© Philip Powers 20170814 (quotes from Phillips' book acknowledged as GDP (relevant page) and magazine quotes acknowledged plus all use of quotes are less than 1% of book or articles, as allowed under fair-use conditions - and all quotes are in italics.)
In Hollywood, The Insiders have the clout and The Outsiders are the filmmakers. The Outsiders are hired and fired by The Insiders who have both the money and power.
Far more scripts are written than made. Several million probably. In film, every film endorsed by the MPAA gets a number, including a lot of cartoons and shorts, and in 2017, the MPAA numbering reached #50334 with Baby Driver and with #50336 with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Then there’s the rest of cinema in every other country. So, films that had some sort of budget, even low budget films like Coppola's The Rain People ($700,000) or You’re a Big Boy Now ($800,000) require a decent amount of money and a lot of people working for next to nothing. Whether it’s Tokyo Story, or L’Avventura, or A bout de souffle, a significant budget is required, even if it is – or was – cheaper to make films outside of America. So, there would have to be another 50,000 films made in the rest of the world - surely.
And each time a film is made – with the contribution of a scriptwriter, a director, an editor, and a producer (or studio) who raises the money, it’s a small miracle when it stumbles to completion. And if it turns out to be even mediocre, then that’s a further miracle. And if it comes together, whether it is one person writing, producing and directing, or three separate people, and all departments lead to a film that is regarded as being very good, then it’s yet another miracle on top of the other miracles.
And if the money people (a studio or an individual or a bank) don’t interfere too much, and a good director’s vision is realised; or if the disagreements are handled well by both parties; and a good film results – then that’s another miracle. And if that film is well marketed and promoted by those involved in that role, and critics don’t tear it apart and turn people off, and people come to a cinema to see it, then that’s about as good as you could reasonably hope for.
For a novel, which was very popular since its publication, selling four million copies, as well as single copies being read by multiple people, like in schools, or in libraries, the journey from page to film was a lucky one. The Outsiders (published in 1967) could have expected an easier path to actual production. After all, thousands of books are optioned every year by the studios, and many are lost in that process and left in limbo.
Susie Hinton’s book was not tied up with any studio in 1980, and how it came to be a film at all, was a series of lucky circumstances, where at a dozen different points it could have died before even getting to Warners who agreed to advance money against distribution rights, which enabled production to commence. And what is remarkable is that there was no one committed to the adaptation from book to film, shepherding it along, keeping it alive. Every step that happened led to another step, and miraculously over a period of three years, happenstance led to a finished movie.
If your point of reference for how this happened, was, for example, Professor Gene D. Phillips’s excellent analysis of Coppola’s work (2004): a librarian wrote a letter to Coppola, he read the letter, then the book, and decided he “wanted to make a film about young people, and about belonging.”
Phillips then, over 5½ pages, records that the writer that Coppola and Roos engaged to do the adaptation produced an unsatisfactory script, which Coppola then took on, and completed, with Susie’s endorsement, Warners gave him enough money to start filming, and eventually, when he supplied a two-hour cut of the film they insisted that he cut it to 90 minutes, which he did. They released that version, Coppola’s cut, into the cinemas where it grossed $24 million, which on a ten million dollar budget, was considered to be a minor hit.
Coppola reflected, “I feel The Outsiders suffered a little bit from the chaos of everybody at Warners turning yellow when they saw the rough cut of it, and that influenced it being cut shorted and shorter... I thought it was very much like the book.”
If a film is going to be made with this relative ease, it would be more likely that it was a studio-originated film, not a film made – again, relatively – outside the studio system. Coppola chose to produce the film himself and he received additional funding from a bank which enabled him to put it into production, starting on 29 March 1982.
A few hours spent on the internet looking for newspaper, periodical or journal articles about the film led me to piece together a tale which I found fascinating, about how a lot of lucky connections, kept this project alive, when it was always possible that despite the efforts of so many people, playing their little part, it could collapse at any moment.
