Revisiting Tetro And A Life In Film With Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola discusses getting personal with Tetro, revelations about his childhood, and the truth about Apocalypse Now 

Why did you use black and white for the present and colour for the past in Tetro?

“I don't understand why people ask me why it's in black and white. Films are in black and white and they're in colour, it's just a choice that you make to tell the story and make it feel like you hope it will feel like. It scares me that we live in a world where, all of a sudden, everything has to be the same. Where it all has to be colour because some television executive said that. I feel like I'm living in a gulag or something. It's black and white because it felt like a good decision, and because the movie looked right to me in black in white. Then, since my movie was in black and white, and I wanted to make clear that the writing of Tetro was in the past, I made it in colour. I associate colour with when you see home movies. Of course, the colour in that is more like a hand-held camera, and the black and white is very steady, like fixed frame, because it's the most beautiful kind of cinema when the camera's not always moving. Otherwise you get, like, sea sick.”

Have you been able to make your films the way you wanted to make them?

“Pretty much after The Godfather I was able to do what I wanted, and I got to make Rumblefish in black and white. But I think when you choose the style of the movie, it serves the theme or the story, and one of the questions is, should it be in black and white? Should the camera move? What should the lighting be? Mine was probably the only film in black and white [when it screened] in Cannes, and I worry about that. It's like because Steven Spielberg is so esteemed he could make Schindler's List in black and white, but no one else is allowed to do it. It's like a law.”

Were there any films that you made in colour that you'd have liked to make in black and white?  

“No, I did what I wanted because I was so fortunate after The Godfather that I had that power. Of course, I couldn't have made one – maybe I could've – in that period when I was a slave, from age 40 to age 50, where they gave me the script and I was grateful. Every Friday I would write an email or a fax to the head of the studio saying, 'Thank you for my cheque.' I did that for 10 years because the cheque was going to mean I could keep my home.”

When you came to the end of that 10 year period, there was about another 10 years, between The Rainmaker and Youth Without Youth, when you didn't make any features.

“But I wrote Pinocchio and we totally prepared it. We were going to go to the most beautiful studio in the world, Pinewood, and make that. And that might have been very successful, because it was very much the beginning of what became a Pixar-type of family entertainment. I was ready to go. I had the deal with Columbia, and then another studio just said, 'We own it,' and then there was two years of a legal battle, which I won, and which they had overturned – suspiciously.

“I said, 'This is hopeless. You can't win.' So, then, I said, 'I'm just going to write the most personal, ambitious, probably self-indulgent, grandiose project I can think of,' and I began to write Megalopolis."

What happened to that?

“Again, it was a really difficult script and maybe I never really pulled it off. I rewrote it, I tried, and then I went to New York, we were shooting Second Unit, which we shot, and right while we shot they hit the Twin Towers. And my film was about utopia! The message of Megalopolis was: we can make the world be a place that's exciting for people and for everyone to really enjoy life and each other – which is an absurd idea, I know. I thought if I made a film that showed that, then everyone would say, 'Right then, let's do it.' But then right as I did that, the world went to the opposite. Not only that, the other issue was the film business was becoming more and more middle-brow, and the movie had to look good, but who was going to give me the money to do a movie like that? So I stopped it and I thought, 'What should I do?'

“I didn't like the films I was doing in that period, so the 10 years you speak of was not wasted. Even other directors, if they write, need time. Except for Woody Allen, of course, who is the most amazing American film-maker because he writes an original script and he makes it every year-and-a-half and there's always something wonderful. Some of his films are really great, but the rest are good, and there's always something you can't forget in every single film. He's such an amazing talent. Who else writes his own work and comes up with it out of his mind? Other people like that, they need three years in between. Kubrick, as you know, there was eight years. My 10 years, it's not like I wasn't trying. Usually you're trying to go with your hat and say, 'Please can I make a movie?' That's what you spend the time doing.”

There's a line in Tetro – 'There's only room enough for one genius in this family'. Did someone tell you that when you were young?    

“Someone told someone in my family. That was really said to someone. It wasn't said to me. I was a jerk. I was the little kid on the sideline.”

