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Francis Ford Coppola: Why He Spent $500K to Restore His Most Troubled Film, ‘The Cotton Club’

Coppola tells IndieWire that while he had final cut in 1984, an old Betamax recently showed him that he got it wrong the first time. That new cut? It's headed for Telluride.

“The Cotton Club”

But when he tried to cast New York actor Fred Gwynne as Frenchie, Evans called, saying, “You can’t cast a Munster in my movie.” Coppola cast Gwynne anyway, and they agreed on Diane Lane, who had starred in “The Outsiders” and “Rumblefish.” “But what turned out as an amicable stepping in at his request became adversarial,” said Coppola. “I fought back. I wasn’t young and unempowered at that point. I had done two ‘Godfather’ pictures and ‘Apocalypse Now.'” Finally, he kicked Evans off the set.

Production continued to be adversarial through to the end, including a messy lawsuit over control of the film. During the editing process Coppola hid the print, because he didn’t know if there would be an injunction to seize the film. “It was nightmarish,” he said.

Even though he had final cut, Coppola did listen to various foreign distributors, who told him there were “too many black people, too much tap dancing, it’s too long.” As he screened it, he made it shorter, little by little. Among the losses were some of the dancing, “Stormy Weather,” and two equal parallel stories with the Irish and African-American lead characters and their families.

Coppola released a two-hour version that “came out to a qualified reaction,” he said, “and that was the end of it. It was a hard, ambitious film to make, and to have it end in that way was disappointing. I didn’t want to make big studio films, I didn’t want anything to do with them. I wanted to go on my own path.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Zoetrope/Orion/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884480g) Gregory Hines, Lonette McKee The Cotton Club - 1984 Director: Francis Ford Coppola Zoetrope/Orion USA Scene Still Drama Cotton Club

Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee

Zoe/Orion/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Recutting “The Cotton Club”

The film that Coppola found on the Betamax tape was a half-hour longer. “It was very crude, the actual cut,” he said. “After all those years, I had saved all the versions and dailies on Betamax. Looking at this, the movie was so different, with both stories. What struck me watching it was that the 25 minutes- longer version played quicker. You understood the story. I realized that when the shorter version came out, people didn’t understand the story. There were many characters, subplots, and comparisons of the white and African-American lives. The comparisons somehow made the story unclear, how the white gangster dominated Harlem and took over the rackets from the bookmakers.”

Coppola made a new version of the movie by adding 25 minutes from the Betamax to the 1984 cut. But he also cut 13 minutes to even out the two narratives. “Even looking at the finished color photography and the downgraded sequences from Betamax,” said Coppola, “you could see that the whole film made more sense and was more engaging. A lot had been lost from nipping away from this period.”

Ironically, if you read the heartfelt plea Evans made to Coppola — “it is lackluster, not a blockbuster… the longer and more textured the piece, the better it will play,” he wrote — he asked him to make the movie longer.

MGM, which owns the rights to “The Cotton Club,” didn’t want to invest in the restoration, and the original negative was lost. Coppola searched high and low, but “a lot of those sequences which were removed late in the game were lost.” So they had to restore them from the work print, which was a complicated and expensive Technicolor digital process. “What Technicolor did was miraculous,” said Coppola, who had to bring actors in to dub the work print sections that had never been through a final mix. Hines was gone, so his son stepped in. And rights had to be obtained for music that wasn’t cleared for the official version.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Zoetrope/Orion/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884480u) The Cotton Club (1984) The Cotton Club - 1984 Director: Francis Ford Coppola Zoetrope/Orion USA Scene Still Drama Cotton Club

“The Cotton Club”

Zoe/Orion/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The Telluride version is two hours and 19 minutes. One of the things Coppola restored was McKee’s rendition of “Stormy Weather” — which, according to Evans, cost $1 million. It came out because she sang two similar songs. The other, “Ill Wind,” was necessary to the narrative since it played against an edited montage of the gangsters being attacked by a white mobster. Said Coppola, “When I put ‘Stormy Weather’ back in, it worked fine.”

Coppola also added some of the 11 musical numbers cut from the rousing Cotton Club show, including “off-color songs, specialty numbers that the young cast created beautifully got cut out, numbers not connected to the story.” Original mixer Richard Beggs remixed the film, and “The Cotton Club Encore” has a new 5.1 soundtrack. 

Among those who will be at the Telluride screening is Coppola’s old producing ally on the set, reputed Vegas mob associate Joey Cusumano. As for Evans? “Bob Evans made a career of his book and telling stories about ‘The Godfather’ and would always leave out some important facts,” said Coppola. “You couldn’t win with him and his behavior. He’s not a man without talent, but he was mercurial and he had stuff going on in his life that kept depleting him. I have had enough of him in my life. He’s not a guy who tells the truth.”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1635221a) The Cotton Club, Richard Gere, Diane Lane Film and Television

Richard Gere and Diane Lane, “The Cotton Club”

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Coppola’s goal for the restoration is “when people have a chance to see it on a big screen, how beautiful and much better it works, that someone will wish to show it in limited release and that will pay back some of the $500,000,” he said. “Some people will enjoy it. At worst, it will be seen as it was meant to be. With all the lawsuits and the murder [would-be producer Roy Radin] and the film being impounded, it will have a life. It was rather a damaged project, dismembered and argued over.”

Coppola was sad to lose his stars Gwynne, Bob Hoskins, and Hines, whose son was two when the movie came out and flew to Telluride to see the film. “Gregory Hines was a youthful, joyous person, full of fun and youth and life,” said Coppola. “Understand that films made in the middle of legal actions don’t do as well as films made with cooperation and harmony, despite what contracts say. Let the film speak for itself.”

As far as MGM is concerned, if you want to show “The Cotton Club” you can pay a licensing fee and show it, said Coppola. “I hope the film finds a life and a release to pay for itself.”

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