Francis Ford Coppola Reflects On His Film Career At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, the director of Apocalypse Now and the iconic Godfather films shared memories and anecdotes with a sold-out crowd.

Francis Ford Coppola Reflects On His Film Career

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the highlights of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival last September was an onstage conversation with Francis Ford Coppola. Our producer Lauren Krenzel was there and enjoyed it, and thought you would enjoy it, too.

So today we bring you Francis Ford Coppola in conversation with the co-director of the festival, Cameron Bailey, and we'll hear some questions from the audience. This in-conversation event was part of the festival's Maverick Series.

Coppola is, of course, the director of "The Godfather" films, "The Conversation," "Apocalypse Now," "One From the Heart," "The Outsiders" and "The Cotton Club." His new film "Twixt" had its world premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It stars Val Kilmer as a struggling author of third-rate thrillers who slips into a paranoid dream world. We want to thank the Toronto International Film Festival and Francis Coppola for allowing us to broadcast this recording.


CAMERON BAILEY: Thank you very much. There's so much to talk about, but I want to begin with your newest film, with "Twixt." And the most recent films "Twixt" and "Tetro" and "Youth Without Youth" seem to me to all have a little bit of a dream-like quality to them. You're using black and white now more than you had before that, and there's a different tone and a different atmosphere to these films than to some of your previous films.

And is there - are these part of a body of work or a shape that you're trying to form?

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Well, when I was young, you know, my generation is very stimulated by being, on one hand, able to see the wonderful films that were being made all throughout Europe and Japan and, you know, on one hand that - and then on the other hand, being still in awe of the Hollywood studio tradition, which made beautiful - many, many beautiful films, which influenced the world.

And so we were sort of squeezed by both traditions and wanted to do both. And my first films, films like "The Rain People" and even "The Conversation" showed more what I was hoping to do.

And of course we were going broke, and, you know, no one wanted then, as now, to make those kinds of more personal films - I'll call them more personal films - and I had to get a job. And of course the job was "The Godfather," and that made me be something that I didn't know I was going to be.


COPPOLA: Thank you. You know, I became a big-shot kind of director, and I had all the - you know, followed every instinct I had. I got to own a movie studio. I got to make that film about the Vietnam War and what have you.


COPPOLA: But in my heart, I wanted to make little art films, you know. And ironically, I got into that position through the wine industry, not through the film industry, which is the company that subsidized my last few films.

BAILEY: You seem to have alternated back and forth between studio movies, personal movies and been able to do both. We can go back through your career, for instance, and before you made "Twixt," "Tetro" and "Youth Without Youth," you had "The Rainmaker," "Jack" and "Dracula," three fairly big-budget studio movies, and then of course "The Godfather: Part III."

But you have seemed to go back and forth. And then in the early '80s you had the films "Rumblefish," "The Outsiders" and "One From the Heart," seemed very personal films. Can you talk a little bit about that back-and-forth between the studios and your own personal...?

COPPOLA: Well, in order to really understand that, you have to understand the financial situation in each year and whether it was a calamity or not. I made "Apocalypse Now," ironically, despite having done "The Godfather" and "Conversation," "Godfather II" really in rapid succession over a couple of years. Absolutely nobody wanted to finance or participate in "Apocalypse Now."

It could have been because there hadn't been a so-called war film about that war, and studios were very cautious. It wasn't considered a good thing to do. And the script for "Apocalypse" generally was considered an interesting script, but nobody, even at that point of success, arguably the most successful I've ever been in my life at that - after those three pictures, nobody wanted to do it.

And so I thought of course I should do it. And I took what property I had. I had the vineyards in Napa and things, and I gave them all to the bank, and I borrowed the money, and I went off and made "Apocalypse Now" myself.

BAILEY: Can I just ask you, just to interrupt you briefly, nobody wanted to make the film at that time. Why did you want to make it?

