EXCLUSIVE: He was one of the defining voices of the auteur ’70s, having made some of the greatest and most ambitious films ever attempted. The films included The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation. His penchant for risking himself personally to make those films, and the fortunes he won and lost along the way, makes him the quintessential disruptor’s disruptor.
And now, Francis Ford Coppola is at it again. Days before he turned 80 last month—when he would be fêted by family and contemporaries including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin on the picturesque grounds of the Inglenook winery that finally made him impossibly wealthy—a dramatically slimmed-down Coppola detailed for Deadline his determination to write another chapter, with news that will hit the palate of cinephiles like one of his fine Cabernets. Coppola is ready to make big scale films again. He says he has never been short of energy, but to ready himself to carry out his plans, Coppola spent four months in a weight loss clinic and is down 64 pounds.
Rather than a renaissance, what Coppola is planning comes closer to the conclusion of The Godfather, when Michael Corleone settled scores with the heads of the rival five mob families and plotted the family’s future in Las Vegas. Coppola is not only looking forward, he’s also re-cutting past films that didn’t sit right with him at the time, for one reason or other.
Coppola has re-cut versions of two films that didn’t quite please him, with another on the way. A most expansive version of the Harlem-set period epic The Cotton Club is coming in the fall, as is his third and final version of the classic Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam War exploration inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that exhausted and almost financially ruined Coppola the first time around.
And while Coppola need not touch the first two of his collaborations with the late author Mario Puzo—The Godfather and The Godfather Part II—the third film in that trilogy never measured up, in the director’s mind, to that high bar. He aims to remedy that, too, and even has a new title in mind.
Meanwhile, he has resurrected, is casting — Jude Law and Shia La Beouf are expected in lead roles — and putting together the financing for Megalopolis, the epic he has been obsessed with making for decades. This is the drama about an attempt to create utopia in a city like New York. He showed me about 20 minutes of stunning second unit footage shot nearly two decades ago, when he first tried to make the film. The scenes capture the sights and sounds of the New York streets, of perfect architectural structures and statues, and haunting imagery of the smoldering ruins of the 9/11 terror attack that brought progress on that film to a halt.
Here, Coppola explains why the time is ripe to return to Godfather III and these other films, what it was about his vineyard home that turned a chance viewing into a must-have property that changed his fortunes, and how Megalopolis might mark the culmination of the career of one of America’s most important directors. In the process he dispenses a wellspring of career tales I never heard before, from his choice to direct Godfather Part II director to the superstars he originally courted to play Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
It was 40 years ago that you emerged from the jungle with an unfinished print of Apocalypse Now, and you won the Palme d’Or, sharing the prize with The Tin Drum. What did that mean to you?
Well, it was a little unusual in that we entered the film at Cannes before it was really quite finished. We called it a work in progress.
Why would you put a movie you hadn’t completed at such a high-profile global festival?
The reason for that very unusual situation was, there was so much very negative publicity coming out every day about the problems we were having, and [people were saying] that the film might never be released. In fact, even in Cannes there were articles in the local press—or maybe it was a British publication—that totally debunked the idea that the film would ever be finished, and that the problems were so extraordinary it wouldn’t cut together.
I was put in a position where I adopted the very strange idea of just bringing it and showing it, to try to stop this publicity which had been going on for over a year. We made the film in a far off, distant place, in the Philippines. There were many news stories coming out to do with the incredibly extreme weather and hurricanes.
And your star, Martin Sheen, suffered a heart attack…
That, and other illnesses. I basically was at my wits’ end on how to stop this prejudgment. I came up with the very crazy idea of just bringing the film and showing it. To do so, we had to enter as an unfinished film. The film was in better shape than anyone knew, including me. So this gambit, if you could call it that, not only did it work but we won the Palme d’Or. Or shared it—because of its status as an unfinished film—with The Tin Drum.
It was an answer to my prayers. At least they realized that the film was not the mess that it was being portrayed as. My memory is of relief and hope, like a new ray of sunshine in the very bleak picture.
Did it make the negativity go away and leave you more confident than before that Palais premiere?
In the early days, for every yay there was a negative opinion. Even then, it was always the factions in the audience that were extremely enthusiastic. Albeit in Cannes there was a smaller faction that was more saying, “This is wild,” and even more damning things; sometimes even after the award. There was a journalist… do you remember Frank Rich?
Sure. He was the New York Times chief theater critic for many years…
Well, he came out and said, “This is the biggest Hollywood disaster in 40 years.” I was so crushed by this. I thought, ‘Is there no little dumb film or overtly commercial film that was worse?’ I was much younger, and scared. I had a lot riding on it economically. I had borrowed the money to make it. In those days, interest was 25%. Cannes was definitely a high moment, and a moment to feel very grateful and somewhat relieved, but I didn’t feel that the worry was over.
Did you have distribution at that point?
I did, but it was beginning to fray at the sides because of all the condemnation, the disbelief that the picture would ever be released. The reason I was in debt is, I went around and got distribution guarantees, with people saying, “We’ll take it for Australia for X dollars,” and then I went to a bank and borrowed the money, which I signed for. So I did have a distribution network of these letters of credit but they required that the film be finished. And everyone was saying the film was never going to be finished. Technically I was in very, very hot water.
Things definitely improved after the win. The gamble worked in that now no one could say the film wasn’t going to be finished, because it was obviously finished enough to win the Palme d’Or. It was easier to finish, with the encouragement of that award. We quickly got ready for a real release and had that award under our arm. The controversy greatly abated but it did not entirely go away.
This got serious enough that you risked your Inglenook winery. Your first two Godfather movies will forever cement your identity, but your wine business is a close second. This winery was established in 1887 and it’s remarkably beautiful. How did all that happen?
It was built in the 19th Century by Gustave Niebaum. He was Finnish, when Finland was part of Russia. He went to the naval academy and was trained by the Russians. He actually became administrator of Alaska during the time when it had just been sold to the United States. So there was about three years when basically no one knew anything about Alaska in America, but he knew everything about Alaska. He was a sea captain who traded for all these goods and made a great fortune. One shipment of fur pelts was worth, like, half a million dollars in 1880 or 1870. He exploited the natives, in a way, and traded them beads and God knows what for these fur pelts, and then he brought the fur pelts to San Francisco. He established a trading company; the fur pelts were sold to wholesalers and then became extremely valuable as fur coats.
