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“A director is asked a thousand questions a day, so if you have a single theme unifying your movie you can deal with all the details,” is one of many tidbits that director Francis Ford Coppola offered up during a sold-out master class at the Lumière Festival in Lyon, where he was on hand to receive the fest’s 10th annual Prix Lumière.
“In The Conversation, the theme was privacy. In The Godfather movies, it was succession. And in Apocalypse Now, it was morality,” the 80-year-old Coppola explained to a packed auditorium of students and fans, who were able to ask him questions during the second half of a near two-hour session moderated by Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux and veteran French film critic Michel Ciment.
Revisiting his body of work, Coppola remarked that each film he directed — 25 features spanning from the early 1960s to 2011’s Twixt — was “an experiment” so that he could try to understand his own style. “If you put two of my films side by side, you wouldn’t know they were made by the same person. With each movie, I wanted to be an unfamiliar ground, because risk is one of the great pleasures of making art.”
The director recalled how he was obsessed with science as a child and wanted to be a nuclear physicist, but poor algebra grades eventually led him to study theatre at Hofstra. After seeing Sergei Eisenstein’s October — “It was silent, but I heard every cut” — he decided to pursue film at UCLA’s graduate school, where he crossed paths with rock legend Jim Morrison.
Coppola discussed his time after college working for B-movie legend Roger Corman, which would provide an ample training ground for future projects both big and small: “It was a do-it-yourself guerrilla method where you learned how to make a movie for no money at all. I was paid $95 a week, which was a fortune to me back then, and I did everything for Roger — including washing his car and mowing his lawn.”
One of the director’s first big breaks in Hollywood was getting hired to pen the WWII biopic Patton. But Burt Lancaster, who was attached to play the lead at the time, didn’t appreciate the young screenwriter’s work and had him removed from the project. Years later, Coppola earned his first of many Oscars for Patton’s script. “Remember one thing,” he told the crowd. “The things you get fired for when you’re young are the things you get a lifetime achievement award for when you’re old.”
Coppola explained how, along with fellow filmmakers George Lucas and Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), he was part of the San Francisco-based contingent of the 1970s New Hollywood that was particularly interested in filmmaking technology.
“The San Francisco school was at the origin of two important revolutions,” he said. “The first was the use of sound, because we realized that sound was at least half the movie. That came from the fact that we were broke and had to be inventive with what we could afford, so we paid special attention to sound techniques. Walter Murch contributed a lot to those developments, which resulted in the creation of Dolby.”
“The second revolution was digital editing, shooting and projection, which George Lucas developed on the Star Wars movies,” he continued, before adding: “I acknowledge there’s still a discussion as to whether digital is bad or not. My own daughter Sofia still wants to shoot on film, as do Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan.”
When asked about the most important aspects of directing, Coppola was categorical: “Good acting and writing are the oxygen and hydrogen of cinema. If you don’t have either of them, it will be hard to have a good movie. And if you have both of them, then other weaknesses, such as poor production design, can be compensated for.”
Delving into his work with actors, Coppola remarked: “I hate hearing that such and such a director got a great performance out of an actor. It’s the actor who does the work, who brings the flesh and blood to the character. The director’s job is to give them the right conditions to do so, to make sure that he or she is comfortable and unafraid.”
Answering a question from the crowd about camera placement, Coppola replied: “The camera decisions should be based on what your theme is. For The Godfather, which was a classic Shakespearean story, I used a 40mm lens and always kept the camera four-and-a-half feet off the ground, because that’s close to how the human eye sees. We were very strict about that, and we only moved the camera when the characters moved.”
“You should make those decisions during preparation,” he advised. “But inevitably, the film tends to tell you how to make it. For example, while we were shooting Apocalypse Now we realized the color scheme should be much more surreal than planned.”
Speaking about the latter film, whose “Final Cut” version will close out the Lumière fest Sunday, Coppola recalled how the movie was “a production nightmare,” which resulted in him winding up with the rights, which he still owns to this day. “My enthusiasm got ahead of me, which happens often. I realized I didn’t know how to do it: it was all learn as you go.”
“I went from project to project because I wanted to learn what I was good at,” he added. “Learning is one of the few human pleasures where there are no bad side effects.”
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