Flickhead
Book Review
By Ray Young

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Francis Coppola filming Apocalypse Now

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Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews

Edited by Gene D. Phillips and Rodney Hill

192 pages; University Press of Mississippi;

hardcover ($50.00) or paperback ($20.00)
    When they were young up-and-coming filmmakers, people such as Francis Coppola were interviewed often by newspapers and magazines in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, back when mainstream America had never even heard of the term ‘filmmaker,’ let alone been exposed to their European-influenced repartee and passion for what was commonly regarded as a Saturday night diversion. The image of ‘The Director’ was the megaphone-brandishing task master, C.B. DeMille or Erich von Stroheim in hip boots and riding crop, but not these longhairs who didn’t wear suits and ties. Nevertheless, Coppola bridged the era’s generation gap, as The Godfather became the picture just about everyone went to see.
    When Coppola ventured into the costly Vietnam of Apocalypse Now and the costlier synthetic Vegas of One from the Heart, escalating budgets took the focus away from everything else. He became a ‘victim’ of excess, most of it self-inflicted. After having the finest career of the 70’s — no one else delivered a quartet as potent nor as reaching as the two Godfather pictures, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now — the dream went south as popular taste shifted to hollow B-picture blockbusters, Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
    In their introduction to Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews, editors Gene D. Phillips and Rodney Hill see their subject as “an incurable dreamer” who understands “the need to come to terms with Hollywood,” albeit under protest. This rich ffc.JPGcollection of interviews and essays begins with Joseph Gelmis’s Q&A on the 1970 press junket for Finian’s Rainbow (now there’s a forgotten picture), in which the dreamer is in REM. Art, ambition and bottom-line figures are rapidly entwined with a startling display of abandon. By the end, you’re sure Gelmis left the room perspiring.
    “He does not measure his words,” Lillian Ross wrote of Coppola. “He is not cautious in expressing his ideas or his uncertainties about them. He likes to throw out his ideas — to try them out on people who he thinks might share his deep interest in motion pictures.” Ross’s lengthy “Some Figures on a Fantasy,” the centerpiece of Interviews, is an excellent article written with a cool, detached eye during the making and marketing of One from the Heart.
    Her objectivity helps put the dreamer into perspective and separate fantasies from reality. On nothing other than a whim (and without a distributor for the picture), Coppola decided to hold an advanced screening of One from the Heart at New York’s Radio City, renting the Hall for one day and evening at a cost of $24,000 (bear in mind that these are 1982 dollars), promoting the event with a full-page ad in the New York Times for $27,000. Seeing his audience wait in line to buy tickets out in the winter cold, he fed them $3315 worth of hot soup. Programs, posters and buttons for the shindig cost $15,000. And $19,410 for a party afterwards. That’s $88,725 to show a film twice in a single day. The box office take was just over $51,000, a one-day, single-screen loss of $37,725 on a picture that was already millions (and millions, and millions) over budget. (According to Robert Lindsey in his chapter of Interviews, it “cost more than $23 million to make but produced less than $2.5 million in revenues.”)
    In this instance and several others throughout the text, the words ‘childlike’ and ‘childish’ should be (but aren’t) used to describe the artist completely lacking in business acumen, cavalier about spending money not at hand, blind to the crippling effect of interest rates, but yet in the position to make financiers, corporate honchos and banks his ‘yes men.’ When faced with a poor showing of One from the Heart at the Music Hall, Coppola’s first instinct was to bury the picture. “The best thing with this movie might be to make it impossible for people to see it, and let people imagine what it is,” he said, as if his backers held any concern for what transpires in the public’s imagination. “Maybe I’ll just withdraw the picture. Five years from now, I’ll show it.”
    Or: I’m picking up my toys and going home. When Lindsey interviews Coppola, Nastassja Kinski is nearby to offer her observations. “Directors remind me of little boys,” she said. “They say, ‘I want this’ or ‘I want that.’ It reminds me of a child who says, ‘I want a castle built for me,’ and they get it. Money does not seem to matter.” Hollywood had weathered this kind of King Baby forty years earlier with Orson Welles, but Welles never brought in a cash cow like The Godfather. (“The success of The Godfather went to my head like a rush of perfume,” he tells Lindsey. “I thought I couldn’t do anything wrong.”) It opened up any number of wallets and doors, but after inducing the costly tumult of Apocalypse Now, Coppola appeared drained and simply threw money around on rough, unfocused concepts.
    As his celebrity waned in the 80’s, he took to smaller personal projects like The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and hired himself out to direct other people’s projects, like The Cotton Club and Peggy Sue Got Married. In David Thomson and Lucy Gray’s chapter in Interviews, they call Rumble Fish Coppola’s “best film, the most emotional, the most revolutionary . . . It has a mood from Camus and the French Existentialists, but it looks and feels like Welles and Cocteau.” Indeed, pair Rumble Fish with The Conversation — to these eyes, his finest efforts — and observe the man at the top of his game.
    No longer a high-profile boy genius, when Coppola made The Rainmaker in 1997, the public yawned. Their loss: it was superb, but got lost in a jumbled market of flighty mainstream junk. A flurry of interest surrounded Apocalypse Now Redux, an addition of nearly an hour’s worth of previously excised footage. (Revealing the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, Bande à part especially, virtually undetectable in the original.) Although there were critics who considered the re-edited twenty-two-year-old movie to be the best picture of 2001, it also served to illustrate the feat of economizing that shaped the 1979 edition, and the lack of motivation toward new material.
    An engrossing document of a unique career, Francis Ford Coppola: Interviews depicts its subject as an artist, manipulator, child-man, spendthrift, multimillionaire, glutton, late-twentieth-century Pre-Raphaelite, someone hoping his phone service won’t be disconnected for unpaid bills. Career profiles of other filmmakers are rarely so preoccupied with money as this, but Coppola’s vision often depends on fat credit lines and signed blank checks. There is a weird slant on tragedy when he complains of the restraints imposed on him, or the dreams, technology and projects that have been denied his full attention. You may even feel sorry for the man until common sense kicks in.