The point that’s interesting is, he was one of the wealthiest men in the United States at that time, whereas the history of wine goes back to immigrants who drank wine at the table for dinner. They went to these different countries but they were poor, and so they made cheap wine for people like themselves. Like my grandfather. I never saw a dinner table in my life that didn’t have a glass of wine on it. Niebaum, on the other hand, was not interested in making cheap wine. In fact, he was a great wine expert, I guess on shipboard, and he had the largest library of books about wine. He could have bought all of the French first growths—all five of them—in those days, he was so wealthy. But he married a younger woman from California and she didn’t want him to always be traveling. So rather than establish a high quality winery in France, he did it here in an area that started to get a good reputation, which was the Napa Valley. Since he had a ton of money, he didn’t approach it like all of the other winery operations at that time, like Gallo, which were less expensive. Niebaum took this money and bought up what was considered the most desirable spot. It was called Inglenook even before he bought it and put several sections of it together.
There are two different kinds of wine businesses, as you probably know. There’s the normal wine for regular people like us, like me and my grandfather, and then there’s the luxurious luxury wines, which predominantly were French in those days. Niebaum wanted to compete with them, which was very unusual because none of these other Napa Valley wineries were founded by anyone but poor immigrants like my own family. So this is one of the few in the world that can even begin to compete with the great first growths of France or the wines of Burgundy. He continued to have this big trading company in San Francisco, and he would come here and spend the whole summer season. This was before the Golden Gate Bridge, before automobiles and bathrooms as we know them. The main house, he built this for himself, and all he told the architect is, “I just want a terrace that we can walk about,” and he wanted a lot of wood because he was a captain. When we bought the place, my wife and I, we had little kids and we had no intention to buy [such] a grand place.
You mentioned your grandfather…
My grandfather, incidentally, is a man who engineered and built the Vitaphone. My father’s father built the machine that enabled The Jazz Singer, and I have pictures of him with the Vitaphone. So, now that my granddaughter Gia has made her first movie, the Coppola family is five generations deep in the movie business, which is weird and amazing if you think that the movie business is only 110 or 120 years old. And we have five generations, including on the other side, because my other grandfather owned a movie theater and they lived in it. He was very interested in movies and he imported some of the first Italian movies for immigrants in America to see.
Actually, he took my mother, when she was 16, to Italy. He was dealing with a big studio that was making these films. They said, “She’s an actress.” She wasn’t an actress. But, as a pretty 16-year-old, the studio wanted her to do a test, and though my grandfather was greatly against it, she did it. I’ve heard that speech of her test. It’s something like, “Through the courtesy and so-and-so of the Caesar Film Company, one of the most modern, up-to-date film studios in the world, we are glad to present to you Vittorio De Sica.” She made that speech and I’ve heard that speech all my life. That is the extent of my mother’s experience as an actress.
She didn’t pursue it further?
It was used as an introduction, I guess, on some film, but for my grandfather… For her to be an actress then was scandalous, so he didn’t want any of that.
How did you land at Inglenook—and how did Apocalypse Now factor in?
I had no money whatsoever to my name, much less influence or connections, when I came here to go to film school. I had not a penny. But after The Godfather I got the first little money I ever had. We had a nice house in San Francisco, and I said to my wife, “Let’s buy a cottage in the Napa Valley, so the kids could go to a place where there are trees and maybe an acre of grapes, and we’ll make wine like my grandfather did, and we’ll give it to the relatives for Christmas.” She liked the idea of a little summer house. So we were looking at little cheap summer houses, and the agent said, “This isn’t for you, but they’re going to auction the Niebaum estate—the original house and a big hunk of the mountain.” I said, “What’s that?”
So we wanted to see it. I had no money or ability to buy a place like that, but when I saw it… It was like, “This is where the rich people live.” It had a lake and 1,400 acres and this beautiful antique house. We were knocked out, so I made an offer. We didn’t get it, and that ruined our plan for a little cottage because nothing compared to this. This is right before I went to make Apocalypse Now.
We were close to going, and about seven, eight months after having lost this, my wife heard the rumor that the people who bought it were financed by a group that wanted to put 60 homes on the mountain but ran into trouble with the new agricultural preserve rules that said the mountain couldn’t be exploited—thank God. So, on a wild chance, I went to the people who had bought it and said, “Is there a chance you might want to sell it?” They said yes.
I bought it from them without even knowing where the hell I was going to get the money. It was about what a house cost in Beverly Hills in those days; I think $1.2 million. I arranged that and went off to make Apocalypse Now.
I had made the successful Godfather and I think also the successful Godfather II and The Conversation. I was in the movie business, where you’re up and down. I was in my up period but I was astonished that nobody wanted me to make Apocalypse Now. I learned the big rule of the movie business, which is, it’s not so much that you maybe won a bunch of Oscars or are in good favor, it’s also about the type of movie you want to make. If I wanted to spend my whole life making gangster pictures, I guess I could have done that, but my movie aspiration was… I was young. I wanted to learn as much as I could and try as many different styles and understand more about the cinema, because my generation and the generation that followed us were basically in love with movies.
For us, it was a new dimension. Not only were we in love with a great Hollywood tradition—William Wyler, King Vidor, John Huston and all of these greats—but we were also taken by this new European thing with the New Wave and the unbelievable Italian movies in those days after the war, as well as Japanese movies. So I think one of the interesting things about people my age and younger is that we were hit by two great traditions: the American studio tradition, which was great, and the Japanese, European, Swedish traditions were also hitting us. So we were doubly in love with the movie business.
I was about 30. I had three kids. Miraculously, the Godfather picture, which was not thought to be such a winner at the time we were editing it, surprised everyone, most of all me. And probably Paramount. It was under a lot of shadows. The point I’m making is that to make Apocalypse Now I had to put up everything I was worth to guarantee the budget, including this place that I had just gotten.
You bet on yourself.
