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Rome Interview: Making ‘Charles Swan,’ His Version Of ‘On The Road’ & More From Glimpsing Into The Mind Of Roman Coppola

Rome Interview: Making 'Charles Swan,' His Version Of 'On The Road' & More From Glimpsing Into The Mind Of Roman Coppola

At the Rome Film Festival earlier this month, Roman Coppola premiered his second directorial film “A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles Swan III” starring Charlie Sheen. Coppola’s debut, “CQ,” was eleven long years ago, but it’s not like he hasn’t been busy in the intervening years, producing sister Sofia’s “Somewhere,” co-writing “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Darjeeling Limited” with regular collaborator Wes Anderson and even directing second unit for his father, of whom you may have heard. All this alongside a thriving career in commercials and music videos as well. We had the chance to sit down with Coppola in Rome and quiz him about how he strikes this unusual balance, his new film and his future plans, among other things. Here are seven things the ensuing conversation taught us.

1. Though it may seem like a no-brainer for the actor, persuading Charlie Sheen to take the lead in “A Glimpse Into the Mind of Charles Swan III” was far from simple. And the problems didn’t end when he said yes.
Roman Coppola:  When I finished the script I was very clear in my mind that I wanted him to be in it. So I approached him and he was quite interested but was not able to commit to it. He was a little cagey, he was, frankly, a little nervous to take something on that is — I won’t say challenging because it’s not that exactly, but Charlie is on a TV show, he reads the cue cards and whatever, he doesn’t have to push himself that hard as an actor. And he knew that what I was bringing him was something where he really had to do the work, he really had to be there, be present and commit to something and learn Spanish and learn to dance; to really and truly perform as an actor in a deeper way than he had recently.

So there was a process where he didn’t say no, but he didn’t really say yes. It took him a moment to really feel comfortable saying “I will do this.” I kept being very dogged about it and it was also during the time of all the zaniness in his life. But I never wavered from my belief that he was the right guy for the role and I think that meant something to him, because a lot of people had walked away. 

I think, and you should ask him I don’t want to say anything that’s not for me to say, but I think by not agreeing he kind of hoped it would go away and he wouldn’t have to worry about it. But I didn’t go away and he felt that. That I was so certain that I was willing to keep asking and keep pushing and keep nudging, and that meant a lot. And so then he felt that that was a real basis for him to meet me somewhere. 

And then he said he would do it and I told my colleagues, “Charlie’s gonna do this” and there was a lot of “Is he gonna really come?” [and] “Can we get insurance?” and there was another battle to have people believe that it was a real thing that would result in anything good. But I was very determined…financing is very difficult, particularly for something as unusual as my piece, particularly starring Charlie Sheen, given that you can’t bond him or insure him, so it was very challenging. 

2. Charles Swan as a character is a composite of friends, fiction and a good sprinkling of Coppola himself.
Fantasy-wise a great deal [of the character is me]. If I could have a pet without having the trouble of worrying about it, I would have a toucan. And if I could have any car I would have a ‘41 Cadillac just like [the one in the film]. It’s my fantasy life manifested, so that was very personal. In other ways I’m very different from that character, but there are qualities of mine that are amplified. But I wanted to make a portarit of a very outrageous, dynamic, crazy, playful, childlike character and so I drew from the things that I related to, but also other people I know and totally fabricated things. It’s a mixture.

3. The film occasionally pokes gentle, insidery fun at the advertising world but Coppola is not one of those directors who resents that industry.
I do work in advertising so some of the lingo like “collecting scrap” or “cheese pull” that’s stuff I’ve heard. It’s a fun thing to poke fun at. And advertising is interesting — Charles [has a] story of how he intended to be an artist and ended up doing commercial art. There’s always that aspect of illustrators versus artists and commercial work versus personal work. 

In a way [that’s true for me also] yes. I do a lot of commercials to support myself and now I’ve done this personal work. But I don’t feel like “Oh I’ve given up my personal creativity to do commercials” because I bring a lot of my personal creativity into what I do. But it’s also a means to do other things that are highly creative. So I don’t have that problem of “I’m stuck doing commercials and should be doing this” because I tend to do a lot of things that I’m proud of and that are creative expression.

4. Despite the cliché of the megalomaniac film director, Coppola, as his CV shows, is open to collaboration with others, even if it means taking a somewhat backseat role. But as a director, he strives for a singular vision.
I grew up around my dad’s work and I was always part of helping him. And I understand the need for a director to have their loyal team fighting for what they’re trying to do. And so when I work with Wes [Anderson] as a co-writer and he’s ultimately the director, I don’t have any ego or issue because I know that director needs that writer to be in service of what they’re trying to do. Similarly if I’m doing sound for some movie, you’re in service of the director. And so when I’m in my role as director I expect all that service back. 