But are you aware of the shadow that your achievements cast over your family? Your son, Roman, once told me that he took years to make his future debut, CQ, because he knew people would compare him to you.

“I don't know what to say because I was always the kind of father who really encouraged creativity. I think the generation before me, because they lived through the  Depression, they wanted the children to be doctors or to be accountants, or to be something like that. We were not a wealthy family and parents always worry that the children will be okay. So, when your kid says, 'I want to be a novelist,' in those days it was, 'Be an accountant first and then write a novel.' But with my kids, if they said, 'I'm interested in this . . .', I'd say, 'Do what you want. You don't have to worry. Do everything you love and then eventually it will be clear.'"

Did Sofia always want to make films?

“Sofia, when she was 17, said, 'I want to be a painter, and I want to write stories, I like fashion and I want to do photography' - she didn't ever want to be an actress, by the way, she did that [Godfather III] for me - 'Am I just a dilettante?' I said, 'You know, Sofia, do the things you like and one day you'll find you're very good at different things and then it will be clear what you want to do.'

“So, certainly with Roman, he's such a talented boy and when I invited him to be the second unit director of Dracula, much of the beautiful in-camera effects that were done, he did. So I always encouraged him to be a film-maker. But the other side of that is, if you were my son, I wouldn't say, 'You have to be a film-maker.' I would say, 'Come and work on my film and do the things you want. Maybe you want to be a photographer or a director.' I don't want to be the father who's like the plumber that says, 'You have to be a plumber.'"

You're known as a vintner. Does winemaking give you as much pleasure as film-making?

“You know, I love wine, and I didn't mean to make it a business, but I got lucky because Americans, who didn't really drink wine, other than the immigrants, suddenly began to realise wine was healthy and good with food, and another source of pleasure. So I had this huge success by accident. But it doesn't compete with what I  always wanted my profession to be, which was a man who writes stories and makes films of them. I don't want to be a person who writes plays and directs plays. Maybe I could, and I was trained as a theatre person, but there isn't time and if I'm going to do any creative work, I want it to be in the cinema.”

Vincent Gallo has been very outspoken about things and he's a director now. What was he like to work with?

“I didn't know his work. I had heard that there was some guy who came to Cannes and everyone gave him trouble [for Brown Bunny], and then he was very outspoken, and he was sort of unpopular and controversial. I didn't know him and I didn't have someone to play Tetro, and someone in Argentina said, 'What about Vincent Gallo?' I said, 'Well, I don't know him.' I got his movie Buffalo 66, and I watched that, and I thought it was wonderful. But everyone, even my own casting colleagues, said, 'Oh, absolutely not. He will drive you crazy. He's a nightmare. He's unpredictable', all these terrible things. I said, 'Well I would like to meet him.' I had an opportunity to spend a few days with him and I found him intelligent and really funny. He says things that are provocative but a lot of them are really funny, and that's what he means. If you take him seriously then he's a terrible, terrible, terrible person. So when I made the choice to work with him, everyone went, 'Oh my God.' We shot this film in 60-70 days and he was always there, he was always helpful, he was always intelligent, he always had something good to offer. He brought a kind of vitality to his work. He tried to be truthful. He never would say a line that he felt he couldn't really say."

You mentioned the relationship between the artist and his work, and I wondered if you knew before going down to the Philippines to shoot Apocalypse Now what that was going to take out of you, would you have thought differently? Would you have had doubts?

“It's a very good point you make. When I make a film, the subject matter and the script I write is like a question, and I don't know the answer. I really don't. This would horrify any industrial business system because they don't want to invest. It's like we're going to invest in a machine, and we're going to put millions of dollars into a machine, and we don't know what the machine does. That's what a movie is like. At the end of the film, when it's all edited, if I began by asking a question, the end of the film is the answer. And that is not like anything that conforms with a business plan, or a business model, at all. It involves risk. But my job is to be nimble so that when I catch something as a result of this very uncertain process, I can somehow land the plane.”

Is that the same with films you don't direct, like Patton?

