Francis Ford Coppola never meant to make “The Cotton Club” — yet he was dragged back, like Al Pacino in “The Godfather 3,” into making another big-budget movie. Now, 33 years later, he’s spent another $500,000 (of his own money) to restore the film and create “The Cotton Club Encore,” a longer cut that premieres today at the Telluride Film Festival.
Producer Robert Evans had hoped to direct “The Cotton Club,” a valentine to the legendary Harlem nightclub where Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson made their names. He raised $8 million in foreign pre-sales at Cannes, but he couldn’t solve the script. According to the gory details in his autobiography “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” the whole production was a chaotic, coked-up nightmare. He turned to Coppola for help, paying him to write several drafts and finally direct, which became a battle in its own right.
At the end, he begged Coppola to re-edit the movie to showcase its strengths. But Coppola had final cut, and insisted on releasing a shorter version.
Then, two years ago, Coppola came across a Betamax (!) version of his longer cut. He liked what he saw. And he decided to recut the movie. Here’s what happened.
Making “The Cotton Club”
“It was a screwy situation how I got involved in it,” Coppola said. “It was not a film I was planning.”
The filmmaker had just made “Rumblefish” and had planned to pursue “more personal, unusual films like that” when he got a phone call from Evans; they hadn’t spoken since “The Godfather.” “I had hoped to leave behind that type of production and those difficult situations,” Coppola said, “including conflict with the studio making the film.”
Evans “sounded very morose,” said Coppola. “His voice was worried. He said to me, ‘Francis, you have to help me with my child.’ ‘How can I help you, what’s wrong?’ It was a film he had announced he was going to direct, called ‘The Cotton Club.'”
Coppola asked the producer-turned-director to bring his actors, Richard Gere and Gregory Hines, to San Francisco to figure things out as Coppola tried to fix the script. Basically, he said, Gere wanted to use his ability to play the cornet in the movie, but “in truth, there never had been a white musician at the Cotton Club.”
As Coppola tried to resolve Evan’s various promises to the different actors, “little by little, Bob Evans was recruiting me to become involved in the project. As I look back on it, the problem wasn’t just to do with the two actors, it had more to do with the financing, getting it made.”
He offered to help out for a few weeks and write a free treatment, but “ultimately, Bob Evans prevailed on me to do a draft and paid me for it.” According to Evans in his book, he and Coppola wrestled over various expensive drafts for quite a while, and the script was never really finished, even after Coppola agreed to direct the movie and started production.
“The bottom line,” said Coppola, “was he didn’t have the money and put together the same combination of people who made ‘The Godfather,’ which was such a success, to get the money. I come to New York to meet the talent and they put on a show with all this wonderful talent doing routines in the Cotton Club. Lonette McKee sang ‘Stormy Weather,’ Gregory introduced me to extraordinary tap dancers. It was a thrill to see this talent in New York all revved up to recreate the Cotton Club. I finally, in that spirit of enthusiasm that these young people generated, agreed to direct — on one condition.”
Coppola didn’t want to go through anything like what happened on “The Godfather,” so he negotiated final cut. “I had total control. Evans could have consulting approval on the two or three acting leads. I didn’t want to go through second-guessing, and he agreed.” Coppola signed the contract, even though “the financing on the picture was suspect and strange, and there were all sorts of people with strange behavior that smacked of gangsterism. I didn’t know anything. I had a contract!”