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Francis Ford Coppola On Cinema: Its Possibilities, His Failures Turned Successes, Industrial Sausage Movies, And More

Francis Ford Coppola On Cinema: Its Possibilities, His Failures Turned Successes, Industrial Sausage Movies, And More

Francis Ford Coppola has some advice for filmmakers who want to make daring, personal, experimental films — go into the wine business. No seriously, the fiercely independent auteur, who’s been working outside of the studio system since the late ‘60s credits his move into the wine industry as the way he’s been able to self-finance the films he wants to make, unlike the factory-made “sausage” films he believes the studios often churn out.

We had the chance to sit down with the auteur at the Marrakech International Film Festival where he was serving as President of the jury. As is clear from the conversation, as well as his comments at the jury press conference, Coppola is still as vital as ever, an incredibly well-read and informed person who brings his wealth of knowledge to bear on his approach to filmmaking. There’s no question that one could ask that Coppola, where he couldn’t find an historical example to relate his thoughts to.

READ MORE: Retrospective: The Films Of Francis Ford Coppola

His ability to self-finance outside of the industry has only stoked his independent spirit, which is clear from his past several projects, as well as his new project, “Distant Vision,” about which he is secretive, though he does discuss how he’s playing with creating “live cinema.” It’s clear that Coppola does what he wants, without worrying about what anyone else thinks. In fact, as the head of the jury at the festival, they decided to give the jury prize to every film in competition, and in Coppola’s statement, he threw some jabs at criticism that feeds into the commercialism of the the film market. Coppla’s statement reads: “It’s so hard to make a film, doing it requires labor for years under the most difficult circumstances, against often hopeless odds and yet it’s no sooner born then it’s immediately criticized and torn apart. Festivals created to celebrate films soon become market places where critical journalism takes pleasure in making and breaking careers.”

From the wide-ranging conversation that we had with him, we decided to share some of his more profound thoughts on cinema. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gone into teaching — he’s quite the raconteur, deeply knowledgeable, but still questioning the boundaries of cinema and what it can and cannot do.

Coppola on self-financing
Pick up a bottle of Coppola wine if you want to support his cinematic experiments — Coppola was clear that his successful wine companies help him to self-finance his projects, which allow him the utmost creative control.

“I just finance the stuff myself because whoever finances your film or partly finances your film, they tell you more or less what they want, and what they want you to do. If you say, ‘Well I’m doing something that’s experimental, I’m not really sure I know what I’m doing,’ now they don’t want you to do it. Cinema always was experimental, that’s how we have any cinema, is because our pioneers took big chances in the turn of the century.”

Coppola on the difference between cinema and television
He’s also thinking deeply about how cinema and television are changing so quickly, and becoming indistinguishable from one another. Citing “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” as examples, Coppola discussed the ways in which length and venue are collapsing the notions of cinema vs. television, and becoming more audience-demand driven, particularly with Video On Demand.

READ MORE: Francis Ford Coppola Wants To Do His Brewing Family Saga As Live Television, Talks “Pity” Of George Lucas & ‘Star Wars’

“Today, we really don’t have anymore television and we don’t have movies, we have cinema. Cinema and television and movies are really the same thing, it’s just the length and where you see it. And the length of cinema can be anything, a minute or less, or a hundred hours or more, so it’s a very broad new game. It can be seen in the theater at the same time it can be seen at home, in a church, in a community center, in an arena, it’s really wherever the audience wants to see it.”

He also sees technological advances in digital projection to be an expansion of possibilities for filmmakers to continually cut and change their projects up until projection. Expansion is always a positive thing for him.

“I like the fact that the movie theaters today, say if a ‘Star Wars‘ is coming out, you have to come to the theater to see it and you can also see it at home. In the future it’s really not up to the theaters, it’s up to the audience to say where they want to see cinema. I believe that in the next three, four years we’re on a very big transition accepting some of the things I’ve just said — the sameness of movies or cinema and the fact that it will be available in every kind of venue all around the world,” Coppola said. “Because it is digital, it means we’re not showing cans of film that are edited, we’re showing digital files, so those digital files can be either what the filmmaker had made, or he can edit it for you on that day, or it could be live. There’s a big expansion of the possibilities moving forward. I always like the expansion of possibilities.”

