While writer-director Wes Anderson deserves the credit for his chain of impressive features — and his latest, the stop-motion “Isle of Dogs,” marks one of his most vividly charming — he has long relied on a man whom Anderson calls his “Swiss Army knife”: screenwriter Roman Coppola. Anderson and Coppola’s collaboration led to their Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for “Moonrise Kingdom,” but Coppola’s contributions are often lower key; Anderson said he often relies on Roman to keep him on track.
“Roman and I have worked together for many years on an awful lot of movies,” wrote Anderson in an email, “first on ‘The Life Aquatic,’ where he shot numerous strange and complicated shots. Then ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ which we wrote with Jason [Schwartzman]. Then on ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ Roman helped me sort of find a story that I had somehow completely lost track of — and we then dreamed up the whole rest of the movie together.”
While Roman is a successful commercial director and screenwriter, and an executive producer and director on Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle,” he’s perhaps most prolific in helping those he loves realize their own ambitions.
In the Coppola family, he serves as consigliere and unsung helper of the clan. He’s served as second-unit director on nine Coppola films, from his dad’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” to younger sister Sofia’s “A Very Murray Christmas.” Roman helped Sofia finish her script and find financing for her debut, “The Virgin Suicides.” The siblings also own San Francisco production company American Zoetrope, which their father launched in 1979; Roman runs it day to day.
Roman compares his role to that of a navigator ensuring that the director doesn’t get lost in detours. “It’s like you are driving a car to a place in a dream,” he said in a phone interview. “You’re along for the ride to help find this place in the forest, in the zone. There are a lot of boondoggles and sidetracks when writing, ideas and characters that can’t come to total fruition. The art of this is to know what to emphasize and what not. The notion is to have familiarity with something in a mysterious way and find it again. Clues point to it. My role is as helper, to sniff out where we are trying to go.”
He’s always been a good listener at the Coppola family dinner table. “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.”
Coppola’s first job came at 16, when he served as production assistant and sound recordist for “The Black Stallion Returns.” (His dad was a producer on the 1983 sequel.) Over the years he’s directed two modest films of his own. “CQ” debuted at Cannes in 2001 to some praise, but his follow-up a decade later, Charlie Sheen-starrer “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III,” was a tougher ride. Coppola prefers less exposure, working behind the scenes. He’s a multitasker, contributing to other people’s movies as everything from assistant director and production manager to makeup artist, extras casting and visual effects director.
“I like that I supply different skills and things that are useful,” said Coppola. “I do pride myself in being rounded. No one has done as many things as I’ve done in the film business: director of photography, editor, writer, producer. I can’t say I’ve acted; otherwise, I’ve done it all. I’m proud that I am able to do, reasonably well, a lot of different things.”
On “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson had been working on the film for some time when when he and Coppola spent an intense two or three weeks in Europe in collaboration. “It all bloomed in an immediate way,” said Coppola, “through our revisions and effort. At that moment, I was bringing what I could bring. It was a very immediate, fun, and a creative session, and a wonderful thing came out of it. When that happens, it’s a delight to collaborate with people you like and love and be present. ‘Oh wow, I love that movie!’ Imagine being at the birth of a movie.”
Futuristic comedy thriller “Isle of Dogs” is influenced by everything from Kurosawa to ukiyo-e. Coppola and Anderson had long wanted to craft a story about a pack of abandoned dogs on a garbage dump and came up with this script “from scratch together,” Anderson wrote in an email. “And we had to invent an imaginary city and an imaginary government and several imaginary diseases, and we had a lot of fun concocting and shaping and sculpting it together.”
(Screenwriter Anderson’s full list of “story collaborators” includes Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura.)
The script took off when they merged the dog story that could have taken place anywhere with a fantasy version of Japan set 20 years in the future. So they created an allegorical political fable — adding “new inspirations from real life,” said Anderson at Berlin —about a group of scruffy canines quarantined by a dog plague to Trash Island, who rescue Akira (Koyu Rankin), a Japanese orphan boy and heroic pilot in search of his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber).
“As collaborators, I know what that person is looking for,” Coppola said. “I have an understanding and respect and appreciation for what the director is trying to do, to help them get to a thing that is buried there. Sometimes it’s delicate and nascent and needs encouragement, framing it in just the right way, and drawing it out. With Wes, the material is latent in his imagination. My role is to point to things and make a connection happen.”
Check out some of Coppola and Anderson’s commercial collaborations: