Interview by R.H. Greene
This interview was recorded on July 28, 1996 when Francis Ford Coppola was promoting the film, Jack, starring Robin Williams.
The Animated Transcript
R.H. Greene is an author, college professor, and documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles.
We move through life very fast and it’s not a matter of how long you live it’s a matter of how well you live. But that’s the theme sort of Camus’ The Happy Death. There are people who die young but they die happy because they’ve done a whole lifetime’s worth. I remember as a kid thinking about how an insect, mosquito dies in two days, and I used to worry about the mosquito saying, does the insect know it only lives two days? I mean today and tomorrow it’s going to say, God my life is half over. And of course the answer is, no. The insect does not know. That’s its lifetime.
Death is a funny thing and it’s obviously on the back of everyone’s minds or their psychology whether they want to admit it or not. I play a game in fact this is a cute game, stupid game in my elevator in Zoetrope. I always used to turn the light out and go down in the dark, would scare girls.
So you take the light out in the elevator and I go down from the eighth floor to the first floor and in that elevator I decide that I’m going to die and I’d have to make my peace and first I’m scared when it gets down to the sixth floor and then I start thinking about my kids, how nice my son is, how nice my daughter is, how beautiful my family is, my wife, my house. The work I’ve been able to work in.
By the time I’m getting to the first floor, it’s like, God how lucky I’ve been. And then I get down and the door opens, light comes on and I say, I was prepared for death, but no the door opens and I walk out and I still have more life.
Your brother, August, once said that your films are not so much autobiographical as bio-imaged.
He’s such an interesting guy. Bio-imaged? What does that mean?.
Well that’s what I was going to ask you. What you do you think he meant by that?
Well, I mean I think, if I understand the concept correctly, it would seem that all fiction is bio imaged in that ultimately at the foundation you only have yourself, your feelings, your perceptions, and your life upon which to base fiction and so that you could say it’s bio-imaged. It’s based on what you’ve seen, what you’ve felt but then you create images or situations or characters on top of that.
One would guess that you would have to write it, it would have to be your story. But maybe not, you know, because like The Godfather certainly became a film very much intermingled in my life and it was a novel that existed long before I did and certainly could have been made by another director. But you know as you know as novelists always tell people who say oh you know that’s you, or what does that come from, maybe that’s what the bio-imaging thing is, is that you know you draw on whatever you have and so you’re never quite conscious of where you’re getting it from.
Someone told me, he said, ‘I totally understand your complete body of work.’ I said, ‘well, how?’ And he said, ‘well because your films are all about solitude. The Conversation is about solitude. The Godfather is about solitude. On the other side of the solitude is the party with the family and everyone there has… that to you the solitude is the nightmare and the family and the party and everyone eating and drinking that’s the happiness.
So I said, ‘great, because I didn’t know that but it makes sense.’ I mean I know that the way I was raised and stuff you know the family really meant to me a coming together of everyone that meant good times, you know, and being alone having polio, being stuck in a room because I was the kid with the polio in the room that didn’t have any friends and wanted friends more than anything else and, you know, that was not good. I didn’t like that.
A lot of times people say, ‘how do you feel that you made all these great pictures in your 30s and that since then you haven’t made great pictures.’ And I said, ‘well it would make me feel sad but the truth of the matter is that nobody was saying that they were great pictures in their time.’ Even Apocalypse Now, I remember Apocalypse Now when it came out, mean it got some terrible reviews, but it was like it’s the weirdest thing. It’s so weird. I saw it on television somewhat recently in London. It was on television and it didn’t seem weird to me at all. The times caught up with it. I mean it’s pretty obvious.
The interview from this episode took place in 1996, just before the release of the film Jack. Let’s see what else Coppola was up to in the 90’s…
On working with Robin Williams
Coppola: “He’s really a total delight. He’s there right on time. He’s earnest. He never even goes into a trailer or sits down in a chair. He’s constantly with you and with the kids and with the team and then around 4:00 o’clock when he has his first coffee then he clicks on and then he’s a nightclub entertainer up until 7:00. But he’s a joy to work with.”
R.H. Greene: “It was a sorrowful performance, I thought.”
Coppola: “Well he has that in him. There is a… All clowns do, don’t they? There’s a sadness.”
During the four year stretch between Dracula and Jack, Coppola tried in vain to get to other projects off the ground: a remake of Pinocchio and an adaptation of the Beat classic On the Road. Negations with Warner Bros. over the Pinocchio project came to a halt over disagreements about Coppola’s compensation as director. A long court case ensued, eventually resulting in a verdict in favor of Coppola and awarding him $20 million for the loss of the project. After 1997’s The Rainmaker, Coppola didn’t direct another film until Youth Without Youth in 2007.
