After earning his B.A. in theater arts in 1959, he enrolled in UCLA for graduate work in film. While still at UCLA, Coppola worked as an all-purpose assistant to Roger Corman on a variety of modestly budgeted films. Coppola then wrote an English-language version of a Russian science fiction movie, transforming it into a monster feature that American International released in 1963 as Battle Beyond the Sun. Impressed by the 24-year-old's adaptability and perseverance, Corman made Coppola the dialogue director on The Tower of London, sound man for The Young Racers, and associate producer of The Terror.
After he won UCLA's Samuel Goldwyn Award for the best screenplay written by a student, Seven Arts hired Coppola to adapt the late Carson McCullers's novel Reflections in a Golden Eye as a vehicle for Marlon Brando (who was to star for Coppola later, in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now).
In 1966 Coppola completed his Master of Fine Arts degree at UCLA, and directed his second film, You're a Big Boy Now, which earned a commercial release and critical acclaim. He then directed the motion picture adaptation of the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow, followed by another original work, The Rain People, grand prize winner at the 1970 San Sebastian International Film Festival.
Coppola's work on Reflections in a Golden Eye also led to a screenwriting assignment on the film Patton. Coppola shared the 1971 Oscar for best adapted screenplay with Patton co-writer Edmund H. North. During the next four years, Coppola was involved with further production work and script collaborations, including writing an adaptation of This Property is Condemned by Tennessee Williams (with Fred Coe and Edith Sommer), and a screenplay for Is Paris Burning? (with Gore Vidal).
In 1969 Coppola and George Lucas established American Zoetrope, an independent film production company based in San Francisco. The establishment of American Zoetrope created opportunities for other filmmakers, including Lucas, John Milius, Carroll Ballard and John Korty.
At Zoetrope, Coppola produced THX-1138, and American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas. American Graffiti received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Meanwhile, Coppola had begun his most ambitious film, Apocalypse Now. The film was shot in the jungles of the Philippines over the course of a difficult year, chronicled in the documentary film Hearts of Darkness. This acclaimed movie won a Golden Palm Award from the Cannes Film Festival and two Academy Awards. Coppola was nominated for producer, director and writing Oscars.
Coppola's idiosyncratic musical fantasy One From the Heart pioneered the use of video editing techniques which are standard practice in the film industry today. At the time however, the picture made back less than $8 million of the $25 million Coppola spent producing it, most of which came from his own pocket. In 1983, Coppola was forced to sell his beloved Zoetrope Studio.
While some in the film industry predicted the end of Coppola's career, he began his comeback immediately with a startling variety of films, many highly commercial, including the comedy Peggy Sue Got Married, the drama Gardens of Stone and Tucker: The Man and His Dream, the real-life story of the maverick auto manufacturer Preston Tucker. The year 1990 saw the long-awaited release of The Godfather III. Although Coppola's third film in the trilogy did not receive the critical acclaim or awards of its predecessors, it was a box office success and Coppola's professional vindication was complete.
After a decade away from the camera, Francis Ford Coppola returned to filmmaking in 2007 with Youth Without Youth, the idiosyncratic adaptation of a novel by the Romanian religious philosopher Mircia Eliade. Although the film pleased few critics, Coppola affirmed his intention to continue producing his own films independently, to avoid studio interference. His next project, Tetro, was an original story set in Argentina and shot at Coppola's facility there. The film received mixed reviews but was a clear demonstration of Coppola's determination to preserve his creative freedom. At last report he was working on a macabre thriller, titled Twixt Now and Sunrise, to be shot near his home in Napa, California.