Saturday, January 08, 2011

Thoughts on Francis Ford Coppola

This is a contribution to the Large Association of Movie Blog's LAMBs in the Director's Chair feature

"Tetro is the kind of film I might have been making 35 years ago, had my career not taken an abrupt and sudden turn as it did with The Godfather ... I hope you wish me well on this new career of mine. It was the one I always wanted from the beginning, to be an independent filmmaker, writing stories and making personal films. God knows what will come next!"

Francis Ford Coppola made the above comment just before Tetro was released in 2009. The director has been in the business over forty years, and he is responsible for some of the greatest films ever made, but it seems that he has only now become the filmmaker he always imagined he'd be. Coppola has tasted extraordinary success and failure in his career, and as well as attempting to make personal films with Hollywood's money, he has tried funding some ambitious artistic ventures himself, which eventually resulted in his bankruptcy. So if Coppola is now in a position where he can put his vision on screen with his own money and work independently, far outside the studio system, then who could begrudge him such a luxury? His career has been a tumultuous one, and yet he may be about to enter his most creatively rich period.

When looking back at Coppola's career, we must start in the 1970's, the decade in which the director could seemingly do no wrong. His output in this period consisted of one of the greatest American films ever made, a sequel that somehow topped it, a small-scale masterpiece of tension and paranoia, and an epic war picture that almost finished him. Coppola began the decade with an Academy Award already in his possession, having won for his co-written Patton screenplay, and when he was offered The Godfather, his initial impulse was to decline. After all, as we have already noted, Coppola had a very different career planned, but he took the job and succeeded in adding his personal stamp to the material, with the exploration of family relationships being a key theme in his oeuvre, although the battles he fought with the studio set the tone for much of his later work.

Coppola fought for his (then mostly unknown) cast and he resisted the pressure to sensationalise the material, defying studio heads who wanted big names and an exciting, sexy mob blockbuster. His instincts proved correct, and the Oscar-laden The Godfather became a critical and commercial hit. Even if he didn't want to be, Coppola was now a major player, and he followed The Godfather with both an enormously ambitious second instalment in the story (one that acted as both a sequel and prequel) and The Conversation, a more intimate drama from his own original screenplay. Both films established him as a master filmmaker, in complete command of the style and tone of his films, a wonder with actors, and a skilled storyteller. He seemed capable of anything, but with his next two films, he almost bit off more than he could chew.

Did Coppola ever really recover from the one-two punch of Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart? The first film may now be considered a classic, but it was a notoriously nightmarish shoot, beset by myriad disasters ranging from typhoons to a heart attack suffered by Martin Sheen. The second was a smaller production, but no less problematic, with Coppola's decision to shoot his musical entirely within an elaborately constructed studio and to utilise innovative filming techniques, escalating the budget for a picture that, as it turned out, nobody wanted to see (although I like it very much). At this point in his career, Coppola was bankrupt, having staked everything on Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, and he spent much of the subsequent twenty years taking on studio assignments to pay the bills. There are flashes of brilliance in almost every Coppola film – even when the picture as a whole doesn't work, as with his ill-advised The Godfather Part III – but he was getting further and further away from the independent artist that he aspired to be.

In some ways, Coppola is suited to a career as a gun for hire, as his respect for old-fashioned storytelling and his gift for drawing excellent performances from his cast elevated material like The Rainmaker, Peggy Sue Got Married and Rumble Fish. There was talk for many years of a passion project, a sci-fi epic called Megalopolis, but after The Rainmaker in 1997, Coppola set down his directing tools for a decade, focusing on his other ventures (producing, winemaking), before returning with a seemingly rejuvenated spirit. Youth Without Youth and Tetro are deeply personal, idiosyncratic films shot on a low budget and as you watch these pictures, you can sense Coppola revelling in the freedom that he now enjoys as a filmmaker. This is how Francis Ford Coppola looks set to spend his remaining years as a director; making small films that allow him to experiment and throwing all of his passions into a project, without worrying too much about the film's ultimate box office fate. The thought of a great director enjoying such a late renaissance is a heartening one, and while we may never see Megalopolis, we may yet be in store for some of his most diverse and interesting work yet.