Maclean’s Interview: Francis Ford Coppola

Godfather legend Francis Ford Coppola on Brando’s brilliance, how TV ruined movies, and why directing turned into his hobby

Maclean's Interview: Francis Ford CoppolaFamous for such classics as The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola has retreated from Hollywood to make wine—and small, self-financed art films. Coppola’s Tetro, which recently opened the Directors’ Fortnight program in Cannes, is the story of an American teenager who reunites with his estranged brother (Vincent Gallo) in Buenos Aires, steals his Gothic memoir of their showbiz family, and turns it into a sensational play. Based on Coppola’s first original screenplay in 30 years, the movie is rife with allusions to his own family. The director was interviewed on a hotel rooftop in Cannes.

Q: Many years ago, you were in Cannes to launch Apocalypse Now. You won the Palme d’Or here for The Conversation. You’ve chaired the jury. How does all that compare to showing up out of competition with a small film like Tetro?

A: I’ve been to Cannes four or five times. It’s an exciting day in the sunshine. But more and more it’s gotten to be a frenzy related to the film market, and the press has gotten like piranhas. It’s very dangerous to come here, more so in the competition. I’ve seen incredible things happen. I’ve seen previews of movies—not mine—where the same person who booed a film asked the director why the film was booed, and the only person booing was the guy who asked the question.

Q: Tetro is about a family torn by rivalry—estranged brothers who are writers, and a cruel patriarch and his brother, who are conductors. You grew up in the shadow of your older brother, who was a writer. Your father was composer, and your uncle a conductor. Is this your most personal film?

A: I think so, because I only wrote a few original screenplays—The Rain People, The Conversation, and this.

Also at Exclusive video interview with Francis Ford Coppola

Q: How much of your family is in it?

A: Obviously there are parallels. But my father was really a sweet man. I just took feelings I had as a kid, things that hurt my feelings and I could never understand why.

Q: Like what?

A: I hesitate to say because it’s personal. But when I was a teenager, my idea was always to be the younger, less important of two celebrated brothers, like Aldous and Julian Huxley. I always try to learn a lot when I make a film. In reaction to Youth Without Youth [2007], I realized people don’t really want to go on philosophical adventures. Audiences have become like little children. They want to see Goldilocks and the Three Bears over and over. So I decided maybe what an audience would enjoy with me is a more emotional story.

Q: Are the audiences acting like children, or are the studios treating them like children?

A: Well, the studios brainwashed them for 40 years with television. I think of television as it was in the ’50s, when we had some of the greatest writers in the country writing live television and there were provocative dramas, and then they just murdered that form and invented the half-hour situation comedy. Brainless television—and two generations were brought up on that.

Q: Some would argue that television has gotten more sophisticated, to the point that it has outstripped cinema. And the example that would come to mind is The Sopranos.

A: Well, I’m not an expert on The Sopranos by any means. I know The Sopranos was very entertaining, but I never saw it.

Q: You never watched it. Really?

A: No, because I’m just not interested in the Mafia, and The Sopranos was inspired by The Godfather, and it was the last thing I wanted to see. I’m tired of gangsters, I’m tired of that situation. Sopranos is Home Box Office, which is a more mature format. But in a bigger sense television has created an audience that just wants to see pre-bought entertainment. It’s not like the days when one day you might see Marty and the next day, Days of Wine and Roses. Today, the only films made are formula pictures, usually based on either a secret hero, or revenge. They’re sadistic, they’re violent.

Q: You don’t like violence in movies at all?

A: Well, not all the time. Cinema oughta be varied. Cinema is a very young art form and it should be encouraged to experiment and try to find new ways of telling stories. Now everything is pre-approved. You show them the script and they’re basically looking to see if it’s like another film that already was successful. Anyway, I’m not in that business anymore. I’m independently wealthy. I make films as a hobbyist and pay for them myself, so no one has the right to tell me, “Why did you do this?” or “Why did you do that?” I do something that I feel I can learn from and that I think the audience—hopefully—might enjoy, but it’s harder and harder. It’s like if you invite everyone over to the house for dinner and they just want what they want—French fries and stuff.

Q: In the Q & A after the screening of Tetro, somebody asked a dumb question—“What’s the difference between The Godfather and this film?” What was your answer again?

A: I think I said the difference is four strangulations, 20 gunshots, three stabbings, four machine guns in cars, and two car explosions with bombs planted.

Q: In Tetro, at a certain point, you introduce a gun, which is shown in a classic shot of someone discovering it in a drawer. But we never see it again. You broke that cardinal rule [laid down by Chekhov] that you shouldn’t introduce a gun if you don’t intend to use it.

