In 2007 Coppola directed his first film in a decade, Youth Without Youth, based on a novella by a Romanian author, Mircea Eliade, and starring Tim Roth as an old man who regains his youth after being struck by a lightning bolt. Packed with metaphysical ideas and dark romantic yearning, it baffled and, mostly, irritated critics though the more empathetic saw it as a film à clé about its maker’s own quest to regenerate and rejuvenate himself.
Coppola has never been slow to bare his soul. There was Rumble Fish (1983), about a street kid growing up in the shadow of his big brother and dedicated to August, Francis’s own adored elder sibling (and father of actor Nicolas Cage), who died last year. Tucker – made in 1988 at the depth of his financial troubles – portrayed a quixotic car manufacturer crushed by big business. Hearts of Darkness, a lacerating documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, partly shot by his wife, Eleanor, showed the director at the end of his tether (the couple are still married after 47 years). Even the internecine warfare in The Godfather was, he says today, “inspired by my father and uncles”. And now there is another supremely dysfunctional family in Tetro, a film more revealing than perhaps even Coppola intended. It’s his first original script since The Conversation (1974), the keynote Watergate-era thriller which gave Gene Hackman one of his greatest roles as a paranoid wiretapper.
'Personal film-making is a thrilling experience – it’s like posing a question you don’t know the answer to. When you’ve made the film and it’s all over, then you begin to see what the answer is,” Coppola explains after the screening. “I wanted to make an emotional movie and I figured the thing that makes me emotional is certain thoughts about my family, my father and his struggles.
“Writing was the hardest part. I like to start early in the morning because I haven’t already gotten a phone call that’s hurt my feelings.” (You suspect he’s only half joking.) “But the key thing is, whatever I write, I turn those pages over and never look at them because, if I did, I would get depressed. I keep going until I’ve got 80 pages, and then one day I relax and read them. If you put in your four or five hours every day, after a while it’s a trance and the characters start saying things and acting in ways you didn’t expect. They wander through your subconscious.”
Set in Argentina and shot almost entirely in shimmering black and white (with the odd colour sequence splashed in purple), Tetro is an operatic tale of Oedipal battles, sibling rivalries and resentment bleeding down the generations. The angel-faced, 17-year-old newcomer Alden Ehrenreich plays Coppola’s radiant alter ego, an idealistic Italian-American who arrives fresh off a cruise ship in La Boca, the bohemian quarter of Buenos Aires, in search of the big brother he has never known. This brother, who calls himself Tetro (a gloriously edgy and unhinged Vincent Gallo), receives him coldly. A gifted writer, he has been crippled by the contempt of the boys’ monstrous, egotistical father, a world-famous conductor, the defeated hopes of their sad-sack uncle and a tragic accident from the past.
“My father was a wonderful musician, the solo flautist for Toscanini [at the NBC Symphony Orchestra] but he wanted to compose and conduct and remained unfulfilled,” Coppola says, adding a rather sad story about his own clumsy desire to help out. “When I was 13, I worked for Western Union. When the telegrams came in I would glue them on the paper and deliver them on my bicycle. One night I typed up a telegram to my father, 'Dear Carmine Coppola, Please come to Los Angeles immediately to write the score for the film Saucers Over the World.’ I knew so much about his career that I even knew the name of the head of the music department at Paramount Pictures. 'Signed Louis Lipstone.’ I delivered it and he was so happy. Then of course I had to tell him it wasn’t true and I got a hell of a beating. But I just wanted to give him his break, you know?”
Even today, there’s a note of apology in Coppola’s voice. “Though in later life I was able to do that for him and saw him win an Oscar [for the score for The Godfather: Part II]. My father also had a younger brother who had learnt everything from him and was successful as a conductor, just as it happens in Tetro.”
Coppola compares Tetro’s father, played by the powerful Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, to a flawed patriarch from a Greek tragedy, or a character from the hothouse dramas of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
“I started with that theme and although the story was fictional, like any writer I raided my own personal life to put the flesh on the bones.” Tetro’s father thunders at one point that there’s only room for one genius in their family; where did that come from? Coppola shoots an unfathomable look. “All I can say is, that was really said. It wasn’t said to me and, contrary to what people sometimes claim, it wasn’t said by me. But it was said.”
These days he’s a patriarch himself, at the head of a prodigious multiple Oscar-nominated dynasty that includes Sofia, the director of three features, including Lost in Translation; his sister, the actress Talia Shire; nephews Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman; and son Roman Coppola, an assistant director. (Another son, Gian-Carlo, an actor, died in 1986 in a boating accident.) “We support each other in the Coppola family,” he insists. “We love the idea of everyone getting his place in the sun.”
