Another direction for Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola reflects on his long career and his latest movie, Tetro, as a return to independent filmmaking.

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Call it Coppola Redux. Francis Ford Coppola has picked up his career where he says it was 40 years ago, making personal films from his own scripts. It's what Hollywood kept him from doing for decades, the director says. Tetro, his latest film, is the first he's made from an original screenplay since 1974's The Conversation. It is nothing if not personal, financed by Coppola himself. When it was released in the US in the summer, its audience was modest, but Coppola could have predicted that.

The black and white film, set in Argentina and starring Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich, premiered in Cannes. It was a project that studios wouldn't look at, Coppola says. "I'm in my second career," says the director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. "I'm writing and financing films myself, and I can be more free about making decisions, hence black and white, which is an impossible decision to make in the commercial film business any more. There's a prohibition against black and white films on television, or subtitled films. Since all distributors are trying to figure where they're going to lay off their costs, they don't like black and white. So it's not done," he says.

"My story is fiction but it's filled with personal memories. I set it in Argentina to disguise it so no one in my family would think I was writing about them." Coppola, 70, has always taken risks. "If adventure has a name, it's really Francis," said Coppola's longtime friend George Lucas in May, when he attended a tribute to Coppola at the San Francisco International Film Festival. "I really didn't ever imagine that I was going to be a real studio director," Coppola says. "What I wanted to make were art films. I had been a theatre student, and my gods were Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. When you're young, you always start out copying the people you admire, even though it's really impossible to copy them. It gets you going, and that's the purpose. My father, who was a composer, his slogan was 'steal from the best'. I stole from the best, and I wanted to do this personal film. Maybe I associated that with black and white."

Tetro involved risks that might have scared investors: an actor such as Gallo, whom executives warned Coppola against (they also warned against casting Al Pacino and Marlon Brando in The Godfather); Alden Ehrenreich, an unknown, cast when he was 17, and the deliberate rejection of colour, which Coppola says propels the viewer back into film history. "When you get into black and white, people tend to associate everything with something else. It's very hard for someone to look at something as a thing apart. Even I feel a familiarity - when I look at the black and white footage, and certainly the kid in the uniform - with post-World War II." In Tetro, Ehrenreich's uniformed character arrives in Buenos Aires on a cruise ship to find his brother, played by Gallo.

"Inevitably, we see so few black and white films that it brings with it an emotion that we associate with film of the past," Coppola says. "That period sense comes with it, and this handsome kid, sweet and charismatic, tends to remind me of Montgomery Clift, the young Brando. I think the associations of film are just part of film - it's maybe a good thing." Even before Tetro's release, Coppola was setting his watch back 40 years and setting his sights realistically. "Of the three or four personal films I've made - The Rain People, The Conversation, Rumble Fish - all together, added up, they didn't make enough money to pay for the water on the table here. That is the curse. The kind of personal films that I wanted to make, people just didn't go to see them. Today it's worse than ever. You have to have a day job." Coppola has made a fortune in the wine business.

It's more than a coincidence that he offers these reflections on the 40th anniversary of the creation of American Zoetrope, a firm too small to be called a studio, that Coppola established with his friends Lucas, the sound designer Walter Murch, Matthew Robbins and Carroll Ballard. All of them fled Los Angeles for the San Francisco area in 1969. All are still there, and most are married to the same women, a rare situation for the movie business. They remain friends.

In fact, when Coppola received the Founder's Directing Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in the spring, he called Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) up to the stage and handed the award to him. "Carroll Ballard has made some of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, and I just felt that it was more appropriate that he get an award rather than I get one," Coppola said afterwards.

When the friends moved north from Los Angeles, Coppola was an established, well-paid screenwriter who had made at least one low-budget horror film, Dementia 13, in 1963. "Horror films were always the friend of the young filmmaker because you could make them with some style and they could make their money back," he says. The idea for the move began with 1969's The Rain People, which was made on a trip across the country. "George [Lucas] and I were the original conspirators," Coppola says. "On The Rain People, we learned that you could make a movie anywhere. We had all the equipment. We had all the stuff, and it was just a matter of settling down somewhere."

Eleanor Coppola, who married Francis in 1963, says: "My mother wanted me to marry an accountant, so when I married Francis I knew I was in for a ride." Yet Coppola seems to have some accountant's genes in him. Lucas recalled that Coppola could afford to have Lucas work on early film projects after finding Lucas a writing job from Warner Brothers. "We wanted our own place, a new place to make films," Coppola said.

Coppola as an independent filmmaker? His signature black beard is now mostly white, and Zoetrope predates Robert Redford's Sundance Institute as an alternative to Hollywood. Yet his inexpensive films cost far more than most independent features. And Coppola seems accustomed to running things, even though the Beekman Towers Hotel near the United Nations where we met in New York is a place for Scandinavian airline crews rather than film stars.

"I've always been an independent filmmaker from day one," he says. "Apocalypse Now was self-financed. I got myself into financial trouble with the picture after that, so for 10 years, from age 40 to 50, I was basically paying a big loan back to the Chase Manhattan Bank. So I was making a movie every year in order to make that bank payment. And I did. In 10 years, I paid it off." The Godfather may not have been an independent film, but it was a personal one for Coppola, who fought for his casting choices.

