As one of the leading lights of the '70s American film renaissance, director Francis Ford Coppola proved that it was possible, at least for a time, to make ambitious personal statements from within the studio system. Though he was nearly fired during production, Coppola fashioned Mario Puzo's gangster pulp The Godfather into a classic American epic, winning the first two of his five Academy Awards. From there, Coppola finished out the decade with a string of modern masterpieces, including The Godfather, Part II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, the latter a famously troubled production that found him staking his own fortune in pursuit of his vision. After sinking more of his own money in 1982's less successful One From The Heart, Coppola began dividing his time between personal projects and work as a director-for-hire, though his style is so unmistakable that it's sometimes hard to separate one from the other. Though his commercial and critical track record over the subsequent 15 years is spotty, debates still rage over the relative merits of films like The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, Tucker: A Man And His Dream, The Godfather Part III, and Bram Stoker's Dracula. (Jack, on the other hand, is a little short on apologists.)
It's been ten years since Coppola's last film, an adaptation of John Grisham's novel The Rainmaker, and he's spent much of that time trying fruitlessly to crack an ambitious project called Megalopolis. He's also extended his empire in other ventures, most notably his prominent Napa Valley wine label, his literary magazine All Story, and numerous upscale restaurants and resorts. After a long time away from the camera, Coppola has finally returned to filmmaking with Youth Without Youth, an ambitious self-financed odyssey based on a novella by the late Romanian philosopher and religious scholar Mircea Eliade, Tim Roth stars as a 70-year-old linguistic professor in pre-WWII Romania who gets struck by a bolt of lightning and returns to consciousness 30 years younger. Coppola recently spoke with The A.V. Club about how the challenges of shooting with his own money, defying viewers' expectations, and making movies within and without the studio system.
The A.V. Club: You've said that you start every movie with a question, and the movie hopefully provides the answer. What was the question with this film, and what did you learn during the process of making it?
Francis Ford Coppola: [Mircea] Eliade's story was so rich in ideas that I was always thinking, "Can I include all this, or will I have to cut something out?," although I pretty much included all of it. But the question for me was: What is this miraculous thing, human consciousness? What enables us, this complicated animal, to have this thinking process which is self-knowing, and which ties into memory and expectations, and enables people to have the ability to have concepts like the future and the past? And we all have it. You, sitting there, know what I mean by "consciousness" because you have it. But what if I had to explain it to someone, and in the process, understand it myself? How would I explain it? What I learned in the course of the movie and what satisfies me is that consciousness is a combination of the incredibly complex brain that we have, with all of its nuances, and synapses, and connections that intersect with so many different bodily activities that include memory and emotion, and that magic link is language. When we took that complexity and learned how to express it with language, consciousness, almost like critical mass, was born. Like a flame. Even back when I was little and they called me "Francie," I remember my thoughts and the way I viewed everything very well. I asked myself, "When did that happen? When did I become this Francie consciousness that I have now?" And I realized that it was around three-and-a-half, four years old, and that's when I had a little bit of language. So that's what I learned, or what I think I learned.
AVC: Was the main challenge to find ways to express those concepts visually, to translate what are abstract ideas into something that is going to work as a movie, or as a narrative?
FFC: Well, in terms of how one expresses ideas or observations in a film, the first thing is that the story itself is amusing or interesting or exciting. I read [Eliade's novella] and felt something exciting happened every few pages: [Tim Roth's character] becomes young, his intellectual ability increases, he comes in to contact with his lost love, he turns into a double. All of these fascinating things happen. I just found it entertaining. So I wanted to tell a fairy tale, or a fable, that you could enjoy on that level. But underneath it were layers and layers of other notions that we could talk about or better yet, someone could see the film, and think about when they go to sleep and apply it to their own lives. Did you ever wonder what, really, reality was, and how the dreams you have at night differ from experiences you have during the day, which in fact were reality for you? Is there such a thing as reincarnation? What is the role that language plays in our thinking? I feel that many thoughts that relate to those things don't have to be understood when you just enjoy the story. But it's there, underneath, and you can think about it for yourself when you see the film again, or see it with someone else, or discuss it with someone else, sort of like when you read a great book, you enjoy it, but it leaves you with other thoughts. Many times, I have read books and wonder if I ever understood it at all, even if I may have enjoyed the love story.
AVC: In a way, a few movies you made in the '90s like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Jack could be also called Youth Without Youth. What has compelled you to return to these themes of time and of age so frequently?
