An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola: Finding His Place in Filmmaking

Photo: American Zoetrope

This week Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro hits theaters following its May debut at the Cannes Film Festival. I was among the first to see the film back at the end of April and recently had a chance to speak with the Oscar-winning writer and director over the phone from his office at American Zoetrope, his production house that is also set to distribute the film, but it wasn’t always planned that way.

“We sort of fell into self release without really wanting to,” Coppola tells me as the film hits theaters this Thursday, June 11. “It only happened because we didn’t particularly want to show the movie until it was finished and we didn’t want it to get suddenly released in late November with a bunch of independent films because they have this habit of all coming out at the end of the year so they can possibly be in the sweepstakes for awards. I wanted it to come early. So I decided to have it come out on June 11th, which is my father’s birthday.”

It’s only fitting Coppola’s first original screenplay in more than 30 years, and one he admits draws on memories of his own family, would hold even more personal significance all the way down to its release date. However, early discussion of the film around the entertainment community has people wondering if Tetro will be a “return to form” for the director of such films as The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. The idea of such speculation is to approach the film with a misunderstanding of the director’s intentions.

“First of all, I’m not trying to return to form,” Coppola tells me. “I’m trying to follow my heart and do the more personal films I would like to do. Obviously, to write stories and scripts that are not of immediate commercial nature, you need to make them less expensively so the rules of my second career are a) write all the screenplays, b) write all the stories and c) not go chasing after some idea of success.” Of course, success is what has allowed Coppola to make these smaller more personal films.

“I personally am able to finance films and I can stretch it up to around $15 million that I am willing to lose,” he admits. Considering American Zoetrope is a private company he wasn’t going to disclose actual numbers, but he did say, “Tetro was certainly no more than $15 [million] and no less than $5 [million].” Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars we see spent on summer blockbusters nowadays this appears to be pennies in the world of Hollywood, but even he is willing to admit a film like Tetro would still be hard pressed to find financing.

“The film industry doesn’t even want to finance drama now; they want to make films about superheroes. Just look at what’s coming out this summer and you see the kinds of movies that are possible to be made. It has to be a product more like Coca-Cola, something everyone is familiar with. They know the taste, they like the taste and they want the same taste. That’s why big movies tend to be familiar. You go to a big film on Friday night and it’s like some other film you saw,” he says with a final moment of candor. “I don’t know what place there is for me in that type of filmmaking anymore.”

Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now from the documentary Hearts of Darkness

Photo: Paramount Home Entertainment

It’s no secret what drives box-office dollars right now and Coppola has no misconceptions or even ill will toward an industry he admits has made him famous, but he looks at his career a bit differently than perhaps you and I. “From my point of view I recognize I’ve gotten more famous and as I’ve gotten older, more honored, but I sort of failed my way up there.” He continues, “Looking around I was more successful as a real Hollywood director than I would have imagined. So I followed my own nose. I got to make The Conversation, but still after making Godfather, then The Conversation and then another Godfather and having success and Oscars, I found nobody wanted me to make Apocalypse Now. I was very frustrated and wondered What do you have to do? So I financed the film myself and, of course, was very worried how I was ever going to pay that debt back.”

Anyone that has watched Hearts of Darkness or knows anything about the making of Apocalypse Now knows what a toll that film took on the director, but it seems he has finally come to grips with the reality of movie making. Coppola was recently quoted in an interview with the “Edinburgh Daily News” (here) saying, “I finally accepted that the bigger the budget, the stupider the movie had to be… The smaller the budget, the more ambitious you can be.” Of course, avoiding big budget films and making those smaller budget films also comes with its own set of problems. However, they can sometimes work out for the best.

Alden Ehrenreich in Tetro

Photo: American Zoetrope

One of the best things about Tetro is newcomer Alden Ehrenreich who plays the younger brother to Vincent Gallo. Ehrenreich has already been compared to Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon and I would throw in Emile Hirsch and Michael Pitt for even further comparison. Ehrenreich’s performance is nothing short of fantastic and perhaps he will follow in the footsteps of other young actors that starred in a Francis Ford Coppola feature before hitting the big time… The Outsiders anyone?

“I’m not in a position, and nor have I ever been, to hire the outstanding young stars of the day,” he admits. “Even with Godfather and Outsiders, all the people we went with became stars afterwards, but they were just kids interested in being actors. It’s a mixed problem when we can’t afford a real name actor so we have to find someone new and exciting and that’s certainly been true of my whole career.”

It didn’t take long before Coppola realized the 17-year-old Ehrenreich was the man to bring excitement to the character of Bennie, “As of the moment he read the ‘Catcher in the Rye’ paragraph [I had asked him to read], I felt he was the right one.”

With the release of Tetro only days away Coppola seemed in high spirits and at the age of 70-years-old like he has finally started making the movies he wants to make. “It’s now or never and I am quite happy,” he said. “To me the definition of success would be to wake up in the morning and you get some wonderful idea of something you want to write and you do it with an assurance you’re going to be able to make the film. Not that when you’re done you’re going to have to hold out your hand and start begging people to let you make it. If I keep the budget within a certain range I’m sort of there.”

With Tetro completed and awaiting audience reactions he tells me he is already 15 pages into his next script, “I’m writing a new piece and it’s personal in that it’s the kind of movie I always wanted to make.”

He was guarded as to the plot, and didn’t want to paint the new story into a hole as being one thing or another so early in the scripting stage, although he says “it’s a kind of film that involves certain levels of extraordinary things happening” and delves into paranoid “dreams where you feel frightened or as if you’re being pursued.” He says he too has “had these fears [and he’s] trying to look into [himself] and write a new kind of a script.”

However, if you were wondering about the long rumored big budget Megalopolis feature he actually started shooting second-unit on back in 2001 you can forget about it. When asked if it had been abandoned for good he said, “Yes, it was about an uber-architect who was going to build [a sort of utopia] right in New York City and we were shooting second unit on it when we had the tragedy of the Twin Towers. So it was very hard to write a script about contemporary New York that didn’t deal with that phenomenal event and all the aftermath of it.”

It sounds like it may have worked out for the best since it would have been the kind of big budget effort he doesn’t seem interested in any longer and he admits, “I never quite licked the script.”

Again, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro hits limited theaters on June 11. You can get more on the film including pictures, trailers and additional cast information here as well as visit the official site where several behind-the-scenes videos and theater listings can be found.

I have included the first three minutes of the film directly below to give you some kind of sense of the beautiful black-and-white photography used for the film.

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