A: I did it deliberately. They always say if you show a gun in the first act it goes off in the third act. I say not always.

Q: Why did you do that?

A: Because I can. Now they can’t say “always” anymore. Anywhere else they would have made me cut it out. Sometimes in life there is an ominous moment that makes you worry and it turns out you didn’t have to worry.

Q: Do you get as much satisfaction with a small film like Tetro as with an epic like The Godfather?

A: If you look at it scene for scene, The Godfather was shot in the same amount of time that Tetro was and didn’t really have any more gigantic scenes than Tetro. But when you enter into a commercial film it has to be similar to something that was already successful. You’re taking a chance when you go your own way, and I’ve been blessed to be able to do that. It’s what I wanted to do when I was younger. The danger of making more personal films is that you’re always a little bit off the route, so people will say, “This is weird.” But I think it’s more unusual that all the other films are so similar. Today audiences maybe don’t realize it but I think people like a film that is heartfelt and handmade.

Q: Audiences go to movies to see actors. You’ve worked with De Niro, Pacino, Brando. Who was the greatest?

A: Without a doubt, Marlon Brando was a wonderful actor, but he was also a brilliant man beyond the acting. Just what he used to talk about, and his view of life and existence. He thought acting was a childish profession. He was thinking about bigger thoughts. He was able to see to the heart of things.

Q: Was Brando difficult?

A: No, he was the least difficult. Actors are only difficult because they’re frightened or insecure. Brando was extremely fun to work with. You wouldn’t have to say a lot. You just had to bring him interesting props or put a cat in his hands when he didn’t expect it. If you supplied him with things he could make use of, he loved that.

Q: You turned 70 in April. Do you think about retiring from filmmaking?

A: Naw. There are many directors making commercial films who are far older than I am. But my hat is not in the ring to go up against important directors. My heart wouldn’t be in it. People ask me if I can ever compete with what I did when I was younger, and frankly I can’t. The Godfather is the only film I made that was immediately successful—even that was eccentric compared to what was going on at the time. But when I went from The Godfather to The Conversation to Godfather II in rapid succession, even with five Oscars and the success of the big film industry, nobody would let me do Apocalypse Now. So I ultimately made it by refinancing my home and whatever I could put up.

Q: Tetro made me wonder if an American director is turning into a European director.

A: Well, they always say it whenever you try to make a film that’s not a genre film and that tries to explore cinema more in that sense that we learned from Europeans. People my age were inspired by movies that we saw from Italy and France and Sweden and Japan.

Q: Your choice to shoot in black and white, is that an homage to a period of film, or does it have a more specific purpose?

A: Black and white is not just film without colour. In colour if you have a blue shirt, I don’t have to worry about you disappearing into the wall if the wall is white. In black and white your blue shirt would be grey and so you’d go to great lengths to light it. Black and white photography is a different discipline. It has the beautiful mottling, and it stands on its own. Some American television executive 15 years ago decreed they would only pay half the fee for a black and white film compared to a colour film, irrespective of whether the film was any good. That means 8½ wouldn’t earn the same money as A Hole in the Head. To me it’s absurd. It’s like making cinema under Stalin—“That’s not music, Mr. Shostakovich.” What gives them the right? Because they put up the money? I said, “Okay, well, I’ll put up my own money.”

Q: You mention Fellini’s 8½. I thought about that film as I was watching Tetro, which is also another personal film about the mad pressures of art and showbiz.

A: Well, I don’t know, I see it more like Fellini’s Variety Lights, especially the way he affectionately portrays these funny would-be actors and stage directors. You remember Variety Lights? It’s so affectionate. The thing about theatre people is they could be important theatre people, or unimportant theatre people, but they behave the same.

Q: Pedro Almodóvar loves making movies about film and theatre people—like Broken Embraces, which is in Cannes. Tetro reminds me of how he juggles melodrama and farce.

A: Well, his work is personal. In wine we have a term called terroir. Terroir means you could take a sip and say, “Well, that comes from Burgundy.” Like my daughter [Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola], you’ll never see Sofia directing the new Harry Potter movie. Jean-Luc Godard once said if you cut the titles off a movie you wouldn’t know who made it. But if you see five minutes of a film Sofia made you know that she made it.

Q: Speaking of terroir, is making wine more fun than making films? A: It’s not like we’re in here jumping on the grapes. It’s a huge company. It’s got 600 employees. Don’t ask me how it happened. I guess I was right there when people began to realize the healthful and delicious aspect of wine. I never got into anything with the intention of making a lot of money.

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