Cut.” But later I would look at the film and see some incredible thing happen and some schmuck says “Cut.” And I realized it was me! The mere fart that it felt wrong when you were watching just meant that something had happened. And that’s ultimately what you’re trying to capture.
Are there other things you do differently now as a director?
Oh, I’ve changed a lot. I’ve become more more knowledgeable about how to guide certain situations and deal with certain problems. I’ve been in some pretty tough spots on movies over the years — hopeless situations — and I’ve seen how it’s worked out.
How do you make “the part play the person,” rather than the person play the part?
Through rehearsal and these little deposits in the actors’ bank accounts, certain memories you give them through improv and sense memory and stuff, and letting the actors spend time together in that rehearsal period without being pressured or having to perform, allowing new relationships to be formed. It’s a little bit like cell culture. You’re using life, but you’re encouraging it to grow and evolve according to a plan. Like if an actor is going to hit an actress in a scene and she flinches — because in the improv he really did hit her. Stuff that is too delicate to do totally mechanically. You have to use your impulses. Working with actors is such sensitive stuff.
Do you still think Gordon Willis “hates and misuses actors”?
Yeah. I don’t know. He’s such a genius and such a complicated guy and there’s such wisdom in him. But he sure is mean to them and he sure is in-tolerant of them and in some ways he’s in competition with them. Like many great artists, he is the actor.
Was the Godfather III shoot a struggle with him?
Well, it’s a struggle only because of the time constraints, and the fact that with Gordy you’re going to get five or six spectacular shots a day, but you are not going to get twelve. And that means you very often have to forgo a shot that might have been very useful for many reasons. You’re getting six great images, but just six. Not eight or twelve. Sometimes I envy directors who have more shots to work with. But on the other hand, one of Gordon’s points is that a certain purity of image — where the camera doesn’t fool around, go under the glass table, be in stupid places — has a certain kind of classic, what Gordon would call structure, on the long pull that clicks in and gives it a certain beauty.
I like to suit the style to the subject matter. Gordon and I sat in a room before we made The Godfather and decided that the camera would never move, the camera would never use a long lens, and stuff like that. To suit the recipe of that piece. If you give me a subject, I’ll find a style I think is appropriate. My movies are as eclectic stylistically as anyone’s. And in the future the things I’m thinking of are very different from one another.
Give me an idea about your long-discussed big project, Megalopolis.
It’s very ambitious. It’s a dramatic piece about society and the city of the future. I’ve always had a lot of opinions about that but I’ve never had a dramatic piece I could put into that. It’s based on republican Rome and contemporary America: debt was the plague of both societies, both have a patrician class, but are republics. And I’ve tried to imagine the Catiline conspiracy as happening in contemporary New York, and I’ve evolved an original screenplay based on that.
I’ll be able to work on the scale of Megalopolis if Godfather III is successful, and my hunch is that it’s going to be very successful, certainly like the other Godfather films. And I think the news will be that the big studios will want me to do another big event movie in the next few years. I know that certain Hollywood entrepreneurs think I’m good for that. I’ve already been offered. I can feel that they think I’m acceptable to big actors, that big actors like to work with me.
What’s the strongest personal connection you have to each of the Godfather films?
The first one, the connection was that they didn’t like any of my ideas, that I was going to be fired every day, but that I kept doing it the way I thought it should be done. The second one: that I had made something too big and diffuse and I wasn’t sure I could make the point I wanted to. The third one was more, how far to go with the tragedy and the operatic aspect. That the family had become myth, become opera, and how could I do that without it becoming too big?
Do you see your life as a tragedy?
No, not at all. I have a great family. I have a wonderful career. Even if I was to be, with this, disgraced as I was in the past, I’m a very flexible kind of artist. There are a million options that I have. I could direct a soap opera and probably enjoy it. I could write. I could do something technical. I love comedy. There’s no project I couldn’t direct. I love people. I live in a great place. I live in a great country.
