Extraordinary highs and lows mark the career of Francis Ford Coppola as new Hollywood's renaissance man: winemaker- impresario-businessman-mentor-writer-producer-visionary innovator. As a writer-director Coppola took auteurism in 'new' Hollywood to a level of achievement matched only by his ambition. His career occupies what Thomas Elsaesser calls “a symptomatic space.” His gifts, successes, but also his tragic mistakes, make the man and his myth a particularly striking example of the different options between classical and post-classical Hollywood, as well as between modernist and postmodern authorship (260).” As a director he sees himself in the mainstream American tradition yet as Elsaesser further points out, this does not prevent him from identifying with the great outsider of the American cinema, Orson Welles. He also has strong emotional family ties with Southern Europe.
As a film school graduate he showed immediate preparedness to take whatever chances were required in order to make films: first soft core exploitation films, then seizing the chance to direct on poverty row, At his suggestion, with money left over from a Roger Corman ‘B’ movie The Young Racers (1963) on which Coppola had worked as assistant, he wrote in 3 days and directed in 9, a horror film centred on a murder-prone family, Dementia 13.
|Patrick Magee, William Campbell, Dementia 13|
His scriptwriting skills (Patton brought him a screenplay Oscar) paved the way to more personal filmmaking - the nouvelle vague influenced You're a Big Boy Now (1966) that impressed sufficiently to propel him into the director's chair of a major studio production (a musical Finian's Rainbow,1968) and then studio backing for an experiment in low budget narrative which Coppola regarded as his first personal film, filmed by a small unit on the road - The Rain People (1969) - a woman-centred picture in the form of a road movie. Although these films were not commercially successful Coppola had shown enough through the sixties to establish respect for his writing and visual skills in the industry.
|Elizabeth Hartman, Peter Kastner, You're a Big Boy Now|
Against the wishes of Paramount’s head of production, Robert Evans, Coppola was surprisingly signed up to direct The Godfather(1972). The filming was a battle of wits between his determination to appropriate the production and the front office’s original conception of a moderately budgeted genre film based on a successful novel with a docile director. As Stéphane Delorme describes it, The Godfather became a matter of improvisation by Coppola, at times drawing on his own experience, ‘under the threat of being fired at any moment’. On The Godfather II (which Coppola did not regard as a sequel) he was given free rein with twice the budget. Soon after followed the success of George Lucas's American Graffiti, backed by Coppola's newly re-formed American Zoetrope.
Within the space of a few years for the first time through 1972-5, four young directors (Coppola, Lucas, Friedkin, Spielberg) had seemingly positioned themselves to seize power in Hollywood with 5 of the 6 top grossing films of the decade. Stéphane Delorme adds that The Godfather was the only one of their films “not to succumb to the siren call of money.” In fact Coppola directed The Godfather expecting a commercial failure.
In the late 60s Coppola had envisaged an American auteur cinema along European lines which by 1975, after the success of The Godfather, he saw a vacuum in Hollywood at the top executive level that he believed the director had to fill. He formed the Director’s Company with Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin which ultimately only produced two films under that banner.
In between the two Godfather films Coppola gained the backing to direct his first major 'personal' film (The Conversation '74) reflecting influence of European new cinema directed from a script he had written some time before. From March 1976 he spent 15 months in the Philippines struggling to shoot a million feet of film for Apocalypse Now which premiered at Cannes in May 1979, winning the Palme d’Or. In April he had announced the arrival of electric cinema at the Oscars.
|Gene Hackman, The Conversation|
Although it was ultimately successful his subsequent venture had him back at the drawing board in a speculative merging of electronic and conventional production techniques. In early 1980 using profits from Apocalypse Now, American Zoetrope “grew out of all proportion” as Coppola bought up the Hollywood General Studios which he renamed after his earlier failed venture in the provision of production facilities and lending equipment to struggling filmmakers in San Francisco in 1969.
|Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now|
This was the beginning of Coppola's roller coaster through the following decades. Zoetrope provided him with a substantial base for the first time in Hollywood. The stylised musical One From the Heart (1982) was to be a demonstration of the practicality of electronic cinema wholly filmed in the studio with a technique called electronic cinema basically a method of pre-visualising the film on video so that it could be edited before it was shot. Coppola’s ambition to make “the ultimate film” on which endless expensive experimentation and attendant production problems rendered his prior claims for the production as a demonstration of cost cutting, absurd (Lewis 61). The almost total failure of his 'electric musical’ at the box office', bankrupted American Zoetrope. It took Coppola the rest of the decade to finally free himself from debt with the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.
|Teri Garr, Raul Julia, One from the Heart|
Many think that this failure forced Coppola to make a series of contract movies in order to get back on his feet financially. Delorme insists that “this is not at all true” as he had “already set his heart on making the follow-up film before One from the Heart - S.E. Hinton's debut novel, The Outsiders('83) and also to film Hinton's second novel, in contrast to The Outsiders, he made Rumble Fish as a more demanding experimental narrative (Coppola said “the subject was time, time too fast”). Rumble Fish (83) failed to find sufficient audience. Coppola was, however, obliged to accept some commissions in order to keep afloat and pay off debts. The seemingly clearest ‘commissioned’ cases being The Cotton Club('84), Peggy Sue Got Married and Jack('96) plus another four of his 22 features on which he has only a director's credit. At the same time he worked with varying success to make the commissioned films his own.
|Matt Dillon, Rumble Fish|
What makes a Coppola film?
Delorme poses this question (93). Coppola says in a commentary on the DVD of Finian’s Rainbow : “Films are like a haiku, they express a thought or emotion in very few words.” This cryptic analogy would seem to reflect Coppola’s immersion in Japanese aesthetics, an acknowledged inspiration for his high concept musical romance, One From the Heart. Sometimes there is a [paradigmatic] image, the result of the delicate balance between the subject, the style and the technique: sunset in The Outsiders, neon in One from the Heart.
For Coppola, Delorme suggests, the subject (my emphasis) is always most important, the common element is time, style malleably chosen according to the subject. Its destination, who is it for? Coppola consciously admits to intending films for individual persons such as family members or The Godfather for his whole family. The long version of The Outsidershe saw as restoring the full novel for its young readers.
What seems to be rhetorically alluded to in a series of at times further cryptic statements by Delorme, based on Coppola’s own statements, is the lack of overall unity between style and subject across his films. In making The Conversation between the first two parts of The Godfather “he was eager to make a film of which he was the creator in his own right that appears to be the diametric opposite to The Godfather” (30).
Style is no longer the sole prerogative of an individual subjectivity, Coppola concedes, it has to come from the outcome of technique which is collective - the close associates and technicians hired for a particular project; Coppola seeing himself as “the conductor of an orchestra.” His entire oeuvre is divided between vitality, speed, life. For Scott MacKenzie, “it is the way the ‘operatic’ is combined with other generic and aesthetic motifs that makes the Godfather trilogy a decisive break with classical Hollywood cinema” (121). Also to the point is Richard Combs’ critique of One from the Heart as “bursting with stylisation, but what it most lacks is a style that could unite its human and technological elements ” (MFB June 1983).
Jon Lewis, in what is perhaps the most searching analysis of Coppola’s filmmaking career, considers the critical problem of the eighties work lies “in his seeming abandonment of narrative in favour of a signature style, an abandonment of the nuanced genre revisionism of the Godfather films in favour of a reliance on the distinguishing factor of auteurism” (156). This reaches its peak expression in Rumble Fish with its complex visual and aural structure, “its allegorical and allusive narrative is much like The Conversation. These are the two films given recognition as Coppola’s most fully realised auteurist works, Apocalypse Now Redux notwithstanding,a critical judgement with which Coppola would be likely to agree ( he had earlier acknowledged The Conversation as a personal favourite).David Thomson and Lucy Gray in ‘Film Comment’ (19/5 1983), for example, describe Rumble Fish as “his best film, the most emotional, the most revolutionary and the most clearly in love with forties movies,” having “a mood from Camus and the French Existentialists but it looks and feels like Welles and Cocteau.”
|Tim Roth, Youth Without Youth|
In his final films after a ten year break Coppola immersed himself in a complex merging of genres in a European co-production Youth without Youth (2007) in a mode extraordinary for a mainstream American filmmaker. Based on a Romanian novel by Mircea Eliade, Coppola describes his film as “a meditation on time and consciousness in a changing tapestry of illusion which can be appreciated as a love story or a mystery” (quoted Wikipedia).