And in those days, when Carter was president, the interest rate was 25%. So not only did I have this loan on my back in order to make the picture, but it was at impossible interest. The likelihood of me surviving that was very against me, and I was, of course, during Apocalypse, famously scared and depressed. So when I got back, my wife said to me, “We have this winery. What should we do? We have 100 acres of grapes and we don’t know anything about how to run a wine business.” I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about how to make movies either, really, so let’s just do our best.”
It is the dream to own a film like Apocalypse Now, or a winery like this?
The reason our family owns Apocalypse Now is because no one else wanted to finance it. When it was done it was a) long and b) weird, in most people’s opinion. But I was a kid who never had $100 to his name, who owed $20m or $30m at 25% interest. So I was scared stiff, and doubly so because I now had this place and my little kids. I remember being on that terrace right out there that Niebaum built, just depressed. “This is so beautiful and I’m going to lose it shortly because of this picture.”
What saved your vineyard?
Well, a couple of friends did come to my aid. After Star Wars came out, George Lucas, who was like my kid brother, said he would buy my Napa property and hold it for 10 years and allow me to buy it back at the same price, which was the most generous thing a person could do for me.
It turned out that Apocalypse didn’t get into financial trouble after all. It opened respectably and then it never stopped. What happened is that the audience kept going and going and going, and, over time, we began to realize that the picture was going to actually make its money back. On the strength of the Cannes award, it did very well in France and in other countries. So what saved me is the picture itself.
This was gracious of George Lucas, but I heard that when the Universal hierarchy hated American Graffiti, wasn’t it you who offered to buy them out?
I was astonished; we previewed the picture and Universal had an executive there who said, “We’re very worried and we want some changes.” I remember what I said to him, and this is pretty verbatim. I said, “You ought to get on your knees and thank this young man for what he did for your studio.” Furthermore, I offered to buy it from them for what it cost, which was $700,000 dollars. I had just made The Godfather, so I could borrow $700,000. Of course, they didn’t accept my offer. I wish they had.
You just celebrated your 80th birthday, and George and Marty Scorsese were there. This support group—and we need to throw Steven Spielberg in there as well—what did they mean to you?
We really admired each other, but more than that we liked each other. They were all younger than me, so I was the first one who actually had a professional career. It was a screenwriting career, but I was working for the studios and they were still, some of them, in film school. George was five years younger and Marty is about the same. Steven’s even younger still. They were students. Marty had already made Who’s That Knocking at My Door, but he was also teaching at NYU.
There was a real friendship; a mutual respect for one another. Maybe it’s because I had come from theater, where you’re a company, and that means a certain social togetherness. You go to rehearsals and have coffee together. One thing I had contributed to that group was my theater tradition, which meant that we were all friends and we were all a group and helped one another. Those filmmakers went on to do the same. I mean, Steven Spielberg mentored and sponsored three to five filmmakers in his extraordinary career. The tradition of American filmmakers was to pick an associate, or someone they thought was talented, and help a new filmmaker in their career, which is what we did with one another.
There’s a brilliant documentary, Hearts of Darkness, about the making of that film. Your wife Eleanor co-directed it and appears in it, and her belief in your artistic vision was unwavering. How important has that been to lead this risk-taking maverick movie life?
I’ve been married 56 years, and although there probably wasn’t one year where we didn’t talk about getting divorced—which any honest marriage would admit—the truth of the matter was she witnessed, by my side, some pretty extraordinary things. When I was in Hollywood pursuing my original career to try to be a screenwriter I didn’t have any connections, no family who were in the movie business then. I had no money whatsoever.
Whatever happened to me started from zero, and she was married to me at that time. She shared the astonishment that I actually was making progress as a professional screenwriter at first, and ultimately as a filmmaker.
What was the biggest disagreement you had with her as you bet on yourself at such high financial risk?
That was never a point of conflict. She never wavered in her support of me and my career. I was very lucky. At one time, we did go into bankruptcy but it was, ironically, not over Apocalypse Now. It was One From the Heart, where we once again did a workout with the bank—it was determined that I had to pay them back some $25 million.
George again offered real help in the way I discussed. But I made the deal with the bank and I did 10 pictures in 10 or 12 years that paid off the debt. With Bram Stoker’s Dracula I think we even were in excess of what I had owed because that film was financially successful. So I went to my wife and said, “You’ve been such a supportive wife. I’ve managed to put together $10 million. Here it is. Buy an annuity so that you never will have to go through this thing where they’re closing the grocery store accounts.” See, I never had corporations protecting me, any of that stuff. She said, “Thank you, it’s been rough, but I really appreciate that you have done this.”
A generous gesture.
Then, a week later, I learned that I could buy the other half of the Inglenook Winery estate. I went to her and I said, “Give me back that money,” and I bought that. But that turned out to be one of the better investments I ever made in my life. To be honest with you, I made more money in the wine business than I did in the film business. But I made it with money that I had earned in the film business.
You recut and re-released Apocalypse Now once before. Why did you do it again now?
So what happened with Apocalypse is, they said it’s too long. Now that I’m 80, I see a lot of this differently, but the first time, they all said it was too long and I was this scared kid. Now, often when a movie is too long, taking out time doesn’t necessary help, and sometimes putting more back makes it feel less long to the audience because they understand it better. But I was scared, so I said, “We’d better shorten it,” and we did it as much as we knew how to when everyone said it was really weird. “It’s not like those big war movies,” they said. I said, “But the Vietnam War wasn’t like those kind of previous World War II movies.” Whereas war films usually had a New York sensibility—there was always a guy from Brooklyn or Nick Conte played a G.I.—Vietnam was a Californian war. It was surfers and drugs and rock’n’roll and The Doors.
Apocalypse was the first movie to tackle the Vietnam War, but it took so long to cut that Deer Hunter came out before us.
Did coming out second in the marketplace, after The Deer Hunter, help or hurt you?
Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question. The Deer Hunter not only came out but won the Oscar, and, of course, I was the one who presented it to Michael Cimino. I liked Michael Cimino very much and I was happy for him, but I didn’t know what awaited me because my film didn’t come out for another year. The film that won at the Oscars our year was Kramer vs. Kramer, which was wonderful in that it introduced Meryl Streep, but it was a more conventional movie.
