After reading – in July and August 2017 - many books quoting interviews, and newspaper articles, I came to have some quite strong opinions on Francis Ford Coppola. Opinions of him as a writer, a director, a visionary, a man, and as a collaborator.
However, history will eventually regard the idea of a director being an auteur. I believe that filmmakers who get to control the film in all phases of production, particularly those who are writer and director - or writer, producer and director - are without a doubt auteurs.
Coppola was an example of someone who made several films in all three roles, which fits the definition even better than the original definition the French collective (Truffaut, etc.) came up with.
What I think sets Coppola apart from other auteurs like Hitchcock and Spielberg, is a willingness to alter his vision based on the opinions of others participating in the filmmaking process.
As an example, Spielberg’s cinematographer on Close Encounters of the Third Kind was driven out of his mind by the fact that Spielberg was making all the decisions a DOP would normally make as part of their valued contribution. It’s not that Vilmos Zsigmond was bitter – in what I have read in interviews – but that the cinematographer’s role was more or less redundant with Spielberg at the helm. Traditionally the DOP lights the set or location, often frames the composition of the shot, and chooses the lens. If a cinematographer’s role is diluted to the extent that they’re preparing everything as ordered by the director, they aren’t the director of photography anymore. The director has in fact become the director of photography. From what I’ve read, it’s a deflating position to be put in when your skill, the things that makes you a highly skilled, highly sought-after, craftsman, leaves you as the proverbial “third wheel”. Disappointment, not resentment, was what I heard in Vilmos’s answers to questions.
With Coppola, though, he had an idea about the words that the actors would say – he wrote them – but he also had an idea about how the film would look, and the pacing and what was missing in telling the story or superfluous or redundant.
As I read more of other people’s thoughts or recollections, he embraced the input of others, whether they’re part of a craft or a member of a preview audience.
It’s a great thing in terms of collaboration and working out how to make the best movie possible. It’s not a great thing if you let other people’s concerns water down your vision.
Coppola’s greatest qualities are that he believes in the inherent value of the material he is adapting, and aims to fulfil the story the author has created as faithfully as possible in the screenplay – to the degree it makes sense to him as a work of art.
As director of The Godfather, he drew from the novel the best elements and threw away the more sensational or ridiculous parts.
As director of The Outsiders, he loved S.E. Hinton’s writing and filmed his screenplay, which told the whole story, including the story of the three brothers
With The Godfather, he, as Pauline Kael and many others have noted, turned pulp into art, through his choices.
With The Outsiders, when people started asking why had he thrown away so much of the much-loved book, it turns out that he hadn’t. He’d filmed his script of the novel, and all the elements he’d been forced to cut out, which were filmed, were there to make the novel, twenty years later, into a very good – recut – new version of how he envisaged The Outsiders in the first place.
With The Godfather films he accepted input of how to solve problems, and accepted criticism, and changed things, based on his perception of the validity of the criticism.
Time and time again Coppola listened to other people’s opinions. And when they were better than his own ideas, he embraced them. He realized that collaboration brought about better results when the other ideas were better solutions to problem areas than his own solutions.
Somewhere in amongst all the fighting to have his vision realized there was a pragmatism, which was deeply rooted accepting one project as a means to getting to make the next project he was passionate about.
He always saw himself as a writer-director of personal projects, and he made other films to enable him to do those projects. He fostered the belief in other young filmmakers of a world in which artists could create their own stories, and film them, without studio interference.
His naivety was in not understanding the necessity of advertising, promotion and distribution, and the American studios had all of the control and power in that department. THX-1138 ran in empty cinemas, as did The Rain People (1969) and You’re a Big Boy Now (1966). The Conversation (1974) had small audiences – based on his reputation after The Godfather (1972) – but essentially was another film he wanted to produce which no one wanted to see – despite the positive reviews.
Coppola’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films were the first two Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. Then came the great debt. The fortune he made from the two films he never wanted to make – commercial projects based on a sensational story about the mafia - was lost in trying to turn Zoetrope into a functioning studio. The cost of Apocalypse Now (1979) with all its delays, followed by the twin out-of-control projects of Hammett (1982) and One From the Heart (1981), ate up all of his money and left him millions of dollars in debt.
Artistic Control, Final Cut, and Complete Autonomy are the kind of phrases that are used when a director doesn’t want to be interrupted, hassled, or have to explain or justify any of his decisions or acts. And the whole studio system is based around the fact that the people who supply the money (essentially bank loans via the studio making the film) have the final say. If someone really wants freedom, they have to do what George Lucas did with The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Coppola did with One From the Heart (1981), put the money up yourself and deliver your final film to the distributor and hope to hell they like it and will promote it. The second Star Wars film was a not-brainer. But One From the Heart was not liked by the distributor, was not promoted properly, was not given a fair crack at being successful, and received lukewarm reviews.
