Film fans have been denied the talents of Francis Ford Coppola for far too long. His last feature film, 1997’s “The Rainmaker,” certainly didn’t seem like an appropriate swan song to a career that included “The Godfather,” “The Godfather: Part II” and “The Conversation” (those were all made in succession, by the way).
Since that unprecedented early 1970s trifecta, Coppola’s career has ebbed and flowed. Bombastic successes like “Apocalypse Now” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” were matched by stunning commercial or critical failures, like “One From the Heart” and “Jack.”
Now Coppola says he’s reignited his passion for moviemaking thanks to “Youth Without Youth,” an experimental meditation on philosophy and mortality starring Tim Roth as a linguistics expert made young again, thanks to a lightning bolt from above.
Coppola visited MTV News to discuss his heady new work, why he’s always been plagued by self-doubt and what he and Mario Puzo had planned for “The Godfather: Part IV.”
MTV: This film seems like a departure for you, relative to films like “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” The subject matter is a bit less accessible.
Francis Ford Coppola: It’s funny that one would say that “Godfather,” “Apocalypse” — someone today mentioned “The Conversation” — those movies are as different from each other as could be. … Of course [“Youth Without Youth” is] not like “The Godfather,” it’s not like “Apocalypse,” and I beg the audience to allow me to not spend the rest of my life trying to imitate things I’ve done in the past. [What] it represents more is me being sort of the more personal-style film director that I wanted to be when I was 19, when I was seeing the great films of the Italian directors or the New Wave or [Ingmar] Bergman or [Akira] Kurosawa, that’s what I wanted to be.
“Godfather” was an accident. I didn’t expect it to happen to have a success like that. I’m thrilled with my life, but if anything, I would love the chance to still be the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be when I was 18 or 19, and write unusual subject matter and explore the meaning of life or try to shed illumination on life … and I think that’s what “Youth Without Youth” represents.
MTV: You’ve said before that a movie is like a question and that when you make it, you find the answer. What’s been the question and answer of “Youth Without Youth”?
Coppola: I wanted to learn a better way to express the miracle of human consciousness and understand what it was. What I learned in making the film is that it’s the introduction of language that seems to blossom into this thing called consciousness. They called me “Francie” when I was a kid. When was I Francie? When did I first have this conscious personality? It had to be at 3 or 4, and that’s when I had a little bit of language.
MTV: Do you worry that an audience conditioned to consume mass entertainment won’t be so willing to engage in a film like this?
Coppola: The young audiences have been brainwashed as to what a movie is. [Movies] have been made because it’s a business, to be simple to understand, and that’s made [them] formulaic. We’re all capable of understanding this kind of stuff. It’s good to have a movie that makes you think about your own life. It’s fun to speculate on what the reality of life is.
MTV: I was surprised to learn that you are often filled with dread on a set.
Coppola: “Totally. … It was always based on embarrassment. … I went to 20 schools before I got to college, so it was always, “Oh, here’s Francis Coppola, he’s the new kid,” and everyone would laugh ’cause my name was Francis. I think being on the set and then suddenly everyone looking at me like I’m supposed to know what I’m doing, sometimes my brain freezes and it’s like a panic attack.
MTV: I would think, though, that in the early ’70s, when “Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “Godfather: Part II” … [did] you feel bulletproof at that time?
Coppola: To all you artists out there, young and old: Artists are filled with self-doubt. All of them are Marlon Brando was. … It’s just part of being a creative artist, that you are feeding on stuff in your personality, of which self-doubt is a part. That’s why you achieve.
MTV: “Godfather IV” was talked about, it seems, at one time. You and Mario Puzo — is this true? — went to Paramount and said, “We’re interested, we’ll do it,” and they said, “We’re not interested.”
Coppola: I never thought making a second “Godfather” made sense to me. … I thought the end of the first “Godfather” film was the end of it. Michael has become what he’s become. He’s paid a terrible price for it, and that’s the point. The last shot of closing his wife out was the end. So when they wanted a second “Godfather,” it was just to make money. … It was the beginning of this franchise mentality, so I resisted it. … But I was working on an original idea of … telling a story of a father and a son at the same age … two stories paralleling. They prevailed on me so much that I said, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’ll have total control, and I’ll make it be this story and work it into ‘The Godfather.’ ” When that was done — miracle of miracles that it was well-received; like anything, it could have gone as bad as gone right — then I was done with it.
Many years later, after “One From the Heart,” after [accumulating] huge debt, unbelievable debt for a young guy, the chance to do “Godfather III” was a chance for me to get out of my problems, and I did it as best I knew how. … And then there was talk of a fourth “Godfather.” And I had an idea of how you could do it, oddly enough, again paralleling two stories because it was a big part of the book that had never been made — it was the period sort of between the old period in “Godfather II” and when you see Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” Mario called it the “happy years” — when we killed them and they didn’t kill us. [He laughs.]
And Mario was very concerned to make money because he was getting older and he really wanted to leave his kids well-fixed, and I said to Paramount, “Look it, we have an idea of a structure of this thing. Pay Mario Puzo a million dollars to do this first draft, and I’ll help him and work with him. You don’t have to pay me anything. But he’s getting old, and he’s not entirely well.” And they basically didn’t do it. And then he died.
MTV: To hear you talk about “Youth Without Youth,” it sounds like you’re more content making these smaller films on your terms for now.
Coppola: I don’t know. After I make this film in Argentina [article id="1575907"]“Tetro”[/article], it’s about a lot of personal demons. When and if I exorcise them by making this film, I’d be curious what I would want to tackle.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Youth Without Youth.”
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