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Francis Ford Coppola

Interview: Francis Ford Coppola
Filmmaker, Producer and Screenwriter

June 17, 1994
Las Vegas, Nevada

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I understand that when you were young, you watched a lot of TV. Could you tell us about that?

Francis Ford Coppola: My father was a musician. He was always interested in the new things, for that reason. He would come home from New York, and he did bring a television home, around 1945, right at the end of the Second World War. I was about 6. So I remember growing up with television, from the time it was just a test pattern, with maybe a little bit of programming once in a while.

When I was about nine, I had polio, and one of the conditions of polio was -- of course, it was -- people were very frightened for their children, so you tended, if you had it, to be isolated. So there was about a year and a half when I stayed at home. I was paralyzed for a while. And so I basically watched television, and listened to the radio, and played with a tape recorder, and puppets, and my day was made up of those kinds of things.

When did you know what you wanted to do?

Francis Ford Coppola: I was interested in two things, always. One was science, and the stories of the scientists and scientific experimentation. I liked very much to work in a shop down in the basement, and try to invent things and build gadgets. And at the same time I was interested in stories. And I had an older brother who was very interested in literature, and so I had an early exposure to literature, and what have you, and theater. My father sometimes would work in musical comedies, so I would have the opportunity to see musical comedies. Ultimately, those different technical, and sort of story interests -- around high school, or early high school -- I started to do the lighting, work on the lighting of the drama productions, and be around the shows. And so I started to become interested in theater, and I thought I wanted to be a playwright, because I was interested in stories and telling stories.

When did it become film that you wanted to do?

Francis Ford Coppola: When I was a college student. I had enrolled in the drama department, and my father was not very pleased with that. He wanted me to study some more practical profession, engineering, or something, because I did have ability in science. But I won a playwriting scholarship to what was then Hofstra College, now Hofstra University. I was immersed in theater production, and started to direct theater.

One afternoon, I remember, around four o'clock in a building called the Little Theater, I noticed a notice that they were going to show a film called Ten Days That Shook The World, by Eisenstein. And I went in to see it, it was pretty long, and there were only two or three other people. But I was so impressed with this film -- and it was a silent film -- but so impressed with what cinema could do. And, of course, having quite a bit of experience in theater -- but that afternoon, I think, was when I decided that I would not go into theater.

For me the specific decision was whether I was going to go to the Yale Drama School, or UCLA. At that point, I decided I was going into movies. Even my last year or two of college I was always trying to start a cinema workshop, or make a little film. One summer I actually tried to make a film. Then when I was graduated in 1960, I went to UCLA, to the graduate film school program.

What makes the movie art form so exciting to you?

Francis Ford Coppola: It combines so many other art forms, as do theater and opera, but the essence of cinema is editing. It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images, images of people during emotional moments, or just images in a general sense, but put together in a kind of alchemy. A number of images put together a certain way become something quite above and beyond what any of them are individually.

This, of course, was one of the elements of the Eisenstein film that was so exciting. How the editing was able to take -- that's always fascinating -- take this, and this, and put it together, and have something come out that was neither of those two things. Of course, the sense of rhythm that editing can do! I was struck, I remember, on Ten Days That Shook The World, how although it was a silent film, there were sequences where you actually almost could hear the machine guns firing, because of the way it was edited. So it's a form of alchemy, of magic, that is very appealing. I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. Because the very earliest people who made film were magicians. One of the aspects of it was the idea of an illusion, a magical illusion, in the early days of movies.

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo

A lot of early magicians began experimenting, using basically what is cinema to do their illusions. And of course we know that some of the early pioneers, like Meliès and what have you, were magicians who used cinema to create illusions. So I think cinema always had -- as did theater for me -- this ability to create some kind of magic, either through lighting -- but to use technology to create magic is what appealed to me, I think.

Was there a book that you read when you were young that inspired you?

Francis Ford Coppola: A book I would put in that category that I read when I was quite young -- it was around the house and I picked it up and read it -- was a play actually, A Streetcar Named Desire. I read it when I was like 15, or so. I'm not sure I understood it, I just thought it was so beautiful and moving -- just the pictures that the language painted when you read it. I think I preferred reading plays, to novels or other kinds of books. I also like reading biography of scientists, that was a favorite thing of mine. I think I could read quite young, because I remember reading the fairy tales. I remember being in kindergarten and that used to be my job, to tell them to the other kids. I liked Hans Christian Andersen, and the Grimm fairy tales, all the classic fairy tales.

Was there a person in your life that inspired you?

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
Francis Ford Coppola: I had a number of very strong personalities in my family. My father was a concert flutist, the solo flute for Toscanini. That was an unusual profession for a kid to have as his father. He would dress up in a tuxedo. A concert musician has to practice a lot, and my earliest memories are of that. He was a great musician, very knowledgeable, and he used to tell us the stories of the operas, and all about the composers. He had a lot of knowledge, and he would make a point of telling us about it.