The Failure – Pragmatism Over Inspiration
If One from the Heart – and some other costly projects - had not failed so spectacularly, drowning Coppola in debt, he may never have made The Outsiders or Rumble Fish (also based on a book by S.E. Hinton, filmed back to back in 1982, the former production from 29 March - June 1982 and the latter beginning principal photography on 12 July 1982). Although One from the Heart hadn’t officially failed until its release on 15 February 1982 on 41 screens, running for a only a few weeks, grossing $390,000 (check source), it’s not likely that Coppola would have anticipated that his third of the box office would cover the $25-216 million budget. It would have had to make $75 million at least, using the most optimistic contractual conditions (which are unknown) for him to receive a good share of the box office revenue. So far, in Coppola’s career, the films he wanted to make, the personal projects, The Rain People and The Conversation, had grossed a few million dollars. The Godfather, which he signed up for and made for the directing fee, to support his American Zoetrope Studio, was based on a novel which was a huge bestseller. With a budget which was carefully monitored, it had justified optimism that it could make $20 million, and return the budget to Paramount with a few million profit. Apocalypse Now’s over-runs made it a folly, despite grossing $90 million. It would have certainly not recouped its costs from its theatrical run. His two subsequent projects, One from the Heart and Hammett, would have emptied his studio’s coffers of all his profits from The Godfather films and the success of The Black Stallion (1980) which he executive produced. According to one source, filming on One from the Heart ended in April 1981 and post-production took up the rest of the year. If Coppola had an accountant, he would have been advised of the box office results his two current projects would need to achieve, to counter the money he owed the banks. Heading towards the end of 1981 Coppola would have known he was in deep financial trouble. If he wanted to be allowed to direct another film, he needed something to fall into his lap. His debt with those twin failures was estimated to be $40-50 million dollars.
The Librarian – An Unsolicited (Fan) Letter Miraculously Reaches Coppola
In 1980 (GDP, p.202) a librarian from Lone Star High School, in Fresno, wrote to Coppola, with a petition signed by students of the school, suggesting that The Outsiders would make a good film. They wrote to Coppola c/- Paramount Studios. The letter reached him when he was in New York and because he received a lot less mail in New York than when he was in San Francisco or L.A., it didn’t get lost amongst the hundreds, maybe thousands of other letters people sent him. He read the letter, commented to his associate (Fred Roos) that kids probably knew a thing or two about what would make a good film for a teenage audience, and suggested that Roos might like to read the enclosed book and let him know what he thought of it. Roos remembers that the enclosed book looked like it was cheaply published and despite accepting the physical book itself, and carrying it around me him, he had no intention of reading it.
The Plane Part I – A Book is Read by Fred, Miraculously
Fred Roos carries The Outsiders around with him for weeks or months and doesn’t read it. He knows it’s in his luggage, and probably doesn’t discard it, because the great film director, Francis Ford Coppola, has asked him to read it. He doesn’t want to read it, some people would feel a sense of responsibility. One day, on a flight, he decides to read the first ten pages, then throw it away. Then he could say he’d looked at it, and it was terrible, and he wouldn’t be lying.
Instead, he reads the entire novel and likes it. As happens with directors who become producers, they option something that has a level of appeal, which they might one day direct, along with two or three, or twenty or thirty, or fifty or sixty other projects they’re juggling. If they end up pursuing a specific novel or screenplay more often than not they end up letting it go altogether, or if they’re really caught up with it, they produce it or executive produce it, for someone else to direct.
The number of times that projects are announced in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter and are never made is considerable. The number of times stars and directors are connected in official announcements which are made in Hollywood media is considerable. A recent example is when Ben Affleck signed up for the Batman role and it was announced that – in the wake of Argo getting multiple Academy Awards – he’d be directing D.C.’s answer to Marvel’s The Avengers. For whatever reasons, Affleck eventually relinquishes the directing reins and stays on as an actor. Other examples of pet projects not being made by the project originator include a hundred different Spielberg films which he is definitely going to direct, potentially going to direct, or which he owns with the intention of directing. Three Spielberg examples include Roboapocalypse, which he was always going to direct, Men in Black (1997) which he was developing for himself, and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) which he owned and was intending to direct, and Eagle Eye (2008).
Robopocalypse which he was attached to for several years ultimately was unannounced in 2015-2016 and disappeared, as being too expensive to film; Men in Black went to Barry Sonnenfeld but Spielberg (whose name doesn’t appear on it) made a fortune from it, directing Saving Private Ryan and Amistad instead; Memoirs of a Geisha went to Rob Marshall (while Spielberg chose Munich), but still had John Williams attached; and Eagle Eye went to D.J. Caruso, with no credit to Spielberg for the idea – just as one of eight producers).