COPPOLA: You know, if I told you the reason, you'd just die laughing. I thought that we could make this great big hit war movie "Apocalypse Now" and make a lot of money and then make little art films for the rest of our lives, you know, that if we made a real Hollywood blockbuster like "A Bridge Too Far" or one of those, "The Guns of Navarone," and that it certainly had the ingredients in the extraordinary tapestry of what the movie was going to be.

I thought they were just all wrong, but I was pretty scared. I was, you know, I was betting the family farm. Creatively, I had no idea how to end it.

BAILEY: Can you talk a little bit about those final scenes in "Apocalypse Now"? I assume most of you have seen "Apocalypse Now" in the room.


BAILEY: So this won't be a spoiler. The scenes with Brando, I understand he came to The Philippines not having prepared.

COPPOLA: Brando, the deal with Brando was three weeks for $3 million. But he had promised me that he was going to be a little thinner than he was when I last saw him in L.A. because, you know, the issue was, if he was a runaway Green Beret officer, it sounds silly, but what kind of uniform should he wear? They don't make size XXXXX Green Beret uniform, you know.


COPPOLA: So when he showed up on the location where we were, he was much bigger than he had been even when he said he would lose weight, and I was just thinking probably what kind of uniform should I get for him, you know.

So I suggested to him, I said, well, why don't we, like, cut your hair off and do him like Kurtz in the Conrad. Those of you who know, the Conrad, Kurtz is a very vivid, you know, skull-like apparition in the Belgian Congo.

So he said no, no, no, that won't work. That won't work. So we spent - of the three weeks I had, we spent the first week just sitting in this kind of - it was like a houseboat, like a trailer, but it was a houseboat, just discussing termites and insects.

And Brando was - beyond being such a great actor. He was a brilliant - he was a genius man. I mean, the things he would talk about were so interesting and fascinating. Of course I was panicking because every day there would be a knock on the door: Well, Francis, I guess we'll go to lunch now. You're not going to come out and shoot. I said no.

BAILEY: The crew is waiting for you the whole time.

COPPOLA: Yeah, yeah, and we only had 15 days. And so basically, to put it in a nutshell, we had used up the first five days just talking like this, about termites and what have you.

So finally on the Friday, I walked in, and there is Brando with his hair shaved, bald. And I said: But Marlon, you said it wouldn't work. You said you read the "Heart of Darkness," and the idea for Kurtz that way wouldn't work. And he says, well...You read it, I said. And he says: No, I lied. I never read it. I read it last night.


COPPOLA: So he read it last night and came around to this image. And then what I did basically is I - you know, on film, a very big man, like I'm a big man, but if you would have photographed me, you wouldn't know if I was fat or just, like, tall and gigantic because you tend to see the shoulders. And so I had the idea to dress him in black pajamas and get a double who was like 6'7" be him and play him more as a giant than as a fat person, or - and that's the way I got around the uniform issue.

BAILEY: And the dialogue between his character and Martin Sheen's, once they're in the jungle, and it's just a face-off between the two of them, how much of that was scripted? How much of that was...?

COPPOLA: It was all scripted. You know, there was a lot of - many, many hours through the night working on those last scenes, but a lot of what we were talking - what I was talking about with Brando, of course I was recording. And then I would bring it back to him in the form of a monologue or something.

Brando, you know, tended to have like a bad memory. I'm convinced his acting style is based on that. You know, when he goes: Oh, I don't know...


COPPOLA: He is literally trying to remember the line.


COPPOLA: And he's a master of using cue cards and what happened... And so what I would do, is I would have him recite the monologue that was derived from these hours of discussion about insects, as well as other things. And then he had these long monologues, and he had a little tape recorder in his pocket, and he could just, like, play it and hear the line, and then he could say the line. Like, that's how he could remember those speeches.

GROSS: We're listening to Francis Ford Coppola, recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Here's a scene from "Apocalypse Now" with Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. Sheen is on a mission to kill Colonel Kurtz, played by Brando.


MARTIN SHEEN: (As Captain Benjamin L. Willard) If the generals back in the (unintelligible), could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever, probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he'd really gone? He broke from them, and then he broke from himself. I've never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.

