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Francis Ford Coppola Talks Cinema’s Boundless Possibilities, ‘Apocalypse Now’ Memories, and More

Written by on December 10, 2015 

Francis Ford Coppola attending the Tribute to Bill Murray and Opening Ceremony of the 15th Marrakech International Film Festival in Marrakech, Morocco on December 04, 2015. Photo by Aurore Marechal/ABACAPRESS.COM | 526385_064 Marrakech Maroc Morocco

One of the biggest names attending this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival is also one of the most recognized filmmakers in the world: Francis Ford Coppola. Having directed some of the most influential, acclaimed films in American cinema — including The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, to name only a few — his name is synonymous with a kind of filmmaking simply not seen today.

This year he is the head of the international jury, judging the films in competition, and we got the chance to speak with him about a wide variety of topics — cinema-related and otherwise. The man’s encyclopedic knowledge of film history, compounded by his theories on the evolution of the medium, make him a true force. During the roundtable interview, the luminous director generously discussed world politics, violence in film, working with Marlon Brando, what it was like creating some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces, as well as what direction he sees the form moving towards.

There’s footage of you at a press conference for Apocalypse Now with all of your children, and you make the statement that world cinema will be electronic. “It will be digital, it will bounce off satellites, and it will create the screams and hallucinations of the world.” Is there any cinema in the future from this point on?

Definitely. Cinema is in its infancy. The thing that makes it difficult, I think, is that we imagine the cinema as it is now and how we’ve been comfortable with it for the last fifty years. The truth of the matter is it will, like everything else, it will evolve and change, like the theater. We say the theater is thousands of years old. And the novel is maybe 400 years old. The cinema of the future, it would be fun to talk about it, and I do have thoughts and I do think about it, but very definitely, the golden age has not yet come, of the cinema, really. Certainly in the hundred some years it’s been such an abundance of greatness when you think of it. Really, in such a short time to have produced the work. I’ve often thought that the cinema was an art form that was waiting to happen, and of course needed technology to make it possible, and great artists like Goethe – he was a scientist, he was a dramatist, he was a poet, he would have been a natural, but it didn’t exist yet technically. So when it did happen, there was this rush of creativity that produced arguably 12 or more masterpieces in the silent age and then so many more in the subsequent years.

When people say, “What’s the greatest movie ever made?,” I say, “Well where do you want to start? Do you have the time to talk about it?” So it is a rich, rich literature that has already been produced. I always feel like it’s already beginning. That requires that we loosen our idea of what a film—we’ll call it a “film,” still, because it has that name, even though it’s not film anymore – but we have such a specific idea of what it has to be that we perhaps don’t allow what it can be or what it will be. I always like to imagine you sitting here, not even films you’ll make, but your great-great-grandchildren will make. How marvelous it would be if we could even get an inkling. But, no, I feel there’s a wonderful cinema in the future.

Also, you brought the kids with you to that press conference, and I wonder what you’ve done to raise filmmakers? What do children need to become a filmmaker?

I love children. I always have, but when I was 16 or 17, I was a drama counselor in a summer camp, and I would do plays with little children. I would do a play every week. With the 6-year-olds, I’d do a play; with the 7-year-olds, I’d do a play; and then all the way up. And then, with the teenagers, then I would do a musical with the boys and the girls from the girls’ camp. So, you know, I’ve always… when I had my own kids, it was such a treat for me, so I had a rule with my wife, that if I was ever going to go away on a job, I would take them out of school and take them with me.

Most of the time, like if we went to the Philippines, we thought we were going three or four months, but we ended up there for a year-and-a-half. So these were long stays. And I’m sure I messed up their academic abilities to some extent. But being in these exotic countries, we put Sofia in the Chinese school in the Philippines, so they learned other things. And the crews, and the people working on them, as they were often the same picture, became like their uncles and their aunts. They would come to the set and the costume department would make little costumes for Sofia’s dolls, and they’d play in the makeup department. We were like a circus family. Of course, as you know, that’s how circus arts are passed down from family generation to generation.