Even when a powerful Hollywood identity like Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg gets final cut, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the last cut. What distributors (usually the studio’s other associate company) think will be popular or unpopular, or deem too long or too complex, is still what ends up in the cinema more often than not. Only a deal that outweighed the Head of the company would carry enough clout to ensure that the actual final cut is what made it into cinemas. It would also have to supersede the Studio President, Chairman or Owner.; and almost no one in Hollywood is better than the gross of their last film. Even when Spielberg did Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind ($260 million & $132 million), he followed it up with $31 million for 1941 (1979). He rescued himself from being a two-hit-wonder by following it up with two expertly realised films, Raiders (1981) and E.T. (1982) – followed by a sequel, Temple of Doom ($248 million, $435 million & $179 million). That gave him 5 home-runs out of six bats. When he chose his next project, it wasn’t Paramount or Universal who were successful. It was Warner Bros. who were successful in wooing him. They’d not worked with him, and were desperate for him to bring his magic their way. He wanted to make a serious film and in their desperation I think they would have given Spielberg complete discretion over all aspects of filmmaking including the version - the final cut - of The Color Purple (1985) that went into cinemas. Even though it just failed to break the $100 million barrier in domestic U.S. grosses, it received enough Oscar nominations to still make it a worthwhile partnership and a respectable return for Warner Bros’s $15,000,000 outlay. Warner Bros wanted his next project as well, which was another serious film, like The Color Purple, aimed at adults, not children. The budget for Empire of the Sun (1987) was more than double ($35 million), and it tanked at the box office ($22 million). Warner Bros. return would have been probably around $6 million. The distributors would have also got about $6 million back which wouldn’t have covered their advertising, marketing and promotion costs, let alone the prints.
If Spielberg ever had the final say of what ended up in cinema screens, he would have lost it on Monday 14 December 1987 when the film grossed $1,314,509 on 225 screens, in what was a toe-in-the-water kind of release.
In Hollywood there’s a conventional wisdom that you should never invest your own money in a film because you’re liable to lose it all. Errol Flynn famously invested a vast amount of money in a passion project, William Tell. He not only lost it all, but the film was never completed.
When Coppola went belly-up he was philosophical about the fact that he’d invested several million dollars to get Apocalypse Now (1979) into production, and had to pay anything over the agreed upon budget of $12 million personally. With all the problems the production encountered, the budget ended up in the vicinity of $31 million. One from the Heart and Hammett, bombed spectacularly. Hammett, made with Coppola's money, grossed $41 thousand, one of the lowest grosses in Hollywood history (according to IMDB).
Coppola ruefully observed, “That was a kamikaze attack. I went down in flames by myself.” (24 July 1988, Lindsey, New York Times Magazine, Promise to Keep) "Why was it so bad that I wanted a little studio to turn out films?” (Goodwin & Wise, On the Edge, p.410). “If you don’t bet, you don’t have a chance to win. You can’t be an artist and play it safe.” (Phillips, p.200). After the bankruptcy, he said, “I decided I would work continuously until I paid off my debt.” (Keough, p.9) “I sure put in the hours.” (Lindsey, p.27)
Fifteen years later he has directed another nine films as a director-for-hire, and with his tenth feature since One From the Heart (1982, he is finally able to say, "I'm out of the dire financial straits, and with this movie, I'm ahead - which is why I did it. I've made my family secure with the wine business and so with the money I've made on `The Rainmaker' I have my wife's permission, everyone's permission, to invest in my own next movie. The only way you can make unusual movies is if you put your money where your mouth is." (1997, Ebert, Coppola Looks Forward to His Own Films)
It took another ten years before he actually made that next film, Youth without Youth (2007), and at the age of 68 – in September 2007 - he remarked that from this point on, "My dream is to have the career I wanted when I was 18… When I started, I never thought I was going to be a successful Hollywood director. When I was young, I got to have the big career, and I'm hoping that now I can have the little one." (A.O. Scott, New York Times, September 2007).
Even then, having made Youth without Youth for around $5 million, the film is poorly distributed, and does no business at the box office. It’s reminiscent of The Rain People and You’re a Big Boy Now. He decides that he will organise the distribution of his next film himself.