All of which is not to say that Tetro is the most wasteful, self-indulgent psychotherapy session ever. Coppola learned a few corner-cutting tricks while making exploitation flicks in the early 1960s with Roger Corman, for whom he became a kind of factotum, working on The Tower of London, starring Vincent Price, and The Terror, for which he directed Jack Nicholson in second unit scenes. “I give up anything that doesn’t actually end up on screen,” he says. “I don’t go on set with an army of people because the most expensive elements of a movie production are the plane tickets, the hotel rooms, food and gasoline. If you’re willing to discover new colleagues in the place that you are, you can save a ton of money.
“I didn’t have a trailer and none of the actors did; we just used to hang out together on the set. And I’m extremely economical with extras and try to use them in an imaginative and interesting way; in a street scene, say, I might just have one guy pushing a dead motorcycle. If you have a lot of extras, you have a lot of drivers and a lot of this and a lot of that and you have to have a big lunch. My way you have a smaller lunch,” Coppola, the gourmet, pauses, smiles. “But a better one.”
The thing he doesn’t skimp on is rehearsals. Tetro’s two weeks of preparations climaxed in an elaborate masquerade party, to which all the actors came in character, disguised in the costume their character would have chosen (Ehrenreich was Ernest Hemingway and Gallo, eccentric as ever, attended as Tetro’s mother and father, simultaneously). There were drinks, a buffet, a band, party games; intimate conversations were held, fights took place and Coppola waited watchfully, just as I had seen him do at his own party, later rewriting his entire third act in the light of what he saw. “When people engage in an improv like that for three or four hours, they’re exhausted. It’s a lot of work to not be yourself. But the more essential the improvisation, the more the actors are affected by it.”
Coppola’s was the famous movie-brat generation that revolutionised Hollywood in the early Seventies, but which also precipitated its decline into overblown event movies (he himself spoke out last month against the rise of 3D). Today some of his peers are making gaudy, hollow baubles (Martin Scorsese); some (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg) are busily tending to their merchandising franchises; others (the Johns Milius and Landis) haven’t directed a feature for years. With the partial exception of Brian De Palma (with his controversial Iraq drama Redacted), Coppola is the only one to have entirely reinvented himself.
At 71, he doesn’t care much if some see him as a has-been. In his own dreamer’s eyes, he’s a going-to-be, still endlessly, boyishly curious about the possibilities of his art.
- Tetro (15) is released on Friday June 25
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA turned 70 a couple of months ago, but he shows no sign of slowing down. After a frustrating decade with nary a directing credit to his name, now comes “Tetro,” which is his second movie in two years and is based on the first original screenplay he has written, directed and produced since “The Conversation” in 1974.
“I view this as the second film of my second career,” Mr. Coppola said late last month, shortly after returning from Cannes, where “Tetro” was described by European critics as somewhat uneven but intriguing, emotional and elegiac. “From now on I’m always going to be writing the scripts, and every film will be personal. I’m going to be the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be when I was beginning.”
“Tetro” (which opens on Friday), with Vincent Gallo in the title role, covers some of the same territory, albeit from a different direction, that has fascinated Mr. Coppola since the time of the “Godfather” trilogy, which first made his reputation and his fortune. Once again he has filmed a drama about an Italian immigrant family in conflict, here called the Tetrocinis.
This time, however, the patriarch in question, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, is a tyrannical orchestra conductor, and his sons are writers, not gangsters. And to the extent there is violence, it is emotional rather than physical, the product of a plot that revolves around a younger brother’s attempt to find and reconcile with an estranged sibling (Mr. Gallo’s character) who has broken with the family and fled.
Because Mr. Coppola’s father, Carmine, was a musician, a flutist who played for Toscanini in the NBC Orchestra before trying his luck as a composer and conductor, there is an obvious temptation to regard “Tetro,” which in Italian means “gloomy” or “glum,” as autobiographical. Suggestions to that effect have already surfaced, but Mr. Coppola said that was not really the case.
“Granted that classical music was part of my life, but my father was a wonderful and talented man who didn’t get his break in life until much later and was nothing like the monster portrayed here,” he said. “Clearly I ran away from military school when I was 15 and idolized my brother. But everything ends at that. My family was far from what you see here. We didn’t have the kinds of rifts, the terrible things that ‘Tetro’ has.”
