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October 2014
Issue: February 1, 2008

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA - 'YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH'

By: Iain Blair
LOS ANGELES — Thanks to such iconic films as The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola long ago cemented his reputation and established his place as a key figure in the modern American filmmakers’ Hall of Fame. But in the last decade or so he’s made few films and has become almost better known as a top winemaker.
Now he’s back with his first film in eight years, Youth Without Youth, an ambitious period piece that is part love story, part political thriller. It stars Tim Roth (Pulp Fiction) as a man who, after being struck by lightning, mysteriously begins to grow younger. Here, in a rare interview, Coppola talks about making the film, and his love of post.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
COPPOLA: “I wanted to make a very personal film, which is to say it’s a film that I passionately wanted to make. I think when you make a film, it’s just such a hard job anyway — think of how early you have to wake up every day to be on the set, and how many months it takes and how cold it is, and this was low budget so we didn’t have all the fancy trailers and so on you get with big studio films. So given all that, it has to be a story that you really passionately want to do, because after a month of hardship you go, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ So it’s nice to always remind yourself, ‘Yeah, but I’m making this piece that I wanted to make so badly.’”

POST: When I last interviewed Milos Forman, I asked him why he didn’t make more films. He said, “Well, a lot of things you develop fall through, and it’s very frustrating and you lose years that way, but you want to know the real reason? It’s because I hate getting up so early!”
COPPOLA::(Laughs) “I know what he means. This is my first film in eight years and what happened was that about 12 years ago, I finally finished paying off all my debts and was suddenly in a position where I didn’t have to just go looking to get jobs, as we all do. I thought, well now’s the time for me to make the dream project. So I began looking for what that might be. I knew I wanted to write it, and I started working on this script called Megalopolis.
“I spent a lot of time on it and put a lot into it, and it was this big, more operatic, ambitious kind of movie, and little by little I realized that nowadays, all the big movies are pretty much all like superhero movies or sequels. And I didn’t know who’d want to sponsor me in a project like that. Plus, I was having a very hard time with the script, and then right in the middle there was the tragedy of 9/11, and my whole story was set in New York. You couldn’t separate very easily what had happened in terms of real events with my story set in modern New York. How do you write a story about Utopia set in New York when we all know what happened with the terrorists? Basically I just couldn’t write my way out of it, so for a while I was completely stuck and very frustrated, as I wanted to make a movie.
“I feel it’s a beautiful profession, yet I didn’t want to just go and get a job as a director for hire and make a regular movie — fewer and fewer of the regular movies interest me now. Then by chance this old friend sent me Youth Without Youth, a book by the Romanian author Mircea Eliade, and when I read it, I thought, “I love this story — something crazy happens every few pages — and I could afford to finance it myself and it’d be an unusual movie.”

POST: Is it true that you financed the film with your wine?
COPPOLA: “Yes, I financed it with my own money, which is only because I have a big wine company.”

POST: You must have been very happy self-financing it and having the control.
COPPOLA:“Yes, and also you save a lot of money. There are many things you do when you produce a film that you only do because the banks say you’re required to:  you have to give them the script, you have to insure the production against the fact that you may die and never finish it, and on and on. So I’ve found that not only can I work much faster when I wasn’t waiting for an answer, but you save money on a production when you’re able to just put up the dough yourself.”

POST: This film seems very dreamlike. Do you see all films as dreams?
COPPOLA:“I think the language of cinema and the reason that in just 100 years we’ve become so comfortable with making cinema is from thousands of years of man dreaming. I think it is based on the dream, and the whole language of cinema comes from dreams.”

POST: You shot the whole film in Romania and Bulgaria. Was that to save money?
COPPOLA: “Yes, it was a big production. When you analyze what costs money, it had a big cast — over 50 actors — it was a period piece over many different periods, so you need all the costumes and you can’t just go out on the street and shoot. You’ve got to get periods cars, props and so on, and we had to be very clever with the production. And it was set in Romania, but the story’s also set in India, Switzerland and Austria, so we had to be very careful how we did it, and it doesn’t look like a little, low-budget film.”

POST: How was the experience of working in Romania?
COPPOLA: “It’s a country with a fantastic intellectual tradition — theatre, poetry, cinema — and right now it’s going through a renaissance in cinema. Their films are winning awards all over the world and everyone under 35 speaks English. They’re very well educated and it’s a very cinema-friendly country, but they’re lacking in the visual effects department and other areas. We did the post in Bucharest and Walter Murch came over to edit and help oversee all the post. [He edited on Apple Final Cut Pro.]”