That must have been awkward: you were presenting because you’d won the previous year for The Godfather, not knowing if following that staggering movie was going to hurt yours. Was it a mixed feeling for you?
Well, it got further complicated by the fact that, before I gave the award, I improvised a little statement that was ridiculed at the time. I said the cinema was going to be changed completely by a new technology that would involve digital and satellites and electronics, which would forever change the face of the cinema. People were laughing and saying, “What is he smoking?” Everything that I said in that statement came true. Now it is used as my prescience but the truth is I was very embarrassed by that off the cuff thing I threw in.
I remember Ali McGraw was the co-presenter and she was looking at me with an astonished look of, “What is he talking about?” At that time, my life was such a jumble. I was basically very scared, for good reason because I had a very unusual movie, which of course may or may not have been accepted. And all that debt I didn’t know how I was going to pay and which was going to wipe me out.
A couple of years later, I was in some relatively cheap hotel in London and Apocalypse Now came on television. I always liked the opening: the helicopter, the napalm, the guy in the hotel room… I thought I’d watch that part and turn it off but I watched the whole thing, and it was a big moment because I’d realized by then that the movie is less weird now, like those avant-garde paintings that a few years later become the wallpaper in peoples’ houses.
Meanwhile, there’s all these other sequences and footage. I had so much footage. Distributors were saying, “Why don’t you make a version of Apocalypse that has everything in it?” I had these Betamax tapes. I had all this material, so we did this long version, put everything back in, and that was Apocalypse Now Redux. When the film was going to have its 40th anniversary at Tribeca, they asked, which version did you want to show, the original or Redux? I said, “I would love to do my own ‘classic’ version, which would be something in between those two.” There are some sequences in Redux that aren’t interesting and I’d wished I would have taken them out. So I used those Betamax tapes and made the third version. It will be released as Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.
Why did you recut The Cotton Club, which you’ll have ready for this fall?
Cotton Club was a very strange endeavor. I didn’t get along with Bob Evans during The Godfather, at all. He was so tough on me. I was seriously on the verge of getting fired maybe on three or four occasions. Had I not won the Oscar for Patton, I would absolutely have been fired from The Godfather.
But didn’t Fox hate your Patton script, until George C. Scott forced their hand?
True. They were talking to Burt Lancaster and he very much didn’t like my script—especially that beginning scene. He felt that it was totally anticlimactic that I started the film with this portrait of Patton. So I was basically replaced because of the opening. Then, years later, when Lancaster was not going to do it and they brought in George C. Scott, he wasn’t crazy about the new script. A man named David Brown said that there was a young guy that did a much more strange script. It was David Brown who resurrected my script. I wasn’t around so I didn’t know that, but that’s how that happened.
Why weren’t you there to accept your Oscar?
Because I was in New York, about to get fired from The Godfather. In fact, the night of the Oscars, I watched the show with Marty Scorsese and he said to me, “How are they going to fire you now?” Because he knew I was in deep, deep trouble.
What didn’t they like about The Godfather?
They hated my casting ideas. They hated the Al Pacino idea. They hated the Brando idea. They hated the fact that I decided to set it in New York and they fought it. Of course, their reasoning was logical. There was a movie made in New York called Mister Buddwing and what followed was a big to-do about how inhospitable New York was to movies, how expensive they were. So there was a sort of boycott on New York and when I suggested it to Paramount for this little $2.5m version of this book they bought, The Godfather, they wanted to make it in St. Louis. And set it in the ’70s.
Because it was the ’70s, and if a movie is set in the ’70s then you don’t have to get special cars, or hairdressers and clothes. A period picture adds a big cost. So I was not popular, wanting to make it in New York and set it in the ’40s, which is when the book was set, because I felt that that was a big part of the story. The fact I survived is a miracle to me, to be honest, because I had no clout, no big, successful movies. The only thing I had going for me was that I was Italian-American.
I was young, which meant that the thought they could push me around, and they did push me around. And also I was pretty much considered a good screenwriter, and they definitely needed a free rewrite of that script, so that’s why I got the job. How I kept it, I don’t know.
It was helpful that every major director they went to turned it down. Kazan, Costa-Gavras, everybody turned it down because there had been a mafia picture called The Brotherhood starring the wonderful Kirk Douglas that flopped. So the idea of an Italian gangster picture?
The book was taking off, though, so they thought if they could make it for $2.5m with this young director, who maybe could direct actors… Peter Bart had seen this movie I made called The Rain People and he thought the acting in it was presentable. So he thought maybe that would be OK. Where were we going with this?
You were talking about making The Cotton Club after you almost got pushed off The Godfather by Bob Evans…
So, when The Godfather fooled everyone and was this colossal success, they came to me and said, “Of course we want to make Michael Corleone Returns, because it made money.” I said I didn’t want to have anything to do with Paramount Pictures or Bob Evans. I didn’t want to have anything to do with gangsters. I could say that because I now had a couple of bucks.
Finally I said, “Here’s what I will do…” I loved Mario Puzo—he was a wonderful man and I really liked working with him. I said, “I’ll work with Mario, and we’ll make a script for a second Godfather movie, but I don’t want to direct it. I’ll help produce it and I will choose a young director that I think would be great and you could have what you want.”
I had this crazy idea of a movie that would be two time periods that would tell the story of the father and the son when they were the same age. You would see Michael when he was a mature young man and, of course, the father, who would have been already dead. It was far out but I liked it. When the time came, I went to them and I said, “We have a script and I’ll tell you the director who should do it.” Everything I tell you, to my knowledge, is true. “This young director, I think is a fabulous talent…” They said, “Fine, who is he?” I said, “Martin Scorsese.” They said, “Absolutely not. That’s outrageous.” So I told them to forget it. Goodbye. Then the whole deal was off.
I didn’t know that.
Not many do. He’d done Boxcar Bertha and Who’s That Knocking at My Door. So that was where it was left. Charlie Bluhdorn himself calls me up, with his Viennese accent. “Francis, you are crazy. You’re not going to do it? You have the formula of Coca-Cola. You’re not going to make more Coca-Cola?” I said, “Charlie, my opinion of Bob Evans, he has talent but he was so tough on me and he’s so second-guessing of me, it’s such a struggle, I don’t want to go through it again.”