MARLON BRANDO: (As Colonel Walter E. Kurtz) I've seen the horror, the horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means, horror.

(As Colonel Walter E. Kurtz) Horror has a face. And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared, they are truly enemies.

GROSS: We'll hear more of Francis Ford Coppola recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to Francis Ford Coppola recorded last September at the Toronto International Film Festival in conversation with the festival's co-director Cameron Bailey. Coppola also took some questions from the audience. Here's one of them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The question I wanted to ask is, actually, if you could talk about your writing process, your habit, sort of what's a daily writing day like for you.

COPPOLA: Well, the thing about writing is if you really try, if you do it every day, and you put in your time, you get better. I don't know if there's a - I think with acting that's possible, too, but writing is something that if you really plug away at it, you can get better.

The important thing is: A, choose the time that's good for you. For me, it's early morning because I wake up, and I'm fresh, and I sit in my place. I look out the window, and I have coffee, and no one's gotten up yet or called me or hurt my feelings.


COPPOLA: It's very important that your feelings are very, sort of, just stable. You know, you don't want to have a heartache when you're trying to go fly on some adventure of writing. At any rate, it's very important for the young writer to, when you finish the six, seven, eight pages, to turn them over and don't look at them again, because I believe there is a hormone that is injected in the blood of the young writer that makes him hate everything he has just written.

And so just don't read it. And then when you finally have done it over the, you know, 30 days or how many days so that your stack of pages is in the 80s or something, then - and you feel you have it at some completion, then sit down and read it, and you'll find that your reaction will be very different because you will have a little distance.

And you realize that the first 10 pages that you would have just torn up and rewritten, which is to say never go back. If you don't read it, you're not going back and rewriting anything at first, because you don't know yet. And maybe you're just going to cut those 10 pages out, and they're not even going to be in it. So you would have been rewriting something that's not even in the piece.

So give yourself that chance to put together the, you know, 80, 90 pages of a draft and then read it very, at a - you know, in a nice little ceremony, where you're comfortable, and you read it and make good notes on it, what you liked, what touched you, what moved you, what's a possible way, and then you go about on a rewrite.

And I'll rewrite a script a trillion times. So rewriting is just the middle name of writing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: My question has to do with working with actors. It's very intimidating for young filmmakers to think that they can work with some A-list Hollywood actor. They all have their entourage, and they're paid a lot of money. So what's your approach?

I mean, obviously you've worked with some - the biggest actors around. But what's the sort of - the secret to working with actors, just to sort of - so you overcome that intimidation?

COPPOLA: Right. Well, you know, when I started out, I was working with some important actors or actors I believed in, and I wasn't - I had no credentials. I didn't have any clout, as it was.

One tradition I always pulled from theater is I always tried to get a week or two weeks of rehearsal period, which is not common for film, mainly because it's so hard to get all the actors together in one place. But I always fought for it and found a great benefit in having, say, a week, 10 days.

And this is a time when you work with the actor. You're not reading the script or, like, rehearsing the lines. You don't do that at all. You read it once on the first day. Maybe you read the script twice, once straight through and then once in the afternoon where people can bring up their objections or their ideas and do a, sort of, start and stop.

But after that, I never went back to the text. I always worked with the actors based on improvisations or theater games, sometimes very elaborate improvisations that had a central component. By that I mean, where they would eat food together, or they would prepare lunch, something - somehow when you're doing an improvisation, and you're playing at a character that you don't really know, you're not really that person yet, it's very helpful to have something, you know, like make a sandwich or something, eating food or do things that involve the sense that can help you.

And I've had great luck with improvisations. On the first "Godfather," the very first gathering of the actors, when they were all going to meet Brando, and, of course, to all those young men in "The Godfather," Brando was like the godfather. I mean he was such a legendary figure.

It was in the back of a restaurant, and I had set up a family-type Italian dinner table, and I had Brando sitting at the head like the father, and to his right was Pacino, you know, who was trying to impress Brando with how silent and intense he could be.