But everybody’s life is tragic. That’s why we read the Greeks. Human life is tragic. Everybody’s life. And in that sense my life is a tragedy, but only in that sense.
How would you describe your own Achilles heel? Can you do it without giving yourself a back-handed compliment such as “I’m too generous with my time”?
I get terribly embarrassed. Terribly embarrassed. Very self-conscious. It was my lip, it was my eye-glasses, it was my weight. I’m very easily embarrassed. It’s that new-kid-in-class syndrome; I get very, very embarrassed in certain situations.
It’s easy for artists to be embarrassed by work they’ve done in the past, but I’ve heard that you are going to go back to all your work and review it.
And I’d like to do that, but I haven’t yet. By the time a movie is ready to come out, I’m so sick of it, and so polarized by it, that I’ve never been around when any of my films have opened. But then three or four years later I’ll go into a theatre and see it on the screen. I saw Apocalypse that way, also Godfather II. So I can see it as a member of the audience. And I would like one day to start with my first movie, Dementia 13, and look at them all, and use that as a helpful way to proceed in the future.
Did you really enjoy shooting Dementia 13 more than any of the others?
No, the ones I enjoyed the most were Rumble Fish — there was a great sense of freedom there. Tucker was not unpleasant, because it went smoothly. Peggy Sue was pretty pleasant, because I was close to home. I would say those three were the easiest. I have a hard time with production because I get very scared every day. I get very scared that I’m not going to know how to do it. One of the things you learn real fast making movies is that everyone has an opinion and none of them tally. And I’m very self-conscious about being there, in front of everyone, and having to make a decision. I find it uncomfortable, scary.
Remember this? “I’ve been in the custody of my parents for twenty years and they’ve taught me nothing but self-doubt, frustration, and perpetual guilt.”
That’s from You’re a Big Boy Now. Of course, I derived that from my life.
But yesterday you gave me suck a rosy picture —
But talk to anyone about their parents. If they’re happy people they’ll talk about their parents in positive terms; if they’re unhappy people, negative. My parents have that typical Italian previous-generation thing that makes you doubt yourself and lose your confidence, and feel guilty about being alive. It’s true that many of my complexes and embarrassments about myself, my insecurity about what I look like, come from that. My wife maintains that I’ve stayed overweight to “fit in” with that idea. Because if I lost the weight I’d be attractive and I’m not prepared to do that.
You’re still in a sense conforming to their idea of you as a kid.
It’s very powerful stuff you get when you’re a kid. I used to go into school with my glasses off and face covered, I was so embarrassed about my lower lip. Everybody has one thing about them that their mother . . . she wanted me to get a lip job. Now people get lip jobs to make their lips fat. She wanted to me to get a lip job to make my lip skinny.
Really? When you were how old?
All through, when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. She was very good looking, my mother. It’s what I meant when I said I was an ugly duckling. I didn’t have anything going for me as a kid. Except that I was affectionate. “Augie’s the bright one, Tally’s the beautiful one, Francie’s the affectionate one.” And it was true.
Natalie’s line in The Rain People seems autobiographical for you: “Ask my mother, she’ll tell you I’m incompetent.”
Everyone’s parents always seem to underline the bad. Is it the fear that they have? I’m sure we even do it to our kids. I’m always on Sofia for her diction and her speech. Parents’ expectations for their kids are so taken to heart. Everyone’s walking around with that stuff.
There’s a moment at the very end of The Cotton Club when this guy who’s been sleeping at his nightclub table wakes up and, seeing everyone else clapping, begins to clap. This is rich, because it can be interpreted two different ways: either Francis is making a self-deprecating comment about the whole film — here’s a guy who’s just slept through it — or he’s making a sardonic comment about the audience: that it’s asleep, and has been asleep for his last few pictures, and will only like a film (clap) if they see those around them liking it (clapping).
My boy Gio shot that. It was second unit. And I just liked that. And I did catch that it had those ramifications. But it wasn’t something that I did, it was something that my son did.