The reality is that only a few hundred thousand people are interested in paying money to see the films Coppola wants to make, and that’s about the same amount of people before he was a big name director (The Rain People) as after he was a big name director (The Conversation & Youth without Youth) with the exception of, Apocalypse Now.
I remember reading an interview or reading a quote from a book, by the writer-director Alan Alda. He’d written and directed four features films in 1981, 1985, 1988 and 1990: The Four Seasons ($50,427,646), Sweet Liberty ($14,205,021), A New Life ($7,721,851) and Betsy’s Wedding ($19,740,070). The downward trend was too much for him.
He’d been used to mammoth audiences, on a weekly basis, and the final movie-length episode of M*A*S*H was viewed by tens of millions in America alone. With his feature films, he was lucky to get an audience of one or two million people. Even Betsy’s Wedding, which was his biggest grosser and probably sold about six million tickets, didn’t help. He concluded that what he wanted to write and direct, the rest of the world didn’t want to see. So he made a decision, to stop writing and directing films.
I have no idea where I read that, or whether my remembery is completely wrong or partly accurate, but it was a significant moment in my life, because it bewildered me, and I had to sit down and take it in, the reason being, that I have a memory for who writes and directs stories recorded on film or video. I remember the composer, the cinematographer – and often the editor, costume designer and people involved in sets/art. In the last 5 years of MASH, the very best episodes were written, or, written and directed by Alan Alda. It was a sitcom, and he elevated his episodes above the regular mediocrity and banality of every season. Even when what he did was too earnest, or too melodramatic, I remember Alan Alda reaching for something more in the episode he got to write and direct than what the show was essentially trying to deliver on a week by week basis. Even mediocre Alda was better than great anyone else.
That encapsulates the existence of two types of people – those who have to tell stories, write stories, make movies, produce movies, create fiction and non-fiction, and those who will do it conditionally, only if they can do it successfully.
One kind of being will create something personal even though no one is interested in the thing that they’re creating. Another will realise that no one is interested in what they’re creating, and stop creating, because if there isn’t an audience, then it doesn’t feed their ego.
Coppola always envisaged a world where artists could make films that they wanted to make, even if no one went to see them. He always saw himself – before The Godfather – as one of a very few number of people who could write a good film and direct a good film (and there’s a quote of his in one of the interviews that supports this). And that’s how he saw his life – somehow supporting an organisation which could supply equipment to would-be filmmakers to go off and make the films that the creative being within them, wanted to make.
As harsh it sounds, if writing and directing didn’t bring him glory, Alan Alda wasn’t interested. On the other side, Coppola didn’t care for glory. In fact, to probably misquote someone, he had glory thrust upon him.
To be fair to Alan Alda, he was probably the highest paid actor working in television during the last half of the life of M*A*S*H, and adulation, like an actor receives, is probably hard to reconcile with the adulation a writer or director receives.
For Alda, every week for half a year, he portrays Hawkeye Pierce and he’s one of the most popular people on the planet.
But, as Coppola says, it takes a year to write a good screenplay, and two years to write an ambitious novel. Once M*A*S*H ended, Alda was in the land of ‘how do I equal what I’ve already done?’ The weekly adulation dissipated, month after month, year after year.
Coppola was sunk in a mire of debt that would drown a normal human being. He wanted to write and direct unambitious feature films. He’d walked into a land of debt and refused to write it off as a loss for all of the people who believed in him. He was bankrupt.
The passion of an artist who doesn’t care if they get good or bad reviews or decent box office, is different to someone who cares about how they are perceived.
Coppola and a million unsuccessful artists shared the same (often unstated) philosophy, that they will keep writing their unpublished novels, their rejected short stories, their invisible music compositions, their histories of things that it seems only they care about.
For Coppola, debt was a way of life. When he was able to make The Conversation, based on the success of The Godfather, it was a relief, because he could also try to get Zoetrope Studios back in operation. In a brief moment where he is was more in the black than in the red, he said, “I was always fighting utter bankruptcy, so the notion of having excess money was new.” (Phillips, p.72)
Eight year later, in 1982, Coppola’s debt after Apocalypse Now (1979), One From the Heart (1981) and Hammett (1982) was estimated to be between $40 and $50 million (Phillips, p.200).
In 1997, after The Rainmaker (1997), he could say, “I'm out of the dire financial straits, and with this movie, I'm ahead - which is why I did it.”
The above article written by Philip Powers is protected by copyright and under Fair Use, 10% of it may be quoted or reproduced, if properly credited, in another work. It may not be reproduced in its entirety in any form without the written consent of the author.The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2017