Francis Ford Coppola Talks ‘Twixt’ & Competing with his Former Self

Modern cinema owes a gigantic debt to Francis Ford Coppola, so if you like movies, do yourself a favor and go watch everything he's ever done, including his latest offering, "Twixt."

In recent years, Coppola has gotten away from big studio films. The five-time Oscar winner has been concentrating on what he refers to as "student films." In order to mold the work exclusively in his vision, Coppola wrote, directed, and produced "Youth Without Youth" (2007), "Tetro" (2009), and "Twixt" (2011) – a genre-defying festival favorite starring Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, and Elle Fanning, which gets its Blu-ray release this week.

In the early 70s, Coppola helped transform the way movies were made, and what they could be. In that decade alone, Coppola wrote and directed three films that are cemented near the top of AFI's 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time list: "The Godfather" Parts I and II, and "Apocalypse Now."

Of course, that kind of success is hard to repeat, but there's a reason for that, which Coppola shared with us while discussing "Twixt" over the phone recently. In the fascinating interview below, Coppola tells us he doesn't really even try to compete with his former self, because, among other reasons, "To be alive is to be unpredictable."

As "Twixt" clearly shows, Coppola remains ever unpredictable, and ever the consummate artist.

[Related: Francis Ford Coppola's Filmography and Biography]

Kilmer's character, Hall Baltimore, where did he come from?

Francis Ford Coppola: Oh, he comes from me. I mean, he is a guy who had been very successful and now he is kind of down on his luck, and he is doing a series of commercial books that make money, although they’re making less and less money each time. He's under pressure from his wife, whom he used to love, but maybe they’re more antagonistic now. Even the title, "Twixt," really means betwixt or between. He’s between success and failure, between youth and old age, between happiness and sadness, between dreams, – as you see in nightmares – between the horrible and the sublime.

So, you say Hall Baltimore comes from you, so this is more of a personal story?

FFC: Everything I do is personal. I have never made a movie that didn’t have very strong personal resonance. I mean that’s part of the requirement for me to be an artist is that you're trying to share your personal existence with others and trying to illuminate modern life, trying to understand life.

In "Twixt," you portray Hall Baltimore’s writing ritual or lack thereof, if you will, what is your writing ritual?

FFC: Well, actually it’s pretty similar to what I showed. I mean, I only know what I know personally so I can't do much more than that. But I like to work in the morning. I like to sometimes go to a place where I'm all alone where I'm not going to get a phone call early that hurts my feelings, because once my feelings are hurt, I'm dead in the water.

That’s my table he sets up; I put everything I need – my pencils, my scissors, a cup of coffee – I'm not a drinker so I don’t have a bottle of Irish Whiskey – and facing the windows so I can look out the window. By working in the morning, I find a sense of peace, it’s isolated peace, but I can definitely be in touch with my feelings and then I just start.

I don’t have any writer’s block as you could say he does in that scene, although many might wish I did have a writer’s block. But you know, something flows out and my work is more in kind of letting it happen. When I have something approaching the end, only then do I read it and see what I have and then I rewrite it many times.

Has that process changed over the years?

FFC: Not really. I like to work in the morning. Sometimes, I'll work all night, again for the same reason that you sort of get yourself into a kind of hypnotic trance and it can be very productive, what flows out of you when there’s no resistance.

[Related: Val Kilmer Unrecognizable As Mark Twain]

Well, especially with this film, there were so many dream sequences. Did you try to get into a different state of mind to tackle those?

FFC: Well, as you probably have heard, this little story came to me in a dream. I was in Istanbul and I wanted to make three little student films that were all original, that would be original material, that would be personal, and that would be extremely cheap. Because I felt that would give me the sense of being a student again: to have no money, where I couldn’t have sophisticated collaborators, where I was pretty much on my own.

So, I was looking in Istanbul to maybe do a film there, having done one in Argentina just before it, and I went out with the lawyer of the Istanbul Commission who was going to tell me the details of subsidies, and her sister came. So, I'm with these two pretty Turkish women and they said, “Have you ever had Raki? " And Raki is the alcoholic beverage of Turkey, and I say, “Oh, I think I’ve had something like that.” But anyway, I drank this delicious stuff with these two girls, and I got myself totally drunk.

So, when I came home to my little hotel, the window was open and I could hear all the people outside. I fell asleep and had this intense dream, which as I was having it I said, “My God, this like a little movie. I am being given this gift.” I was caught up in the dream, and all of a sudden there was the call to prayer outside the window, which happens early in the morning. And I said “No, no!” And I closed the window. I said, “I’ve got to get to the end. I don’t know what happens in the story!"

Of course, I couldn’t fall asleep so I just dictated into my iPhone what the dream had been so I wouldn’t forget it. And then I realized that I could make it at home. I didn’t have to be away for a year in Istanbul, so I just made it in the forest, near where I live.

The ending was always tantalizingly close, but more and more, I realized that the ending was getting more and more personal and somehow that was my task. Well, you saw the story, so you know how [Edgar Allan] Poe started to be almost a guide to him saying, “Well, you know, if you want to come to the ending, you’ve got to look at yourself." Poe basically immortalized the tragic circumstances of his life in his work. And when you do that, it means that tragedy lives forever. I'm sure if we could run into the soul of Edgar Allan Poe he would still be in mourning for the loss of his young wife, forever, because it’s immortalized in all of his stories and all of his poetry.