One last question about Apocalypse. Eleanor, in her book, mentions almost in passing an ending that you briefly played with, where the air strike gets called in on Willard himself, after he kills Kurtz. Where Willard himself gets fucked over. When I read that, I thought, yeah, that’s the real heart of darkness, that’s a fabulous resolution and —
Why didn’t I do it? I wanted the ending to be not-horrible. That it would show some improvement, that Willard, now having killed their god, throws down his weapons — and I had all the people throw away their rifles — and he takes this child, Sam Bottoms, and takes him, takes him home. After all that work on that movie I wanted to say something hopeful, a bit. Because I felt that. Throw down your weapon. If you’re a god, they’re going to imitate you. And if you’re a good god, they’ll be good. I knew that I didn’t want the ending just to show everybody just screwing everybody.
There was a period when you said you wanted to leave the ending vague, because you wanted your own life to answer the question of whether Willard stays at the Kurtz compound, in the heart of madness, or comes back down the river. So I guess I’m curious as to whether you feel you’ve come back down the river?
I feel I have, really. I still get . . . I . . . I’m a depressive person. A manic-depressive person.
Have you been diagnosed as such by doctors?
Have you ever tried to take medication?
I did for a while, a few years. But I didn’t like it, it made me nauseous all the time, and I felt I ought to be able to arrive at some sort of stability more through my mind. Although they say it’s chemical. But I didn’t like the thought that I was going to be on this medication, and I just stopped. They said, “You’ll be depressed,” so I said, “Well, I’ll be depressed.” They said, “Just don’t shoot yourself.”
My wife just gave me this William Styron book on depression [Darkness Visible]. She said I should read that because I sound like him. I can get depressed. I can get sad. I wonder: “What am I doing? Am I doing what I want to be doing? Everything is so hard. Nobody likes me. I’ve done so much good and yet I’m fifty years old and I’m in exactly the same situation as when I was twenty-five. I’ve got this little company that’s always on the verge of bankruptcy.” I can get pretty depressed.
Then on the other hand I can say: “I have the most wonderful children. My mother and father are still alive. My father is working and excited. And all my family gets along now. No one’s mad at anybody. It looks like I’ll have some kind of financial peace now. And I have a beautiful company and all these nice young people.”
And I can see it, the two ways. But mood is not a question of anything logical, it’s kind of chemical.
Have you ever been afraid that medication would take the edge off the creativity?
Although they say it doesn’t, you wonder about that. I’m a person of such enthusiastic fits, I may stay up all night to do something. You wonder about that. When I was taking it . . .
How long ago was that?
I haven’t taken it for about maybe three years. But I took it after Apocalypse for about four years. This was lithium. I always maintained that if I could get the elements of my life into a little more reasonable harmony . . . actor availability drove me crazy on Godfather III, because you never knew what you were shooting, and I just lost this big lawsuit, and I was going to go bankrupt, at one point I didn’t know where to turn. I couldn’t leave Sicily. There was a whole new rash of articles that brought up all my problems. They say “troubled.” My name is synonomous with trouble, though I have a lot less than many people. My point is that I wouldn’t have so many depressed times if I didn’t have so many problems. But then my wife says that’s not true.
That you would create them.
Yeah. So I’m hoping now, if I get a breather . . . I’m in pretty good shape physically. I’m very strong. I’ve never, ever been sick. Even in Apocalypse, the so-called nervous breakdown phase was more, I think, related to the fact that I was doing all these things that I hadn’t done before. I was smoking cigarettes. I never smoked cigarettes. I was smoking grass. I had never smoked grass.
There was talk you had a bad cocaine habit.
Never. I never was a cocaine type. The only drug I really experienced was grass. I had cocaine three times in my life and it wasn’t good for me. I don’t understand its appeal. I’d tell you if I did. The only drug I ever used was grass. And all of it recently, during [and since] Apocalypse.
