MAKING A MOVIE HURTS, according to director Francis Ford Coppola. The man behind the Godfather films appears at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 10 for a screening of his new film Tetro, which features his first original screenplay since the 1974 classic The Conversation (also on the fest schedule). Although he survived the notorious behind-the-scenes chaos of Apocalypse Now, Coppola swears that bringing a personal piece to cinematic life has its hazards. Yes, it’s easier to bear long hours when you’re working on something close to your heart. “On the other hand,” he said during a phone interview, “it’s harder to make a personal film because you’re dealing with themes that you’ve probably chosen because you don’t entirely understand them. You’re asking a question about your guts—and the only way to know the answer is to get in there and really stir around, which is not only painful but is almost like an autopsy. In a sense, you’re doing that while you’re still alive.”
That explains his film’s definite ouch factor; the movie feels like an artist’s earnest attempt to heal an open wound.
It begins with Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager arriving in Buenos Aires in search of his older brother Tetro (Vincent Gallo). While Bennie was still just a worshipful child, Tetro deserted the family and his writing career for mysterious reasons. The fraught relationship between the two siblings resonated with Coppola after the movie was finished—more than he expected it would while writing it. At 13, Francis was separated from his older brother. Their father, a composer, moved the whole family to a new neighborhood. (In the film, Tetro’s partriarch, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, is a conductor.) Rather than change high schools, Francis’s brother stayed behind with their grandmother. “I’ve learned that perhaps I did feel that when he had to go off I really felt like he left me,” Coppola said. “He left me at a very vulnerable time.”
Still, Coppola makes clear that his fictional story wasn’t inspired by any real-life strife. He did, however, have his own trials: He once ran away from military school to spend time “just wandering around New York City with the $200 I got from the uniforms I sold to some cadet whose brother was coming to school the next year.”
Such youthful recklessness informs Tetro, particularly in Ehrenreich’s puppy-dog interplay with Gallo. Coppola is still pushing himself, still experimenting—present-day scenes are shot in black and white, with color sequences saved for flashbacks. And the movie doesn’t shy away from flourishes like dream ballets best attributed to the director’s self-professed “over-the-top” tendencies. “I fall in love with an idea,” he admitted. “I think some people judge movies by how similar they are to the prototype of what a movie’s supposed to be in their head. They don’t like it when movies venture off into their own territory. I love it when a movie runs off into its own territory.”