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There’s so much legend surrounding the shooting in the Philippines and Apocalypse Now. And now, looking back, it’s part of the folklore of cinema. Looking back now, what was it like with Martin Sheen and that craziness, and Brando coming, and having him doing what he wanted to do?

You know, there’s a lot of misunderstanding, certainly about Marlon Brando. I think in the way that it’s gotten down, I think it hurt his feelings, the way I talked about him arriving overweight, and he was a very sweet man. He was a very affectionate man, and a genius. I don’t mean as an actor, but the way he saw life, and what he was interested in, and what he would talk about, it was pretty wonderful to be able to just listen. Although he did arrive overweight… you know, no fat person is comfortable with being fat. I, of course, had very practical problems, like what kind of costume should I put on him. He was supposed to be a Green Beret colonel. They don’t make those kinds of uniforms in his size. So I was in a pickle. But he was very forthcoming in his wisdom about life, and indeed, we sat… we had a three-week deal with him, and I just listened to him talk about termites and life and issues. And then I would write up stuff at night and bring it back to him and try to work it in. A lot of the dialogue as Kurtz at the end was his. But really, sometimes out of context, he was talking about other stuff, and I would always try to get it back that it could be you.

Our main experience was as someone who adapted. I was a screenwriter who was good at adapting novels or literature, so I was good at adapting Marlon Brando to be that role. But he had a terrible memory, which is why his acting style was very much “mmmmm.” He was trying to remember the lines! [Laughs] So we did a deal where he would record these little monologues, these little passages that I wrote based on stuff he had talked about, and he would press the button and listen to the lines and do it. But he was a great guy, no question about it. He was an affectionate man — he loved animals, he loved children. So basically I was very scared, because I was on the hook in two ways. I was not only on the hook of this imminent creative fiasco, but at the same time, I was basically the recipient of the debt. In those days, interest was 29%, so I was facing obliteration. I was always willing to accept the responsibility in order to make the film in the way that I wanted to make it, but that was just bluff. There were times in Apocalypse where I was pretty scared. That’s the only word I could use to describe how I felt.

Is there any bad side about having several of your films live as some of the greatest ever?

Well, I have to go back to those days. It’s true that I made The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now pretty much in a row, in a run of, I don’t know, five years. And The Godfather was this tremendous success, even though it was critically a little batted back and forth at first. But the other films weren’t immediate – thought of well. And I, like all filmmakers, was prone to getting really depressed about the reception of my films. Like people ask me, “Do you care?” Well, yeah, of course. I like to cook, and if I make a dinner for all of you, and then you go out and say, “That was a terrible dinner,” that makes me feel horrible. So I was very despondent during those years. It was only over time that some of them… like, Apocalypse Now was very dicey when it came out. It was not… people were interested in it, and people went to see it, but it was slow, over years, it was more accepted as something more worthwhile. So I didn’t know that these films might be thought of as classics.

Consequently, films that I made even more recently, you see there’s a process where the public or the evaluation changes over time. So now, as an elderly person, I look back and think, “Isn’t that strange? I was so suicidal over that or I was so miserable.” It makes you realize, if you’re younger: just do it. You never know what’s going to happen. It is odd to me that some of those films are thought of so well. I think what I did have was that I wasn’t afraid. When you make a film, sometimes you rub people the wrong way, because it’s different from what people – like painters in the Belle Epoch, they were doing these pictures and they couldn’t sell them on the street corner, and yet the paintings that were sold by the Academy, we don’t even know their names, but Manet and Monet and all those guys, they couldn’t get arrested. I think always it changes very quickly. I like to say the avant-garde art becomes the wallpaper. It just changes. And that’s happened with film now. Even with films we see now, more hold back what they’re saying and make you work to understand. That seems to be more of a common… and I agree, if you use the audience to fill in the spaces, I agree, it’s more wonderful for the audience, but when we were seeing Antonioni films, like L’Avventura, what happened? What was it about? It was so different. But as time goes on, things change.

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