I had an older brother who was five years older than me. He was a very successful student, a very handsome kid. Having an older brother by that many years, was really an edge that I had. I had an older brother who would protect me. He was a very sensitive and talented boy, and he became interested in literature. So at the same time that I had all this information from my father, I also had a brother who was giving me books at a young age that I would not normally have run into. Brave New World, of course, which was fun, because it was sort of science fiction. As a kid, he was showing me books by James Joyce, and André Gide. So I was really stimulated at a younger age than I normally would have been exposed to that kind of thing.

Was there a teacher who inspired you?

Francis Ford Coppola: I had a number of teachers who hated me, at least I felt. I didn't do well in school. I did very well in school my first year and a half, and we left that school. I really quite liked that first school I went to. Life for me at age five and six was pretty wonderful and perfect. But then I went to a number of other schools. I went to many schools and went through that whole New York school system, P.S. this and P.S. that. I found them very frightening, like penitentiaries, and I didn't do well in those schools. Maybe partly because I was always moving from school to school. But nonetheless I do remember teachers who really singled me out for their discouragement. In fact, I had a sort of heartbreaking experience, because as I said, when I was nine, I always wanted to be a guard, because I was a new kid in the school. A guard in the school wore a yellow button that said "Guard." And they would be a hall guard, or a stair guard, or whatever they were. And the girl that I thought was the most wonderful girl in the world was a guard, I remember. When I got polio, of course, I was taken out of school. Then, about a year and a half later, I went back to school. They had a little ceremony and kind of welcomed me back, and they made me a guard, as part of -- I guess -- my being taken back into school. And my teacher, Mrs. Hemeshandra, who really was -- I think she was a very bright woman, but I remember her as an oppressor. I remember, like a week later she said, "Well, why should you be a guard just because you were sick?" And she took away my guard button.

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
No, I didn't have any teachers who were especially encouraging to me until much later. In high school, there was a science teacher who thought I had a lot of ability, because I had a natural talent with scientific things. For some reason, I was bad in all my other subjects, but I was very good in geometry. It was amazing, I had one of the highest grades in geometry in the school.

I didn't realize it then, but I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in any school. In my senior year of high school, I had a creative writing teacher who was very encouraging, and there was a writing teacher in college who encouraged me to write.

When I was a graduate student, I had a wonderful teacher I admired -- a woman director, in fact, the only Hollywood woman director. Her name was Dorothy Arzner. She was very encouraging to me at a time when I needed encouragement. So I remember her very favorably.

Can you talk about some of the first jobs you had working with Roger Corman?

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
Francis Ford Coppola: In those days I was an extremely energetic and enthusiastic person. I just loved to be involved in it all. Moving making was almost like my private passion, because it wasn't as widespread then. When I started the Hofstra Cinema Club, I think two people came. People weren't as fascinated with cinema as they are now.

Being a theater student, I was a little frustrated at UCLA. Theater students are very gregarious. You all work together, and stay up all night and making sets and doing shows. At UCLA in those days, the cinema department was in a kind of army barracks, and pretty much all guys. I think there was maybe one girl in the entire department, which was very discouraging. It wasn't as nice to be in a place where there were no girls going to school with you. I wanted to work all the time, and UCLA wasn't like that. Students there would work on their project, and then they'd be in their room editing for six months.

I landed a job with Roger Corman. Originally the job was to take a Russian science fiction picture that he had bought and he wanted me to write the English dialogue for. Of course, I didn't speak any Russian. Then I realized he didn't care whether I could understand what they were really saying; he just wanted me to make up dialogue. The movie was really a very idealistic science fiction picture. He wanted to add some monsters and have the story be related to that. So I got that job, and I worked very hard on that. Ultimately, I became Roger's assistant. That meant I had to wash his car, and he had me work as a dialogue director in the morning on a Vincent Price movie. Of course, they would pay my salary. But then I would leave at one and go work on his stuff. So he would basically get me for half the day, for free. Roger exploited all of the young people who worked for him to the fullest, but at the same time, he really gave you responsibility and opportunity. So it was kind of a fair deal.

There were a lot of names that came through his film school.

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
Francis Ford Coppola: It was the only place that you could really get to work on movies. There was a whole crowd of young actors who used to be in a lot of those early, inexpensive films. Jack Nicholson is the really well-known one. In later years, after I had gone through there, Roger gave similar opportunities to Peter Bogdanovich, Marty Scorsese, Jonathan Demme. He basically was always looking for the very energetic person who would work for next to nothing, and had some talent.

Tell us about the film you directed for Roger Corman.