POST: Do you like the post process?
COPPOLA: “I love it. Shooting can be so hard, so I always look forward to the peace and quiet of editing and putting it all together. The great thing about post now is that digital cinema has become a reality, so a filmmaker has more ability to compose picture and sound than ever before, and all because of these new tools, such as the latest editing systems like Final Cut Pro, Pro Tools and so on, which are also becoming less and less expensive.”

POST: Where did you do the visual effects?
COPPOLA: “We did them all at UPP in Prague and I think they did a great job. The visual effects supervisor there is David Vana and they’ve done a lot of effects work in films like Perfume and The Illusionist.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
COPPOLA:“Yes, I was very pleased with it, and of course I was working with my longtime collaborator Walter Murch, and I think the film is really beautiful in the way it looks and was edited and the music and everything.”

POST: What’s your view of Hollywood today? Sick or healthy?
COPPOLA: “I think it’s really split into two now. There are the big commercial films that cost a lot of money and that have to make a lot of money, and then there’s a very exciting independent movement, which is of course not in Hollywood but all over the country and world.
“I have a lot of love for Hollywood. It was always a great tradition and they made such beautiful films in the hay days of the studio system. I think the problem with the big commercial film business is that whereas in the past the studio bosses — Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Harry Cohen, Darryl Zanuck — were really there and owned the companies and really loved movies, and they wanted to make the best movie of the year, so they were not afraid occasionally of some risk; it’s all big, faceless corporations now.
“You can’t have great art without risk. It’s simply impossible. If you want to eliminate risk, then you’ll end up making the same movie over and over again, which is what they’re doing now. And now the studios don’t have those bosses. They’re owned by big multi-national companies, and the bosses at the highest level are interested in risk — but not in movies. They’re interested in risk in a new telecom company or some new satellite deal, and so they flog the movie companies to earn money to pay for their risk in these other areas. And I think that’s why we don’t have the kind of variety and adult movies we used to. They won’t do drama anymore. They’ll only basically do either franchise movies or anything that can turn the film into a product, like Coca-Cola or something, where every year they can count on a certain amount of money to be made.”

POST: Do you go to a lot of movies?
COPPOLA: “No. I usually go and see the independent films — any of them. I love the films of Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson — that whole generation is extremely gifted and tough, as they’re trying to hold out and make personal films in a world where the distribution bottleneck is closing in on them.”

POST: How do you look back on the failure of Zoetrope?
COPPOLA: “I think the vision was good, to take the best of the Hollywood studio tradition and combine it with the best of the independent tradition, and then give it the very latest electronic technology, so that it has all the advantages. I suppose a big dream like that would have needed better financing, and I had it all riding on one production, and I failed. Had that production been successful, I would have gone on with the vision. But I tend to be a loner. I tend to not like having partners, as they are people you have to argue with to come to a common vision, and I’d be far more willing to just risk the money myself if I have it.”

POST: Have you done better financially in wine than in film?
COPPOLA: “There’s no comparison. The wine business is like having a $100 million hit every year. The wine business is really a business. The film business isn’t a business; it’s a very screwy arrangement where you do all this work and the money all gets emptied into this hopper called distribution, and then it slowly trickles down, and when it gets to the people who actually make the film, there’s little left — which is what all the strikes are about.
“You can’t become really wealthy on the scale of what that means today in the film business, but in the wine business you can, because it took off. That wasn’t my doing. It was an accident and I was luckily in it early on, so I benefited.”

POST: Would you ever retire from filmmaking?
COPPOLA: “No. I’d retire from all the other stuff before I did that. But making films is a lot of effort and you have to get up so early, and I like to have some fun!”

POST: In the film, Tim Roth’s character is struck by lightning and then he miraculously starts to get younger. Was that a very personal statement for you? Do you worry about getting older?
COPPOLA: “No, I actually like getting older. The only thing I’d worry about is not getting in my lifetime the chance to make my dreams come true, and my big dream was always to be a very personal filmmaker. I wanted to be like those great European filmmakers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and if I was hit by lightning it was The Godfather; that changed my whole life. So I just want to get back to what I was doing when I was first falling in love with films.”