Francis Ford Coppola on legacy, creative control, and the state of independent film.
Despite numerous Academy Awards and decades of critical acclaim, Francis Ford Coppola claims he never got to make the films he really wanted to make. Coppola is responsible for some of the greatest films of the last 30 years: The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Trilogy. He has worked with some of the finest actors in the world: De Niro, Pacino, Brando. And yet he claims that his last two films, 2007's Youth Without Youth and this summer's Tetro, are the first films that have been truly his own.With the help of an unexpected fortune-made not with cinema, but with wine-Coppola is now serving as his own studio, in complete financial (and thus creative) control of his work. The result has been two densely philosophical, deeply emotional movies, the rare result of a talented filmmaker experimenting and exploring entirely for himself. GOOD asked him if that exploration has been fulfilling, and whether creative control has been worth the wait.GOOD:You've said before that The Godfather was perhaps the most defining moment of you career. Why was that experience particularly resonant?FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: At the time, The Godfather wasn't a particularly viable story. There had been several movies about Mafia and gangsters that had not been successful, so nobody wanted to do it. I was only offered it because I was young and they thought they could push me around.G:And they were sorely mistaken, I'm sure.FFC: They figured out pretty fast I wasn't going to pushed around. But they had other reasons for choosing me too. I was a writer, so I could fix up the script. And I was Italian-American, which means if they got a lot of guff from Italian organizations about portraying them as murderers, then I would be the front man.G:This was one of your first major studio films, was it a difficult process?FFC: They didn't like my ideas or my casting. I always thought I was going to get fired. Even when it was done I thought it was not going to be successful. I thought maybe I could do a film in Canada or go off somewhere and never come back to Hollywood. So the success of The Godfather came very unexpected. It changed my life. I never had any money as a kid and suddenly I had some money and I had some status. But, even with all that, I found that I didn't know what my place was because I was not interested in making the kinds of movies that the industry was making.G:What kind of movies were you interested in, specifically?FFC: Well, I was always jealous of Stanley Kubrick because Warner Brothers would sponsor him even on weird pictures. After The Godfather I thought Paramount would be my home, but they were sold and there wasn't any loyalty there, so I was like an orphan. Even in my days after The Godfather, I had tremendous and total freedom, but within the genre that was agreed upon. But as soon as I wanted to make Apocalypse Now nobody wanted to do that-even on top of my success.G:Do you think it's even more difficult for filmmakers today to get those personal films, films that are outside those agreed upon genres, made?FFC: We're blessed with a whole list of talented independent directors, but I don't know if it's easier for them now because the distribution of independent films is drying up. Even the independent studios are really just making low-budget studio films-they're not looking for risk. If you're in your little hometown and you have your digital equipment, you could make a film like The Station Agent, but the film industry is an industry, and an industry where a lot of people make their living. It's not just the filmmakers, it's the whole empire, it's the press, it's the teamsters, it's the crew, the actors, the studios, the critics. Everyone is feeding at the same trough, so it makes films expensive. There are lots of things that you have to be clever about in order to make a film that looks beautiful and doesn't end up costing five times what it should.G:You have been able to make your last two films, Youth Without Youth and Tetro completely on your own terms, because you've funded them yourself. Are these the kind of films you've always wanted to make?FFC: Absolutely. I am very fortunate because I can just say, "ok next month we're going to film." And as long as I have the money in the bank to pay the bills we can go. Which is particularly wonderful because no one will give me the money to do it anyway.G:Why are the themes and ideas of these two films so different than what a studio might approve?FFC: They're very, very personal. By making Tetro, or any personal film, writing the script is like asking yourself questions. And you don't learn the answers until you've made the film. With the completion of Tetro, I really understood a lot of things which were issues with me.G:Like what?FFC: Like why did I write about a kid going out to look for his brother who had disappeared? Why did I have that compulsion to write about family. What did that say about my brother, my family? After the film was done, it enabled me to go on to maybe write something else that's not all tied in to my family. Now that I've finished, I feel a bit like a clean sheet of paper.G: So you're still learning about yourself, as well as the creative process of film-making.FFC: I'm making these films for pleasure, for learning, and for myself. I certainly know my films always get a very erratic reaction and it takes them a few years to settle down. And when people ask me, "are you trying to compete with the films you've made before?" I say, "no, why would I? They were all failures!"G:I'd hardly say that.FFC: Well, now they're not failures, but then they were. So I am sure the films I am making now, in 10 years or 20 years, are going to be considered more interesting than maybe they will now. And let's face it, there's going to be a point where I'm not going to be around. I won't get to see the real evaluation of these newer films. But if I know in my own heart that what I am making is heartfelt and handmade, then there's got to be some value in it.Photo by flickr (cc) user Guillermo Tomoyose