“My story is more in the league of Tennessee Williams writing Blanche DuBois as an expression of his own vulnerability,” he added. “I think I am all the characters, but the kid is who I was. That’s my story.”
“Tetro” was made in Argentina, mostly in Buenos Aires in the bohemian neighborhood of La Boca, with other scenes shot in Patagonia. Both locales, the one brightly colorful and the other spectacularly imposing, are unfamiliar to most Americans, but Mr. Coppola chose to film in black and white, in part because he wanted to evoke the mood of movies he admires, Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers” and Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” in particular.
That choice, especially coming after the mixed reception that greeted the release of his abstract and unconventional “Youth Without Youth” in 2007, also underlines Mr. Coppola’s determination to make the films he wants the way he wants and to avoid any situation in which he has to cede control to others. His long and uneasy relationship with Hollywood is over, he said, acknowledging that it would be difficult these days for him to get a green light from a studio for any project that interests him.
“My attitude is, ‘Who cares about them?’ ” he said. “It’s an industry that just makes the same movie over and over again and rules out a climate of experimentation.”
Audiences are part of the problem too, he argues, because they have lost their sense of adventure and curiosity. “After two generations of television they are even more anxious to see things that are familiar to them, like kids who want to hear the same stories over and over again.”
On the set of “Tetro,” cast members said, the atmosphere was more like that of a low-budget indie film than of a Hollywood production. There were no trailers, even for the stars, and Mr. Coppola was constantly experimenting with ideas that had just occurred to him, often singing songs to keep the mood relaxed and playful.
The Spanish actress Carmen Maura appears in “Tetro” in the brief but crucial role of Tetro’s former mentor, an imperious critic with the power to make or destroy an artist’s career. She has worked with distinguished directors like Pedro Almodóvar, Carlos Saura, Amos Gitai and Fernando Trueba but said that Mr. Coppola had a style she had not encountered before.
“It was an amusing and entertaining experience,” she said. “He’s a completely different kind of director. I liked his craziness. He was very friendly, simpatico and respectful, but you never know what he is going to ask, and he was full of surprises.”
Mr. Coppola has a history of finding and nurturing the talent of young actors. “The Outsiders,” his 1983 ensemble piece, is perhaps the best example: it provided breakout roles for Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell and Diane Lane.
“Tetro” offered a similar opportunity to Alden Ehrenreich, who was 17 when he was cast and has just completed his freshman year at New York University. He had never appeared in a feature-length film before but after five months of auditions won the role of Bennie Tetrocini, who journeys to Buenos Aires in an effort to reconnect with his brother.
“The atmosphere Francis creates around him is extremely warm, inviting and collaborative,” Mr. Ehrenreich said when asked to explain Mr. Coppola’s success with young actors. “It’s like he provides the map, but you find what countries you want to visit. He doesn’t give you a specific laundry list, he invites you into the environment, and you decide how to interact.”
For the Spanish actress Maribel Verdú, who plays Miranda, Tetro’s girlfriend and Bennie’s confidante, “Tetro” presented a different kind of challenge. Though she is already known to American audiences for her performances in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Y Tu Mamá También,” this was her first role in an English-language film, and going in she was understandably “nervous, worried that I couldn’t do this, wasn’t up to it,” she said. But Mr. Coppola managed to put her at ease immediately.
“I’ve been at this for 25 years, and never before had a director gone to the airport to await me and take me to his home,” she said. “It was a gesture that made me feel comfortable and protected from the start.”
Mr. Coppola said he perceived a kinship between “Tetro” and “Rumble Fish,” his only other black and white film, which he shot in tandem with “The Outsiders.” “I see ‘Tetro’ as more of a personal drama” than many of his previous works, he said, “a sibling to ‘Rumble Fish’ in that it is the story of a kid who idolizes his brother.”
Nevertheless Ms. Verdú’s role provides the glue that holds the movie together, he said. Or as she explained it, “From the start he was clear in telling me that I had to provide the heart, to bring a bit of light between these two brothers and their tormented relationship.”
Mr. Gallo did not respond to requests for an interview. But Ms. Verdú, who was in Cannes with Mr. Coppola, said the director appeared grateful for and was energized by the warm personal reception he received. And Mr. Coppola said that, because he was too busy and too worried to enjoy the acclaim that accompanied “The Godfather” films, he intends now to savor every opportunity that comes his way.
“I don’t have a lot of time left, but I’m so in love with the cinema that I want to learn all I can about making movies,” he said. “I just want to write another screenplay and make another movie.”
More Articles in Movies »A version of this article appeared in print on June 7, 2009, on page AR18 of the New York edition.