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Nattily dressed in a white suit and red socks brighter than any wine from his Napa vineyard, an avuncular writer-director-producer-executive and, yes, vintner Francis Ford Coppola entered the auditorium to a standing ovation and held forth in a “Conversation With” in the closing hours of the 2014 Produced By conference.
Asked by interlocutor Hawk Koch to describe how he juggled his many roles, immediate past president of the conference presenter, the Producers Guild of America, Coppola offered an anecdote: He had set up a scene to be shot on a Monday for The Godfather: Part II that involved a reunion of Corleone family members from the first film, celebrating the birthday of the family patriarch. Over the weekend, he learned that Marlon Brando, dissatisfied with his paycheck on the first outing, had canceled. What to do?
“The producer of me went to the director of me,” said Coppola, “and he said, talk to the writer.” That was Coppola too, of course. The writer banged out some new pages and managed to write around the star’s absence. The result, in Coppola’s opinion, was better for the adversity.
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The multihyphenate addressed the fact that many of his films underperformed initially and were not immediately considered critical successes. Mixed reaction “is a terrible thing,” he said. How terrible? Consider this: After a poor distributor screening of Apocalypse Now, Coppola gathered his team and burst into song for them:
“A good movie we haven’t got!
A good director we haven’t got!
A good writer we haven’t got!
But we got heart!”
As might be evident from the anecdote, Coppola started in theater. In any event, he saved the film by cutting over a half hour. Years later, he stumbled upon the movie on TV in England and watched it through. “I thought, ‘This movie isn’t so weird,’ ” he said. That led to a rerelease with the cut footage restored.
One film that did quite well was, of course, The Godfather, a blockbuster. But ironically, Coppola was — at least at first — an unwilling participant. “I didn’t want to make The Godfather,” he said. “I needed the money. It was a job.” He said he adapted the book “slavishly.”
Sounding more like a writer-director and less like a producer, Coppola went on to address the state of film today. “For the most part, [big movies] are less beautiful and less imaginative. They’re dead on arrival.”
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But that won’t kill art, he assured a full house at the Steven J. Ross Theater on the Warner Bros. lot. “The cinema is too important and too unstoppable that mere industry realities are going to stop it.”
Coppola punctuated the interview with encomiums to his filmmaking family — sister Talia Shire, daughter Sofia Coppola and son Roman Coppola — and shoutouts to those who were in attendance, including his wife of over 50 years, Eleanor Coppola.
He sketched a vision for cinema’s future that wasn’t centered on technology such as 3D for its own sake but instead focused on innovation in screenwriting. Still, technology too offers interesting possibilities, Coppola said. With digital cinema, “you could do Lawrence of Arabia live,” he offered — clarifying, somewhat, by acknowledging that elements would be prerecorded and that he wasn’t proposing that the horses, for instance, actually be live.
Exactly what “live cinema” might look like wasn’t clear, but it didn’t matter. For most in attendance, spending an hour on a Sunday afternoon with Coppola was exactly the live event they wanted.
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