Coppola on Wim Wenders’ “Hammett”
We recently discussed the debacle of Wim Wenders’ “Hammett,” with Wenders, which was produced by Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. Of course, we had to get Coppola’s side of the story, but he didn’t go into detail on the issue.

“Well, the real story of ‘Hammett’, Wim Wenders is too embarrassed to tell, but we are very good friends, even to this day. Although there was a time maybe, when ‘Hammett’ first ran into trouble, it ran into trouble primarily with the company financing it [Orion] and primarily for reasons — he changed what the script was that they had approved. I was sort of the man in the middle.”

Coppola on going indie with Zoetrope
Coppola also talked about the impact that Zoetrope had on independent filmmaking, their creative goals, and how they influenced the industry itself, particularly through sound innovation.

“We wanted to be independent, we wanted to make what I’ll call personal films. For me it was also experimental because I felt you could learn a lot about cinema if you had the chance to not just make the perfect sausage-type movie. Myself, and some colleagues, my young associate George Lucas, and Carol Ballard and many others all moved to San Francisco. That was around 1967 or ’68, so really I have been not only independent but trying to make independent movies since that time,” he reflected. “I also lived in a different city. So the company always had it’s own style, and as such it contributed a lot even to the big studio system, because the sound that we use today on big movies was all developed by us. We were poor and we knew that sound made sort of an equal contribution to the movie as picture. We made our own sound studio. Dolby is also a company in San Francisco, and they adapted what we did, and that was the basis of ‘Apocalypse’s sound system or ‘Star Wars,’ and that became what is the Dolby Sound System.”

By being in a different city that enabled us to be less susceptible. You know how America is, if you’re in Washington, you’re in politics, if you’re in LA, you’re in the movie business so we were free of that. We had a more bohemian tradition, because San Francisco had been not only the center of the so-called Beat Generation and the bohemian poets, but also a very important independent experimental film tradition, people like Bruce Conner and Gunnar Nelson and Scott Bartlett, so San Francisco brought a different style to our movies.”

Coppola on failure
At the time, some of Coppola’s greatest triumphs were seen as failures, especially the troubled production of “Apocalypse Now.” But Coppola’s contemplative about the ways in which those “failures” have evolved into successes, and how his commitment to them has paid off, literally. 

“It’s funny because my failures look less like failures as time goes by. Many of the films that I am celebrated for at their time had a very iffy reception, and what they all did, even some of what was supposedly the failure, they all sort of stood the test of time. So 20, 30, 40, 50 years later people saw them and they didn’t see them as out of place as they had been,” he said. “ ‘Apocalypse Now’ nobody wanted to finance, and I went in and hawked for it. That was sort of failure one, but then that became not only a classic, but financially — I own, to this day, ‘Apocalypse Now,’ which is very valuable. It’s like an apartment building. I always was by nature, someone looking for what was the cinema, and not knowing, and not wanting to accept just whatever the standard was of the time.”

Coppola on what cinema should do
He still believes in the power of cinema to change or show life in a way that changes your perspective — something he doesn’t find often in industrial cinema.

“I love all cinema but I don’t necessarily love all industrial cinema. I don’t love movies that are made for reasons other than to be beautiful or to illuminate life,” he said. “I almost resent the idea that as soon as someone makes a movie and everyone sees it the first thing everyone does is begin to criticize it, so I really want to approach it — my granddaughter taught me that, she loves all movies. I think for the audience, it should help illuminate contemporary life, it should help you know how to live your own life.”

READ MORE: Watch: Robert Rodriguez’s 45-Minute Talk With Francis Ford Coppola About His Films, Career, And Much More

He sees industrial films as “little sausages,” which is why he is committed to financing his own films and making personal work. 

“When I look in the newspaper and I see all the movies, they’re beginning to look to me like little sausages. Since I don’t look to the industry to finance it — which is why it has to be a sausage — then I am going to make one last movie, meaning that it will be very personal, and it might be this way or that way, but it’s not going to be marketed as this or that, and no doubt it will be self financed,” he added. 

Coppola on Hollywood:
While he comes off profoundly anti-establishment and against industrial filmmaking, Coppola knows from whence he came, and has a deep respect for Hollywood filmmaking, having worked in the classical studio system.