FFC: I have no idea. I think that's the Rorschach test. It happens when you choose a subject matter. The ones you talk about, some of them I had nothing to do with—I was basically offered a job when I needed a job, and the script was written and it was cast and they said, "Would you direct it? We'll give you a job." And I said sure. Whereas with something like The Godfather, I looked at it in my own way. I saw it as a family in a story of succession. But it's true that the things you choose tell you a lot about yourself. I don't necessarily understand those things. It really falls to someone—a critic, or a thinker outside of me—to say "Hmmm, look at that. Youth Without Youth has a theme about time and so does Rumble Fish." But I didn't know that. Now, when I think about it, I can say, "Yeah, I guess I am interested in those kinds of stories." I'm sure as hell not interested in gangsters. I had plenty of chances to direct other gangster movies, and I never wanted to. So something about me must rather pick certain kinds of stories. Whenever I meet a couple, and I get to talk to the wife—because usually they sit you next to the wife—I always think "Gee, what a smart woman. What an interesting woman." And then my estimation of the husband goes way up, because she chose him. And I think that the stuff you choose as a director is a Rorschach test as to who you are.
AVC: In the film, Tim Roth is given the time and supernatural abilities to pursue his research on the origins of language, which is a project he would not be able to complete in the span of an ordinary lifetime. Is that a fantasy that has gone through your mind at times? Have you thought about what you would do if time wasn't an issue?
FFC: Well, in a way, time isn't an issue. Death, although a certainty, is not an absolute certainty. I've never died. So someone might say to me that my time is up, and they'd reveal a curtain, and say "Guess what? There is a new phase of life that no one ever tells us about. But you're not going to die. You're going to go into this other thing to evolve as a soul, or as an angel, and you're going to get to continue to pursue what is your greatest pleasure, which is to learn." Who knows? The fun is to speculate. I don't feel particularly imprisoned by the everyday world. I accept it. I am sure if I jump out this window, it's not going to be pleasant, and I am probably going to die, but I don't know for sure. As an older guy, although I have a lot in common with a six-year-old, I read more, I think more, I enjoy innovation more, and I'm more accepting that life doesn't have to be the way I always thought it had to be. I think most people today are imprisoned by what they have been told movies have to be. I think, after seeing serial television for 40 years, people have been told that movies have to be a certain way. They have to be a thriller or a love story, they have to have violence, there has to be a character arc, there has to be a certain continuity of storyline. I don't know that that's true, I don't think it's true. But everyone accepts it, and certainly films that follow the rules often are more commercial, and films that don't are often more rewarding. At this age, and since I have become particularly wealthy, I don't particularly care what everybody's prejudice about what a movie has to be is. I am going to make the movies that I love and hope that people will see them, just as if I made you dinner I would hope that you liked it. But in the end, I am not going to serve you fast food just because it's more likely you will say it was great. I'm dismayed that the film business has become more narrow, that there isn't more variety in it.
AVC: Is that part of the purpose of this film, to try and reinvent the language a little bit? What sort of experience do you want people to have with the movie?
FFC: I want them to enjoy it as a Twilight Zone, to take it as the story I read and enjoyed and hopefully they're going to enjoy as the unusual fable of what happens to this man and his long-lost love. I've tried to make it as I know how to in terms of what it looks like, and how the story is unveiled. If it doesn't fit quite into your idea of what a movie is supposed to be, I'd ask that you give it the benefit of the doubt and see if later on you find it more rewarding. That's happened many times in my career, when the film comes out and people say, "This is crazy, this is a jumble, I don't understand it," and then they become classics 30 years later. I'm not going to say that it's going to happen to this time around, but very often unusual films don't get public acceptance right away. I mean, if you think back to the year Apocalypse Now came out, do you remember what won the Oscar that year?
AVC: 1979? Kramer vs. Kramer?
FFC: Right. So how many people are seeing Kramer vs. Kramer on their DVDs now?
AVC: Not many.
FFC: That's the point. Sometimes something a little unusual doesn't quit fit in right away.
AVC: It seems like what you're talking about happened with One From the Heart as well. You unveiled that film again recently, and seemed to find a much more receptive audience.
FFC: Well, One From the Heart did have flaws. If you ask me what I would do differently in my life, there is only one thing I would do different—which is pretty good—and that was that three weeks before we shot that movie, I should not have given in to my cinematographer, who didn't want to shoot with 16 cameras, and do it like live television. My idea was that there could be something like live cinema, where you get the cast and the musical numbers and everything and say, "Okay, kids. We're going on. 5-4-3-2-1." And do the whole performance, and then look at the finished movie. Maybe do it a couple of times, and take the best version. But my photographer chickened out and came to me and said, "I can do it so much better. Blah, blah, blah." And that was the one decision that I regret, because it may not have been a better film, but I sure would have enjoyed doing it.