But I said, “OK, here’s my deal. One, I want a million dollars. That’s to write and direct it.” That to me was like asking for a great fortune. “Number two, I want Bob Evans to have nothing to do with it. I don’t have to talk to him. He doesn’t read the script. I don’t get his opinions. And number three, I don’t want to call it some stupid sequel. I want to call it The Godfather Part II.”
They pushed back. They said, “You can have the million dollars. You can have nothing to do with Bob Evans.” He was already in a little trouble I think with Paramount with some other stuff, but they gave him up like that. “But we can’t call the picture The Godfather Part II.” I asked why not. They said, “Because our marketing department tells us that if we call the movie The Godfather Part II everyone’s going to think it’s the second half of the movie they already saw instead of a separate movie.”
I swear to God. It’s so ironic, because now if I have any bad standing in the movie business it’s because I don’t want to do a movie that’s built to have a lot of sequels. I’m the one who started the title stuff that led to films like Rocky V. Godfather II was the first movie with that name. I got into another big argument with them 16 years later because I absolutely didn’t want to call the third one Godfather Part III. Mario and I had a title for it.
What was it?
I’ll get to it, but I have to do this in order. I didn’t have the clout 16 years later because I was in all sorts of financial mess. So it was called Part III, which was a mistake because it was never conceived as a Part III. It was conceived as an epilogue to comment on the first two movies.
What about The Cotton Club?
So I get a phone call out of the blue a year later and it’s Bob Evans. His voice is almost trembling with emotion, sadness. He says, “Francis, this is Bob Evans.” I said, “Oh, hi, Bob. How are you doing?” He said, “I’m not doing well. I’m a little scared. You’ve got to help me with my child.” I said, “Of course, I’ll do anything.” I knew he had a boy. Is it an accident? Is it drugs? He says, “I don’t mean my son. I mean my movie.” Because he had announced a movie called The Cotton Club. It was to star Richard Gere and the great Gregory Hines, and he was going to direct it. I asked him what was wrong with it. He said, “I’m going to direct this movie The Cotton Club but I need your advice. It’s very complicated. Can I bring Richard Gere and Gregory Hines to see you?” I said sure.
So Richard only signed his deal on the strict condition he would not play a gangster. In fact, Richard Gere can play the cornet and he wanted to be a musician. I said, “Let Richard Gere be a musician in The Cotton Club.” He says, “He can’t, all the musicians there were black.” There was not ever a white musician in The Cotton Club. Only white people could be in the audience, but only black people were the performers and they had to go in through the back door.
Bob said, “I need a story idea that will enable Richard to be a jazz musician.” I think about it, do some research, and get the idea. You remember George Raft? He was a dancer and entertainer but he was also hooked up with gangsters. Eventually he became a movie star, but he had come from that world. I thought, What if the Richard Gere was like that? In other words, he’s a jazz cornetist or something but he sort of knows gangsters and then he goes on to be a star, like George Raft. I wrote up two sentences, sent them to Evans, and said, “I hope it helps.”
Meanwhile, I was trying to write my dream script. I was always trying to write my dream script—Megalopolis.
Evans says, “It’s brilliant but only you can write the script.” So I write a script and my idea is, I take two men, Richard Gere and Maurice Hines, and their families. The idea was to have a movie that was sort of like The Godfather, that crisscrossed between the white family and black family. That was the way I wrote the script. And since there’s so many African-American people and white people in it, I thought the theme of it ought to be slavery, which is not just slavery as we know it in our country but for anyone, even in the mob. If you become beholden to a gangster then you become, in a way, his slave. I thought that was an interesting theme.
So I send the script to Evans and I say, “Thank you so much, I’m done now. Goodbye!” He said, “It’s brilliant. It’s great. It’s the best script I ever read but I have only one problem, Francis. Only you can direct it.” I said, “Bob, I thought this was all about you making your directing debut. You have a lot of good ideas and a lot of good opinions. Maybe they don’t always agree with me, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. You should do it.” He said, “Well I don’t feel I’m up to this script. This script is so beyond my capability.” I said, “I’ll tell you what, you do it, and the first week I’ll go and I’ll sit in your corner and if you’re scared or if you’re nervous or anything I will be there for one week but I don’t want a credit. I don’t want a job. I just will do that for you.” He asks me to come to New York, with my wife and little Sofia, who was 14, to meet the talent. Lonette McKee and Gregory and Maurice Hines are there and all these great tap dancers and Cotton Club type girls. They were all wonderful.
You ended up directing it, of course.
I made the deal. It was lock, stock, solid, final cut control and I went and began. That’s how I got to do The Cotton Club. When I got there, there’s only one piece of casting that had to be mutually approved, which was the young lady. Richard Gere was already cast. So for the young lady I wanted Diane Lane. He agreed, and we cast her. So then I cast Bob Hoskins, rest in peace. Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as the two gangsters. Evans hit the roof. He was furious. He said, “You cannot hire Fred Gwynne to be Frenchy!” I said, “Why not? He’s a wonderful actor.”
Evans said to me the classic line: “I forbid it. I will not have a Munster be in my movie.” I said, “Bob, you forget. We made a deal. This isn’t The Godfather where you can do this to me. I make the choice. I want to cast Fred Gwynne.” He said, “I forbid it.” I said, “We’ll see.” We call my lawyer, Barry Hirsch, who made the deal and said, “Of course you can cast who you want.”
So then Evans started getting at me through these other ways. I was working with the team he assembled and eventually I had to forbid him from coming on the set because it was turning into The Godfather all over again. So the movie was made under this war, and when it got really heavy… I discover the reason he wanted me to direct it was that he didn’t have the money, and he thought that if he could present me…
The money would materialize.
And it did but the money came from some very strange places.
Las Vegas guys?
Well, yeah, but not only that. They went to see Barry Hirsch and said, “What is this stuff about Evans can’t come on the set and so on?” This is a true story, I wasn’t there but he told me this. He said he had the contracts on the desk saying all of what I’m just saying—they swept it off the desk and they say, “Now it’s off the table.” And the next thing that happens is that a guy shows up. I’m not going to say his name but he was sent by that group. He shows up, and he’s sitting on a chair next to the producer Barrie Osborne, so I know the guy is there. I’ll just call him Joey.
