A chat with The Great Director

So this is Francis Ford Coppola at 70, relaxing on his front porch on his estate in California’s wine country.

Francis Ford Coppola wants to make a nice low-budget film every two years for the rest of his life.

So this is Francis Ford Coppola at 70, relaxing on his front porch on his estate in California’s wine country. He seems so serene and, yes, youthful that it is impossible to discern the director portrayed in Hearts of Darkness, his wife Eleanor’s documentary of a harried, manic filmmaker on the out-of-control set of Apocalypse Now.

“I had seen a documentary about Ingmar Bergman when I was very young,” Coppola said. “He was working on this island. He was always making movies. There with this cast that was available for him. He always had a beautiful blond wife, who was the star, and he would just make one (movie) after another.

“And I thought, ’If someday I could write stuff and know I could make it …’ And, in a way, I have achieved that.”

Coppola is fond of calling his latest film, the brooding family drama Tetro, filmed in black-and-white in Argentina, “the second film of my second career.”

After going a decade without making a movie, Coppola reinvented himself as a self-financed indie filmmaker with Youth Without Youth and vows he will make a small film about every two years until the end of his life.

“This is kind of like the first career, except without the phase of going, hat in hand, and being told, ’Oh, well, we’ll give you the money if you get such-and-such an actor,’ “ Coppola said.

“Even after I’d won five Oscars, nobody would let me make Apocalypse Now. I put this property up” — Coppola gestures at the Niebaum-Coppola winery estate around him — “and eventually Chase Manhattan ended up with this property, and I had to make a deal to buy it back. So from age 40 to 50, I took jobs to pay off this debt.”

Coppola said Godfather III (1990) got his property back, and Dracula (1992) gave him some breathing room. He did Jack, a comedy with Robin Williams, and The Rainmaker, a John Grisham thriller, in the mid-1990s to help him finance a couple of dream projects: Pinocchio and a film about a futuristic New York, Megalopolis.

Those projects, in which he invested about $4 million, fell through. Coppola could feel himself getting older, and more and more frustrated.

Then he found inspiration close to him.

“I was sort of stuck,” he said. “I had a lot going against me. Nine years went by, and I hadn’t made a film. I didn’t know what my place could be, what kind of films I could make.

“That’s when I took a note from Sofia (Coppola, his daughter), who had taken a lot from me. Sofia went to Tokyo and made Lost in Translation on a small budget, and I thought maybe I’d go off and make a film that way.”

Tetro, which is based on his first original screenplay since The Conversation in 1974, is about the relationship of two brothers, one (Vincent Gallo) who lives in Buenos Aires with his girlfriend (Maribel Verdu), the other (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) visiting as his cruise ship docks.

Both are refugees from their stifling, megalomaniacal father (Klaus Maria Brandauer), a famous conductor.

Coppola used his own family as a jumping-off point, but said very little is autobiographical — his late father, musician Carmine Coppola, was kind and nurturing in comparison with the father in the film.

Still, there are many personal touches, including an adventurous re-creation of a ballet scene in Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, which Coppola remembers seeing upon its release with his older brother.

The high-contrast black-and-white, expertly lensed by a young Romanian cinematographer, Mihai Malamaire Jr., is reminiscent of the Italian films of the 1960s, but Coppola, who says he “likes to keep one foot in the past, the other in the future,” freely experiments with the HD format.

He ranks Tetro among his top five most pleasurable filmmaking experiences — along with The Godfather Part II, Rumble Fish, Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Youth Without Youth.

“I was cutting this picture with my old friend Walter Murch, and he looked up at me and said, ‘Do you know, we’ve been making movies for 40 years?’” Coppola said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, it seems like two.’ But the cinema itself is rejuvenating. I’m still learning how to make movies.”

In a way, Coppola is harking back to the days when he made low-budget movies with Roger Corman in the 1960s (Dementia 13). But he said he has no desire to feel like a kid again. The perfect age for a man is 50 — thus “I’m not 70, I’m 50-20,” Coppola laughed. “When I made Youth Without Youth, I was 50-16, so I’m not a teen-ager anymore!

“When a man turns 60, there’s suddenly a whole list of health issues you become a candidate for. When you’re 50, you still have your youth, in a way, but you’ve been around a bit. So I want to die when I’m in my 50s.”

So this is Coppola at 70, or 50-20 if you will. He keeps in touch with his old friends, including Corman and George Lucas, rises early, does calisthenics and reads the papers before sitting down to lose himself writing for four hours a day.

“I get on my knees and thank the world I’m in an extraordinary situation,” Coppola said. “I think the secret of life is to not be afraid of risk. People go through life risking their money, risking losing this, risking losing that. But the truth of the matter is, there is only one risk. Because for sure you’re gonna die, you are there and you’re thinking about your life and you say, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done this, I wish I’d done that.’

“That’s the risk. So basically, I try to say yes more than no.”

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