The stories you hear about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s early films often have an epic trajectory. There’s his editor’s attempted coup d’état on the first Godfather; his decision to bar producer Robert Evans from the set of The Cotton Club; and, not to be outdone, Coppola’s nervous breakdown and the notorious Marlon Brando no-shows and typhoons that wreaked havoc on the production of Apocalypse Now.
These stories have such staying power that it’s easy to forget that Coppola hasn’t written or directed a film in ten years, that he’s better known these days for his wines and his ridiculously talented daughter than he is as the auteur responsible for some of the best movies of his generation. You forget (or forgive) Jack, The Rainmaker, even The Godfather III.
Coppola’s latest opus after the decade hiatus is the heady romantic thriller Youth Without Youth, adapted from a novella of the same name by Romanian religious historian/philosopher Mircea Eliade. It won’t premiere until the RomeFilmFest in October (and moves into theaters later in the fall), but last night Coppola visited the Walker Art Center for a Q&A and a screening of CODA: Thirty Years Later, a documentary filmed on the set of Youth Without Youth.
The documentary was shot by his wife, Eleanor, who has fashioned quite the career out of chronicling her husband’s passionate brand of filmmaking. (If they ever divorce, there’s enough material in Eleanor’s published Apocalypse Now diaries and her footage in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse to void any prenup.) Coppola introduced CODA by warning that although Hearts of Darkness was an invitation to “watch Francis suffer,” this documentary finds him at a considerably more settled stage in his life. That’s for sure. The doc begins with Eleanor addressing the camera as Francis hams it up behind her, the first indication that we’re not going to get many unguarded insights about life lived with this neurotic, loquacious talent.
Disappointingly, CODA quickly becomes a meandering, self-congratulatory tribute to Coppola’s return to more personal filmmaking. It’s filled with the sorts of quickie career insights and what’s-it-like-working-with-a-genius cast interviews (with Tim Roth, Matt Damon, and others) that you’d expect to find in a typical making-of DVD extra, which it will likely end up becoming. What’s not so expected are Coppola’s scattershot musings on the nature of time and consciousness (don’t worry, it’s to promote the new film), some second-unit footage from his aborted Megalopolis project, and also gorgeous clips from Youth Without Youth that manage to intrigue but thankfully not give away too many details.
CODA may be Coppola’s not-so-subtle reminder that he’s back to shooting smaller-scale films that he writes, directs, and produces himself, but the packed house last night at the Walker didn’t need the reminder. They were there for the free-form audience Q&A that took on the tone of a film-school guest lecture. A very chatty Coppola talked craft and business to an audience that included a good number of film students (he requested they be seated in the first several rows) and declared Youth Without Youth his attempt to make films like he’s sixteen again, without the financial and creative constraints of a big studio footing the bill. “Do you want to be Steven Spielberg or Jim Jarmusch?” he asked the students, promising that, “If you do beautiful work, you won’t starve.”
Lamenting the increasing corporatization of independent filmmaking and railing against the franchise films that steal talented directors like his buddy George Lucas from making the great, smaller works they really want to, he also conceded a few compromises of his own. Jack and The Rainmaker, he said, were the result of a deal he made with himself to be a hired gun for the studios in order to finance work of his own. He’s also resigned that his Megalopolis script, which positions NYC at the center of a utopian drama, is likely unfilmable post-9/11.
These days, though, Coppola has his hands in more than show business—there’s the food and wine empire, the resorts, the literary magazine. You have to wonder whether these endeavors are giving him a second life as a raconteur, one who doesn’t need to make a movie every year to have something to talk about.