“The Godfather,” “The Conversation," “Godfather II” and “Apocalypse Now” — it’s got to be the longest string of masterpieces ever by an American director. He is the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, the maverick who, in 2007, embarked on a second career with the enigmatic “Youth Without Youth." His new movie, “Tetro," was produced, written, directed and even financed by Coppola, using money from his wine and gourmet food interests. Vincent Gallo and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich star as estranged brothers who struggle to come to terms with a family crisis that drove them apart. Shot in black and white and color, it’s Coppola’s 23rd movie.
First “Youth Without Youth," now “Tetro." Is this your second career?
Well, I don’t have a career anymore. I don’t want a film career. I want to be an amateur filmmaker — “amateur” meaning what the word means: that you make it because you love it. I don’t want to get paid. I have plenty of money from other things, and I just want to learn. As you get older you realize that to learn something is the real pleasure of life.
If I have gained anything, it’s that I really know how to put together a movie that you can have beautiful photography and beautiful sound and beautiful music and wonderful actors. I don’t have enough money to go out and get the most sought-after stars, but I never could. Even back then, the reason I used new faces like Al Pacino or, to a lesser extent, Bobby DeNiro, or all the actors from “The Outsiders” is because I couldn’t afford the stars of the day.
But look at the movies you made! It’s easy to see why people consider you such an icon.
“Iconic” is very lifeless. I can tell you what I’m like. I feel, in life, that you really ought to say yes to more things than you say no to because the only real risk of life is that when you’re getting ready to die, you say, “Ah, I wish I had done this. I wish I had done that.” I don’t have that problem. I risked money, and I lost money, and I had to spend my forties paying back a huge debt to the bank — which is a pity, because that’s a very powerful decade for a man.
You know, people are funny. They try to get an image of you but they take it from whatever is happening. So after I did “Apocalypse Now,” for 10 years I was a megalomaniac. I never felt like a megalomaniac. I felt like I was enthusiastic about whatever I do. I’m still enthusiastic.
Here you are again, taking risks. George Lucas said he based Han Solo on you because you’re both so daring.
I’m like George’s older brother. I am, because I’m four, five years older. And he always saw me as a daredevil, as, like, I’m taking all these young filmmakers, “Okay, guys! Let’s all jump off a cliff!” And they’re saying, “Francis, we’re all going to die!” And I say, “Maybe not!” So George thinks of me as an incredible adventurer.
Do you now, late in your career, ever question your creative instincts?
My career was never studded with success. There was “The Godfather,” but every other movie I made was received in a very controversial way. Even “Apocalypse Now,” which is now considered a very important kind of war film.
I’m asked all the time, “At this point in your making films, do you feel shy about competing with the great successes of your earlier career?” I say, “Well gee, they didn’t seem like successes to me at the time.” They seemed pretty wild and woolly, and we were always sweating whether the public would accept them. I don’t view my career as being a golden boy … it was always tough, it was always controversial. There were always detractors and yet, over time, the films seem to have improved in stature.
Back then, it seems like filmmakers could take more chances, challenge themselves and the audience. How did it come to this draconian notion of what’s acceptable to studio execs?
By the time they were beginning to understand how this new thing of the sound movie worked, then television came about and suddenly everyone was fanatical about it making money: "We gotta tell a story in a way that the public would come to." Then there were 40 years of television that brainwashed the audience with a kind of 30-minute situation comedy.
So now the audience was tampered with, so the studios can say, “Listen, we make movies that the public wants.” But that’s like General Motors saying, “We make the cars that the public wants.” You can’t entirely make cinema that’s just what the public wants because the public, if you give them something more ambitious, they’ll go for it.
I think cinema’s more similar to poetry than it is to narrative because it works with metaphor, and the most beautiful thing in film is when sometimes you see something that you didn’t see because through implication or through metaphor or through a uniquely cinematic device you got an emotion and an expression that happened in a way that no other art form can do.
Today, you can’t be a pioneer. Why is the screenplay in the form that it is, with all those numbers? That’s so people can analyze it and vet it and control it and say, “We’re not gonna go with this script. We don’t like this script. Bring in another writer because we don’t think if you try that movie that it will make money.” So their tolerance for risk is very, very little, and that’s understandable. They’re doing it as a business deal. They’re not doing it to subsidize art.
I’ve always found it hard to go beg, hat in hand, for someone to give me money to make a movie because often they will tell me I gotta make it this way or do it with that actor, I think even my colleagues of my age group don’t have it where they can go and do any movie they want.
Is it a form of corporate censorship?
It’s definitely censorship. We’re living in a cinema gulag today. We’re being told you can’t make movies in black and white. You can’t make drama. So you lose the ability to have a more personal cinema, which would be more experimental, more heartfelt, more handmade.
Let’s talk about "Tetro" — obviously it’s not an autobiographical picture …
I wanted to make an emotional movie, a movie that was touching and heartfelt. So I had this idea of a story. The story itsenever happened — I did run away from military school, I did have an older brother who I really got a lot of my inspiration, or I wanted to be like him. So as I was writing the story, filling it out, I tended to use what I knew — just as with “The Godfather,” I didn’t know any gangster, but when I had to have a scene of these Italian-Americans sitting around having dinner, I obviously staged it, derived it from what I remember from my own family.
Even Mario Puzo, a lot of the lines from “The Godfather” he got from his mother. So you tend to raid your personal stockpile of memories and impressions and then when you’re writing, you come to a part, it’s natural that you sort of fill it in with what you know.
At one point back in the ‘90s there was talk of “Godfather 4.”
If it were up to me there never would have been more than one “Godfather.” It wasn’t a serial, it was a novel. Of course there was a second “Godfather” — if the first one didn’t wrap up the story, the second one certainly did. And I had no intention to make another one and I didn’t know how to make another one, but years later we did make a third one and finally, that’s what got me out of debt. And they asked, “Well, could there be a fourth one?” And I said, “Well, y’know, Mario is the writer and if you give Mario some money, he’ll write you another script and I’ll help him for free,” but the company never did it, and he passed away.
A project you’ve been circling for years is “Megalopolis.” Any chance we’ll see it some day?
“Megalopolis” is a film that I tried to write, and I actually began shooting, that was ultimately about Utopia and it was all set in Manhattan and we were shooting second unit when the 9/11 tragedy took place. It’s hard to tell a story set in New York today without that event being indelibly part of it, and it’s even harder to imagine how a film can be about Utopia. My idea was that if you made a film that showed all these incredible ways that people could live and work and be fulfilled together that the world would look at it and say, “Well, gee, why don’t we just do it?” But that was maybe a naïve idea. And also “Megalopolis” was a big picture and I make my films now by putting up the money myself. I can’t lose $80 million every two years.
Back in the ‘80s, when video was coming in, I remember you saying the great American movie will one day be made by some little girl in a backyard with a camera. Do you feel like we’re closer to that today?
My point was that as everyone has a camera and a sound recorder and it becomes cheaper and you can go around and make a story or a piece or a poem, sooner or later a prodigy is going to emerge, as Mozart was a prodigy, and make this incredibly beautiful work of art that doesn’t fit into the system.
Movies today are all the same. Whatever big film it is, it’s delivering a certain kind of show to the audience. The audience enjoys it. But you know that in a year and a half there’s going to be some film that is going to be this breakaway success and no one had ever seen anything quite like it and they’re all going to imitate that one. So who’s gonna be the one that takes the risk to make that new one they’re all going to imitate?