Films

Godfather in court

The legendary film-maker takes on John Grisham

Brian D. Johnson November 24 1997
Films

Godfather in court

The legendary film-maker takes on John Grisham

Brian D. Johnson November 24 1997

Godfather in court

The legendary film-maker takes on John Grisham

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Films

Francis Ford Coppola filming a John Grisham novel? An airport book? It sounds like another alarming sign of the times, like a Bob Dylan song turning into a jingle for a bank. Another sellout in the fading career of a legendary director. Consider the evidence. Coppola has not made a great movie since the 1970s, when he directed four groundbreaking masterpieces: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. In the 1990s, his directing has been downright erratic. First, there was the melodramatic failure of The Godfather Part III, which played like a tortured parody of its predecessors. In 1992, with the blood-drenched costume ball of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Coppola’s sagging fortunes received a much-needed transfusion. But last year, he scraped bottom again with Jack, a contrived fable scorned by critics and ignored by audiences. In light of the evidence, Coppola’s latest movie, The Rainmaker, looks suspiciously like an act of commercial desperation, a response to an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

Surprise.

The Rainmaker is Coppola’s finest movie since... well, since the 1970s. And although it is by no means in the same league as his masterpieces, it is directed with the poise of a master who has recovered his balance. It is also the best John Grisham movie to date. Considering the others—The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, A Time to Kill and The Chamber—that may seem like a dubious distinction. But in Coppola’s hands, Grisham’s material acquires uncharacteristic dignity and depth. The Rainmaker is also the first

Grisham movie that is not a thriller. Set in Memphis, Term., it is the story of an idealistic law student cutting his teeth in the legal system, a kind of courtroom coming-of-age drama.

Coppola says he picked up the book out of curiosity before boarding a vacation flight to France. “In the airport, I saw all these thousands of copies of The Rainmaker,” he recalled during a recent interview. “And I thought, enviously, ‘What does this guy know that I should learn? How do you come up with a story that all these people seem to want to read?’ So I bought the book, and I had a pen, and I was fully planning to underline it, much as I had done with The Godfather—what makes this tick?” Coppola ended up finishing the book on the flight. “When I was done, I thought, ‘Gee, that would be a movie the studios would want to do—as you well know, there are movies that they pay you for, and then there are movies that, not only do they not pay you, but you have to find financing.”

Sitting in a Toronto hotel room, Coppola, 58, looks artfully rumpled in a black suit, canary yellow shirt and a tie with “FILM” printed all over it. He has a patriarchal authority to him, undercut by a boyish way of explaining things in the most rudimentary terms, as if he considers the complexity of the world vastly overrated. Coppola does not appear to relish interviews, which inevitably involve taking stock of a career that has embraced both triumph and disaster. And just as he has resisted the factory style of studio production, he seems rankled by the assembly-line rigor of a studio promotion. In fact, earlier this month, although he allowed Paramount Pictures to host a massive publicity junket at his winery in California’s Napa Valley, right next to his family home, he declined to make himself available to most of the visiting media.

Coppola adheres to the Old World philosophy that civilized activity—whether making wine, movies or conversation—should not be rushed. The last time we met, for a leisurely talk seven years ago at the Napa winery, he seemed weighed down by melancholy. Having just completed The Godfather Part III, and perhaps anticipating failure, he revealed how prone he was to depression and embarrassment. As a filmmaker in what he called “the third act” of his life, he seemed more worried than ever about living up to his potential—“I’ve always been promising,” he sighed.

Now, he still talks like a man with an unfulfilled dream. And although he works within the studio system, he rails against its onservatism. ‘The name of the game toay is making money,” he says. “Everyody respects people who make money, nd you’re ridiculed if you do something ut of line. Nobody likes to be ridiculed or ssociated with folly. Everybody wants to lide and be hip and successful, which neans making money.”

In the past, of course, Coppola’s passion or spending money has got him in deep rouble. The nightmarish chaos of filming 1pocalypse Now in the Philippine jungle alnost destroyed him. And his 1982 musical antasy, One From the Heart, left the »roducer-director $25 million in debt. But Coppola’s career mirrors the times with un:anny accuracy—personifying the insanity >f the 70s, the spendthrift dreams of the 30s, and then the economic recovery of the 10s. Now he is, once again, a bankable filmnaker, and his winery, Niebaum-Coppola, is hriving. “My family has been so successful n the wine business,” he says, “that they can ive off it forever. Basically that’s removed ne from having to make money any more, o whatever I make on The Rainmaker I can »low on personal films. And all you need are hose first few million dollars to plunk down >n a project.”

In fact, for his next movie Coppola is ready o tempt fate once again. “I’d like to tackle an »riginal piece on the scale of Apocalypse 'low," he says, revealing only that it will »e “a contemporary piece that tries to unterstand the big issues of our time, how to reate a good society and reconcile those ontradictions between the artist and busilessperson, the rich and the poor.” Then he dds: “What I would most love is to try to hed light on our times in the way La Dolce 7ita did for the Sixties.”