COPPOLA: And to the left was Jimmy Caan trying to impress Brando with how funny he was. And then Duvall was just kind of - every time Brando wasn't looking, he was doing Brando imitations.


COPPOLA: And Johnny Cazale was there in his being shy and kind of the character that he ultimately played. But my sister Talia was serving the food, and I found that after, you know - as I say, it's hard to do that. You know, it's easy to break character and just, you know, fool around. But if you really, if you ask the actors to really try to stay in character, it's very exerting work, like any kind of exercise.

And I found that after that dinner, by the time the dessert came around, of course I had chosen all the props and the courses of the dinner to be, like, very authentic Italian fare, that they were a family, and they were already partly in character.

And this has happened to me many times in rehearsals, where we did that.

GROSS: We're listening to Francis Ford Coppola, recorded last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here's a scene from "The Godfather." Don Corleone is recovering in the hospital after an assassination attempt. In this scene, his sons - Sonny, played by James Caan; and Michael, played by Al Pacino - along with the family's consigliore Tom, played by Robert Duvall, are plotting their revenge against the people behind the assassination attempt. Pacino speaks first.


AL PACINO: (As Michael) They want to have a meeting with me, right? It will be me, McCuskey and Sollozzo. Let's set the meeting. Get our informers to find out where it's going to be held. Now, we insist it's a public place, a bar, a restaurant, someplace where there's people so I feel safe.

(As Michael) They're going to search me when I first meet them, right? So I can't have a weapon on me then. But if Clamenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me, then I'll kill them both.


ROBERT DUVALL: (As Tom Hagen) Hey, what are you going to do? Nice college boy, eh?

JAMES CAAN: (As Sonny) Don't want to get mixed up in the family business? Now you want to gun down a police captain, what, because he slapped you in the face a little bit? Huh? What do you think, this is the army, where you shoot them a mile away? You got to get up close like this, and bad-a-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit. Come here. You're talking this personal. Tom, this is business, and this man is taking it very, very personal.

PACINO: (As Michael) Where does it say that you can't kill a cop?

DUVALL: (As Tom) Come on, Mikey.

PACINO: (As Michael) Tom, wait a minute. I'm talking about a cop that's mixed up in drugs. I'm talking about a dishonest cop, a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming. That's a terrific story, and we have newspaper people on the payroll, don't we, Tom? They might like a story like that.

DUVALL: (As Tom) They might, they just might.

PACINO: (As Michael) It's not personal, Sonny, it's strictly business.

GROSS: We'll hear more from Francis Ford Coppola recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival in the second half of the show. By the way, "Godfather" fans, AMC is showing "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II" Thanksgiving Day. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to Francis Ford Coppola, recorded on stage last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, in conversation with the festival's co-director, Cameron Bailey. They're about to talk about "Patton," which Coppola co-wrote. So let's start with a clip. "Patton" stars George C. Scott as the now famous World War II General George S. Patton. The screenplay won Coppola his first Oscar. The film also won Best Picture. Here's the opening scene. General Patton is addressing his troops.


GEORGE C. SCOTT: (as General George S. Patton) And I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. Men, all this stuff you've heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big-league ballplayers, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.

Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post, don't know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating. Now, we have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. You know, my God, I actually pity those poor bastards we're going up against. My God, I do.

BAILEY: I just had a quick question. You had early success as a writer when you wrote the screenplay for "Patton," won an Academy Award for that. What kept you on the track to become a director as opposed to just pursuing more writing?

COPPOLA: When I wrote "Patton," at the time I was about 24, and I only got the job because when they asked me if I had military experience I said yes, and I had gotten kicked out of military school, which was my experience.


COPPOLA: So Burt Lancaster was going to play the part at the time that I was actually there and they called me in for a meeting and they just lambasted the script I wrote because it had a lot of, it had this bizarre opening where he stands up in front of a big - theoretically his battalion of men and gives this speech and they criticize that because he was presented as a four-star general and with his Colt revolvers and those artifacts were all things he had gathered during the war. They thought it was misleading to start that way. And then they didn't like the - there were a lot of sequences in the script of kind of reincarnation, where he talked about roaming through the Carthaginian battle and as though he had been there, and they thought the script was a little kind of metaphysical. At any rate, to long and the short, but mainly over the beginning they didn't pick up my option and I went on and I didn't even know that they weren't going to use my script.

