Interview: Francis Ford Coppola

Director of Tetro

TETRO written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdú, Klaus Maria Brandauer and Carmen Maura. Some subtitles. A Mongrel Media release. 127 minutes. Opens Friday (August 14). For times, venues and trailers, see Movies.

it’s been a long time since Francis Ford Coppola was on top of the world, but when he was, it was because of The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather, Part II and Apocalypse Now – four movies that embody America’s cinematic renaissance in the 1970s.[rssbreak]

Things got a little bumpy after that, with a string of commercial failures leading to soulless studio work on movies like Jack and John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. (There was also a brief stint on the MGM board, trying to save disasters like Supernova in post-production.) Eventually, he walked away from everything, reinventing himself a couple of years ago as an independent-minded director making the movies he wants to make, no matter what anyone else thinks.

His first attempt was the incomprehensible Youth Without Youth, starring Tim Roth as an elderly Romanian academic rejuvenated by a bolt of lightning. With his latest, the monochromatic family drama Tetro, he’s on surer ground, mining his own family history – sort of – in a tale of generational resentment, artistic temperament and redemptive love.

“I wanted to make an emotional film for the audience, to share the kind of person I am,” Coppola tells me over the phone from his northern California office. “I’d said a thousand times, I wanted to make a movie that was really emotional and personal. Not On The Waterfront, but more in that direction. I feel like I’m an emotional guy, and yet my films often don’t show that. I wanted to start out with a story that moved me, so that when I wrote it I would be in an emotional state.”

Coppola has never hesitated to pull his own family into his artistic wake – his composer father Carmine won an Oscar for the music of Godfather II, and he cast his daughter Sofia as Al Pacino’s daughter in Godfather III when Winona Ryder dropped out. (That didn’t go as well.) Klaus Maria Brandauer’s domineering patriarch in Tetro is a fictional creation, but I have to ask whether any of Tetro’s familial tensions were borrowed from Coppola’s own life.

“That father’s more out of Tennessee Williams – Big Daddy or somebody,” he says. “But every family has that – an uncle who’s the rich uncle, and the sisters-in-law have a pecking order, and there are hurt feelings and ‘not talking.’ That was always the phrase kids heard, ‘They’re not talking.’ That’s all I was writing about, really. Does that have to be passed down to the young generation? Do there have to be feuds between nephews because their uncles aren’t speaking? That’s what the theme was: family rivalries – families that love each other and yet somehow something got in the way.”

So much of Tetro feels intentionally antiquated – from the golden-age format of the opening and closing titles to the theatrical occupations of its characters – that it seems odd for Coppola to have set the story in the present day.

“Even though Tetro was totally contemporary, it has a feeling more like the 60s or something,” he explains. “Maybe that’s because I never got to make the films of the 60s, which were what inspired me to make movies in the first place. So even without thinking about it, even though I only wrote it two years ago, this was the kind of story I was thinking of writing when I was 19. I’m working through the aspirations of a 19-year-old, except that I’m 70.”

So why didn’t he make the movies he wanted to make when he was younger?

“The Godfather put me in another league,” he says. “It put me in this league of being a big-time movie director, and I could do bigger and much more expensive industry films that could be big successes. I never got to satisfy that younger urge, to make those more personal films. I got to make The Conversation, but that was only because I’d had it written before The Godfather.”

Tetro’s air of disconnected antiquity is enhanced by Coppola’s decision to shoot it digitally, which instantly places it out of time. But the director’s embrace of cutting-edge tech isn’t an affectation he’s always been at the forefront of what he calls “electronic cinema,” famously directing his 1982 studio melodrama One From The Heart from inside a tricked-out Airstream trailer.

“Apocalypse Now was edited on an electronic machine before they existed, one we built ourselves,” he says. “I always knew this moment when the cinema would become electronic would come – and it’s here, without a doubt. I think the younger people, like my daughter Sofia, don’t want to touch the digital world. The films they saw that made them want to be filmmakers were made on photochemical film. But deep down in their hearts, they know that probably within five or 10 years they won’t even be able to buy film.

“The only important thing about technology really has to do with the eye of the cinematographer and the quality of the lens. If you have beautiful lenses, which we do, and you have a wonderful, young, talented photographer, which we do, then the images are beautiful, and I don’t think it matters whether it’s digital.”

I can’t resist asking whether Coppola has tried to keep his kids from making the same supposed mistakes in their own filmmaking careers.

“Sofia has only made personal films – you won’t see her directing the sequel of Twilight,” he says. “And whereas Roman isn’t as well-known as a director, if there were a film like that that he felt he could do well, he would consider it. He’s had opportunities to do superheroes and stuff, but he wants to make the ones he writes. And that’s hard. But he has one.”

Interview Clips

Francis Ford Coppola on the timeless nature of Tetro:

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Coppola on contemporary cinema being more digital than we think:

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Coppola on his relationship with actors:

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Coppola on the future:

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