And I was in, you know, like, love triangles, beyond my thing, and I almost — and I was tired, and Marty Sheen had just had a heart attack, and it was my own money, and I didn’t feel good about my relationship with my wife. I didn’t feel my wife understood me. I felt she was meddling, and lining up with the people that I . . .
What I learned was that when you are really overwhelmed with problems, it’s easy to faint on the floor, or have an epileptic fit.
You used to do that to get what you wanted, didn’t you? Back at UCLA film school, or trying to convince studio executives to cast Brando in The Godfather?
I am an epileptic, and these fits are real. I never did it to get something. But at a moment of weakness, it’s always a voluntary option — I think even to a real epileptic. But the difference is, it’s an easy step to do it, but a very hard step to get back. And that was an interesting thing I learned.
I was exhausted. The cigarettes, more than anything, were making me weird. The personal relationships were changing. Up until the Apocalypse period, I’d been pretty innocent: the romances I’d had were pretty conventional, schoolboy kind of romances. No drugs whatsoever, no smoking, moderate drinking. My love life was extremely conventional. Mainly all I did is work. And on Apocalypse, being freed in that way — you know, I saw these sexy Italian guys smoking on a boat [Vittorio Storaro’s camera crew], so I started smoking, unfiltered cigarettes. And started smoking grass. It was like in Vietnam: it was there and everybody was doing it. And I had a couple of romances that were sort of the-most-beautiful-girl-you-ever-saw kind of things, which all of us, when we’re young, have that fantasy. All that stuff was happening to me, and I could fly a helicopter and I lived in a volcano and my life was becoming like a story. And then, like all good things, it was too much. And when Marty had the heart attack . . . also, the grass affected me a little bit: I was much more able to say how I felt. I also started getting very paranoid. I wrote a memo to my company. I felt my own staff was jockeying for political position, and trying to bring my wife into it. And I wanted to organize things more clearly, and I wrote this memo to set things straight — and they published it. And everyone made fun of me, and I was very embarrassed. And that’s when I got the idea that it wasn’t fair what the press was doing. That I was doing all this stuff, and everyone back home was just laughing at me. And that’s paranoia. And it increased because of the trouble I was in. I was scared, too. I was scared! I didn’t know what was going to happen.
That so-called breakdown episode, I remember that night. It was over a girl, basically. And what I noticed was, the next morning, I couldn’t quite get back. I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t want to do anything. I would go for four or five days and look through the camera but Vittorio knew that I was lobotomized. Like everybody, I take personal things really strong. Some little misunderstanding with a woman, or my wife, or another woman — there were two women involved, and I was devastated by the implications of that. I didn’t want to lose my family. I didn’t want to lose my children. A lot of men can do that. But I was just not the kind of person who could go and wipe out my family like that and do a second family or something. I’m just not that kind of person. I never will do that. I just can’t. I can talk very comfortably about the great strengths of my wife. And of course, as you can gather by now, I really consider my wife like a regular person. So she has the same kind of doubts about me as you might, or the so-called “they” at large.
So now I’m very much at peace. We’ve been married so long and she’s so much my friend and stuff, that I don’t need her to be everything to me. I can provide the other in my own mind. A lot of young men go through things like that. Like for a long time, I didn’t want to be alone. If I was going to go to L.A., I would rather go be with some girl or woman. And after Apocalypse, I spent two weeks in some little Japanese inn that was half the size of my bedroom. It was the first time where, not knowing anyone in Japan, there wasn’t the option of calling any girl. I just stayed by myself. When I go to L.A. now, I just stay by myself: I’ll cook, or I’ll watch television. I don’t have any need for company.
But a lot of people, like my nephew Nicolas Cage, he’s always gotta have friends or girls around. He can’t just be comfortable by himself. Like when I stay in the city, when I don’t go out to the country, like last night after you left, I just worked on my computer, and went and had a little dinner, and went home, listened to public radio, and fell asleep. So different from what my behavior had been like.
Male artists often use the power or presence of a female to get them going, to help them create.