But I’m quite open and flexible — much of the work I do whether it’s for a commercial or a music video, there are other people you have to consider, whether it’s the band and how they want to be portrayed or it’s a commercial and there’s a product you have to consider. So there is a little bit of, I won’t say, misconception, because as a director you have a lot of authority of course, but much of the work you have to do is in collaboration with others and I don’t have a hard time with that, I’m not egomaniacal. Now on my movie, this film, I did feel like this was my thing and if I chose to do this thing, and I wanted to emphasise this or that, I felt that was my right, always pleasantly, but that’s what would give the movie its distinctive flavour…

I value movies that are unique and feel like they come from an individual. Other filmmakers like Wes [Anderson] and Sofia [Coppola], Gus van Sant, the Coen Brothers, they have unique voices and I love that manner of filmmaking and I felt this was really my kind of movie. I felt it was really worth fighting for by that virtue. You have to get behind the things that you believe in, and it meant a lot to me. This movie is fun it’s playful, it’s wacky, it’s sincere, maybe not to everyone’s tastes, but to my taste and to people that I have regard for.

5. While he is very proud of the Walter Salles version of “On the Road,” the version he wrote a long time ago would have been very different.
I’m delighted that he’s the person that brought it to the screen — Walter has so much soul and he made a beautiful movie, so I’m delighted. My involvement was more in the preparation of the film and getting Walter involved and encouraging his approach to it and so less on the set, but it was a delight to be able to be any part of it. I’m very proud of it. 

[My take would have been] quite different. The same raw material but composed in a different way. It’s all kind of a blur, it was a long while ago so it’s not like I’m thinking “Oh! I did this and they did that!” My approach to it was quite different in that because the book is so dense and there’s so many episodes and so much material and you can only put so much in the movie, I sort of had two tracks: a visual track and an audio track. My approach to it was as if you were going to have an audio experience and a visual experience and they didn’t necessarily always sync up. That was a way to have twice as much in there.

That project was around for a long time. There were different castings and discussions. My dad had written another version with another writer… so there were many versions with many writers. This is a nice conclusion to a long episode of effort.

6. And one of the stars of that film made an impression on him.
There are a lot of actors I admire. I met Kristen Stewart recently, because I’m involved with “On the Road.” I don’t know her so well, but you meet someone who has that sort of charisma and you think “Oh it would be fun to think of a role for her”… there are people I admire in that way. But the kind of [filmmaker] relationships I have with Wes and Sofia, it’s not like something you seek out, that was organic.

7. The future as yet holds nothing certain, feature-wise, but will definitely involve a lot of diapers.
[The long delay between features was] not intentional, just how it worked out. I would like to do more work…but it is nice when you’re met by an audience, the receiver of the thing and there’s that support, buying a ticket or speaking of it in a positive way, that kind of allows the next thing to grow. It didn’t help with “CQ” that it didn’t make any money at all and now if you mention it to someone they’ll be like “Oh I like that movie” generally. And that’s nice I appreciate it, but the nitty gritty is the way it works spending a lot of money in the movie business is the last thing you’ve done is kind of a measure of what you might be expected to do the next time. And it doesn’t matter that you might have made something wonderful that’s appreciated over time, it matters if you earn the money back for the people that put the money up. So I’m hoping that this film finds its audience and that people see it because that becomes a little bit of a credit account… “This many people saw this so now I can go do this.” When I’m asked “What next?” I have to wonder what kind of bank account I’m going to have to draw from for the next thing. 

There’s a project Vice magazine sponsored, a branded content thing with W Hotels. I’m involved as a judge of this contest where we sought writers to write short films, a bunch of scripts were submitted and I worked with a committee of judges to select the scripts to produce, then I helped produce them and then I made one. That was probably my main contribution and I will be going to London in about two weeks to present these short films.

[But as regards features, a] few things have come into my mind but nothing’s really infected my imagination, which is kind of what happens when you know you’re really going to do something. I’m daydreaming a little bit, and it’s kind of fun to not have that infection quite yet, and I just had a baby recently (she’s in the movie). And this idea [for ‘Charles Swan’] occupied my mind for about eight years. So I want to just have a little bit of a moment to be free of that. But I look forward to the next occasion. 

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” opens in February.

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