He’s sort of said, well, you have to follow that path. The two of them [Baltimore and Poe] are on this dangerous cliff. And so the film took a personal turn for me. I didn’t intend it. I didn’t want it. But I had no choice but to follow it.

The funny thing of this kind of movie, because I used to work for Roger Corman and I was always in-love with the gothic genre and the Poe pictures he made, but in movies, unlike literature, every kind of film has rules. It’s a caper film. It’s a coming of age film. Everything has a name. And the truth of the matter is that those genres are really ways that people sell movies. They have nothing to do with writing or art or even movies, but it’s an easy way to sell a movie to say, “Oh, it’s a great thriller,” and then people would buy it. The truth of the matter is our lives are all those things together. Our lives are horror films and comedies, and coming of age stories, and dramas. The genre is mixed in our soul.

In literature, when you read a book nowadays, when they’re trying to sell the book, they’ll say, “Oh, you know, the great thriller from Dan Brown or something…” But in truth, art is not meant to be governed by this. It makes it easy for everyone. It makes it easy to be a critic because you can say, “Well, this movie is a mess.”

Well, the word mess means, really, it doesn’t conform to what we think movies should be. And I had that all my career, even when I was young and making films that now maybe have survived, but in their day, they were called a mishmash or a mess. What that really means is that it doesn’t conform to the rules we have for genres. And the rules we have for genres were created to sell the movies, no other reason.

“Genre is mixed in our soul.” That’s a great quote, Sir.

FFC: Well, I think that’s true. I mean, your life must be a wonderful comedy and yet a deep depressing tragedy at the same time.

You were speaking about trying to go make a cheap student film, is that the direction that you think films need to take? I’m thinking about what Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas have been saying about the state of the industry, and I’m wondering if you think similarly.

FFC: No, not at all. I just felt that being that I was a very young guy when I started my career and I had success as a young person, all the artists that I ever read about are always in a state of depression by the time they get older because they’re competing with the works they did when they were young and failing.

So, I concluded that there’s no way you can compete with what you did in your 20s and 30s. Tennessee Williams grew older and despondent over the fact that no one liked his later work as much as "Streetcar" or "Glass Menagerie." Even Fellini was heartbroken after "Juliet of the Spirits" because he felt that everyone preferred "I Vitelloni" and "8 1/2". And I really just concluded that you can’t compete with yourself in the work you did when you were younger, but you can have a new start.

So, by making these very low budget personal films, not caring of genre, not caring whether they would be a success or a failure – albeit you always care a little bit – but at least, being willing to cast that aside, I could maybe get a new start and go in a new trajectory and then build on that rather than trying to make gangster pictures or things that people might associate me with.

Why can’t you compete with your old self? What are the limitations?

FFC: If something’s alive, it’s not predictable. And if you try to focus yourself on, “Damn, I’m going to make a film as good as that one I made 40 years ago …,” there’s no way you can do it, anymore than the brains of two identical twins when they develop the synapses can follow the same path. It’s just not what life is like.

To be alive is to be unpredictable and to try to say, “Well gee, it worked for me 30 years ago …,” well, you use the same intelligence and you use some of the same skills, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’d be able to reproduce whatever the audience was, the group of talented collaborators you work with …

Even in the example of history, those people who were able to make wonderful works when they were young and then once again dazzling works when they were old – take Verdi – in the end, somehow you have to reinvent yourself. You have to become a new person, as you should be becoming at every phase of your life. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s what I decided to do: I’d make a few very low budget, self-financed films, and see where it took me.

And it did take me somewhere. I’m speaking to you now. I’m very deep into the writing of a new, much more ambitious type project compared to these three. And I don’t know if it's a project that the person who made "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse" would have done. Although, I was always game to experiment in movies; I never took the safe route. For me, it was a way to get going again in a new direction and so I’m pleased I made that decision.

I love these three little films. I love "Twixt." I think it’s a remarkable combination of a lot of emotions that I was feeling at the time and a lot of the things I loved about movies, all put in this little teeny package.

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What is this next evolution? What did you learn from "Twixt" that you’re taking into this next project?

FFC: That to be personal is good, and yet at the same time, to push away from the personal with fiction gives it an added richness. To not fear to be personal and yet ambitious. So this is a big project. It’s sort of like if "Twixt" and "Tetro" were like freshman offerings, this is definitely a sophomore. It’s one notch up, but it’s as big and ambitious a movie as I ever attempted.

And there are other things about what I think about the cinema. A lot of people talk about, “Oh, where can the cinema go? What’s the next act?” When they were saying it was 3D, I said, “Are you kidding me?" Cinema is more magical and more powerful and more interesting than just that it will be 3D.

Cinema can have the same revolution that the novel had in the last 200 years. The way we approach the story and tell a story can find new means. And certainly, the advent of the cinema as what is essentially a digital medium implies that it doesn’t have to be as canned as it always was in the past. It doesn’t have to be a lot of pieces of celluloid glued together. It’s a bunch of digital files that can express themselves in millions of ways. I mean, there’s a lot of exciting stuff in the future for cinema and I just would like to taste a little of it before I’m out of the story, all together.

See Val Kilmer in an exclusive Blu-ray clip from Francis Ford Coppola's "Twixt":