By the time he was 40, Francis Ford Coppola had achieved enough for more than one lifetime.
In one decade, he wrote, directed or produced Patton, the first two Godfather films, The Conversation, American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now.
Recently, he's been more prolific as a vintner than as a director. But this month, for the first time in 10 years, he has a new film out. And it's about a man who gets to have more than one lifetime.
Youth Without Youth is Coppola's rendering of a novella by the Romanian emigre philosopher Mircea Eliade. Tim Roth plays an aged academic who becomes young again when he's struck by lightning. It's a movie of ideas, a mystery that doesn't ask whodunnit, but instead what is it? What is time? Memory? Reality? Knowledge? It's heavy going, and some of the less kind reviews have described it as muddled, or as a mishmash.
Coppola says the Eliade story intrigued him for years. He wrote the screenplay himself — and financed the movie, too. And he says he made precisely the kind of film he wants to make at this stage of his life.
Generally, he says, Hollywood movies are "like telling children the story of the Three Bears" — in that studios like to present familiar, comfortable stories to an audience that knows them, likes them and wants to hear them repeatedly.
At the average multiplex crowd-pleaser, he says, "after 10 minutes I look at my wife and say 'Haven't we seen this movie before?'"
Coppola's success allows him, at this stage, a certain freedom. He financed Youth Without Youth himself — "as I intend to do with all my films now, (in) this last part of my career."
That means, of course, that he's not required to shop his script around, taking edits from every producer and studio chief with a finger in the financial pot. And while every script can benefit from outside input, Coppola says he gets that from his own production team: actors, cameramen, editors and other colleagues.
"I think it's the market research aspect that's trying to eliminate risk in the movie that's partly what's wrong with films," he says.
Not that he's immune to public opinion.
"I make movies in the same way I would cook a dinner," he says. "I want people to come and enjoy it. I don't want the dinner to be over and (have) people saying, 'Well, that was interesting; I want to think about it."
And Coppola argues that, all things considered, Youth Without Youth isn't all that hard to follow.
"It moves in a straight chronology," he points out. "An old man, like Faust, is given a chance not only to be young, but to gain knowledge and ultimately to have a chance to love again."
"The difference is (that) it's a love story wrapped in a mystery. ... (And) the mystery has to do with the same kind of mysteries as when I was 9 years old at summer camp, looking up at the stars and wondering what stars really were. I think people think about these things, wonder about them."
So, from here on in, it's Francis Ford Coppola, independent filmmaker?
"I think in my heart I've always been an independent filmmaker," he says. "Oddly, and very strangely, I became wealthy in other businesses.
"In a sense, everyone who buys a bottle of Coppola wine is my executive producer and makes it possible for me to pursue other movies that I feel passionate about — that I love — and that I make irrespective of whether they'll be commercial or not."
Only when he heard the bell of the Metropolitan Church did he remember that it was the night of Easter. And suddenly the rain seemed unnatural — the rain which had greeted him as he had emerged from the railway station and which threatened to become torrential. He made his way forward hastily with the umbrella brought down to his shoulders, his eyes downcast, trying to avoid the rivulets. Without realizing it, he began to run, holding the umbrella close to his chest, like a shield. But after some twenty meters he saw the traffic signal turn red, and he had to stop. He waited nervously, standing on tiptoe, hopping from one foot to the other continually, looking in consternation at the little pond that covered a good part of the boulevard directly in front of him.
The traffic light changed, and in the next moment he was shaken, blinded by an explosion of white incandescent light. He felt as though he had been sucked up by a fiery cyclone that had exploded at some mysterious moment on top of his head. A close strike of lightning, he said to himself, blinking with difficulty to unseal his eyelids. He did not understand why he was clutching the handle of his umbrella so hard. The rain lashed at him wildly from all sides at once, and yet he felt nothing. Then he heard the bell at the Metropolitan again, and all the other bells, and very close by still another, striking in a solitary, desperate way.
I've had a fright, he said to himself, and he began to shiver. It's because of the water, he realized a few moments later, becoming aware of the fact that he was lying in the puddle near the curb. I've taken a chill. . . .
"I saw the lightning strike him," he heard the breathless voice of a frightened man saying. "I don't know if he's still alive or not. I was looking over there, where he was standing under the traffic signal, and I saw him light up from head to toe — umbrella, hat, coat, all at once! If it hadn't been for the rain, he would have been burnt to a crisp. I don't know if he's still alive or not."
"And even if he's still alive, what can we do with him?" The voice seemed to come from far away and it sounded to him tired, bitter.
"Who knows what sins he's committed, that God would strike him on the very night of Easter, right behind a church!" Then, after a pause, he added, "Let's see what the intern says about it."
It seemed strange to him that he felt nothing, that he did not, in fact, feel his body at all. He knew from the conversation of those around him that he had been moved. But how had he been transported? In their arms? On a stretcher? On a cart of some sort? . . .
"I don't believe he has a chance," he heard another voice saying later, also far away. "Not a single centimeter of his skin is untouched. I don't understand how he stays alive. Normally, he would have been ... "
Of course, everybody knows that. If you have lost more than fifty percent of your skin, you die of asphyxia. But he realized quickly that it was ridiculous and humiliating to reply mentally to the people bustling around him. He would have liked not to have had to hear them, just as, with his eyes shut tight, he did not see them. And at the same moment he found himself far away, happy, as he had been then.