Eleanor Coppola Opens Up About Directing a Film at Age 80 and Her Son's Tragic Death

Eleanor Coppola - P - 2016
Chloe Aftel

Twenty-five years after directing the 'Apocalypse Now' doc 'Hearts of Darkness,' the helmer is making her narrative feature debut with the autobiographical Toronto entry 'Paris Can Wait’ which sources say her nephew Nicolas Cage dropped out of. "I'm this housewife who suddenly decided to write and direct a film."

It all began with a cold. In 2009, Eleanor Coppola was accompanying her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, to the Cannes Film Festival when she fell ill and decided to stay behind and rest as he traveled on to Budapest. A French associate of Francis' offered to drive her to the Paris airport. But what should have been a seven-hour trip turned into a three-day adventure filled with wine, truffles and sweeping vistas. It jolted the then-73-year-old out of her everyday ennui. For while Coppola was an accomplished visual artist and Emmy-winning director in her own right, she had stifled many of her creative ambitions to nurture the filmmaking careers of her husband and children, Sofia, Roman and the late Gian-Carlo.

"It was just one of those experiences that you can only have in France, and it made such an impression on me," recalls Coppola while strolling the grounds of her Napa estate in Northern California. "I was telling a friend about it when I got back, and she said, 'That's a movie I want to see.' "

Her sybaritic (yet platonic) road trip became the genesis of Paris Can Wait, a romantic drama about a woman married to a Hollywood heavyweight who embarks on a three-day road trip with a flirty Frenchman.

From left: Baldwin, Lane and Viard in Paris Can Wait, which bows Sept. 12 at Toronto.

It's Coppola's narrative feature debut — at the age of 80. Although she isn't the oldest person to direct a first feature — that distinction belongs to Takeo Kimura, who was 90 when Dreaming Awake was released in 2008 — her accomplishment nonetheless is extraordinary. The film, which stars Diane Lane, Alec Baldwin and Arnaud Viard, premieres Sept. 12 in Toronto.

"I'm this housewife who suddenly decided she's going to write a film and actually direct it," she says of the late-life pivot. "It was terrifying, but part of the challenge was cutting through all of your fears and just going for it."

Admittedly, Coppola's career path has been nonlinear. Raised in Orange County by a homemaker mother and a father who was a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Examiner, she went to UCLA and met Francis while working as an assistant art director on his 1963 horror film Dementia 13. Not long after they began dating, the couple learned she was pregnant with Gian-Carlo and had a shotgun wedding in Las Vegas. As a young wife and mother, she made murals for restaurants and hotels. But the work petered out and Francis would take the family on location, so Coppola missed out on commissions.

"I grew up in the '40s and '50s, and a woman's role was to support her husband and make a nice home for him," she says. "I was frustrated that I didn't have much time to pursue my interests. Young women today have no concept of that. My daughter and her generation, and generations after that, they take for granted that they're going to do whatever is their calling. There's not going to be a question of their role or if they have to give it up because they're a wife and a mother."

But Coppola still found a way to feed her creativity while raising three children — first by penning the 1979 memoir Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now and then by co-directing the 1991 Showtime documentary Hearts of Darkness, an unvarnished look at the on-set madness of Francis' 1979 movie about Vietnam. Not surprisingly, Francis fought the idea of her making the film for more than a decade.

The director of Hearts of Darkness in 1979. 

"Even then when it came out, he was not happy because he felt like it made him look too out of control," she says of her Emmy-winning film. "But my reaction is it really shows the creative process and the depth of anguish that it can be. I think now he's gotten over it."

Holding a camera with one hand while guiding a child with the other became a satisfying balancing act for Coppola. She made four other docs, and not surprisingly, all three children pursued film — Sofia, 45, is the Oscar-nominated director of Lost in Translation and Roman, 51, the Oscar-nominated writer of Moonrise Kingdom.

Gian-Carlo was a budding producer, having worked on several of Francis' films, when he died in 1986 at age 22 in a high-profile boating accident. Griffin O'Neal, son of Ryan O'Neal and poised to star in Francis' Gardens of Stone, was piloting the boat. Coppola never has talked publicly about the tragedy.

"It was the most profound experience I ever had," she says. "It does just stop you in your tracks. What else can you do? You have to just go through that process of deep grief and let it sink to the bottom. … For Francis, I think it made him want to work harder, like he could kind of camouflage his pain."

O'Neal was charged with manslaughter and pleaded guilty to negligent operation of a boat. (He received an 18-day jail sentence for not performing community service as ordered.) But Coppola harbors no ill will. "I'm sorry that he had the upbringing that he had and life that he's had," she says. "He's suffered. I just had to really experience the whole thing in order to come back and go on in a productive way."

For Coppola, the slow path to self-discovery brought her full circle on Paris Can Wait. In 2015, she had raised the $5 million budget and was two weeks into production when her leading man fell through. She declined to name the actor, but sources say it was Nicolas Cage, her nephew. Baldwin came on, keeping the film together. "It was frustrating because it was an actor I had raised money on, but he was on a huge-budget film, and it was delayed and they wouldn't release him," she says. "It was a whole trauma."

Ultimately, she suppressed what she calls "anxiety attacks" and finished the film, a journey eight decades in the making.

As for her next move, Coppola is noncommittal. She just wrapped a short film that she shot on a lake in Northern California. She's mulling a series of watercolors. And though she's that rare octogenarian being asked about a follow-up feature, Coppola says she's not sure.

"I have the freedom to follow whatever is kind of urging me on, and I just go with that," she says. "I'm kind of amused that I did this, sort of laughing along, 'Cool, you did that?' " Adds Coppola, laughing: "Anyway. To be continued."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.