Coppola is one of American film’s most esilient moralists. In an age when cinenatic fashion is dictated by the giddy nililism of Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights, he till clings to old-fashioned ideals of simple teroism. Even The Rainmaker—a trans»arently commercial property, not a peronal film—has an immense warmth. Above all,” he says, “I wanted this movie to lave a good heart.”

[ronically, at a time when AÍ Pacino, Coppola’s Michael Corleone, is playing the lawyer from hell in Devil’s Advocate, 'oppola offers up a movie that tries to reteem the legal profession. Matt Damon, a elatively unknown but extremely talented oung actor, stars as Rudy Baylor, a lawchool graduate with strong ideals and mbitions. Hungry for work, he signs on as n ambulance chaser with a sleazy Memihis lawyer named Bruiser (Mickey tourke), a flamboyant hustler who invests n strip clubs and keeps a fishtank of small harks behind his desk.

As Bruiser’s corrupt law firm folds, Rudy soon strikes off on his own, taking with him Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), an unscrupulous ferret who helps guide him through the tangled thickets of the Memphis legal system. If Rudy is the gallant young knight, Deck is his comic sidekick, a para-legal Sancho Panza. And their crusade is a Davidand-Goliath battle against a large and stereotypically evil insurance company, which has cruelly refused to pay a medical claim to a young man dying of leukemia.

In the line of duty, Rudy comes to the rescue of several damsels in distress, including the leukemia victim’s shattered mother (Mary Kay Place) and an elderly widow (Teresa Wright) who makes Rudy her executor, her tenant and her yard boy. But the most distressed damsel is a brutally abused young wife named Kelly Riker (Claire Danes), and rescuing her from her husband’s clutches becomes as big a priority as slaying the insurance company.

At face value, the story’s elements appear clichéd. The Rainmaker is an utterly conventional narrative, keeping a solid white line between good and evil. But Coppola, who wrote ;he screenplay, elevates the material with an ?ye for emotional detail, and a quiet directing style that leaves the actors room to breathe. Damon has terrific appeal, and it was wise aot to cast a star in the role of an unknown lawyer making his name. DeVito, meanwhile, adds comic relief without going over the top. Acting through a mess of bandages and bruises, Claire Danes (My So-Called Life, Romeo and Juliet) manages to keep her character from dissolving in pathos. And a gallery of rich supporting roles includes Jon Voight as the insurance company’s high-priced lawyer, Roy Scheider as his reptilian boss and Danny Glover as the judge.

Coppola says he took pride in adapting Grisham’s expansive novel without losing any of the minor characters. “That was the real challenge,” he says, adding that the author gave him a free hand. Grisham’s name lends a film enormous marquee value, but it comes with a catch. “When he sells a book,” Coppola explains, “he controls the casting, he controls the writing. Grisham is a formidable guy. He’s a lawyer and a bright, charming, attractive young man.” Coppola recalls that he sent the author a first draft of the script with some trepidation, but Grisham was so grateful for its fidelity that “he just said, ‘Hey, do what you want You know how to do it better than I do.’ ” The movie cost about $40 million (U.S.), according to Coppola. But he hastens to add that acquisition of the book ate up a big part of the budget. Certainly, the film shows no sign of the director’s legendary extravagance. There is one scene, however, that serves as a showpiece of directing and editing reminiscent of The Godfather—a solitary fight sequence that explodes from the civilized calm of the film with electrifying intensity.

With The Rainmaker, Coppola says, he put the priority on the acting. “If you’ve been around sets, you’ll notice how someone will come over and whisper to the cinematographer and they’ll point to some light or something. Or the sound guy will say, ‘I’m hearing a refrigerator.’ And they’ll stop for an hour to diddle around with this thing. So I joked that on this movie we’d have the ‘acting department.’ ” In fact, there was an acting coach on the set, and Coppola encouraged her to whisper in his ear whenever she thought the performances could go deeper. “She’d come over, and I’d say, ‘All right, we’ll take 40 minutes and do improvs.’ This is the first time in a movie I’ve seen this.”

After 36 years in the business, Coppola still considers himself a pioneer. As a young film-maker, he was fascinated with gadgetry, and was one of the first to predict that digital technology would take over the making and editing of movies. But now, dismayed at how technology has become a crutch, he talks of rediscovering the basics. “For myself,” he says, “it’s time to go back to writing—which is why we’ve published this short story magazine.” Coppola slides over a copy of Zoetrope, the new journal of short fiction named after his San Francisco-based production company. “Perhaps the screenplay is the wrong format to approach stories and characters,” he says, suggesting that literary fiction may be a better starting point. “If you read a screenplay, sometimes you have to get halfway through it before you know there isn’t any story. Writing is the fundamental element. It’s the writing that attracts the acting.”

Coppola is still playing the oracle. The days of the Hollywood studio system, with its cynical franchises and inflated budgets, are numbered, he insists, and a new generation of passionate young film-makers will take over. “It’s sort of like Rudy Baylor in this movie. He wants to be a lawyer because law’s a noble profession. They want to practise cinema. My prediction is, in four years they will reach their power. Mainly because of this generation, I feel optimistic.” Then, with a look of resignation, he adds: “But if you’re not going to feel optimistic about this generation, what else are you going to feel optimistic about?” □