At the time, no one at Zoetrope had any money or a job, said Lucas, who urged Coppola to make the film however the studio wanted it so his friends would be able to work on it. Coppola is grateful to Lucas for persuading him to make The Godfather and, he jokes, "to put my personal career on hold for 40 years". Yet Coppola insisted on casting the picture. The studios did not want Pacino, who was then a short, dark-haired stage actor in New York. Coppola recalls Pacino's girlfriend at the time, the actress Jill Clayburgh, pleading with him to stop trying to persuade Pacino to take the part.

"When I read The Godfather, particularly the scenes in Italy when he's walking with the sheep, I just saw Al Pacino's face. So it was very hard when they suggested Ryan O'Neal and Robert Redford. I actually knew Robert Redford and quite liked him - and everyone would say to me that Sicilians could be blond and blue-eyed, which is true. But I saw Pacino's face and I thought: 'Here's a young guy who's determined to break away from the family business but he's clearly genetically doomed to not be able to break away.'"

Paramount was also opposed to casting Brando as Don Corleone. "I was told by the then-president of the company that I wasn't even allowed to mention his name," Coppola says. As a solution, he took a small camera to Brando's house to film an impromptu screen test of Brando talking in Corleone's character. And Coppola raised a $1 million (Dh3.67m) bond in case something happened to Brando during the shooting.

Coppola was proven right at the box office, and The Godfather takings enabled him to finance Apocalypse Now, in which Martin Sheen was his unlikely choice for the lead. Apocalypse wasn't the first of Coppola's war movies to raise the eyebrows of studio executives. After writing a script for Patton at the age of 24, Coppola was fired. It turned out that Burt Lancaster, who was slated for the lead, didn't like the opening with Patton addressing his troops - "and all those things about Don Quixote", Coppola recalls.

The script went unmade and the studio commissioned another screenplay. "Years later, they dug up my old script and they made it as it was written, and everyone said: 'Oh, the opening was so great.' But that's what I was fired for. "In a way, it does make sense," he said, "because ideas you have, if they don't quite fit in their time or they rub the wrong way, you get in trouble for them, but ultimately those are things that you're remembered for."

Tucker: The Man and His Dream may not be Coppola's most memorable film, yet the director now feels vindicated for his 1988 drama about a creative car entrepreneur beaten down by major auto firms. "It was about the very thing that we now see so evident in the automobile industry," says Coppola, who was born in Detroit and shares a love of cars with Lucas. "Sometimes the executives in this industry tend to overly protect the way things are and the way things are done. You see that with film executives. Hollywood is the next Detroit, in my opinion," he said. "There's this rather cynical idea that you can market anything. It's most important to have people make cars who love cars. If you have people who love cars, it's hard to buy into some cynical idea, that the American people really love Hummers."

Would he now turn his attention to the Middle East to address the Iraq war as he did with the Vietnam war in Apocalypse Now? "It's funny," he says. "You get typecast in the movie business, and I spent my whole first career trying to avoid making Mafia pictures. I felt one was enough. "Vietnam was a unique war. If I were to try to make a war film today, set in Iraq or anywhere else in that region, in my heart it would be an anti-war film. You think that a film like Apocalypse ultimately is against war as a killer of young people and a waste of resources and an unspeakable tragedy. The only kind of Iraq war film I might make would be about a family in Baghdad, with the daughter getting married and the kids going to school. It would be a peaceful movie - no acts of violence, no war. I think only a very peaceful film could be an anti-war film."

Coppola may be revising his career, but he's still rarely at a loss for words. When asked to name his favourite films, excluding his own, he hesitates. "They've only been making films for a little more than 100 years, but the masterpieces, even in the first 20 years of sound cinema or 25 years in the silent era - I can name great films, the films of GW Pabst, Joyless Street, all the films of Murnau are great - The Last Laugh, Nosferatu, Sunrise. Akira Kurosawa made a half-dozen masterpieces. People who aspire to make films have such inspiration."

Young people, he noted, may be making their mark not on film, but on digital video, the format Coppola used in Tetro. "Sophia [Coppola, his daughter] only wants to shoot on film. The young people, the passionate young filmmakers, only want to work on film because they associate it with the great 100-year heritage and they know they're going to lose it. A guy like me, who made his whole career on film, I'm saying that I'm only going to work on digital. We're the opposite in our family. Sophia wouldn't touch digital with a 10-foot pole. In seven, eight years she's going to have to, because there is not going to be film any more."

It is a pivotal time for Coppola, who has switched from film to digital imagery, from high budgets to low budgets and from the studios to independent funds. But he seems satisfied. "For me, one of the big differences between now and when I was younger is that I wanted to have a film career," he says. "Now I really don't particularly have a career, nor do I care to have a career. I'd like to just be able to make, more like Woody Allen - a movie every year that I wrote and hopefully has audiences that enjoy it. I don't have to hit any golden gong."