Oscar Directors: Coppola, Francis Ford–The Godfather Movies

Francis Ford Coppola is the writer-director of “Tetro,” which is being released June 11, 2009 by American Zoetrope.

Having lived a colorful, turbulent life, replete with triumphs and calamities, Coppola now returns full circle to the aspirations of his younger self: writing and directing personally meaningful films.

One of the most honored film artists of his or any generation, Coppola has also endured crushing defeat and heart-rending sorrow.  His cornucopia of honors overflows with Oscars, Globes, Palmes, and Writers and Director’s Guild awards—yet he also knows what it feels like when a dream shatters.  In 1983, he gave up Zoetrope Studios, the Hollywood-based workplace he hoped would lead American filmmaking into a technologically vibrant 21st century.   The ensuing financial hardships led to years of “work for hire” —the disdainful, legal term for those who serve at the pleasure of others.  For a proud and independent soul, this meant directing films in the corporate sphere, over which he had no rights of ownership.  He chose projects which piqued his imagination, even as he paid off debts and built alternative businesses to provide enduring financial security for his family and himself.  

But after the dawning of a new century, having met these challenges, Coppola once again made an unorthodox choice: to regain expressive freedom by returning to the ethos of his early years—making movies of modest budget, far from a Hollywood sound stage, with a small crew and actors who are passionately committed.  Youth Without Youth is the first of these projects.  
Born April 7, 1939 in Detroit, Coppola is descended from musically-gifted Southern Italians who immigrated to New York in the early 20th century.  His maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino, was a songwriter, and his father, Carmine, first flute for the NBC Symphony under Toscanini and an Academy Award winning composer.  He himself plays the tuba and string bass modestly and might have gone on to a career in music were it not for a bout of polio when he was nine, which kept him bedridden for well over a year.  During his confinement, he developed an interest in comic books, puppetry and ventriloquism and started making 8mm movies when he was back on his feet.  He lost momentum during his teen years as his family moved from place to place to accommodate his father’s employment.  But he found kindred spirits at Great Neck High School and again at Hofstra University where his stellar contributions to theatre arts brought him the school’s highest honor, the Beckerman Award.  After graduating in 1959 with a B.A. in Theatre Arts, he enrolled at UCLA for graduate work in film. 

Coppola’s unerring instinct for career-building led to an apprenticeship at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.   After varied stints on low-budget genre pictures, Corman allowed him to direct a film from his own screenplay, Dementia 13.  It was during this period that he met Eleanor Neil, whom he would later marry. 

In 1962, Coppola’s student screenplay Pilma Pilma won the Samuel Goldwyn Award at UCLA, after which he began his professional career in earnest.  His adaptations of Reflections in a Golden Eye, This Property Is Condemned, and Is Paris Burning? were produced, making him a much-in-demand  screenwriter.  He also wrote  a script about George Patton based substantially upon Ladislas Farago’s Patton:  Ordeal and Triumph.  In 1970, Patton won 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, shared by Coppola with Edmund H. North.   

His second film, You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), served as his MFA thesis and marked his first appearance at the Cannes Film Festival, where he would later enjoy acclaim, twice winning the Palme d’Or (The Conversation, 1972; Apocalypse Now, 1979). He directed Fred Astaire and Petula Clark in Finian’s Rainbow, adapted from the Broadway musical, followed by an original work, The Rain People.  As the 1960s wound down, Coppola made two momentous decisions.  By now the father of two sons, Gian-Carlo and Roman, he relocated his family to San Francisco, where he founded with George Lucas an independent production company, American Zoetrope.  Lucas’s first two features, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973) were produced under its aegis.  But the company was high maintenance, and in 1970 Coppola was persuaded to direct a gangster picture based upon a best-selling novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather.  His battles with Paramount executives are by now the stuff of legend.  The Godfather created a sensation upon release, altering the course of his career.   Its equally successful follow-up, The Godfather, Part II, is credited with starting an industry-wide trend by making sequels respectable—and immensely profitable.  The Godfather, Part III (1990), made almost 20 years later, continued the tradition.  

In between the two gangster epics, Coppola made The Conversation (1974) from his original screenplay.  It is an off-beat quasi-thriller about wiretapping and responsibility which endures as one of his most admired and influential pictures.
In 1976, Coppola began Apocalypse Now, financing the Vietnam War epic himself.  Almost everything that could go wrong did:  star Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack; co-star Marlon Brando showed up grotesquely overweight; a typhoon destroyed the sets.  Shooting stopped, then re-started, and the budget skyrocketed, delaying the film’s release until 1979.  Stylistically, Apocalypse Now was so unusual, especially for a war film, that critics were divided.  Nonetheless, its box office was entirely respectable and, over time, hugely successful.  Apocalypse Now has come to occupy a very special place in the annals of American movie-making, influencing two generations of directors across the globe.  When, in 2002, Coppola added footage for a new version dubbed Apocalypse Now Redux, critics were rhapsodic. 

The 1980s brought about a radical change in Coppola’s career parabola.  Desiring more independence as well as an electronically modern filmmaking facility, he bought Hollywood General Studios on Las Palmas and renamed it “Zoetrope Studios.”  Production immediately began on Hammett, directed by Wim Wenders, and soon thereafter on One From the Heart, an innovative musical.  But cost overruns and public squabbles with distributors incited an avalanche of negative publicity which deleteriously affected reception to each film.  Coppola then made two Oklahoma-based youth pictures, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.  Though The Outsiders enjoyed considerable commercial success, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills of the studio.   Ownership of the facility passed into the hands of creditors, and Coppola returned to northern California. 
The second half of the 1980s constituted a period of evaluation and r
egeneration.  Coppola and Eleanor found solace by helping to raise their late son’s daughter, Gian-Carla.  His Napa Valley winery was expanded, and Coppola directed four features.  As a new decade commenced, Coppola was in the spotlight once again:  The Godfather, Part III (1990) garnered 7 Oscar nominations, including one for him as Best Director.  Dracula (1992) snared 4 Oscar nominations, winning for Best Costume Design, Sound Effects Editing and Makeup.  On Jack, he filled the slot on a Disney and Robin Williams production searching for a director.  He wanted very much to work with Williams, whom he regarded as a genius.  The Rainmaker, starring Matt Damon, introduced him to the new generation of actors and had healthy returns at the box office. 

Now Coppola was ready to make his dream project, Megalopolis, based upon his original screenplay.  It was an optimistic, even idealistic, story about the creation of a modern-day utopia in the middle of New York City, ambitious in both subject matter and scope.  It would require stars and outside financing.  Though the script wasn’t quite ready, he was eager to do some preliminary shooting and was in Brooklyn with a cameraman in the summer of 2001 when the Twin Towers were struck.  “All of a sudden, the world was eating itself up,” he recalls.  The new dystopian reality would require extensive rewriting of Megalopolis.  This he stoically undertook without ever being quite satisfied.  Too, he was discouraged by the ever-changing movie business which relegated drama to the small screen.  Coppola was perplexed and uncertain of direction until, in 2005, he read Youth Without Youth, an allegory about an aging professor who becomes young again thanks to a bolt of lightning.  His spirits soared.  “I can make this,” he said.  And he did.