Coppola and clan: Francis Ford Coppola offered more tables turned at the SF International this year, bringing onstage not just friends, but also family, for his Founder's Directing Award evening.

SFIFF52 Blogs: Coppola & Lucas at the Castro

Dennis Harvey May 3, 2009

Perhaps the most intriguing and unpredictable item in the SFIFF 52 catalog was "An Evening with Francis Ford Coppola & Friends." At the request of the fabled filmmaker accepting this year’s Founder’s Directing Award, the program would center not on the usual one-on-one onstage interview, but instead on a "moderated discussion" with FFC and various "esteemed friends and collaborators" To Be Announced. Who would show up? Would they stick to Topic A (Coppola and his career) or digress? Would they offer genuine insight, or would it turn into a sort of testimonial dinner?

As turned out, Friday’s Castro Theatre "Evening" was problematic only in that it provided too little of a very, very good thing. The friends and collaborators turned out to be four of Coppola’s oldest, most enduring in both departments—editing/sound design genius Walter Murch, director Carroll Ballard, scenarist-turned-director Matthew Robbins, and George Lucas, whose name might ring a bell. All were involved in the earliest days of American Zoetrope, Coppola’s S.F.-based production company, including significant participation in Lucas’ now-revered 1971 directorial debut THX-1138.

Ergo, the Castro event was like being a fly on the wall at a dinner chez Coppola (complete with spouses, and various children present if not heard from) in which old friends waxed nostalgic about their crazy youthful days of collective risk-taking. Which exploits it just happens we already know a thing or two about, as it encompasses movies like The Godfather, American Graffitti and Apocalypse Now. Eavesdropping on such reminiscences, one could sense a fair share of the audience felt it had died and gone to heaven.

After S.F. Film Society exec director Graham Leggatt’s introduction we got a first look at the trailer for just-turned-70-year-old Coppola’s new Tetro, a B&W-shot, Argentina-set tale of eccentric family conflict that will premiere at Cannes in two weeks, then open in S.F. next month. As was noted several times, it (like his prior Youth Without Youth) sees FFC returning to the kind of smaller, more "personal," often self-financed projects influenced by classic European art cinema that he’d wanted to make from the beginning. And which he did make for a time, at least when not being interrupted by "this other strange career in the middle…(driven) by the unusual success of The Godfather." On that subject, more later.

Then Screen International critic David D’Arcy had a few minutes with Coppola discussing Tetro, his initial scholastic focus on theatre (noting his heroes included Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, he recalled his father’s advice "Steal from the best"), current auto-industry crises anticipated by 1988’s pet project Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and initially getting fired from Patton (1970) for precisely the sequences that remain its best remembered (and which most likely clinched his Best Screenplay Oscar). He also noted that the only time he wasn’t really "independent" was from age 40 to 50, when enormous debts accrued by One From the Heart’s commercial failure forced him to grind out a mainstream "movie a year to make that bank payment."

The duo was next joined by Lucas, Murch, Ballard and Robbins—and just a little later by four of their mates, with Coppola remarking that each having "the same wives for 40 years, by and large" was in itself a very non-Hollywood character trait. The spouses chipped in their own reminiscences as everyone recalled moving from L.A. to S.F. on a wing and a prayer to put their "slightly less-industry thinking" to work at fledgling Zoetrope. Most knew each other from film school. But only FFC had actually made professional movies, let alone money, as scenarist and director—first for drive-in maestro Roger Corman, then for major studios.

Those latter experiences (such as getting screenplay credit for "absolutely nothing" on the 1966 all-star international "colossal mess" Is Paris Burning?) were profitable if not very creatively satisfying. Coppola had used their paydays to fund small 1969 independent drama The Rain People, shot around the country by a skeleton crew with future stars James Caan and Robert Duvall. That experience taught him "You could make movies anywhere"—so why not settle in beautiful San Francisco, close but not too close to the mainstream Hollywood "industry?"

This grand "adventure" based in a now-gone Folsom Street warehouse soon hatched the striking sci-fi drama THX-1138, on which all five onstage collaborators worked. Posterity would thank them for that—but not the 1971 box-office, and certainly not distributor Warner Bros. "We drove Zoetrope into the ground with our idealistic ‘The hell with Hollywood,’" Lucas laughed. "If your films tank, you’re in deep doo-doo." To the tune of a then-astronomical $300,000 in company debt.

Lucas was thus the loudest of several voices urging Coppola to accept an offer to direct The Godfather, which arrived only after myriad other directors turned it down. FFC thought the bestselling book "sleazy," the studio’s casting ideas (Robert Redford! Ryan O’Neal!) ludicrous. He had to keep screen-testing Al Pacino until the latter’s then-girlfriend Jill Clayburgh begged "Stop torturing him! They don’t want him! Leave him alone!" Paramount’s president refused to even hear Marlon Brando’s name mentioned. Coppola had to plead with the head of its corporate parent Gulf & Western to get him OK’d as Don Corleone. We all know how that story turned out.

That got us up to 1972, and 9 p.m. —at which point, following just three questions from the audience, D’Arcy announced that time had regrettably run out. A mass groan reverberated through the Castro Theatre. It seemed this genial assembly could have gone on happily spinning anecdotes until midnight…but alas.

Houselights came up, the esteemed guests trotted offstage, and after intermission a new print of the seldom-revived Rain People was screened. Just before it, however, there awaited still one more privileged surprise: A reel of career-spanning behind-the-scenes footage. It started with a very young Coppola interviewed about Finian’s Rainbow, the big-budget musical (with Fred Astaire) that was capped his unlikely first period as a major-studio director in 1968, and ended with a peek at the process behind Tetro. In between, there was priceless footage of him on set with Pacino (on The Godfather), Anthony Hopkins (Dracula), Matt Damon and Jon Voigt (The Rainmaker), and the Philippines as Vietnam (Apocalypse Now). As with everything else on Friday, the clips were fascinating, and over all too soon.

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