Descent into hell

Lawrence O’Toole August 27 1979

Descent into hell

Lawrence O’Toole August 27 1979

Descent into hell


Lawrence O’Toole

When he was a little boy Francis Coppola must have thought he saw glimpses of mountains that nobody else could see. He made movies with titles such as The Rich Millionaire and charged admission to them. Stricken with polio and confined to bed for a year, he played around with puppets and puppet theatre. When he was nine he wrote a letter to his mother that read, “Dear Mommy, I want to be rich and famous. I’m so discouraged. I don’t think it will come true.” Being Italian and Catholic, he must have heard somewhere that faith moves mountains; or in his case at least outlines them more clearly. He hitched himself to his ambition and, at 40, he is the most celebrated and controversial movie director alive.

After he had spent nearly two years in the Philippine jungle making his $31million Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now, he wrote a note to himself, which his wife, Eleanor, found. It read, in part: “My nerves are shot—My heart is broken—My imagination is dead. I have no self-reliance—But like a child just want someone to rescue me. . .” Last week, during the eleventh hour before the film’s release, he told Maclean's: “I

think modern film directors should be heroes. It always amazed me how people o are so applauding of a hero in sports « who is able to run a fraction of a second faster than someone else, or leap a little higher. It’s as though because it’s something you can measure with a stopwatch that you can say, ‘Ah, this man is truly a hero.’ But in the arts, people are so frightened to say, ‘Ah, this man is a hero.’ When they asked Sir Edmund Hillary why he climbed Mount Everest, he said, ‘Because it was there.’ I climbed a mountain that wasn’t there, which in my opinion is harder. All artists are basically trying to climb mountains they can’t see and that aren’t there.”

Back from the mountain, having bagged the biggest and most brilliant movie in American film history (see review, page 37), Coppola has become the easiest target going: the expense and breadth of the film, the publicity that proliferated around it and Coppola’s onthe-record dramatic disdain for things commonplace all combined to produce either envy or awe. To apply a metaphor he used in The Godfather, he looms as large as an outsized puppet dangling in a shooting gallery. Crazed genius he may be, but he’s news, and everyone wants a piece of the action. Everyone,

too, has an opinion about the gargantuan gamble he has taken: will Apocalypse Now gross the $70 million required to cover all its costs? Will Coppola’s personal fortune, won from his two Godfathers, either spent or mortgaged to make the film, be salvaged? And who does he think he is anyway?

Nothing energizes both the popular press and the popular imagination as much as the anticipation of disaster, the imminence of ruin—especially when the subject of possible ruin is elusive and can’t be easily explained. At a press conference in New York for 150 Canadian and American journalists, Coppola sat looking tense but tolerant, swatting stupid questions—a whale in a goldfish bowl. Hiding behind his shaded, hornrimmed glasses, he seemed the model of decorum, but was seething underneath. Eleanor Coppola had just published Notes, a revealing journal of the filming of Apocalypse, charting the disintegration of their marriage and Coppola’s

own physical and emotional dissipation. Someone asked what he thought of his wife’s frank memoirs; he replied with suppressed fury, “That is my business.” Afterward, in his suite, he asked how people could ask such questions. “Francis was really very hurt,” an associate said, “Why do people do that?”

One obvious reason is the impression fostered by the press that Coppola has an elephantine ego. Earlier in the year he broke the rules by showing Apocalypse as a work-in-progress at the Cannes festival—in competition. Unheard of. The film then shared the grand prize. Too much. To add insult to injury, Coppola called the U.S. press, “the most decadent, most unethical, most lying profession you can encounter.” Untenable. Now he says, “The press took some unfair and unjustified shots at me. I guess I was getting even.”

The movie business doesn’t appreciate outsiders and Coppola had severed himself from the Hollywood studio sys-

tem, building his own empire, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco. An upstart from the UCLA film school, he had, in the space of a few years, turned into a tycoon. In 1977 a memo from Coppola to his employees found its way into the i pages of Esquire, confirming the mon> ster myth: “This company . . . purely o and simply, it is me and my work . . . There is only one person in authority and that is me.” More damning memos have been circulated through offices in North America; Coppola’s happened to greet the public gaze.

Family, for Coppola, is sacred, and he guards his privacy greedily. But he’ll talk at length about his roots, where he comes from. Steeped in the Italian visual, musical and emotional tradition, he’s the leader of a pack of American film directors of Italian extractionMartin Scorsese, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma, Alfred Sole—who possess high-voltage style and obsessive vision. “It was something that I was, for one, raised with,” he says. “My father was always making chauvinistic remarks about how Italians were so great in the arts and that after all there was Leonardo da Vinci, et cetera. I think that feeling may have come from the fact that during his lifetime they were poor immigrants and trying to hold onto this great cultural tradition—so that they would have a lot of pride in being Italians.” Coppola is always quick to boast about his father, Carmine, playing flute for Toscanini, and claims that one of the happiest times of his life was when his father won an Oscar for scoring The

Godfather, Part II, itself a tribute to those Italian immigrants who stepped off the boat into a new country and a new century.

“I think also in my family—and I know Marty Scorsese’s pretty well— there was the warmth that you think of in the Italian family,” says Coppola. “There was also the dramatics and histrionics and family feuds . . . that may lend something in the formation of a picture director.” Strong family ties, the crippling effect of polio and the fact that the family moved 30 times because of his father’s career difficulties—all those things must have contributed to Coppola’s intense desire to prove himself—and write no more letters like the one he wrote his mother when he was nine.