Coppola embraced what he saw as the potential of ‘electric cinema’ and video technology. He talked in terms of ‘creating a new medium’ more than about the individual project in development. He immersed himself in the opportunity to bring into play what they had been experimenting with at Zoetrope through the 80s. Pre-production, production and post-production, Coppola saw as developing into a single phase rather than separate entities (232). However, he produced his most classically nuanced narrative based work when under the day to day pressure of being taken off the direction of The Godfather as previously noted. In Apocalypse Now the pressure came from self-imposed ambition; the film he acknowledged was more ‘an experience’ than story based.
It is revealing that, for Coppola, after the experience of surmounting an unexpected summit of success with The Godfather at the early stage of his career, he should find the need to return to earth by immersing himself in a relatively small scale art film, the experientially ‘hot’ ‘replaced by the ‘cold’ dialectically resulting in his determination not to make The Godfather stylistically as a sequel. Kubrick, in contrast, consciously seems to have deliberately sought an intimate classical mode for his testament.
Budgets and Box Office
For selected films: budget and US or world gross box office in US Dollars for selected films.
Art films : The Rain People ( budget 0.8m), The Conversation (2m world gbo 6m), Rumble Fish (10m US gbo 2.5), Youth Without Youth (30m world gbo 2.6), Tetro (15m world 2.8 ), Twixt (7m world 1.3)
Hollywood personal: The Godfather part II (13m world gbo 91m ) Apocalypse Now Redux (combined with orig. release 45m world gbo 100m +)*, One from the Heart (27m world 0.8m ), Tucker :The Man and His Dream (23m world 93m )
Hollywood: You’re a Big Boy Now, Finian’s Rainbow, The Godfather ($7m world gbo $270-90m), The Godfather part III (54m world gbo 137m ), Apocalypse Now (first release cut see above), The Outsiders (10m US gbo 25m ), The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married, Gardens of Stone, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (40m world gbo 220 ), Jack (45m US gbo 63m), John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (45m US gbo 45m ) Source : Wikipedia
Coppola's original budget for Youth Without Youth was $12m (IMDB’s “estimate" of the original budget is for $5m), which finally exceeded $30m due to Coppola’s “profligacy” even though working in lower cost countries. The overrun was paid by Coppola. The budget for Tetro given as $15m, $2.6m (world gross) and Twixt $7m world gross $1.3m . How to interpret this? The self-financed overrun on Youth without Youth is extraordinary for an art film as the accompanying commentary indicates : a career that started with 'no budget' Dementia 13 more or less ending with this overrun on YWY; total budgets on the last 3 art films being given by Wiki as $52m for world gbo of $6.5m or 12.5% of the combined budgets although not comparable to the One From the Heart debacle which grossed only 3% of its budget.
*The reintegration, by Coppola, of an additional 53 mins of 'lost' footage in Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) recovered something resembling a masterpiece from the autobiographical disorder of the original release version. In 2020 Coppola released a re-edited version of The Godfather part III retitled The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.
Jon Lewis Whom God Wishes to Destroy Frances Ford Coppola and the New Hollywood 1995
Stéphane Delorme Francis Ford Coppola Cahiers du cinéma 2010
Peter Cowie Coppola 1990
David A. Cook “Francis Ford Coppola” Lost Illusions History of American Cinema 2000 pp.134-8
Scott MacKenzie “Frances Ford Coppola” Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers ed. Yvonne Tasker 2002
Thomas Elsaesser “The Love That Never Dies: Dracula” in The Persistence of Hollywood 2012
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