I’m a courteous guy. I’m not going to say, “Get off the set,” or anything, but I get it that he’s been sent and he’s just watching. He doesn’t say anything for three days. By weird stroke of luck, don’t tell me how this happened, he realized that I was not in the wrong. I was just trying to do this movie and they were interfering with it. So, little by little, he started to protect me.
This is very hard to explain. This Joey fellow was pretty bright and, whatever his past was, was pretty nice. I never, during all of The Godfather, I never got to know anyone…
…In organized crime?
I was always advised by Mario Puzo, who did everything from research. He said, “Don’t even be friends,” and I wasn’t. But now Joey was there and he started protecting me. I was a little scared about the fact that he was protecting me. So ultimately, he weighed in. There was lots of trouble with the Evans side wanting to get the footage, and then when it was being finished, during the edit, there were lawsuits—and there was a murder. I mean, what went on behind the scenes of The Cotton Club is a novel. There was a murder connected with the financing. They tried to seize the print, and we would hide the print so they couldn’t get it, and Evans sued me. They even sort of co-opted my own CEO, who I later learned was in debt to them for gambling. There was a big lawsuit about who had the right to determine the cut of The Cotton Club. All this is going on while we’re trying to finish it. So it was utter warfare.
Then [Evans] and his guy said to me, “It’s too long. There’s too many black people and there’s too much tap dancing.” Well, it’s The Cotton Club. What we did was, we preserved all those wonderful Cotton Club performers who now, as we speak, are mostly all dead, but it’s all in that movie.
The picture came out. It was received OK. Of course, Evans damned it. Everyone was expecting The Godfather. It was never that.
So you took another cut at it?
I always felt that the movie got cut down; there was 25 or 30 minutes taken out and a lot of the black story got cut out. I found the Betamax of the original cut. I don’t think in the release version of The Cotton Club you really understand what’s happening between the black folks and the white folks and the gangsters. You don’t quite get it because it’s been so truncated. So I asked MGM, the distributor, “Would it be OK if I made a new version?” Because I didn’t own anything. And they said no. This was two years ago. It was Gary Barber, who just left and was terrible. His position was, “The picture hasn’t done anything. We won’t help you.”
You did it anyway?
Fortunately, there was a little window before he closed the door, and I had to say I would put up $40,000. They gave me access to the materials and I got them. To my horror, the 25-30 minutes that was taken out, no one knew where the negative was. It didn’t exist anymore. We searched and searched and finally found a good enough print. If you have a good print you can copy a good print and then, with a lot of expensive CG, you could bring it up. I ended up putting up pretty much all the money, about half a million dollars.
I said, “If you come out with it again, which this version that I technically own, would you let a little stream of the income pay back my half a million dollars?” Gary Barber says, “No.” I don’t know why. He’s not there anymore, thank God. I guess he felt he had me because I didn’t own anything and I had already committed to some of it. When we showed it, I was amazed that the movie could have been transformed so much. What had been a little disjointed and out of balance and not even totally clear and maybe repetitive, just blossomed.
We showed it once at Telluride and I got the same reaction, which made me feel I wasn’t crazy. It was a new birth for the film. I said, “Let’s call it The Cotton Club Encore.” There’s Gregory Hines, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne—all these people who are gone now. I restored the original ending. I think it’s great and Lionsgate agreed. It’s only been shown three times so far, but they’re going to release it in theaters and show it at the New York Film Festival.
So the Apocalypse Final Cut version and this version of The Cotton Club are the best version of those movies and there’s logic to why. I’m older and I’m less frightened and I’m less easily bullied. What have I got to lose?
You’ve left your Godfather trilogy alone? There was a chronological version that wove together the first two parts and added some footage. It was quite good…
That was a favor to Charlie Bluhdorn. The idea was that it was going to be shown twice on NBC only and never again, and then they just went and put it out.
The intercutting between Michael Corleone in Vegas and his young father in Italy is classic. Did Robert De Niro really almost make himself ineligible because he was going to play Don Corleone’s bodyguard in the original?
He did. He was going to play Paulie Gatto, but he got the part after they got Pacino out of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. When De Niro was being auditioned for that he said to me, “I don’t want to lose the part of Paulie Gatto but if I could get the lead in that…” I said, “I’ll hold the part for you. If you don’t get the lead the part’s yours, but if you do get the lead, God bless you,” and he did get it.
It’s remarkable how close that opportunity came to not happening, and also how you had to fight to get Brando, even secretly making a screen test to show to Bluhdorn.
That’s all true, but Brando was probably one of the smartest people I ever knew and he knew what I was doing. I went to his house at, like, 7am. I’d heard that he didn’t like loud noises and that he wore earplugs. I had two young guys with me, and I said, “Let’s not talk. Let’s do ninja signals.” We went to his house, set up very early. I had brought Italian cheese and a little sausage and little Italian cigars and I put them around. We were all ready when all of a sudden the door opens and out comes this beautiful—he was 47—guy in a Japanese robe with long, blonde hair and he looks around and he sees what’s going on.
He rolls up his hair, takes some shoe polish and makes his hair dark. He says, “The character gets shot in the throat so maybe he talks like this…” He puts some Kleenex in his mouth. He did it all himself and then he took the little cheese and he nibbled it. I remember, he took the lapel of his shirt and he sort of creased it. “Their lapels are always creased,” he says. I’m sitting there, astonished, and then the phone rings. He picks up the phone and he starts talking like the character. I’m like, “What the hell? Who was that? What did they think?”
When I had this whole transformation of him into what you saw in The Godfather, I took a wild chance. I went to New York because I knew, whatever Charlie Bluhdorn said, that all the guys would fall in line because they were afraid of him. I went to his office and he came out to the conference room where I had put a machine. He said, “Francis, what are you doing here?” I said, “Charlie, I just want to show you something.” He looked at it, he saw the door open, and then Marlon Brando came out, with the blonde hair. He said, “No, no, absolutely not.” He kept watching. “That’s incredible,” he said. And that’s how Brando got the part.