AVC: After shooting movies with studio money for such a long time, what sort of adjustments did you have to make to pull off this film on a limited budget overseas?
FFC: Well, there was a lot of money that we saved by virtue of having no completion bond, no bankers, and no legal complexities that cost money. Lots of what the studio requires you to do to conform with their system actually cost the production, I would guess, 20% of what the budget is. Not to mention, if you look at how many producers are listed on the average movie today, just imagine what the plane fares cost if everybody visits the set once, and what the hotel rooms must cost. So basically, what I learned being my own financier was that you can make film much more economically.
AVC: Did the fact that this film was self-financed ever play on your conscience? What kind of pressure does that put on a movie, when you know that it's coming out of your coffers and not someone else's?
FFC: Well, I had been through that before, many times, except with much bigger budgets. On Apocalypse Now, the budget went over $35 million dollars, and I was on the hook for the whole thing. One From The Heart was $28 million, and I ate it. I paid the bank back, even though it took me ten years, from age 40 to 50, making a film every year to pay the bank back. This budget was under $15 million, and I am much richer now than I was then. So it's immaterial to me. Money is there to make your dreams come true. There's no other purpose for money.
AVC: You were talking about studio filmmaking. Recently, a substantial amount of studio money has been put behind big, idiosyncratic productions like There Will Be Blood, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Do you feel like the culture in Hollywood is changing in any way? Is there money out there for directors with ambition like there was?
FFC: I don't know. I wonder if the money for those pictures is really coming from the studios. A lot of that money is independent money, and the studios are just partnered with it. Of course, with Jesse James, that movie had the support of arguably the biggest actor in the world. So, you're going to do a western on Jesse James, you have Brad Pitt and a young Casey Affleck. It's so subsidized by the elements, and a lot of money isn't studio money. As for the Daniel Day-Lewis movie, I'm not sure who financed it. But finance isn't always the same as the studios. The studios will accept an outside financier if they reduce the risk. It's sort of like UA releasing Apocalypse Now, though I had all the risk. So I don't know if those really are studio pics. I know that studios really do not want risk.
AVC: Maybe then the question that I am asking is if there is more loose money out there.
FFC: There is a lot of loose money out there. Of course, less since there has been this credit crunch. There are a lot of wealthy people who would love the honor of being associated with a successful movie. The problem is that the distribution network is where the bottleneck is. If you've got a Brad Pitt picture, odds are that it will be distributed. But so many of these talented younger or eccentric filmmakers really struggle, and don't get a release. Period. And they're sweating other forms of how they can release the film. So the issue is really that there is a lot of talent out there, and a lot of money out there, I believe. But what is starting to dry up is distribution. There are too many pictures being made and distributed, coming out every week, each one flooding out the other.
AVC: Have there been opportunities over the last 10 years that you passed up, or have you been that devoted to cracking Megalopolis?
FFC: I'm a monomaniac. When I was working on Megalopolis, I pretty much only wanted to do that, and when I'm offered a studio picture, I can look at it and take a few phone calls, but I'm either too old or too wealthy to put up with that. I don't really want to do that anymore. Also, I'm offered projects where there are five directors I can think of who can do it as good, or better, than me. I want to make movies that only I can make. Youth Without Youth, maybe I'm crazy, but I am the only one who would make that movie. It would not be a movie if I had not existed. I was offered Thirteen Days, and I had some wacky ideas about how to do it. But they didn't want wacky ideas. And in the end, the guy [director Roger Donaldson] did it fine. I want to make movies with the same attitude as if I were going to fall in love with something. And if I don't, there isn't enough money on earth to pay me to do it.
AVC: Are you any closer to getting Megalopolis finished?
FFC: I'm not working on it. I've abandoned it.
AVC: You're on Tetro now?
FFC: I am about to start it very soon, like January.
AVC: What is that about?
FFC: It's an original screenplay. It's very different than Youth Without Youth. It's a very personal story, sort of my Tennesee Williams story where I'm trying to reach back to the younger person that I was and things I saw. It's not autobiographical, but it deals with issues of family and several generations—uncles and fathers and nephews and nieces, all of whom are artists and the pros and the cons of that.