Francis Ford Coppola: Roger had a technique. He would make a film, usually paid for by AIP, American International Pictures. He would put together the team and the equipment to make the film, and then, after it was over, he would make a second film, because all of those expenses were already paid. You'd get a real bargain on it.

Roger said he was going to make a film in Europe and asked me if I knew anyone who could be like the sound man on it. So, I said, "Oh, I could." Of course, I didn't know anything about it. I mean, I was good with technology, but I had never done the sound. So I took the recorder home and read the instructions, and Roger did take me.

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
About three-quarters through that film, which was called, The Young Racers Roger was called back home to direct The Raven with Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. I knew he couldn't pass up a bargain to make another film while were in Europe. So I said, "Roger, you know, I have a script that could be made. It's kind of like Psycho. He always wanted a film that was like some hit film. Hitchcock's Psycho was a big deal at the time. I said, "I have this script..." and he said, "Show me some of it."

I showed him the three pages I wrote that night, which was of course, the most garish kind of action scene I could come up with. And he said, "Okay." And I went off. He gave me a check for $20,000. He sent me with a young woman who had worked on the production who was going to be the co-signer -- and I went to Ireland. When I was in Ireland, I met another producer and I said I was making a film for Roger, and this guy offered to buy the English rights for another $20,000. So I had now $40,000. Roger, of course, expected to get his $20,000 back, still make the movie for the 20 with the English rights, and get the film for free. But I sort of just duped him. I took both checks and I put it in the bank. And I had this young woman sign the check, and I just kind of made the amount to the whole amount, so she basically was out of the check signing. Then I made the movie for $40,000, which was this little black-and-white horror film called Dementia 13, which we made in about nine days.

You wrote it in a couple of days?

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
Francis Ford Coppola: I wrote it that first week in Ireland. I had this one scene that I had showed Roger, and then I came up with the rest. I stayed up all night or something.

Which films really stand out in your memory?

Francis Ford Coppola: The professional world was much more unpleasant than I thought. I was always wishing I could get back that enthusiasm I had when I was doing shows at college. When I was young and it was new to me, it just seemed like so much fun. You didn't want to go home at night, or you'd come back late at night and do some more work on it.

I always found the film world unpleasant. It's all about the schedule, and never really flew for me in the way that my very happy college career did. I would have to say that the happiest days that I can remember were when The Godfather was over and I didn't have to go there anymore, or when Apocalypse was over.

The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie when we were making it. They were very unhappy with it. They didn't like the cast. They didn't like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired. So it was an extremely nightmarish experience. I had two little kids, and the third one was born during that. We lived in a little apartment, and I was basically frightened that they didn't like it. They had as much as said that, so when it was all over I wasn't at all confident that it was going to be successful, and that I'd ever get another job.

So I took a job right away when it was done. They needed someone to write a script of The Great Gatsby very quickly for the movie they were making. I took this job so I'd be sure to have some dough to support my family.

I went off, and I don't know why I was in Paris, but I was in Paris, staying up all night writing this Gatsby script, and that's when The Godfather opened. And it was this enormous success! So I would just get a phone call and they'd say, "Oh yeah, it's going great! Everyone loved it!" I'd say, "Oh, yeah, really? I can't get this script done." It's ironic that probably the greatest moment of my career, certainly at age 32 or so, making The Godfather, having such enormous success, wasn't even one that I was aware of, because I was somewhere else and I was, again, under the deadline. Certainly, it was a wonderful night when we won all those Oscars for Godfather II, because at first, that picture came out, and people, they really didn't like it too much. But to I have to be honest, that I associate my motion picture career more with being unhappy, and being scared, or being troubled, or being under the gun, and not at al with anything pleasant.

What do you think are the most important characteristics for success in your field?

Francis Ford Coppola: Courage, I think, because I don't think there's any artist of any value who doesn't doubt what they're doing. That's what I would say in looking back at my life, at the things that I got in the most trouble for, or that I was fired for.

I wrote the script of Patton. And the script was very controversial when I wrote it, because they thought it was so stylized. It was supposed to be like, sort of, you know, The Longest Day. And my script of Patton was -- I was sort of interested in the reincarnation. And I had this very bizarre opening where he stands up in front of an American flag and gives this speech. Ultimately, I wasn't fired, but I was fired, meaning that when the script was done, they said, "Okay, thank you very much," and they went and hired another writer and that script was forgotten. And I remember very vividly this long, kind of being raked over the coals for this opening scene. My point is that what I've learned is that the stuff that I got in trouble for, the casting for The Godfather or the flag scene in Patton, was the stuff that was remembered, and was considered really the good work.

So, what that tells you is that...

In your own time, usually, the stuff that's your best idea or work is going to be attacked the most. Firstly, probably because it's new, or because they'd never seen an opening of a movie like that, or seen a gangster movie done in this style. So you have to really be courageous about your instincts and your ideas, because otherwise you'll just knuckle under and change it. And then things that might have been memorable will be lost.

