Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Visit with Francis Ford Coppola

The notice landed in my e-mail inbox a month or so ago. "Francis Ford Coppola," it read, "invites you to join him for an evening celebration of wine, friends and family as he offers a glimpse into the great passions of his life." The event was to be held on March 3rd, the day after the 2014 Oscars, at the Egyptian Ballroom, an impossibly elegant space connected to the regal Fox Theater in Atlanta. This was the same venue in which I saw Abel Gance's Napoleon for the first time back in 1981, with Francis' father Carmine conducting the orchestra, so I saw this opportunity to explore a warm, intimate side of the Coppola family as a completion of an improvised circle. It's one that's not entirely adrift from Mr. Coppola's film accomplishments (which are, as we all later learned, inextricably linked to his vino endeavors), but one that's instead interwoven with the very bloodline of his accomplished family.

And with the addition of cigars, pasta, and numerous resorts (in California, Belize, Italy, Guatemala, and Argentina) to his product line, one could surely say that these once side-glance concerns have supplanted filmmaking as the primary artistic endeavor in Coppola's life. Now, for this great writer and director, it is moviemaking that has become the hobby, and now I realize he's deeply involved in the process of enjoying life, and hoping we can share that with him through wine, food, movies, and music. This refocus--decades in the making--has turned into the softest of mattresses. You sense he's been very happy for a long, long time now. Is this where he was meant to be? Maybe so. Most surely, though, he is first a family man; it's obvious his connection to his forebears and progeny are at his core. We can hear it in his his tenor, in his decisiveness and reverence. It's all quite clear. All of this drama--all of the movies and the debt, the squabbles and fooferall, the art and the commerce--it's all always been about the love for his family. Actually, he may have said it all in his most famous movie...

I arrived at the ballroom along with my friend, journalist and wine expert Jane Garvey, only ten minutes before Mr. Coppola was set to speak. That left me just enough time to nab a glass of his Cabernet Savignon (which was delicious), and grab a seat on the second row. The lights went down soon enough, and on screen came the helicopters whirring past those reddened palm trees in Apocalypse Now's opening shot. Then a thoughtful selection of clips from The Rain People, Tetro, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, One From the Heart, Rumblefish, The Outsiders, Youth Without Youth (which is, I realized, along with Finian's Rainbow, The Bellboy and the Playgirls, and the most recent Twixt, amongst the few Coppola's films I've yet to see).

The clip reel finally moved into The Conversation, and then, of course, to The Godfather. It was with Nino Rota's iconic theme music that Mr. Coppola delicately approached the stage with a jovial wave to the audience. Handsome and nattily dressed, with a plaid tie, he took a seat at a microphone equipped with a tiny monitor with which, in sure directorial fashion, he deftly kept up with the video presentation he was narrating (though he didn't mind sifting through the index cards in his hands for reference).

"Wine is an ancient food," he began. "For Italian families, and for many European families, it's considered an essential part of a meal." As burnished photos of his ancestors hit the screen, Coppola began by talking about his grandfather, Augustino, and his experiences with his seven sons during the days of Prohibition. "At that time, the government allowed European families, or families who'd customarily included wine with their meals, to make one barrel of wine right in their homes. So there was a collection of people who participated in buying a boxcar of grapes, sent all the way from California to 110th Street and Lexington." The supplier of those grapes, Coppola theorized, was Cesare Mondavi, the father of Robert Mondavi, the pioneering winemaker who popularized California's Napa Valley region as a hub of the vineyard community. Though he has deep respect for Mondavi, he amusingly admitted he'd heard this crude home brew was "terrible wine."

It was in 1975, right before the production of Apocalypse Now was to overtake his family's life, that Coppola first visited a property in the Napa Valley. Intended as a summer home, this plot included a late-19th Century structure known as the Niebaum Mansion, after its former owner, Finnish-born shipping magnate Gustave Niebaum. The Coppola family fell in love with the estate, which included 1400 acres of prime vineyards--ground zero for America's greatest contribution to winemaking. At this point, the screen behind Coppola featured a drive-up to the mansion's inviting facade, and a panoramic view from the steps leading up to it (including a 380-year-old tree looming over the front yard, its branches idyllically adorned with a shabby, single-person swing that's been dangling there for a century or so, and which Coppola has watched his children, grandchildren, and will watch his great-grandchildren play on, "I hope").

