Francis Ford Coppola: Like a Fine Wine

Pasadena Weekly | November 28, 2007
Ten years ago, legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola had an epiphany. At the age of 58, he had already won multiple Oscars for his Godfather films and further acclaim for his groundbreaking work on Apocalypse Now and The Outsiders.

He'd survived a near-nervous breakdown on Apocalypse Now and the threat of bankruptcy after his expensive attempt at a musical, One from the Heart, bombed. And ultimately he had reestablished himself as a consistently working director with an eye for talent that guided future megastar Matt Damon through his first starring role in The Rainmaker even before Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting.

With his coffers also filled by a thriving side business as the owner of a winery, Coppola had the luxury many of us dream of but never get: the opportunity to sit back and assess where he stood in his career and every shot of his next film. The result was a ten-year journey of artistic self-discovery that culminated in his new film, Youth Without Youth, which debuts Dec. 14 in limited release.

"I'm not one who wants to be a traditional industry director with three or four writers working on projects and then they direct the best one and just produce the others if they get involved at all, like Steven Spielberg," says Coppola. "In my case it was different because I was at the age where my career had been so interestingly diverse. After One from the Heart, I made a movie every year because I had a bank payment every year. After Dracula, I was a free man again and decided at my age I didn't want to do a movie every year. I was at an age where I could find my place in all of this -- and find out where could I exist?"

Coppola first tried to make a live-action version of Pinocchio, but wound up engaged in a massive legal battle with Warner Brothers Pictures over the rights -- a fight that saw Coppola win over $100 million in damages before losing the money again on appeal. Having spent four years on that struggle, he was now 62 and wondering still about what to do next.

Coppola made a deal with his wife Eleanor in which he would make three commercial studio pictures and save his salaries to finance his own dream project. He made it through directing the poorly received Robin Williams film Jack and the acclaimed The Rainmaker before deciding he would skip the third studio assignment and take his chances already.

His second attempt at a dream project came in the form of Megalopolis, an ambitious fantasy project imagining a future New York City that appears on the surface to be a utopia. Coppola had finished the script and started shooting locations when the World Trade Centers were attacked and the mood of the city was forever altered.

"So this was seven years, and meanwhile my wine business and travel business had grown and was nearly as successful as I was in my movie heyday. My company was doubling in revenue every year which is a big deal," he recalls. "I knew time was flying by, I was getting frustrated and I was wondering how to do we explain consciousness. It was a philosophical idea but everyone's thought of that at some point."

It was in that philosophical quandary that Coppola found the drive for the film he is finally releasing, Youth Without Youth. It follows the story of an aging linguistics professor in 1930s Europe who survives getting struck by lightning, only to find that he is mysteriously rejuvenated both physically and intellectually. When the Nazis hear about his stunning transformation, the professor has to go on the run and ultimately make a choice between protecting the love of his life or continuing his research into the very origins of human language.

"People started saying the idea was fascinating: about an old man like me, having creative problems like me, and now after the lightning strike he can read books just by looking at the cover and meets the girl he loved years before again and I thought what a crazy story," Coppola says enthusiastically. "I can make a movie like this, make a story like this, but examine ideas of how you express consciousness and time on film. It was like meeting a girl from Romania and running away."

Having come through his decade of trials by fire to make a film he's truly proud of and fully believes in, Coppola at 68 feels that he's learned some valuable lessons that anyone over 50 can appreciate. He's already hard at work on another script, "a Tennessee Williams-style drama" about two brothers caught amid turmoil in Buenos Aires, and is determined that the process not take another decade.

"People say 'You made Godfather 1 and 2, The Conversation, Apocalypse, why did you stop making landmark films? I didn't stop, it's just at that time no one was paying me for landmarks," says Coppola. "Saying you're going to make a landmark film is like saying you're going to make a film that makes money. Once you do that you're doomed because either way you have to make a film that interests you.

"I'm absolutely not a master of film but I don't think anybody is. Film is only 100 years old, and it's still unfolding. Apocalypse Now was considered really weird, but today it's not really weird anymore because it's changed our perceptions of what a movie is," Coppola continues. "I've debated this a lot in my life -- what do I want now at age 68? I'm already famous, I already have an Oscar. I want things I love and to make beautiful things. I know kids in Dayton, Ohio, won't rush to see my film but maybe someday they will see it. I like to make interesting films, because sooner or later interesting films get their day in the sun."

Youth Without Youth is released December 14.

Pasadena Weekly

For more than 20 years the Pasadena Weekly has reigned as the San Gabriel Valley's newsweekly of record. Located just minutes from Downtown Los Angeles, the city of Pasadena is perhaps best known nationally for a certain flower-oriented parade and...
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