It’s a massive digression, but directors don’t end up directing films they’re announced to direct – a lot of the time. That Coppola directed The Outsiders came out as a fourth piece of luck as he didn’t have anything else ready to make which would cost $10,000,000, which he could get backing for.
Optioned – $5,000 is Too Much, I’ve got $500
Fred Roos goes to Tulsa to meet with Susie Hinton and tells her the story of the librarian’s letter (presumably). Coppola, or Zoetrope, probably both, can’t afford to give Hinton her asking price of $5,000 for an option. Maybe Roos himself, knowing the financial situation, plays hardball. Instead, she agrees to sign away the rights for $500 (but probably not forever, usually for a year or two or more while the production company tries to raise the money to begin filming), plus points. Hinton is (possibly) too naïve to know that points mean nothing after the pennies are counted, unless a film makes a squillion. For some reason, not particularly to do with Coppola, Hinton agrees. Phillips suggests it is because she likes horses and she liked The Black Stallion (1980), and thought that someone who produced a nice children’s film like that, might be a good candidate for a film of her most famous book; not because she’d seen The Godfather or Apocalypse Now or recognized him as a great director. $5,000 is a very reasonable price to option a popular book, and $500 is a little ridiculous and really, a little insulting as well. So, that could have been the end of the film there and then.
Drafted – Coppola Assigns a Writer and Director
Now, it is probably 1981, Coppola’s been writing and preparing for and directing OFTH. Kathleen Rowell is assigned to do the adaptation of The Outsiders and Coppola hasn’t read the book and hasn’t shown any great interest in the project. Coppola received Rowell’s screenplay and was disappointed with it. When Coppola met Hinton he was struck by her writing, both descriptions and dialogue. (GDP p.204). The project is put aside while Coppola works on other projects. That’s almost the testament of death to a project. But in Phillips’ book, Coppola simply decides to rewrite the script himself, sticking closely to the book. Not so. It wasn’t simple. After Coppola saw the script it went into a bin. It may never have come on to Coppola’s radar again, and having only paid $500 for the option, it wasn’t as if there was any investment, psychological, emotional or financial, at the point he rejected Rowell’s script.
The Plane Part II – Coppola Reads the Book
Coppola’s in an airport and on a plane, and for some reason he now has the book – or maybe he’s travelling with Fred who is still carrying it around in his luggage having liked it – and decides to read it, rather than be bored, presumably. He likes it – a lot – and for the first time (recorded) has an emotional investment in it. If filming begins in March 1982, then this event has to happen in 1981, while he is still in post-production with his troubled OFTH project. That Coppola read it, liked it, wanted to direct it, wanted to perfect the screenplay so that it matched the book, writing it himself, represents a series of extraordinary events. Coppola’s previously only directed one film based directly on a book (The Godfather – You’re a Big Boy Now was a novel but it wasn’t a faithful adaptation.)
A director can’t like something in October 1981 and then start filming it in March 1982, having just tossed out the first screenplay. Not if he needs to rewrite the script, organise finance, and hold auditions for the cast. So it must have happened while post-production on OFTH was happening.
Rob Lowe recalls that it was just after Christmas 1982 that his agents ask him if he wants to read for The Outsiders. Given that filming started in March 1982 and the release was February 1983, that’s simply not possible. (Doesn’t anyone check even the most basic information anymore?).
So let’s assume it was just after Christmas, but Christmas 1981, that mean’s Ellen’s letter arrived in 1980, Coppola filmed OFTH in 1981, thing were going belly up and post-production was not looking so good, Roos visited Hinton, bought the rights, Coppola rejected the Rowell screenplay, then read the book and visited Hinton, and decided that she really was a real American writer, with an authentic voice, not a writer of young people’s books.
If Rob Lowe is a year out in his memory of when he auditioned for The Outsiders, it makes it Christmas 1980 or Christmas 1981. Christmas 1980 is before filming commenced on OFTH. Christmas 1981 makes it during post-production of OFTH which means that Coppola read the book in mid-1981 (so it must have been Christmas 1981), and got interested, did a bunch of rewrites, set up shop in Tulsa (in late 1981), got an advance from Warners in later 1981-early 1982, and started filming on location in March. The beauty of shooting on location is that pre-production doesn’t involve building sets and a lot of set decoration. Coppola could have been rewriting the Howell screenplay, while having location scouts scout locations in Tulsa – Fred probably – the new George – simultaneously trying to get the financing in place for a film in 1982 which is only $4 million more expensive than The Godfather in 1972.