There is something to say — whether it’s real or just conditioning — for the idea that a girl can be a muse. Especially a girl who has confidence in you. See, I never felt that my wife had any confidence in me.
But there was one particular woman — one of the women in question — who just thought I was really . . . like the girl who has a crush on her professor. And her confidence in me made me feel confident. And when I didn’t have that, I didn’t feel confident anymore. Confidence is a very important thing. When everyone is saying, “You’re going to fail,” you’re likely to fail.
And that’s why a girl, and the particular woman at the time of Apocalypse, always made me feel like a million dollars, in terms of “I was talented and I could do it.” And then when all that got disrupted, I was floating around. And there is the question of loss of confidence, in a ballplayer, in an artist. If enough people are telling you you’re a failure enough of the time . . . I’ve seen people, very, very talented people, sort of lose it. And never get it back. You can seem pretty forlorn. Even though you seem famous to people.
I have wept over the impossible question of dual loyalties. You feel loyal to your wife and your family, but you feel loyal to another person whom you have singled out for mutual confidence. This person was a writer, too. And she was a good person and she was always on my side. That’s probably the most destructive thing I’ve ever been through.
But also, as I look back, I don’t think I was so much in love and I don’t think that was so much the issue. I thought after Apocalypse Now that I just didn’t know where I was. The loss of this girl, who was always the one to make me feel really good — but I didn’t know what to do with the movie and how to finish it. She was a great, wonderful girl; she’s actually quite successful today. Do you know who she is? I enjoy that she’s happy and I see her once in a while and I have no residue of feeling about what I might have lost. I’m very happy I made the decision I did. I think it was all really about the project and needing that kind of muse to get myself together.
I kind of diddle around all the time, and some of the diddles become a project. But I don’t attach so much importance to it all. I attach more importance to how my kids are. It’s more like an older person’s point of view.
Values shift as you age.
You’re not as hungry for stuff as you were. I’m not as hungry for that kind of woman — that kind of succubus. They’re just real creatures. But as a younger man I always idealized them so much.
Early on, all your fantasies about being an artist involved beautiful women hanging around.
That was my big thing. That was all I wanted. That’s why I got into theatre. Women, girls were presented to me at a young age as extremely wonderful, goddess-like creatures.
Wasn’t part of that because you looked up to Augie the way you did, and he was very good with girls —
He was very popular. And oddly enough, even as the Ugly Duckling against the wall, girls have always loved me. I’m very affectionate. And the way I am with them they’ve always liked, so I’ve always been very successful with women, though I haven’t portrayed myself that way. Women have always liked me, all my life. But I was always real shy. And I’ve always been surrounded. It’s so funny the way we perceive ourselves so different than what in fact is real. I have this great life, if you think about it.
If someone feels that they’re a loser in some way, or it’s been beaten into them that they’re a loser, then even if they win big, they’ll still feel like a loser. And the contradiction between winning and still feeling like a loser is a very —
What you do is then you sabotage it; as I said, my wife feels that I am fat to fulfill my idea that I’m unattractive. So that you go around doing everything you do to sabotage yourself, and then you say, “See!” But you’ve done it.
[Pause.] It could all work out really nicely. I still have my company, and I like the company now more than I have. It seems to run more evenly, logically. I like this role of the grey eminence. People want to come see me, talk to me. The young director working on something wants my opinion. I like that. The grandfather.
Well, when you become a grandfather . . . you see what my granddaughter looks like? [Coppola walks across the room to show me a photo of Gio’s daughter, born after his death.] This is Gia. [He then points to a photo of Sofia, removes it from the wall and holds it in his hand.] That’s what I wanted for Michael’s daughter. I wanted the part of the daughter to represent the part of Michael that was still pure. Any man, any person, no matter who — Saddam Hussein, whoever the villain of the day is — there is a part of him that is sweet and kind, and it’s when they lose that, they lose all. [He looks down at the photo of Sofia.] The real truth was, the girl was like this.