Q&A: Francis Ford Coppola

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CANNES -- At age 70, Francis Ford Coppola, a double Palme d'Or winner, says his career is finally where he always wanted to be: He's filming his own original screenplays without interference from financiers. With "Tetro," he focuses on two brothers, sons of a musical tyrant: One, played by Vincent Gallo, long ago fled his family and, possibly, his calling as an artist; the other, played by newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, is looking to re-establish a sibling bond. Coppola talked with The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Kilday about the latest turn in his storied career, the glories of filming in black and white and why he turned down an invitation from the Festival de Cannes in favor of the Directors' Fortnight.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How did "Tetro" begin?

Francis Ford Coppola: Around the time I was writing "The Conversation" or really even before that with "The Rain People," I was really anxious to be a writer-director more in the style of those films. I did have a germ of an idea, maybe half a page back in that time when I was just focused on writing original screenplays. It was just a germ of a kid coming back from the Navy, going back to Detroit where he had this mysterious older brother who stared into lightbulbs. That's as far as I had gotten. So when I launched this new aspect of my career doing more personal films -- the experience of doing "Youth Without Youth" had proven to me that I could make a film on a budget that I could afford to self-finance -- I wanted to take it more to original story material. I came across this intriguing little half-a-page and remembered it. I wanted to so something personal, something emotional inspired by American playwrights like Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, who always seemed to have their personal lives caught up in their work. So I started work on the half-a-page, and it just started to flow. Moving it from Detroit to Buenos Aires wasn't important as long as the older brother had gone off to somewhere where no one knew where he was. So that's how it happened.

THR: The film has been described as semi-autobiographical. Are you comfortable with that? The actual plot points don't match up with your own family.

Coppola:  Well, I've always denied it. It's totally fiction. The father in the film is kind of a monster more in keeping with "Desire Under the Elms" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." He's more of a mythological Greek tragedy father in competition with his sons. My father was nothing like that. I think when you write from personal experience, you kind of play all the parts yourself, so I kind of see that I'm the kid who ran away from military school, but I'm also the older brother and also the father. You tend to be all the characters. They are different aspects of yourself.

THR: Was setting the film in Buenos Aires a financial or artistic decision?

Coppola: The part that's financial: I needed to find a place where I could get a co-production set up where the U.S. dollar had a little oomph. But it could have been many places. I wanted to choose a place where there is an intellectual tradition of great writers. And Buenos Aires also has a fantastic theatergoing tradition. It seemed to be a city that would be fun, because when I make these films I really make 100% of the film there. I do the postproduction there, everything. So it means I've got to be really living there for a year. So it comes down to do I like the food, do I want to learn the language? There are many choices going into it. But I think most important is that it's a place where there's a great artistic tradition, whether it be wonderful actors, whether there be theater or music going on there.

THR: How did you come to cast Vincent Gallo, who's developed a certain notoriety?

Coppola: I didn't know him at all. Regarding that role, I had originally written it for Matt Dillon. It turned out, because of scheduling, he couldn't come down. That was a blow. I was thinking about different choices, and somebody in Buenos Aires suggested Vincent Gallo, because they really know his work there -- "Buffalo 66," what have you. I looked into it and thought this guy is perfect. He has that mystery, that iconic face. I saw his films and liked them very much. I was told he was a difficult person to work with, but I arranged to spend a week with him, and I found him super-intelligent. Maybe the controversy around him is because of his sense of humor. And in the course of making it, I found him very hard-working. A perfect actor/collaborator. I thought, my God, why haven't people seen him. He brings a level of reality to his work that is always true.

THR: While "Tetro" is very cinematic, it also has a certain stage quality. The scenes in Tetro's apartment almost seem as if they are framed by a proscenium arch.

Coppola: Not only in those scenes, but every shot in the film -- as was true with my last film -- the camera never moves. You look in the corner of the frame of any movie, you will see it is constantly adjusting and moving. In this film, it is rock steady, because, in fact, there is no operator. These are framed images, and everything is done through the structure of the editing. I don't think you notice, when you see the film, the extreme to which the camera doesn't move. It moves about seven times in the entire film -- when people are moving or when there's a dramatic moment. This is, over the years now, a style that I feel comfortable with -- a little reaction to contemporary movies where the camera is moving around so much I get seasick. It's more of an offshoot of the way we shot "The Godfather," where it was a very classic style where the camera didn't move at all. Everything was tableaux. Or the Japanese filmmaker Ozu, who at the end of his career decided that if you don't move the camera, then all the movement within the frame is more exciting, people's entrances and exits.

THR: With the exception of the flashbacks, you chose to film in black and white. Why?

Coppola: Black and white is a very beautiful medium. We have years of extraordinary black-and-white photography, because unlike color films, where the colors themselves provide the levels and separations of the images, black and white you have to light to be modeled or to bring out the shades of grey, the different planes. So there's a certain beautiful photography in that tradition that's just been 100% lost because some television executives 10 years ago said they wouldn't pay as much for black-and-white films on television as they do for color. It's just an absurd prejudice, just like for years they didn't want subtitles until "Crouching Tiger" broke that myth. So here's that whole aspect of motion picture cinematography, black and white, that directors aren't even allowed to suggest unless in the case of "Schindler's List" an important director like Steven (Spielberg) says I'm shooting in black and white and that's it. I wanted to work in black and white because it felt right for this story -- using color, in contrast to black and white in the past sequences.

THR: You've been coming to Cannes for more than 40 years -- "You're a Big Boy Now" was In Competition in 1967. Why did you turn down an out-of-competition slot this year in favor of the Directors' Fortnight?

Coppola: They had a lot of movies this year at Cannes. I'm sure they had their hands full juggling all the important directors -- they're all going, Almodovar, Tarantino, you name it. They had a million directors, and they only have 20 slots. They kindly offered me the same kind of gala they did for "Apocalypse Redux" a few years ago. But I felt this is such a personal independent film, to go there as a gala ... I just wanted to be considered as a personal filmmaker who's made a new film. When they couldn't offer me that, I said I'd rather not go. Four days later, I got a letter from the Fortnight saying may we see the picture. I said sure, and they were very enthusiastic and asked if it could open the Fortnight, and I agreed.

THR: You're also releasing the film yourself in the U.S. on June 11. Why take on that responsibility?

Coppola: That was only because I wanted to come out in the spring. The independent film philosophy is to release these little films, more personal or independent films, at the end of the year. They all get crowded into this notion of the three weeks before there might be awards. I wanted to come out in the spring or very early summer. In fact, the date June 11 is my father's birthday. I didn't want to show it, unfinished, to independent distributors, such as there are left. So I thought "what do I need that for?" I can just announce the date and go through all the preparations. When it shows in Cannes, if some distributor wants to join forces with me, they can. But at least the die is cast. I'm very glad I did. We have our theaters and we have our trailer and it's all getting great response. Also, I don't want to spend the next six months doing PR for this film. I'm really anxious to once again be writing. By the film coming out in the first half of the year, I'm free to go on to new work.

THR: You talk as if you're career has almost come full circle.

Coppola: I've obviously been around a long time, but I've always felt frustrated. I'm sitting here and in a month or so I'll be done, and I can go on to this new thing I've been thinking about. It's very exciting for me. The idea that I can just make it, and I don't have to go beg some company. It's that whole anxiety that filmmakers have that if they don't do a genre movie or a thriller or have a huge star in it, then they can't even make movies. For me, it's a blessing that I can have the kind of career I wanted when I was younger -- to write original stories if I can make them economically, cleverly.
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