Rewriting – Coppola Writes 14 Drafts of His Version of the Screenplay
“When I met Susie… it was confirmed to me that she was not just a young people’s novelist, but a real American novelist. For me the primary thing about her books is that the characters come across as very real.” (GDP, p.204)
In Spring of 1982 Coppola was still writing and rewriting his screenplay of Hinton’s book, and still didn’t have a distributor. Nevertheless, he went to Tulsa and set up a production office in the city where he would shoot the film. (GDP p.206).
Despite having a bestselling novel, with a guaranteed teenage audience, with thousands of students studying it in high school, Coppola couldn’t get one of Hollywood’s major distributor to agree to a deal and advance them the necessary funding to start shooting.
Despite the lack of funding, late in 1981 Coppola held auditions for aspiring actors whose agents want their clients to be cast in A Francis Ford Coppola Film.
Coppola must have used his name to get casting agents to send actors to him, despite having no money or any distribution in place. In early March 1982 he started rehearsing his actors with the script, using his previsualization method (from OFTH), which was his usual way of testing the screenplay with actors. He would then rewrite whatever didn’t work, or incorporate new ideas, and had, as custom, a new draft ready for Day 1 of filming.
Auditions – Who Are You Today?
Tom Cruise came out of the audition pumped. Other actors had been sent on their way but he’s been asked to stay behind. Rob Lowe asked him what part he was reading for. “Up until today it was Sadapop, but Francis has everyone switching parts and bringing us all in and out while everyone watches everyone else! I just got done reading Darrel.”
But you’re not old enough to play Darrel says Emilio.
That’s what I thought plus I hadn’t prepared that part, says Tom
Several actors are recalled and Coppola tells them,
Some of you may be asked to play different roles than you have prepared and some of you won’t. This is really just an opportunity to explore the material.
This may be an abstract artistic exercise for Coppola, but for every single one of us young actors huddled in the darkness, this day will be the difference between continuing the struggles of our daily lives and seeing those lives changed forever.
Dennis Quaid is there. So is Scott Baio. Both have been successful recently or are currently. Group after group read in front of the others.
No one flames out. No one sucks. It is unheard-of to actually sit and watch your competition, and there’s good reason for this protocol: it makes the pressure almost unbearable.
Rob Lowe is filled with insecurity as he is asked to play his scene as Sodapop, with John Laughlin as Darrel (eventually in the film by Patrick Swayze) and Tom Howell (C. Thomas Howell) as Ponyboy.
Lowe reasons within himself before he gives the line that starts the scene:
What’s called for, what actors are hired for, is to bring reality to the arbitrary.
Lowe tries to centre himself. He makes a judgment, to read his part from memory. In his mind he thinks through every part of who he is as a person and every part of what he will bring to his reading of Sodapop, the character he’s performing. He rationalizes,
I know nothing about being an orphan. I wasn’t alive in the 1950s. I’ve never been to Tulsa, Oklahoma and I’ve never met a Greaser. But I do have brothers whom I love. I know what it is to long for a parent who is no longer in the family. I have met my fair share of rough kids and have felt that I didn’t belong, and when I remember my old gang of friends back on Dayton’s north side, my personal truths provide enough ammunition for me to play Sodapop Curtis.
A new chapter in Rob Lowe’s book. This one film has more space given to it in his autobiography than any other film he made. The way in which this young cast was accumulated by Coppola and knitted together was as memorable as the most amazing thing he’d ever done in life.
A suspenseful two weeks later, it’s official. I’m offered the part of Sodapop Curtis, the romantic, sweet-natured, loving middle brother. Tommy Howell surprises no one by getting the lead role of Ponyboy… Francis has chosen Tom Cruise as my roommate for this adventure.
Tulsa – I’m here and I’m starting principal photography with or without finance
That’s surely got to be seen as completely irresponsible behaviour by Coppola. If Philips’s research is correct, then Coppola must have gone crazy, because he’s not going to set up an office in Tulsa, require actors to be ready for filming, if he can’t pay them. Maybe Coppola did go crazy. Maybe people just have to push forward with the things they want to do, and risk complete failure, because they’re passionate about the project. Yet again, this project could have fallen over. Coppola believed in this project (GDP, p.206) and studio after studio rejected it – or maybe it was him. Maybe he was perceived as uncontrollable and OFTH was the final nail in his coffin.