You need other things, obviously, a lot of energy and enthusiasm, because this kind of work is really grueling. You're in a lot of uncomfortable situations for many, many hours. You to stick to whatever your idea was, in a profession in which absolutely everybody is telling you their opinion, which is different.

The grips will tell you that you don't know what you're doing, or the camera operator, or the camera man. Everybody. I mean, when you go on a set -- that's one of the reasons George Lucas never directed again. No one knows this, but when he made Star Wars over there in England -- George is sort of a little, skinny version of me, you know, and he's doesn't have the most physical kind of stamina. And he was so ridiculed -- you know that kind of jock-like attitude that crews can have -- putting him down for what he was doing and stuff. He was so unhappy making Star Wars that he just vowed he'd never do it again. Plus, he was like diabetic, so he was a little sick. That's why someone today said, you ought to love what you're doing because -- especially in a movie -- you really have to love the project and love the story, because over time you really will start to hate it. And the fact that you say, "Gee, but I really like what this is about," is a very valuable asset.

What does the American Dream mean to you?

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
Francis Ford Coppola: We were raised in an Italian-American household, although we didn't speak Italian in the house. My father was a musician, so we were very proud of being Italian, and had Italian music. We ate Italian food, and pizza, when no one knew what pizza was really.

But I remember very vividly, when I was a little boy, my mother would say to me, "America is the greatest country in the world." And there was a sense, as Italian-Americans, that it was a great privilege to live in America and be Americans.

Most Italians who came to this country are, you know, very patriotic. And what that meant was just that there was this exciting possibility that if you worked real hard, and you loved something, that you could become successful, and wouldn't be held down, due to who your family was and what have you. And certainly, in my case, I found that to be true. I became quite successful very young, and it was mainly because I was -- I would have to say -- because I was so enthusiastic and I just worked so hard at it.

Could you talk about the role of teamwork in your field?

Francis Ford Coppola: Our generation represented a major transition. It was the first time certainly that film students were given the chance to make films. Film, in the past, was a profession that you worked your way up. Frank Capra was a prop man, I think John Ford was a prop man. It was a little bit of a father and son thing, and you kind of worked your way up. When we all went to film school, my class, and my comrades there, we didn't think we were ever going to really get to make feature films. We thought we would end up making industrial films, or possibly be on the fringe, or maybe get involved in television. My aspirations when I went -- I had no idea. I just wanted to be part of the film business. I had no idea that I'd really get to direct feature films, or to be successful at it. And of course, my story is that when I was going for my graduate degree, I decided I was going to make a feature film as my thesis. That's what I was famous for, was that I was not only the first film student to kind of become a professional director, but I also had my thesis film be a feature film, which was You're a Big Boy Now.

Francis Ford Coppola Interview Photo
So I was the first one to break in. I always loved the theater-like feeling of working together. That's ultimately what I was trying to achieve in my life, because I had been a kid that moved so much, I didn't have a lot of friends. Theater really represented that kind of camaraderie.

So a lot of younger would-be film directors started to come and hang out, because I had an office at Warner Brothers. I had directed Finian's Rainbow when I was like 23 or something, and pretty soon all these kids -- some of them my age, some of them a little younger -- started hanging out with me. I had a little money, and I had a lot of ambition to set up a group, a company. So that's when I met George Lucas, of course, who was younger, and then he had all his friends. Ultimately, it became kind of this gang of young film makers who really were friends and hung around together. The key thing about film students at that point is we all wanted to work in 35 millimeter. Film students were junkies for equipment. So suddenly I had penetrated the Hollywood studio, and due to very funny circumstances, which is that the company I was with, which was Seven Arts, had bought Warner Brothers. So for a while, no one knew who was running it, so I sort of had the keys of the whole studio, as though we suddenly had Warner Brothers. And we walked around and talked about, "We're going to get animation going again." Before I know it, there were all these guys coming there, and we'd talk about it, and that's when I met people like Carol Ballard, and George Lucas, and John Milius, and Phil Kaufman I remember, and Brian Da Palma, and later, Marty Scorsese. They were all like a few years younger. Then we really decided we were going to be independent, we were all going to move to San Francisco, and we did. And that company produced some of those people's first films, George's films and what have you. I had always wanted to be part of that type of artistic scene like you hear about in Paris. What might have it been like to be there? There's Hemingway in the Ritz Bar, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Sartre, and these wonderful people. When we were there (in San Francisco), broke, trying to figure out how to pay for anything, little did I realize that in effect, that's what that was. That all those people were to go on and become wonderful artists and stuff. But then, it seemed like we were just a bunch of young people who wanted to take over the movie business. And in a way we did, but in a way we didn't, because we really wanted better things for it.

Well, thank you for all you have done. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

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