He knew the path to power. In 1967 he told a magazine, “I pattern my life on Hitler in this respect. He didn’t just take over the country. He worked his way into the existing fabric first.” (The quote was quickly resurrected once the Apocalypse hoopla began.) He later clarified it: the only way to become independent of the industry was to achieve power in it. He quickly lunged at a small job for B-movie king Roger Corman, who was known to let eager and good workers have a crack at making movies—the result being Dementia 13, which had a $3 budget. (He also made a few soft-core porno flicks.) He became a crackerjack scriptwriter and surgeon, made “small” movies like You're a Big Boy Now and The Rain People, then Finian's Rainbow (it

bombed but made his name with the establishment). Having picked up his first Oscar for co-writing Patton, he got the directing job on another largerthan-life themed movie, The Godfather. Though he was on the verge of being fired every other week, and though everyone was convinced he didn’t know what he was doing with the material, he finally finished it and made movie history—for the first time. (His association and fascination with recording devices began with The Godfather: he used a taped improvisation by Brando to persuade Paramount to allow the actor, no Jonger a box-office draw, to play Don Corleone. Later he filmed a harrowing study of an electronic eavesdropper, The Conversation. One of the most affecting scenes in Apocalypse involves a tape and the movie itself is an advance in sound recording. Not granting interviews last week, he relented to a series of questions from Maclean's as long as he could send in the answers on tape.)

After The Godfather became the highest grossing movie in history, Coppola could set his own standards. Adopting a patronage system not unlike the Italian “favor” system, he nurtured young directors. When studios had

turned down George Lucas’ American Graffiti, Coppola was responsible for getting it distributed and launching Lucas’ (Star Wars) rocket-like career. John Milius, who drafted the first screenplay of Apocalypse, has called Coppola the “Bay Area Mussolini,” adding: “You cannot overemphasize the importance he has had. If this generation is to change American cinema, he is to be given the credit or the discredit.” Other people’s opinions of him (if you can get anyone to say anything) are ambiguous.

Having played padrone to talented young film-makers, though only in his 30s himself, and having copped three Oscars for producing, directing and writing Godfather II, he threw it all over—the extreme financial cosiness, the power and status—to risk everything on the film of his dreams. Not only that, the film would be about Vietnam when wounds hadn’t even begun to heal. It was such an extravagant, “mad” gesture it left Hollywood and environs reeling. The drama of making Apocalypse Now is more than amply documented: the typhoon destroying the set,

the heat, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, Coppola inviting suggestions from the public on how to end the movie and, finally, the release dates being shunted about until the joke was Apocalypse When?

When the day of judgment was at hand and the picture about to be released, he had the nerve to flaunt his achievement: “I’m real proud of Apocalypse Now. I think it’s really a beautiful film and I think it’s a more grandiose achievement than I had ever hoped for while working on it. The time was worth it. But I think I will always be making films that are a little out of my grasp.”

The awful truth, especially as far as the press is concerned, is that the man is a myth. It erected one myth around him and he erected another. The real, living and breathing Francis Coppola has become almost inviolate, which suits him just fine: “I’m tired of having my personal life spread out like melted butter. I’m tired of hearing whether I was crazy or not during the making of Apocalypse Now.” He simply wants to make movies. Angry over the whole movie system, when Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, James Caan and Ál Pacino all turned down roles in Apocalypse, he picked up his five Oscars in frustration and threw them out the window.

No stranger to the broad, operatic and luxurious gesture, he conducted a promotional campaign from a yacht in the harbor at Cannes. On the set in the Philippines for his birthday there was a cake six-feet-by-eight-feet. Yet, like the very rich, he can be incredibly scrupulous about money. The supreme slap in the face to Hollywood came earlier this year when he turned down an offer by MGM to direct a picture for $2 million plus a percentage of the profits—probably the largest fee ever offered a director. For his next project, an adaptation of Goethe’s Elective Affinities (“a very, very long film”), he has rented a house in Japan. He seems to be one of those people who live in the future tense.

Because he is, technically, the most advanced director of his time, Maclean’s asked him what a bad director lacks: “God, I never thought of that. I would say really that the director is nothing more than a voice-machine. He’s a guy out there who’s saying yes and no to this and that. When you’re making a film you’re always a million miles away from the finished film. [In the case of Apocalypse Now, 1.1 million feet of footage.] It takes a good conceptualizer to get that thing in his head so he knows what to say yes to and what to say no to.

“For me the greatest talents are the ability to conceptualize, the capacity to feel true emotion—great emotion—for a human being. Too many directors

think that too much of directing is how you set up the camera and how you stage the scene—that’s really pretty easy to do. The hard thing is to go into the netherworld of human behavior.” The self-made hero, the man who would be king (and is), looks again to the future: “I want to kinda get away from Apocalypse, get away from being merchandised by the hoopla surrounding the film. They made me into this colossal... I really felt like a fool in the way they chose to depict my work. If that changes and people like my film, then I’ll be merchandised as something else.” Apocalypse Now has been an ordeal and its life span, for Coppola, has run through. “My strong desire right now is to get away from the world of promotion and distribution of movies. Maybe even enjoy myself a little bit.” But he also said, “I would like to be able to make films that no one ever even thought of making.”

More mountains, and dragons.