Sofia Coppola is on the promotional circuit with “The Beguiled” (June 23, Focus Features). So is her 81-year-old mother, Eleanor, who wrote and directed her first narrative feature, the romantic road movie “Paris Can Wait;” Sony Pictures Classics is releasing it around the country to strong reviews and box office. Mother and daughter will meet, with their films, at this week’s Munich International Film Festival, where they’ll be joined by the man who began the family film dynasty, Francis Ford Coppola.
Sofia and her older brother, director and screenwriter Roman Coppola, also own San Francisco production company American Zoetrope, which their father launched in 1979; Roman runs it day to day. “They seek each other’s help when it’s needed,” said long-time family producer and casting guru Fred Roos.
Roos has been Francis Ford’s producer and casting director since “The Godfather.” And from the beginning of Sofia’s career, Roos has been at her side, along with her brother, Wes Anderson collaborator and commercial director Roman, who is an executive producer and director on Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle.” They helped Sofia finish her script and get financing for her debut “The Virgin Suicides,” and continued to support her on all her films from “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette,” where Roman directed second unit, through TV movie “A Very Merry Christmas,” where he helped plan the multi-camera shoot, and was a producer on “The Beguiled.”
“Paris Can Wait”
Roos also executive produced Bay Area artist and memoirist Eleanor Coppola’s Emmy-winning 1991 debut film “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” which she shot on location in the Philippines on the set of “Apocalypse Now.”
Now, 26 years later, he and Roman executive produced Eleanor’s first narrative film, at age 81, “Paris Can Wait.” “It was a four-year journey to get the draft where she wanted it,” said Roos, “to get actors attached and try to get the money. The idea of a first-time director at age 80, people couldn’t get their heads around that.”
Coppola would write the script off and on when she had time between her duties on the Coppola Vineyard and shepherding her husband on his global travels. That’s when she’d find time to write, uninterrupted, in a hotel room. She had never written a screenplay before. “I was shocked to find myself writing a script,” she said.
Roos made the connection to A&E’s Molly Thompson, who provided the initial financing that led to Lifetime, UK’s Protagonist, and other investors. Sony Pictures Classics bought the film out of Toronto, and Roos provided his usual casting assistance. At one point, Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage was going to play the Alec Baldwin role of the busy middle-aged filmmaker who goes on a business strip, leaving his wife (Diane Lane) to drive through the countryside with a French associate (Arnaud Viard), as they enjoy the pleasures of French wine and cuisine and carefree conversation. When another French actor fell out two months before shooting, Eleanor found TV charmer Viard to replace him.
When it came time to shoot “Paris Can Wait,” however, Roos was on location in Poland and Sofia was prepping “The Beguiled.” That left Eleanor on her own with a team of women, from the cinematographer and grip to the set designer she met while shooting behind-the-scenes footage on “Marie Antoinette,” and her long-time friend, Francis and Sofia’s Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (“Tucker: A Man and His Dream,” “Marie Antoinette”).
It was tough going with 15 to 20 setups per day for 28 days and constantly moving locations, but she got what she needed. Sofia was too busy to help her mother much beyond letting her crash in her St. Germain apartment in Paris, giving notes on an early cut, and hosting a New York opinionmaker screening. “I’m excited for her,” Sofia said. “She worked a long time to get it made.”
Roman said the support infrastructure, such as it is, often begins over family dinner. “Things will start when someone’s cooking up a script,” he said. “Describing and expressing it on occasions when we can listen and comment. It’s nice to let it brew, especially when you have a shorthand, particularly with Sofia, observing and listening and giving feedback.”
Between Sofia and Francis, Roman shot second unit on eight Coppola films, a role he’s also served for his screenwriting partner, Wes Anderson. He compares his role to that of a navigator in a car, ensuring the driver isn’t lost in detours and heads in the right direction.
“As collaborators, I know what that person is looking for,” he said. “I have an understanding and respect and appreciation for what they’re trying to do, to help them get at a thing that is buried there. Sometimes it’s delicate and nascent and needs encouragement, framing in just the right way, and drawing out. With Wes, it’s my job to point to things and make a connection happen.”
For “Paris Can Wait,” Roman suggested some script ideas to his mother, gave her a gag about a radiator hose breakdown fixed with pantyhose, and introduced her to some crew he worked with while directing “CQ” in France.
“She was very clear what she wanted to do,” he said. “She’d been around film for so many years, made some art films and concept commercials and documentaries. She’s a memoirist, has done costume design. She is a quiet person, but commanding in her soft-spoken way, not unlike Sofia and Gia. She never thought, ‘I want to make a movie,’ it was not her ambition or deep desire. Part of her was ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ But she did know.”
He also helped put together some financing. “That’s a lot of work and meetings and sidetracks,” he said, “with some of those early stages, trying to get it in the right hands.”
For “The Beguiled,” Roos read an early script and played his usual role of casting guru. “It’s such a comfortable, easy process with Sofia,” he said. “We go to New York and see everybody, go to London.” Roos first met Colin Farrell on Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust” and encouraged a meeting, which went well. (Roos also introduced then-teenager Alden Ehrenrich, who is about to break out in the Han Solo movie, to Francis Coppola on “Tetro.”)
Roman also helped a bit with the script and served as producer, steering Coppola toward production with his old friend Youree Henley as line producer. This time, she needed no second unit help.
“I am so thrilled that my children all made wonderful lives for themselves doing their creative work and both have families,” said Eleanor. “If you raise your kids well, you raise them to leave you and live independent lives. I never had an ‘aha’ moment when I said, ‘Hey, it’s my turn.’ I felt it when I got on the set. I realized everyone around me was trying to get what I wanted. I never felt that before. It felt kind of glorious. It was a new experience. It was wonderful to have this team of people all trying to achieve my goals.”