And they fought you on Al Pacino, whose slow build of Michael Corleone from war hero to steely mob boss was superb, even though you cast him thinking there was only going to be the one movie…
Well, they first wanted Ryan O’Neal. And then Redford. I said, “The guy ought to really look Sicilian.” They said, “Sicilians are blonde and blue-eyed because they were occupied by the French for many years. So there could be a blonde, blue-eyed Sicilian.” What had happened is, I had met Pacino before, so when I read the book I just pictured him. When you do that it’s very hard to get that out of your mind. That’s why I was so persistent.
You think of all that could have gone differently on this film and I wonder, do you believe in the movie gods?
I believe that once and a while you get lucky. I’ve been unlucky, but in the case of The Godfather I think of how lucky I was. Even with the first Godfather not only was I lucky to have this unbelievable cast but this unbelievable director of photography, Gordy Willis. This unbelievable art director, Dean Tavoularis, this unbelievable costume designer, Johnny Johnstone, who did On the Waterfront and taught me so much. Then the most luck of all was, the audience seemed to be ready for it because the audience isn’t always ready for the movie you’ve made. They may not be ready for 10 years, or maybe they were ready for it 10 years earlier. To have all those things happen right, once in your lifetime? Let’s face it, The Godfather made me.
The first two were hard to measure up to when The Godfather Part III was made.
I want to try that again, and I’ll ask Paramount because in a few years there will be the 50th anniversary of the first film. I want to use a title I tried to but wasn’t allowed to, one that came from Mario Puzo. It’s Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. But ‘coda’ means epilogue. In other words, you got part one and part two and then the epilogue.
Why didn’t the studio like that?
They probably wanted a Godfather IV and V. There’s a cut I want to make that would be 14 minutes shorter. Usually, I go back and make them longer. This would be effective, and it makes the ending break your heart. Jim Gianopulos is the head of Paramount. An extremely nice man. And so what I want to say to them is if you allow me this, you won’t have to pay me.
Why all this looking back?
All I know is maybe I’m older, maybe I’m more circumspect. I want to show Sofia a new version, because she is so beautiful in it and so touching. She wasn’t an actress. But she was the real thing, playing that 19-year-old Italian girl in love with her own cousin. Godfather III as The Death of Michael Corleone is doubly painful because at the end he doesn’t die but he does worse than die. He loses everything he loves—and he lives. There are certain things in life that are worse than death.
You took some heat casting your daughter Sofia, who has become a fine filmmaker in her own right. Was it right to put so much pressure on her, when she was untested?
Well, I felt betrayed by a journalist by the name of Peter Biskind. And Tina Brown. I was asked if a journalist could come to the set and report on the movie, but Peter came in with a story all ready to write because he knew that there was a controversy about the fact that I had cast Sofia. He’s the one that came out with the article first that sort of greatly criticized her performance and started that whole trend, that I had cast my daughter when Paramount didn’t want me to.
Why did you?
I was in a tough position on that matter because they wanted me to put actresses in the role that were much more mature. My idea of the character was, an 18 or 19-year-old who had a crush on her cousin. That’s why I had cast Winona Ryder. But she didn’t say, “I can’t do it.” We kept waiting for her and she kept stalling and we kept delaying. I had shot absolutely anything I could without the girl and only then did Winona tell me she was dropping out. I had no choice but to close down the picture.
Paramount had all these actresses who were like 27 to 30 and I felt that that would destroy what I was trying to do. Sofia didn’t want to be an actress. She wanted to be a painter at the time, but every time I had put her in a movie as a little girl, her natural personality always came through for me. I always put my kids in movies because I had them around. I always took them out of school to be with us, wherever and whenever we went on location. Sofia did that for me and I believe if I do this new cut that her performance will be very touching as a little 19-year-old girl. That’s one of the things that can be so improved.
I felt that the plot of Godfather III was that they were coming for Michael but they got her. And [in the press] they were coming for me but they chose Sofia. I don’t have malice against anyone at this point in my life, but, to this day, it upsets me that Peter Biskind was the one who was given access to the set and he used it to damn my daughter. I believe that in a new version of The Death of Michael Corleone, Sofia’s performance will vindicate her.
Few unmade movies have intrigued with possibilities than Megalopolis. And now you are ready to come back and make your first big-scale film in decades…
At this age, I have to tell you, I am more enthusiastic and excited about the cinema and what it means and what it can be and even with all of the new digital aspects of it, which I think are being misused. As for Megalopolis… Well, it looks good. I mean, we made the offer now to several actors. I can’t say they’ve accepted, but they were very enthusiastic. One of them is Jude Law and another Shia LaBeouf. I may shortly have my lead actress. The whole world of casting is so different today—when you invite an actor to read a script, right away they want an offer to go with it, when sometimes you just want to get together with them and see if they’re the right choice. Right now I have several enthusiastic people.
I don’t have any official backers. I have a sort of philosophy of how to do it, and it’s not dissimilar to how I did Apocalypse Now, where I line up a whole bunch of territories and I put it together with the bank. In one case, one of these technology companies… I can’t say which one. But as you know, in the next five years the whole film industry is going to be owned by Apple, Facebook, Amazon. One of those newly emerged media giants is intrigued by the idea.
I am so used to living with unsure situations that I don’t know that I’ll ever in my lifetime have a sure situation. Studios pretty much don’t do these movies any more. Even when they do, they don’t finance them. I’ll use the complicated formula that I used for Apocalypse, which I turned over to my good friend George Lucas and he then used for Star Wars.
Is that how he ended up owning the merchandising and future films?
You know how he ended up with the merchandising? No one knew the merchandising even was important. But they would put in a clause that said everything belonged to them. Only George’s lawyer, because of the deal that I’m going to explain to you, he wrote it up, and so when it all came to shove, everything else was his, which turned out to be the merchandising. That’s how he got it. The way we did it was this: we put up the initial money and then we went around to the whole world and sold the picture. Apocalypse Now was sold on the idea that it was going to have Steve McQueen. Then he got very ill and it was going to be Clint Eastwood.
Playing the Kurtz role that Brando played?
They all wanted to play Kurtz, because you get the same money [as Captain Willard] and you only do it for three weeks. McQueen wanted to be that part because he would only have to be away from his family for three weeks, and Clint also said he wanted to do that.