“I love the American film tradition, the studio system and the great films they made, and I feel as though Hollywood has always — though I think they wish I had been less of a bad boy in their eyes — but no one was given greater honors, more Oscars, all of that stuff if that’s any poll of Hollywood approval. In fact, the only award I don’t have in Hollywood, is my name on the street on Hollywood Boulevard, and that’s because to have it you have to pay for it. But I’m very grateful for what I learned in Hollywood, and don’t forget, when I began I worked for Darryl Zanuck and Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner, I had the chance to really work for Hollywood as it were.”

Coppola on “Live Cinema”
He speaks often about how live cinema is the next frontier of experimentation for filmmakers. He draws on historical concepts of performance and symphony conductors to clarify his ideas, which he admits are still in a deeply experimental, learning stage.

“In the 19th century, there were these enormous German opera houses, as we know, in Dresden and Berlin and these men, Wagner and what we call the virtuoso conductors, they weren’t just conductors, they were in charge of these huge productions of music, choral, costumes, settings, dance. They were the filmmakers of that period except that after the 4 or 5 months and the vast amount of money that they spent, when the audience came to see ‘Aida’ the first night, the artists stood up before them and bowed to them and performed it, so we have the concept of performance. Performance is different than canned art in which all the elements, most importantly, timing, is all handled after-the-fact by an editor rather than the actors,” Coppola said.

“Live cinema, which is nothing like live television, because live television is event-based — you have a play, you have ‘Peter Pan,’ you have ‘The Sound of Music,’ and then you have a lot of cameras with zoom lenses so they don’t photograph each other. It means that you need a lot of lights, so they’re all lit from the grid and it looks like live television,” he continued. “Cinema is shot based, just as writing is sentence based, so if you go from a shot to another shot and then to another shot, to have what we learned in cinema — the magic of montage, imagine if you had a storyboard, but it was an ambitious storyboard that used montage and the incredible power of the edit, and the power of parallel action, but the actors basically were running around popping up in all those storyboards live. You would have a live performance, which means the actors would be timing the scenes. There would be a lot of accidents — some good and some bad, I would imagine — though I’m talking through my hat because no one’s ever done it today. Even though all the projectors in the world are digital, which is to say our television projectors, and you could just hook up to them via satellite or several ways. Imagine going to see a Marty Scorsese movie, one of his extraordinary things, and see it as it’s being made for you, live, it would be fun. I’m not suggesting it’s the only way to make movies, but it’s a way that never was possible.”

“If you use all the equipment that they invented for sports, sports they do a lot of magical things, we don’t even notice, but we expect if there’s a goal that we’re right away going to be able to see how he missed and how the other one so that they invented machine that allow you to control time, even though it’s happening live. Those machines are available for storytelling but no one’s tried to do it because no one’s wanted to experiment,” he added.

At 76, the man is still pushing his own boundaries, still learning, still trying to test the notions of what cinema can be, something he’s done his whole career. He’s been making experiments with live cinema and will continue to do so next year.

“I’ve been doing little experimental workshops of say, I take 30 pages, and then I try to say to myself ‘well how would I do this?’ Most of the time in my career when I said I was going to do something as you have guessed, I didn’t know how to do it I just said I did,” Coppola said. “Because I knew you had to really get there and try. So with ‘Apocalypse Now’ I had no idea how I was going to do some of that stuff, and when I started it, I said, ‘my god, how am I going to do with all these helicopters?’ but little by little we learned how to do it. Same with live cinema, I feel I need the chance to try it out without showing everyone what I’m doing. I did one already, which was 30 pages that made 54 minutes, and I didn’t know what I was going to learn but it was really interesting, so I’m going to do it again this year, late spring and do a performance, this time it’s 70 pages and so it’ll probably be an hour and 20 minutes, and I’m going to do that in July.”

Coppola on “Star Wars”:
Forget all these questions about the nature of cinema — is he going to see “Star Wars“? Of course, “The Force Awakens” isn’t directed by his “young associate” George Lucas, so Coppola’s not as obliged to see the film. “My granddaughter is going in my place, and she’s so grateful because it’s really hard to go see the premiere. George is going and my granddaughter Giancarla is going on my behalf. I’ve seen the ‘Star Wars,’ several of them.”

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