Coppola, eternal film student, on his robust life in cinema
NEW YORK (AP) — Francis Ford Coppola will press his hands and feet into the cement outside the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles on Friday, but his imprint on Hollywood, the movies and American culture has long been set in stone, even if the chameleonic writer-director remains perpetually in flux.
The ceremony will be part of the TCM Classic Movie Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday in Los Angeles and runs through Sunday. The festival, put on by that great cable outpost of commercial-less cinema, Turner Classic Movies, will fill four days with screenings of classic films, including Coppola's own "The Conversation."
Such honors are self-evident for Coppola, the director of "The Godfather" trilogy and "Apocalypse Now." But the 77-year-old Coppola doesn't often pause for tributes; he's too busy working.
After a long break from the director's chair, he's made three idiosyncratic and exploratory films in the last decade ("Youth Without Youth," ''Tetro," ''Twixt"), none which are the kind of films expected of filmmakers in their later years.
He's also for several years been working on an even more experimental and ambitious film, "Distant Vision," a multi-generation saga about an Italian American family. Ring a bell? But Coppola, more interested in the future than the past, wants to make it in what he calls "live cinema."
That was one of things Coppola discussed in a recent interview where the director assessed the current state of movies, his penchant for re-cutting his films (including a new version of "The Cotton Club" he's just finished) and, above all, his robust life in cinema as an eternal student. "For me now, I have no motive other than to enjoy the thrill of learning about the cinema," he says, "and being able to participate in it."
AP: Are you a fan of TCM?
COPPOLA: I love TCM. It's an oasis on television. For one thing, it's uninterrupted and no commercials and they bring some of the greatest movies ever made to your screen. TCM has a lot of devotees, so of course it's an honor for them to single me out.
AP: When you reflect on your career, one of such chapters, what do you see?
COPPOLA: I always thought of myself, or charged myself, to be searching and to be somewhat experimental. I didn't just make one style of movie and then just stick with that. Every film I made I approached differently according its theme. Whereas the "Godfather" films that I'm probably best known for had a certain classic, Shakespearean style, "Apocalypse Now" was totally different. Almost a different person made it. "One From the Heart" was yet another experiment and "Rumble Fish" was another. I always was trying to learn about cinema by approaching it experimentally and trying to uncover what it was that really connected with me. And I'm still doing it at age 77. I'm still trying to look at it from the standpoint of: What can I learn?
AP: You've frequently gone back and tweaked your films, like "One From the Heart" and "The Outsiders."
COPPOLA: I recently did that with "The Cotton Club." ''The Cotton Club" was sort of made on the battlefield between the various people who put up the money and the producer (Robert Evans). At the time, they looked at it and said, "Oh, there's too many black people in it. Can we cut out some of the tap dancing and put the emphasis less on the black people in the story?" I happened to have a Betamax very rough copy of what the movie had been before all that happened. I realized the movie had been 35 minutes longer. Much of the film had been lost, but through hook and crook, I was able to put it back together.
AP: Are you finding any more freedom today?
COPPOLA: It's a tough time for more elderly film directors who don't necessarily want to just do an HBO film on some historical subject and certainly they're not going to do a Marvel Comics film. So I'm thrilled that I'm in a position to search for what the possibilities are. I do feel it's a pity that the concept of performance has been lost. That basically since the invention of the phonograph and the cinema that all our art forms are canned. By live cinema, I don't mean like in the form of a television version of a play. I mean cinema, still, with the rules and language of cinema but performed live. That could be very thrilling.
AP: Do you consider television and film separate mediums?
COPPOLA: Cinema is cinema. It can be a minute or less, or it can be 90 hours or more like "The Sopranos." It can be shown in theaters and at the same time you can see it in your living room. It's true you could see it on your iPhone. I'm not sure you would want to, but you could.
AP: You famously risked just about everything you had on "Apocalypse Now." Do you lament today's risk-adverse Hollywood?
COPPOLA: You can neither make beautiful, great movies without risk as you can make babies without sex. Risk is part of the artistic process. That's why I like performance, because performance is walking a high wire.
AP: You've said "Distant Vision" might be your last film. Is that true?
COPPOLA: Only because it's so long. The script of the overall project is over 500 pages now, so that's like six movies. But I want to do it live, maybe quarterly, maybe every three months do another hour and a half of it — in theaters, at home, anywhere, everywhere.
AP: What recent films have inspired you?
COPPOLA: Mostly it's in the independent field because the films with the budgets are pretty much all remakes of themselves. There was a film out of Canada I saw called "Mommy" I thought was great. There was a film, "Tangerine," that was a beautiful film. So moving and funny and alive. I loved Sarah Polley's documentary called "Stories We Tell."
AP: Your films are so varied. Is there one you feel is the truest reflection of you as a filmmaker?
COPPOLA: I would reach out to "The Conversation" or something that I had written because deep down in my heart I always wanted to be a writer. You don't get that opportunity so much. Of course, I always wrote the screenplays but the heavy lifting is to write the whole thing, and I've only done that a few times. My heart is more in that kind of work.
AP: Is there a film you've seen more than any other?
COPPOLA: The thing about the cinema that's amazing to me is that there are so many absolute masterpieces in such a short time, 100 years. There are 100 masterpieces beyond description. Kurosawa alone made nine or 10 of them. "The Best Years of Our Lives" is a gorgeous movie. "Ashes and Diamond," beautiful. There are so many. In the silent era alone: Murnau and his films and Pabst. It's a riches that we almost need to scratch our heads and ask: How come in such a short time so many brilliant films? I theorize that the work was waiting for the technology to enable people to make films, so it was all saved up.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP