Francis Ford Coppola went back to UCLA last month for help making his experimental “Distant Vision.” He touted his live cinema student workshop at a modest Saturday morning press conference at his alma mater. “Distant Vision,” broadcast and streamed live Friday night, was a far cry from the circus-like atmosphere surrounding “One From the Heart” back in the ’80s at his Hollywood Zoetrope Studios. But then and now, the filmmaker strives to perfect a new electronic hybrid.
That’s because Coppola’s grown increasingly weary of “canned” performance and longs for the thrill of experiencing something live again that’s more immediate and visceral.
“Could there be live cinema and how is it different from live television?” Coppola said at the conference. “And how would you do it and why would you do it? People ask me why I would want to give up that control. But there’s something in seeing a real performance that makes it worth it.
“Originally, I wanted to do a film about something’s that my era,” Coppola told me afterward. “If a Martian came to see me and said, ‘You were born in 1939, if you had to put down a theme, what would it be?’ It came to me that it was television. It changed the world in my lifetime and now we see television blending into the information age and the internet.”
“Distant Vision” refers to the 19th century concept of TV, which predated movies, and became the perfect vehicle for Coppola’s sprawling, 400-page, multi-generational saga.
“Then I thought of the Thomas Mann novel, ‘Buddenbrooks,’ which was about this guy’s family in the generations of the grandparents and the parents and he and his brother,” Coppola continued. “What if I did that with a family like mine? There are so many people interested in the Coppolas because so many of the young people are successful.”
After staging an initial live cinema workshop last summer at Oklahoma City Community College just to see if it would work, Coppola put on a more ambitious workshop six weeks ago at UCLA consisting of the cast, 75 student crew members, 40 cameras, modular sets, a slew of background performers (including children and animals) and a tech expert with Super Bowl experience in charge of a prototype video board.
“We created shots with flat lenses and then lit them from the floor so it looked more cinematic,” Coppola explained. “Most of your coverage is through sneaky angles while hiding the camera in the shot. Very often it’s not the shot you wish to have but we had [a sports play-by-play machine] to insert additional shots.
“What I’m thinking now is to shoot with one or two cameras, but would be 8K so that we could do closeups and tricky shots and we could devise a box with separate shots for us to choose.”
Coppola (who plans to write a book about the workshops titled “Performance Cinema and its Techniques”) also wants to implement some happy accidents to add more uncertainty to the performances.
“I think this project is going to take me five years to do and it really comes down to who, besides myself, will bankroll an unusual idea,” Coppola wondered. “I think in about a year they’re going to be interested in new forms of television, which is up for grabs.”
Then, with maybe one more workshop under his belt, Coppola will be ready to stage his first professional live cinema broadcast, which he envisions being simultaneously streamed across multiple platforms throughout the world. After that, he could serialize different portions of this saga about a fictional version of his family.
“My only regret is in that last week of ‘One From the Heart,’ when they all came and said, ‘let’s just shoot it with one camera,’ that I said OK,” Coppola reflected. “And what I learned from that, though, is when you have a movie crew they will try to make it be like a regular movie. If you have a television crew [and so on]. So I made sure that I had my crew from the three disciplines of movies, television and theater.”