Tetro by Francis Ford Coppola

“Tetro,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Vincent Gallo, is being released June 11, 2009 by American Zoetrope.

A Growing Storyteller

Ever since I was young, I wanted to write stories. Initially, I imagined myself as a playwright, and at 17 won a playwriting scholarship to college, and became a drama major. But I think at that age your critical abilities are better developed than your creativity, and so I was forlorn over my lack of talent. I became the ‘tech guy’ for my college productions and as I worked with the crew up in the grid, hanging lights, I'd watch the director below working with actors, and thought that ‘I can do that’.  My switch to directing was a success and before I knew it I was the most sought-after director at Hofstra. But that success didn’t relieve the ache over what I perceived as my lack of  talent as a writer.  Later on, after seeing the Sergei Eisenstein silent film OCTOBER, I changed directions, applied to the UCLA film school, and began my Master's program as a film major.  

I found that after years of trying to be a writer, of spending hours working on stories, plays and screenplays, the effort was paying off and I was getting better at it.  A little better. This gave me an advantage over some of the students, as did my theatrical experience. Finally, at age 27, when I won the award for my script Pilma, Pilma,  I started to really feel like a writer and I knew what my career would be.  In my late 20s, I was working on screenplays like THE RAIN PEOPLE, and THE CONVERSATION, somewhat based on experiences I either had or witnessed in my life and thought I'd be a writer-director like some of the great auteurs.  LA DOLCE VITA  came out in 1960, and then the more mysterious work of Antonioni, and I was sure that I wanted to follow in their footsteps, working on original screenplays.  That’s how I envisioned my life.  Just write stories, make screenplays and then direct them.   In particular, I wanted to write a drama similar to the ones that I had enjoyed in my youth, something emotional and personal along the lines of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, or anything by Tennessee Williams.  THE GODFATHER changed all that, and before I knew it I was far more successful than I could ever have imagined, and yes — I was writing the screenplays as well as directing (and producing) the films, but it wasn't what I had really intended. What I wanted was to write 'original' screenplays.

As I grew older, whether I changed or the 'film industry' changed, I questioned my desire to continue and did not make a movie for many years.  Of course I realized that films had to be entertaining, as did plays in theater — but I was repelled by the 'sameness' of movies, the lack of adventure and the overwhelming succession of remakes and sequels — from old films, comic books, even television programs.  Or in publishing, it seemed that there weren't new novels, only new 'bestsellers.'  So clearly, things had changed, and I really couldn't find a place for myself.  Nor did I have a hint of how I'd finance and distribute the kinds of films I did want to make, even if I could muster the resources necessary to keep on writing.  I finally decided that Youth Without Youth, a more personal film, but based on an existing novella, would be a way to get the ball rolling again. I knew that the experience would prepare me to write an original story and produce a film with the same style and production budget as Youth Without Youth.

Tetro is Set in Motion

I already had a fragment of an idea of what eventually became TETRO. It was really only a page or two of notes that I had written a long time ago.  It was about a younger brother searching for an older brother who had left the family in a huff, claiming he never wanted to see them again. I wanted to set the film in a foreign city, and chose Buenos Aires because I thought that I would enjoy living and working there.  I liked the music, the food, and the culture.  So I took this little fragment of a story, set it in Argentina, and began to write the screenplay while we were editing Youth Without Youth.  By the time we had finished, I was ready to go with a new film.

We began filming on March 28th and shot for thirteen weeks with a predominantly Argentine cast and crew. There were two Americans actors, Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich; two fine Spanish actresses, Maribel Verdú and Carmen Maura; an Italian actress, Francesca De Sapio; and the well-known Austrian actor, Klaus Maria Brandauer.  The remainder of the large supporting cast was Argentine.

I felt comfortable with our crew because, like many people in the world, they spoke English, and those who didn’t spoke Italian or Spanish.  The language of cinema and theater is universal–whether one works in the Chinese or Italian film industries–there’s a certain language that everyone speaks that transcends one’s native language.   At first, many of the roles that I had written for Argentine actors were minor ones, but I admired the actors so much that I made their parts bigger.

I decided to collaborate with the same team that I had worked with on Youth Without Youth: the young cinematographer, Mihai Malamaire, Jr.; the Argentine composer, Osvaldo Golijov; editor Walter Murch; and executive producers Anahid Nazarian and Fred Roos.

Drawing from the Self

An original screenplay has themes drawn from your own life and for any filmmaker, through the process of making a movie you arrive at a better understanding of those issues, even if you still might not have all the answers.  In  TETRO, the principal theme involves the rivalry between the men of an artistic family — the father, brothers, uncles, and nephews who are all, in their own way, trying to express their talents and personalities.  The fact that it is rivalry within a family — that is, between people who love each other — makes it complicated and dramatic.

Even though the story of TETRO  has little to do with the story of my own life, the characters all embody parts of me.  I wrote a completely fictitious story that nonetheless drew on memories from my family.  It was heavily influenced by those films and plays that I had admired as a theater student and aspiring playwright. As in the theatrical tradition of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or even in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, the father figure in Tetro is, in a sense, a “Biblical” father,  cruel and domineering , someone who must be ultimately destroyed if his sons are to survive.  Since the beginning of time and even within the animal kingdom, we all have been in competition with the most powe
rful men of the family.  My own father wasn't like that, he was kind and inspiring, but because he was brilliant and somewhat vain, it was just a few more steps to turn into a monster.

While one could look to my own family to shed light on the film’s themes, these themes will most likely be of interest to any family, since such rivalries exist in all families.  I’ve always believed that if you’re going to go through all the work it takes to make a film, it should be a film that is somewhat revealing about your thoughts and emotions, which are truly who you are.