What happened was for five years later they revisited it and they had hired George C. Scott and Scott didn't like the script they then had, and someone remembered this earlier script. So they went back to my script and that's how I got to be in it. So the moral I want to teach all the young people here is that the same thing you get fired for is what they give the Lifetime Achievement Awards 30 years later.



BAILEY: Question in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN ONE: I read that "The Conversation," is one of your favorite films; just wondering, why is it becoming almost like a prescient film now? Why is it so much more relevant now?

COPPOLA: You know, I don't entirely know the answer. I do know that just as family photographs seem to change as you look at them over time and, of course, they're not changing, you're changing, films seem to change as well. And, of course, the films are staying the same. It's the culture and the audience that's changing and that's one of the mysterious aspects of art; how something that can start out one way just keeps evolving or gaining depth.

BAILEY: I wonder if I could just follow up on the conversation briefly.


BAILEY: It's also one of my favorite films - not just of yours but period. And for me what's interesting about it is there's this sense that there is no truth to be had in surveillance. There is no certainty. And I think that is something that endures because we're living in a more and more uncertain world, I think. When you were making the film when you were designing it was that something that was top of your mind?

COPPOLA: You know, what was top of my mind when I was making that film was I wanted to make the film as beautiful as "Blow-Up." You know, I had seen "Blow-Up" by Michelangelo Antonioni and I said boy, that's the kind of film I - those were the kind of films I want to make. I - something that's unique and it occupies its own kind of thing, and I made "The Conversation." I sat down to write that after being so enthusiastic about seeing "Blow-Up." And throughout my career, I have seen great films that have just filled me with pleasure and said, I want to make a film like that. And I think that's OK for young people to do, you know, because it's impossible. You set out to imitate something you thought was beautiful but in the end you can't. You're going to end up with what you have to say, you know?

I once came upon a beautiful little sentence in a book. I think it was from the French author Balzac and he talked about how young people were stealing, you know, taking appropriating some of his ideas and stuff and he says, they're welcome to it. I want them to, he says, because there's no way they can. They'll take it or they're going to make it into their own, and then it makes me live for ever through them. And I sort of feel that anytime anyone has taken something that maybe I might have provided. I did the same to Tennessee Williams or to any number of great authors and that's part of the, you know, to quote the greats, "the circle of life."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much for being here. You're such a big inspiration as well as your daughter. She's changed my life with her films. They're really amazing. And as a young person who is really passionate about film, I wonder what the best advice you can give me today would be? Like, in your opinion, what's the best advice to a young filmmaker?

COPPOLA: To young filmmakers. Well, if it's a guy, I say get married.


COPPOLA: Because, you know, if you get married - because young men today, they don't seem to think about getting married and having kids till they're in their late 40s, you know, and I was married, I was 22. I was desperate to have kids. I had so much fun with my kids. And, you know, the fact that I was married and I had this family of little kids, I was very responsible. I wanted to have a house that they could live in and so I worked very hard. I didn't go out and, you know, waste time as a young man are known to do, and I was diligent. I would be writing my script and what have you, and marriage had a very good effect on me. When I was married I was broke and, you know, eight weeks later I had a job as a screenwriter and I attribute a lot of it to the sense of, you know, togetherness with my family, the little team I wanted to provide for.

If you're a young woman I would say don't get married.


COPPOLA: Because then you have this guy who is trying to get you to do everything for his career and you're not going to have any time for your career. So...


BAILEY: That's a great note to end on. Francis Ford Coppola, thank you so much.

GROSS: Francis Ford Coppola, recorded last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, in conversation with the festival's co-director Cameron Bailey. It was presented as part of the festival's Maverick series. Our thanks to the festival and Francis Ford Coppola for their permission to broadcast this event. Coppola's new film "Twixt," had its world premiere at the festival.

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