Francis Ford Coppola marked his return to Comic-Con after a 20-year absence with a funny, weird and experimental showcase for his new movie Twixt to an appreciative crowd that nearly filled Hall H. On stage with the veteran filmmaker were one of the film’s stars, Val Kilmer, and musician Dan Deacon, who provided live musical accompaniment to much of the presentation.
A nattily dressed Coppola walked in to a brief standing ovation and, ever genial, asked for lights on the crowd so he could see them better. Deacon described the project they were going to discuss as “a good weird,“ while a long-haired Kilmer declared, “We’re all going to see something that has never been seen before.”
In his later years, Coppola has focused on engaging with cinema in the purest means possible, writing, directing, producing and self-financing independent films big on risk-taking if low on box office appeal. From the evidence on display Saturday at Comic-Con, Twixt extends these efforts.
A Gothic romance with elements of horror, Twixt found its inspiration in dreams Coppola had about ghostly orphan girls and Edgar Allen Poe, the filmmaker told the crowd. But its execution has everything to do with recapturing the feel of live performance and incorporating 3D in the way Coppola feels it’s best suited: sparingly, intermittently.
“Most art is canned and recorded now,” said Coppola, genial as ever. “Why do movies have to be canned? There is a yearning for the live to be put back in cinema.”
Coppola said that his journey toward Twixt began 14 months earlier, after watching Avatar. He admitted that he only put the 3D glasses on for certain sequences during the film, preferring to watch most of the movie without them. “Some good sequences should be in 3D,” he said, but not all of them. As a historical reference, he mentioned the restored version of the silent film Napoleon that played with live performances of the score composed by his father, Carmine Coppola—including at Radio City Music Hall in 1981—in a Polyvision format that sprung the movie onto three screens for certain sequences.
He has designed Twixt to play to a similar effect. So the ten minutes of promotional footage Coppola brought to show the crowd indicated on-screen when it was appropriate to put on the 3D cutout Poe masks attendees were handed upon entering. (On the back of the mask were the film’s main credits, a trick Coppola said he tried out on Apocalypse Now more than 30 years earlier.)
What the audience saw was an impressionistic reel short on scares but heavy on atmosphere and stylized suspense. Kilmer plays a third-rate pop fiction writer who comes to a small town for a signing and gets sucked into a mystery about a murder. Bruce Dern plays a creepy local lawman who pitches the “third-rate Stephen King” on the story of the killing for a new book, and Elle Fanning floats through as what may or may not be a ghost. Meanwhile, the imagery includes a collection of Gothic tropes: a belfry/clocktower with seven faces, a looming moon, motel rooms, a morgue, ghostly children, the sound of crows, dark woods and a cult-like bonfire. Some of the footage had a deliberately cheesy feel while other scenes provoked tension including a nifty 3D shot of Kilmer pushing through hanging plastic to approach a covered body on a slab. The suspense is definitively amped up by the jump to 3D and strangely subverted by comic bits, such as a montage of Kilmer’s character struggling to write that includes the line: “I’m typing as a gay basketball player from the ‘60s.”
“I’ve always loved the Gothic romance story, the horror story,” said Coppola, who worked with Roger Corman early in his career. The filmmaker recalled working as a camp counselor as a youth and taking the opportunity to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the 9-year-olds in his charge late at night. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Poe are all influences on the new film, he said.
What Coppola said he really wants to do is go on tour with the film for a month before it opens and perform it new for each audience, like opera. To explain what he meant, Coppola exhibited the interface on his laptop that allows him to mix and shuffle scenes, lengthen or shorten them, while Deacon does the same with the score. Each audience would then get an original performance of the film.
The two of them then ran through a “dress rehearsal” during which they re-mixed the footage and tried different music, with stops and false starts as Coppola fumbled with his laptop (the Isadora software he was using was developed by his Zoetrope company) and prompted a series of good-natured chuckles from the audience. Coppola himself filled in on the early narration that Tom Waits does in the film. That sequence ended with a funny ad-lib jam while Coppola chanted “Nosferatu” and Kilmer slipped in some “ride the snake” lyrics. (Which reminded me how much listening to the Doors is like watching a horror film.)
Coppola’s unabashed joy in taking risks and bringing the audience along was evident, and he said that in writing the project, “I wanted it to have some of my blood in it.”
In answer to a question about whether he’d want to work on bigger projects again, Coppola said, “I’d like to work with a bigger budget but with the same economies. I’m getting older, and there are some things I still want to express on a larger canvas.” He claimed that he’s currently working on a new script for a larger-scale movie.
Coppola went on to make a passionate case for how, as such a young art form, “cinema has many more surprises up its sleeve.” He said that 3D is no “magic fix,” despite what some studio execs say, but that there would be many more innovations in the coming decades.
The penultimate question concerned an issue many cineastes worry about: whether Coppola would be sure that, in an age of endless remakes and reboots, he would never let anyone redo The Godfather. Somewhat sadly, Coppola admitted that since he made the film at age 29, he holds no claim on the rights and that Paramount could do as it wished.
“It’s a pity,” he said of the culture of the rehash. “That money could go into investing in new stories for new times.”