Clint is great and his performance in The Mule was so good. I’d give anything to work with him, and I proposed that. It’s hard, because Clint can just do what he wants. He can make any movie he wants and just direct it if he wishes. He hasn’t really gotten back to me yet, but I can wish.
So we went to all the territories and each says, “I’ll give you $2m,” or whatever. You take those pledge letters to the bank and come up with a completion guarantee and you’ve created the financing for a picture. You have partners, but most of the final cash is a bank loan. I have a pretty big company and we’re possibly able to be a partner, and I’m totally willing to do it, so that would be my ace in the whole.
I’ve been saying for 10 years that, basically, social media, despite what you think, is not content. Anyone who’s ever really explored social media—it hasn’t been around that long—knows that you get really bored quickly and you realize, “Why am I wasting my time? What do I care?” Now it’s grandparents who go on it because they see the children, little kids. When the big media companies understand that social media is not perpetual content, well what’s important is that those companies are the movie industry. And one of those companies has expressed some interest in being sort of a home for it for U.S. and then helping me gather commitments from Australia, from France, Germany, Japan. But I have my own company, which can finance too.
You’ve been through this before, gambling on Apocalypse Now and One From The Heart. You are much better off financially now. Would you put yourself at stake again to see through your dream project?
It depends on the ratio. Say we’re taking about a $120m movie, or it could be $80m. It’s a big hunk of dough. My company is worth much more than that. Also, I went bankrupt once, so I have always been very frightened of debt. Debt’s scary when they come and they tell your wife she can’t have an account at the grocery store any more. We’ll see.
How best to describe the ambition behind the new movie? I’ve heard you had hundreds of pages written, and shot second unit.
Basically, what it does is it takes a Roman epic based on real things that happened 2,000 years ago, because really America is like the modern historical counterpart of Rome. We’re just like Rome. We’re practical. We’re good engineers. We have project power. That’s what Rome had, so I sort of thought America was the modern Rome and therefore, if I set this particular story that’s a famous Roman thing in modern Manhattan, it sort of worked a little bit.
There is an accident, and you have an architect trying to rebuild the city as a utopia. And a mayor trying to stop him…
Utopia in Greek means the place that doesn’t exist. Personally, and I say this with great sincerity, I believe it can exist. I believe in the genius of the human species in its ability to come up with solutions to all of the problems that plague us. But the biggest problem of all is to get those people out of the way who like it the way it is, because they’re already in a perfect situation. In other words, there’s already a whole group that control petroleum so they’re never going to get rid of petroleum.
Self-interested, wealthy people…
But we have the genius to make a society. The script talks about what that society is like. My movie was about utopia. You know, like so many films today, Mad Max and everything, the future—even in some of the gorgeous films—is always a terrible place. To me, when I was a kid and saw The Shape of Things to Come, the future was a great thing. It’s what we all wish it could be. When I went to Disneyland I remember the thing that just knocked me out was the Monsanto Home of the Future. I wanted to live in that house. People get scared and worried about A.I. and that’s how certain people gain power. Now, that’s with self-driving trucks that supposedly will put people out of work. But they don’t say the other half, which is that maybe more people will become paid citizens who’ll get out of employment. You’ll get a check not as a worker but as a shareholder of the country. Why shouldn’t you get $70,000 a year as a dividend from the great wealth of our beautiful country? You could if some people don’t gobble it all up for themselves. So in other words, the fear of losing work isn’t the issue, because you’ll be able to do the work you love. That’s what my script explores.
I was shooting the second unit in New York, and we get attacked by Islamic terrorists. My movie is all about New York as the center of the world, but how do you make a movie about the center of the world without it dealing with the fact that, right in the heart of it, it was attacked and thousands of people were killed? How do you make a movie of utopia with that history?
So I tried. I wrote, I wrote and finally I abandoned it and then later on I went into a new way of thinking, and worked on that. I wasn’t fully confident, but then I lost weight and it felt like time.
I looked at some of the tests and some of the readings of actors for Megalopolis and I said that same fatal thing; it wasn’t as bad as I thought. There was something here. So I began to become excited about it again. I think I have a very viable script but I also had all the second unit shot already, and I began to have some interest from some actors. It’s a big, ambitious project. It has a big cast.
I think if the film could be fortunate enough to be taken by the industry not so much as, “Here’s another wacky Coppola thing, he’ll never do it,” or, “Where is he going to get the money?” But instead, “This is exciting. We want him to do this.” There are 12 big parts and now it becomes about, how do you get all these actors working together, and pay them?
Is Megalopolis the fulfillment of a dream at the end of a great career, or the start of things to come, where you return to large canvas filmmaking?
I think I will only play on the large canvas because I’ve made all the little experimental films that I wanted to experiment with, and now I’m ready to try out what I think I’ve learned. I’m 80, but I have a 102-year-old uncle who just wrote a new opera that has been well received. Genetically, I could have 20 years and I will need that long to do everything I’m excited about wanting to do.
Last question. You risked everything, stared bankruptcy in the face, and now you own some of your movies, you’re one of the biggest American wine manufacturers and you own luxury hotels around the world. What advice would you give about risk to a young entrepreneurial filmmaker?
They must decide what kind of a career they want. Do they want to be an artist or do they want to make a lot of money? If they want to be an artist, the way to be an artist is to remember that every human being born—the fact that those gametes got together, and you were conceived—is a trillion-to-one chance. So every human being is unique, and to be an artist and not make your work be totally personal is a waste of the opportunity that every artist has.
I’ve told my own children, if you make films by your heart and your most sincere instincts then you’ll have… They say a wine has terroir—a person who knows wine can drink some and tell you where it’s from, and what kind of grape it is, and come close to telling you what year it was made—a film has terroir, too. When you see a Sofia Coppola movie, you don’t need two minutes to know that she made it. Godard once said, “If you cut the credits off a movie you don’t know who made it. But if you make your film personal, by inserting your unique personality, then people will know who made that film just from a minute of it, from a second of it”—as they do with my daughter and some of the great filmmakers we have today, both young and old. You know who made it without having the credits.