On working in the studio system
“The way the movie business has evolved is, you know, there are six companies that own the basketballs and if you want to play you have to either talk one of them into doing it or accepting one of their jobs. When you talk a studio into doing one of your films that the shoe is on the other foot and you know immediately it’s well but of course you’re going to do this for half your fee or no fee, of course, well let’s see. Got to work on the script a little and they totally control it so they can have you take a year and rewriting and reworking and casting and ultimately you’re sort of trying to hang on to doing it the way you want to do it but they’re running everything.”
A New Generation Rises
While the elder Coppola spent much of the 90’s battling with Hollywood studios, the family’s younger generation was busy making their own mark in the industry. His youngest child, daughter Sophia, hit it big with her critically-acclaimed directorial debut The Virgin Suicides (1999). The film was an adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’ novel about the five beautiful but ill-fated Lisbon sisters, and was produced by Sophia’s dad.
For more dish on the younger Coppolas, check out KQED’s Coppola Family Tree
A Son Lost
Coppola’s oldest son, Gio, was killed in a horrific boating accident at age 22. His fiancé was two months pregnant at the time, and later gave birth to a daughter named Gia. Interviewer R.H. Greene touched on this loss when asking Coppola about the dedication at the end of Jack, which read: “For Gia ‘When you see a shooting star…'”
Coppola on Gia and Gio
“It’s [the film Jack] to her because she’s my granddaughter and she’s the one who always tells me, Oh da da you never make any movies that kids can go to, she says, so I said, I’d make you one that a kid can go to.”
“That’s to her because it’s when she sees a shooting star she will realize that even though her father only lived to be 22 years, that he lived a very complete life.”
Coppola vs. The Critics
“I know one thing from the critics, which is that the American critics never have in the past and probably won’t in the future like my work until later. That the only film that I ever made that got good critical response was The Godfather and even that had people who criticized it, or seriously about the fact that it romanticize the Mafia and killing him. So it was put down but that one was well received, it was a hit. All my other work: Godfather II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish. Certainly One From The Heart. Apocalypse Now, were all put down by the critics.”
The only remarkable thing about Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II” is the insistent manner in which it recalls how much better his original film was…
“The Godfather, Part II,” which opened yesterday at five theaters, is not very far along before one realizes that it hasn’t anything more to say. Everything of any interest was thoroughly covered in the original film, but like many people who have nothing to say, “Part II” won’t shut up…
– Vincent Canby, The New York Times
While much of the footage is breathtaking, Apocalypse Now is emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty.
…not so much an epic account of a grueling war as an incongruous, extravagant monument to artistic self-defeat. The Vietnam War was a tragedy. Apocalypse Now is but this decade’s most extraordinary Hollywood folly.
– Frank Rich, Time
A Man Ahead Of His Time
On CGI and the rise of the special effects-driven blockbuster
“Whenever there’s a new technology the first thing it’s used for is for pornography and the second thing that happens is that the existing companies buy it up and use it to make money and that’s the phase we’re in now…
See right now they really filmmakers who are doing the stuff of value can’t even afford electronic editing machines but, but soon they will. I mean the idea is that if you have these tools that can do you know twisters and Jurassic Park, one day you can use that tool to show a world that could be. And once you can show people what could be, I mean what could be in a real sense, a society, a city, then, then they’re one step closer to having it. As long you’re going to use it to just divert them with dinosaurs and bullshit, it’s not useful.”
Way back in 1969, Coppola and fellow USC film school grad George Lucas started a production company called Zoetrope in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. They were young, idealistic, and eager to make film careers for themselves outside of the Hollywood system. Along with a coterie of fellow creatives they churned out films like American Graffiti (penned by Lucas), The Conversation, and The Godfather II. Lucas left in 1977 to start Lucasfilm, and the never-ending production of Apocalypse Now and the box-office bomb One From The Heart nearly bankrupted the studio. But it still lives on, and continues to be the production house for all of Coppola’s films.
Check out this 1969 documentary by George Lucas that follows Coppola during the making of his first film The Rain People:
On Dreamworks (founded by Spielberg) and Lucasfilm (George Lucas’ moviemaking mini-empire)
“On one hand I do feel that of course they took, I was the leader at the time those were all my ideas that they took and that’s OK. That’s, that’s one function for a person is to inspire people give them the ideas to want to do it.”
“Warszawa” Teddy Albert Lasry
“Corleone” Bernard Pierre Michel Grimaldi
“Anacapri” Bernard Pierre Michel Grimaldi