Francis Ford Coppola: at home on the far side of the digital divide

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 14, 2009
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Yes, Virginia, there is a Francis Ford Coppola, and, yes, he's still making movies. Back in the bad old days of the New Hollywood, the legendary filmmaker, now 70, directed "The Godfather" (the best movie of all time? discuss) and "The Conversation," and almost lost his mind bringing "Apocalypse Now" to the screen. To moviegoers under 30, though, he may be best known as a name on a bottle of Merlot (or as Sofia's dad). After his last major studio outing, 1997's "The Rainmaker," Coppola devoted his energies to his extremely successful wine and hotel businesses, and when he reemerged in 2007, with the odd art-house rejuvenation fantasy "Youth Without Youth," barely anyone paid attention.

That doesn't really bother him, though, since Coppola is very much enjoying what he calls his "second movie career" out of the withering public spotlight. This week his new film arrives in theaters: "Tetro," a wrenching saga of sibling rivalry shot in Buenos Aires in luxuriant digital black and white. The movie stars indie rebel Vincent Gallo ("Buffalo '66," "The Brown Bunny") as the title character, an American expatriate writer who wrangles with his much younger brother (17-year-old newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) even as both struggle under the thumb of their distant classical conductor father (Klaus Maria Brandauer).

Coppola took time to speak by phone about such matters as family, movies, wine, and his own legacy.

Q. How did "Tetro" come about?

A. I wanted to make an emotional film, and if you want to make an emotional film, you have to write about something you feel emotional about. My family memories are of this extraordinary bunch of uncles and aunts, many of whom were very distinguished musicians - fine instrumentalists and conductors, their rivalries, and suddenly on Sunday some aunt isn't invited over to my cousins' and they're not speaking. All that complicating the basic love and pride that a family has was a subject matter I wanted to write about.

Q. Is there any particular character you identify with more than the others?

A. In a funny way, I've played that role [of Tetro], even though I didn't have a younger brother. In a way, George Lucas was my younger brother. I went on to see George far more successful than me in some aspects, certainly in commercial cinema, and one has to temper one's feelings of pride and envy. But I also had and have an older brother who I totally idolized. Really, if I'm an artist at all, it's only because I was trying to imitate him. And I could see myself being like the father, though I don't want to be a monster. So, yeah, I'm in all the characters.

Q. How was working with Vincent Gallo?

A. I was looking for a kind of peculiar guy to play this unusual role, and I knew he was controversial. Everyone immediately sent me telegrams: Do not work with this guy, he's crazy, he says terrible things. And I called him up and asked if he'd spend a week with me in Buenos Aires and just hang out. He came and we spent time and I immediately thought this was a very intelligent person. He's very bright, he has an advanced sense of humor, which I think is what gets him in trouble. He says things that he means to be funny. I thought he's perfect for what I want, if I could get him to shave all that hair he's got on his face. And I have to say that, despite all the warnings, he proved to be a fabulous collaborator.

Q. This is the second film, after "Youth Without Youth," that you've shot in digital. Why the switch?

A. Digital has come of age. Electronic cinema is the future, and its quality isn't any more impaired by it being electronic. I think the most important things are the quality of the lens and the eye of the cinematographer, really. I like to consider this my second career, so this is really the second film of my second career, and they're all going to be digital.

Q. Does shooting on film have any future at this point?

A. I love and respect and have a passion for film. Sofia, my daughter, wouldn't touch digital with a 10-foot pole. Many young filmmakers are just totally devoted to film because in their hearts they know they're going to lose it. In six, seven years, the world is not going to include photochemical images anymore.

Q. So your daughter's more nostalgic for film than you are.

A. She is adamant: She will only shoot on film. For me, [digital is] like having one foot in the future, being an older guy.

Q. Was the adjustment difficult to make?

A. Not at all. On my films, which are self-financed, I don't have a lot of luxuries. The actors and I don't have trailers that we can go off to while the photographer lights; we're right there, and the digital environment tends to be ready all the time. We find that we can shoot a little faster and see better what we're doing. It's funny, reloading sounds like a simple thing, it takes five minutes to reload the film. But in the old days it happened every 10 minutes. Now it happens every hour. And when it does, we all groan: "Oh, we're reloading again." You always want it faster.

Q. Is Hollywood even interested in the kind of movies you're making anymore?

A. I don't think so. I think Hollywood is a little like Detroit was five years ago. They have a more entrenched mentality and now, because of this economic crisis, people are going to movies as an escape. It's a great $8 vacation. But sooner or later they're going to need to start making films that are a little more varied. I like entertaining films, too - I go to the movies - but I think the formula has become comic books with adventure-park rides in them, and I don't know how many years you can get away with imitating "Star Wars" and "Jaws."

Q. It seems like the gap between audiences who want formula and those seeking something different is wider than ever.

A. Film is big enough to enclose them all. Who would want to live in a city where there's one kind of food, one kind of restaurant? We love variety. It just seems to me a pity that 40 years of network television has brainwashed audiences into thinking that only movies like what they've already seen are acceptable.

Q. Which films of yours do you feel haven't got their due?

A. I think it would be great if "Tucker" got seen again, especially now, when everything "Tucker" was about has come true. I think that "Youth Without Youth" was a film that really wasn't so hard to understand, but I realize people don't want philosophy in a film, they want emotion. Which is why I made "Tetro."

Q. Are you making movies for different reasons now?

A. Well, in my first career, I was making them to make a living and to have a career. Now I don't make them for the money. I make them for the love of doing it, and for what I can learn. Cinema's only 100 years old and even for a guy like me who's been doing it for close to 50 years, there's just no thrill compared to learning something new - about the language and how the rules can possibly change. That's the real payoff for me. I don't have a film career to speak of, and I don't ever expect to make films as successful as the ones I made when I was younger.

Q. Do you have any bitterness about that?

A. No, no, what do you mean? I've had the greatest life imaginable. I got to be in the movie business, I got to be a big deal movie director, I got to have children who followed in my footsteps and make me proud of them. I got to lose a great fortune, I got to make another fortune in the wine business. I've experienced being poor and being rich. I have a wonderful family. I'm going to be so busy counting my blessings, I won't even notice when I die.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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