Francis Ford Coppola, who turns 75 today, is a paragon of artistic integrity in a commercial industry. Though many associate his name with big Hollywood success, he’s actually better defined as a low-budget guru and proponent of creative risk-taking.
Coppola worked his way to the top. Hired as an assistant by Roger Corman fresh out of film school, Coppola demonstrated extraordinary zeal and perseverance on and off the set. Corman, increasingly impressed with Coppola’s efforts, continued to afford him opportunities to prove himself. On location in Ireland in 1963, Coppola found himself in possession of $40,000 in leftover funds from one of Corman’s films. With Corman’s blessings, the enterprising young filmmaker wrote a feature film overnight and directed it over the next nine days. The product was “Dementia 13,” which recouped its expenses at the box office and remains a cult horror classic today.
Taxing circumstances became emblematic of Coppola’s career. He encountered studio pushback and production difficulties on his three biggest commercial successes, “The Godfather,” “The Conversation,” and, most famously, “Apocalypse Now.” This adversity further cemented Coppola’s artistic convictions. A longtime critic of studio-dominated Hollywood, he founded his production company Zoetrope to foster creative development outside the studio system. And despite his legendary status in the Hollywood canon, he continues to make low-budget films with originality of vision. The most commendable of his recent ventures is the under-appreciated “Tetro,” a labyrinthine exploration of family anchored by spellbinding performances from Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich. How does he finance these projects? “I have another job…. I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.”
Coppola’s sentiments can be summed in some great advice he gave to students at a film festival master class:
“The cinema language happened by experimentation – by people not knowing what to do. But unfortunately, after 15-20 years, it became a commercial industry. People made money in the cinema, and then they began to say to the pioneers, ‘Don’t experiment. We want to make money. We don’t want to take chances.’ An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk, then how are you going to make something really beautiful that hasn’t been seen before?”
It’s no small wonder that his daughter, filmmaker Sofia Coppola, has the courage to experiment the way she does.
Watch "Dementia 13," Coppola's first mainstream feature film, on SnagFilms (Indiewire's parent company) below.