Without an advance, by a studio like Warners, against distribution income, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Coppola would have got a bank to loan him the rest of the money, which is what happened. The way I’ve always understood financing, is that until you have distribution in place, the rest of the finance has no chance of falling into place.
And reading Lowe’s descriptions, it seems like he was requiring young would-be actors to be able to cope with the kind of pressure that he puts on Brando, that Brando in turn puts on him, that the studio puts on them both, and still deliver good dailies or a good performance, all for the hope they can collaborate and produce something that will lead them to their next job.
Funded – Warners Agrees to a Distribution Deal for The Outsiders
Despite a bankrupt company, Coppola talks his way into filming two movies in nine months in 1982, and gets three releases right on the heels of his megabomb: The Outsiders in 1983, Rumble Fish in 1984 and The Cotton Club in 1984. Even at this point, filming in Tulsa, the project could have crashed and burned if Coppola hadn’t been able to rein himself in. His excesses on The Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, where he seemed to not have any restraint or self-control, giving into every thought or desire which would make his films better while proceeding further and further into debt, would certainly have made him appear unstable. It’s an amazing achievement, to pull oneself back from the excesses of the last decade, and go back to the fast, efficient filmmaking modus operandi of how he operated when he worked on Roger Corman’s films, You’re a Big Boy Now, Finnian’s Rainbow and The Rain People.
Coppola shoots The Outsiders and delivers it on budget, on schedule, and at 90 minutes
Coppola has managed to contain himself when necessary (Rain People, You’re a Big Boy Now), argue for more resources when he’s adamant it’s required (The Godfather $2 million up to $6 million vs $134 million box office), get carte blanche from time to time (Godfather Part II $13 million vs $57 million box office), get a free film when he holds all the cards (The Conversation $1.6 million budget vs $4 million box office), go mad with excess when he’s got the money or the borrowing power (Apocalypse Now $31 million vs $78 million box office and One From the Heart $26 million vs $390,000 box office), pull back and make two smaller films (The Outsiders $10 million vs $24 million box office and Rumble Fish $10 million vs $2.5 million box office), get control again and go mad at someone else’s expense (The Cotton Club $58 million vs $26 million box office), and then subsequently pay off his debts with a few films where he fits in and curbs his passion, even if they’re not what he would term personal films. And then revisit The Godfather for a third time ($54 million vs $66.5 million box office). And land a whale, when he’s all but spent (The Rainmaker $40 million vs $45 million box office).
Longevity of a Salesman - If Bullshit was Music, Coppola would be a Brass Band.
Whatever the curve ball, Coppola turns it into another movie. And if he’s not directing, then he’s producing someone else’s project, for which he captures their enthusiasm. As an artist who can talk up a film he wants to make, he can similarly be talked into a film someone else wants to make. It’s an asset.
[What I see in Coppola is a man of many parts, depending on which way the wind blows.]
He respects the writer, first and foremost
He wants to be an auteur and make the films he wants to make, no matter anyone’s thoughts.
He wants to change the studio system of dictatorial control.
He will sacrifice himself to the system he hates and rejects, to get the money to keep his dream alive, so he can fund himself and other filmmakers who can work without big brother looking over their shoulder and God dictating the final cut.
He will give himself over to the fulfilment (no matter the personal cost) of an accumulating set of ideas that will make his current project better and if he can fund the filming of the next idea that is better than the previous one, he will allow creativity (mixed with passion) to steer him to the next port of call. Sometimes the port is a just a completed film (The Outsiders) and sometimes it is just one completed idea (The Conversation). One idea that he gets amongst a thousand other ideas, may or may not accumulate into several, or hundreds of, ideas resulting in a finished film (Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart).
Same crew – Different film – Same author – "Susie, Let’s Just Keep Shooting"
Caught up in working with someone who he really respects as a writer, led Coppola to ask Susie Hinton during filming The Outsiders,
‘‘Susie, we get along great. Have you written anything else I can film?’ I told him about Rumble Fish, and he read the book and loved it. He said, ‘I know what we can do. On our Sunday’s off, let’s write a screenplay, and then as soon as we can wrap The Outsiders, we’ll take a two-week break, and start filming Rumble Fish.’ I said ‘Sure, Francis, we’re working 16 hours a day, and you want to spend Sundays writing another screenplay?’ But that’s what we did.” (GDP, p.214)