“Well I was about 24 when I wrote Patton. Yeah, I read a lot about General Patton and I felt that he wasn't just this macho war hero. He was learned, he was from the South, and he wrote poetry, studied history, and he was profane and vulgar, and yet he was also romantic. I took a lot of contradictory things and I said, 'Well, I'll just try to do something with this.' I wrote it and Burt Lancaster was going to play it, but I guess the studio didn't like the script because they didn't invite me to continue. It wasn't like a job where they fired me. I ended my contract, they paid me, and then they said, 'Good-bye.'"

What didn't they like?

“One of the things they hated was the opening. The middle-brow is very much stuck on little details like, 'You show him as a four-star General, with pearl handles, in front of the American flag, making a speech, and then the next minute he's a two-star General, and it's confusing.' So, basically, I was fired [laughs]. Years later, when George C. Scott did it, the director liked the script so he went and made it, and that was considered probably the best opening in any movie. So what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to do what they tell you and conform to that, or are you supposed to just do your best and put together contradictory things and make some sense out of it?”

What did you discover creating Tetro, because obviously it's a very personal work?

“I never knew that I felt that my brother had abandoned me when I was 13 or 14, which is the most vulnerable time for a boy who doesn't know anything about anything. I didn't know at that age about sex. I would never have imagined, in a million years, that the part of your body you use to pee with had anything to do with anything romantic, because I was a very romantic kid. I knew music and opera, and Romeo and Juliet, but I would never have imagined what that had to do with that. It still seems like an odd choice [laughs]. So I didn't have anybody to tell me. Once I asked my mother a question and she slapped me, saying, 'I'm going to tell your father what you said in front of his little wife.' So that's a very tricky time, 13 and 14."

So this realisation was new?

“Yes, I never realised he vanished. And he vanished for very practical reasons: my father used to sell our house and move, and he was always taking me out of school and putting me in another school. I went to 24 schools before I went to college. Honestly, six High Schools. What had happened, now I can figure it out, my brother, who was five years older than me, he was in High School and he was doing very well, so he refused to be taken out of school and he went to live with my grandmother. So, when I was aged 13 or 14, he sort of vanished, and I never understood it exactly. Psychologically, I guess I never looked at that. So here I am, almost 70 years old, making this movie, and what is it about? It's about a kid . . . [breaks off because he is becoming emotional. Tears are welling up in his eyes] It's about a kid who is trying to find his brother. And he says, 'You abandoned me.' Well, that was just a story. That was just a screenplay. But it must have been what I really felt.”

What did you learn about yourself and how were you changed by the experience of shooting Apocalypse Now? The documentary, Hearts of Darkness, featuring footage recorded by your wife, Eleanor, shows you apparently pushed to the limits of your physical and mental endurance.

“You know, one of the things that you've got to get about the press is that you get a very skewed version of reality. I never had a nervous breakdown on Apocalypse Now! I never went nuts or any of that stuff. That's just a good story. I was 32 years old and I was financing a $32 million movie by putting my house up, because I didn't have that kind of money. So I not only had the sweat of making a movie that I didn't know exactly what it was. Like I said, when I make a personal movie, I never know what the machine is supposed to do, but I follow my gut and I follow my intelligence and I do my best. Apocalypse Now was a movie, I think, about morality."

“There's a line that John Milius wrote, 'We teach the boys to drop fire on people, but we won't let them write the word “fuck” on their aeroplanes.' That is our culture, it totally doesn't make sense. What kind of crazy contradiction is that? That's what I learned from Apocalypse Now: that a guy could go from having been blessed with the success of The Godfather and go off and make a film about Vietnam and no one would touch it. When no studio would help him, and when none of his actors would join him, he ultimately put up his own money and made the movie, and then was damned by Variety for having done this as though it's absurd, and yet everyone applauds Superman, a man in a silly suit flying around. That's Apocalypse Now. That's what it was about. So that's what I learned, that we live in a world of incredible contradictions that everyone accepts.”

Do you ever think about giving up movies and doing something else?

“Every day. I am richer than I could ever spend the money I have unless every year I lose $15 million making movies that make people nervous. So, I say, 'What am I doing this for? Why don't I just go buy a yacht and get 10 girls to [pause] sing songs and have fun?' I can [smiles].”

© Stephen Applebaum , 2011

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