FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, the director of the Godfather films appears at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 10 for a screening of his new film Tetro (it opens at select theaters nationwide the next day). The movie follows a teenager (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) and his attempt to bond in Buenos Aires with the titular older brother (Vincent Gallo, scheduled to appear at SIFF as well) who mysteriously deserted their family years earlier. It features Coppola’s 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 detailed in a recent interview the hazards of bringing a personal piece to cinematic life.
Is it harder to direct something that you’ve written because you’re so close to it? That’s a very tricky question to answer. It’s easier in some ways because the filmmaking process is extremely tedious and filled with long hours. You’re dealing all day long with a lot of problems: the police won’t let you shoot on the street, it’s raining, etc. So if it is the type of film you’ve always wanted to make it’s easier to get through all of the impediments. If you’re making a film and it’s just a job and you’re doing it so that everyone can make money—including yourself—then, in a way, those difficulties become, Oh my god, how did I ever get into this job?
On the other hand, 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. For that part, it’s difficult—only because the reason you’re doing it is to have some sort of realization or fulfillment.
Now that you’ve finished the film, what do you think it reveals about yourself? And was there anything you saw that you weren’t expecting? I have learned some things about myself that I didn’t know. So much of the story is about a younger brother who idealized an older brother and then the older brother vanished, so he was orphaned by his hero. I have an older brother, and my brother was always good to me from day one. But now that I understand the film, I’ve learned that perhaps I did feel that when he had to go off I really felt like he left me. He left me at a very vulnerable time.
How old were you? I would say he had to leave when I was around 13 or so—and he was so handsome and girls loved him. When he went to movies he took me with him, even though I didn’t understand them. He gave me books I didn’t understand. He was such a great brother—then he vanished. I knew why. The truth was, he was doing very well in high school and my father had this habit of just selling our house and moving us to another neighborhood. So my brother would have gone to another high school. He refused and went to stay with my grandmother.
But I never put two and two together until I wrote this fictional story where the kid says, “You left me!” Again, the story is not at all what really happened but I now understand some of my emotions from those days.
I had a Catcher in the Rye experience when I ran away from military school and was 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.
Then you finally got caught? Yeah, that’s a whole other story. In fact, I went to my brother, who was married at that time, and when I told him what I’d been doing—I was hiding out from my father, who’d be furious at my leaving school because he’d have to pay for it—my brother said, Here, read this book, and gave me The Catcher in the Rye.
Didn’t you have Alden Ehrenreich audition by reading from that? I did. When I didn’t want the script to get out and people to see what I was doing, I just had him read a part right out of the book.
I know you auditioned him several times. What did you need to see in him? Well, I was looking for a real 17- or 18-year-old, for one thing. Often in movies, they have guys who are 25 playing the 18-year-old. And I wanted a magic vulnerability and yet great promise and a haunting quality. I wanted someone who had elements of James Dean, what Paul Newman had when he was 18, what Montgomery Clift had.
I think people are going to be surprised about your casting Vincent Gallo, who has a reputation for being a little strange. Well, he’s got a really peculiar sense of humor that I don’t think a lot of people understand. I think Vincent is very funny, very intelligent. But, yes, everyone said, What are you doing? I said, He’s got the mystery that this character has to have. And the thing is—he was fabulous. He worked hard, he was always fun, he was always contributing, he was always struggling to try to be real. Whatever he did, he wanted it to be believable and reconcile it with himself. This story related to him. I normally don’t have trouble with actors, anyway, because actors only give you trouble when they are in a situation where they feel insecure. We had a couple of weeks’ rehearsal where everyone could just kind of fail together and not worry that we did something bad that was filmed. At the end of that we all enjoyed being with each other and established a way of working that was fine.
Do you have a personal favorite of your own films? I always liked The Conversation because it was an original story. I respect and admire writers. Anyone who can write a story is just a magician, as far as I’m concerned. I tend to feel more toward the films I cooked up from nothing. And of my more well-known films I very much feel that way about Godfather II—that was almost like an original screenplay because a lot of the story wasn’t in the book and I had to make it up.
You’ve made a lot of personal films, but there are also works that get classified as your “director-for-hire” movies. I wonder if you divide them up that way—because some of those for-hire films are great. When you do projects that are jobs, you try to fall in love with them. You can’t do cinema without using your heart—that would either make a horrible film or it would be a horrible experience. So you try to find something. This is a bad analogy but…if I were a hooker, I’d say, “Well, he’s got nice hair” or “He has kind eyes” or “He’s a gentleman.” You know, I’d_ find something_ that made it possible to do such an intimate act with a stranger. A director approaching somebody else’s script for a job that they’re going to pay him money to do has to do the same thing.
I’ve always loved your 1992 take on Dracula with Gary Oldman as the Count. What brought you to that? When someone offered me the chance to do Dracula I was sort of broke, just trying to put myself back together. It’s the movie that got me back on my feet.
I had a funny connection to Dracula. I used to be a camp counselor for these cute little nine-year-old boys and I really had lots of fun. I used to read them to bed at night with Bram Stoker’s Dracula so I sort of felt that I knew it, having it read it page by page, more than perhaps other people who said they knew it. I always felt the real story wasn’t entirely told. I figured since Dracula was written about a hundred years ago, the same time that the cinema was born, maybe I could make it with the kinds of effects that the early film magicians used—all in the camera—and give it a style, which my son Roman helped me with.
The surreal scene with Lucy sleepwalking through a storm in a flowing red dress then submitting herself to a hulking beast was certainly worth the price of admission. That movie is, like many of my things, sometimes over-the-top. I fall in love with an idea. It was a very unusual style for a movie to be made in, but it worked. There are people who love it—and I like it, too—but there are people who hate it, so you never know. 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.
Okay: Everybody has their favorite scene from The Godfather—what’s yours? I like the scene with Brando and the little kid and then he dies in the tomato garden—because the studio had forbidden me to shoot that but I shot it, anyway. It was a low-budget picture and they said, When you cut to the funeral everybody’s going to know he’s dead so why do you have to show him dead? So they took it out of the schedule. Just before lunch I secretly set it up with two cameras and did it.
And I think the way the ending was designed to put 20 pages of the book into one cinematic sequence—cutting together all the murders, where he becomes the Godfather—was a pretty nice sequence.