After much haggling, and being faced with the prospect of the countryside being spoiled by real estate developers bent on dotting the surrounding mountains with mansions, the Coppolas dug into their pockets and purchased the property. Soon after, Robert Mondavi visited and joyously confirmed that this was the prime piece of land for the growing of those essential grapes. Deemed Inglenook (which was Gustave Niebaum's tribute to the property's former owner, a Scottish businessman named William Watson), the land enabled the production of the famed Inglenook label (which Coppola now owns and says it cost more to buy that label than it did to buy the original property).

In fact, upon Robert Mondavi's arrival to the mansion, Coppola's wife Eleanor reminded her husband there were still dusty, aged bottles of Inglenook wine in the cellar. "We found one bottle, from 1890, and we opened it up and as we did that, the perfume of it started to pervade the room. Mr. Mondavi got all excited and started jumping up and down, and said 'See, I'm right. Napa Valley wine, if it's aged correctly, can be as good as any wine in the world.'" Coppola was still elated by this memory. But he also remembered the gathering storm clouds.

"Apocalypse Now was a very troubled production and, in fact, in order to do it, I had to finance it myself because no one else was interested. I had made The Godfather, The Conversation, Godfather Part II. I had won Oscars and had success. But Hollywood, then as with now, was not interested in something that was...interesting. [a big laugh from the audience here] To do something about the Vietnamese War was somehow taboo. But I was able to sell it to a distributor as something like A Bridge Too Far, as an action war picture. So I got a distributor to give me money, but indeed I was taking on a lot of debt myself. In those days, interest was 17%, in the era of Carter and the gasoline shortages and so forth. But we had this house in the Napa Valley and it was sort of like a dream to me, having dinners there and meeting the neighbors. Eventually, though, I worried so much because, as the project went on, we were getting deeper and deeper in debt, and the outcome became very uncertain. I remember when the film was done, I showed it to the distributor and they said 'It isn't like A Bridge Too Far at all.'" Coppola then recalled summoning his editors for an emergency cutting session, and rallying them with a song, which he then performed for us, on stage:

A director, we haven't got
A good movie, we haven't got
A good screenplay, we haven't got
Whadda we got?
We've got heart! 
Miles and miles and miles of heart...
(referencing Adler and Ross' song "Heart" from DAMN YANKEES)

"It did okay at the box office," Coppola continued, "and it was nominated for a few Academy Awards--it was Kramer Vs. Kramer that won Best Picture that year. But the funny thing about Apocalypse Now is that it wouldn't go away. People kept going to see it, and it's still like that to this day. So I was able to go back to my beautiful Napa Valley home." Around that time, Coppola explains, numerous wineries began approaching him, vying for a contract to use the fruit from his vineyard. While the reps from these labels toured the acres of trellised growth, Coppola had a thought. "Eventually, I said to my wife, 'Gee, if our grapes are so good, why don't we just make wine?' And she said 'What? You don't know anything about making wine,' and I answered 'Hey, I don't know anything about making movies, but that's never stopped me.'" The absurdity, and the truth, of this statement got an enveloping laugh from the audience (as screenwriter William Goldman once said, "Nobody in Hollywood knows anything").

With Mondavi's enthusiasm as a major encouragement, Coppola said that he was "sold" on the idea of creating the brand. He borrowed $30,000 from his family for winemaking equipment, and then had to navigate the requirements of California law in regards to what constitutes "California wine." Based on the ruby red color of his first batches of the stuff, made in 1977 with grapes stomped by he and his children, he renamed the Niebaum property "Rubicon Estate" and, over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, has grown the brand into a vast number of varieties. We're all familiar with the Coppola-stamped bottles that we've seen in our grocery stores and such. But I was surprised to discover there's a great deal more to this winery than I was aware, all of which have unusual labels designed by the Coppola family and art director Dean Tavoularis.

Tavoularis (pictured at left, with Coppola) has been involved with Coppola productions since 1972's The Godfather. He won an Oscar for designing its sequel, and has been nominated for Apocalypse Now, Tucker, Godfather III, and William Friedkin's The Brink's Job. His work with the director goes way beyond that, though, with the spare look of The Conversation; the astounding Vegas dream world of One From The Heart; the beautifully retro feel--each of them completely unique--of Hammett, The Escape Artist (which is not a movie that takes place in past decades, but sure feels like it is), Peggy Sue Got Married, The Outsiders, and Rumblefish; the realistic 60s visage of Gardens of Stone; and the comedy stylings of Jack. Tavoularis' work with Coppola's wine making has not been limited to just their labels, either. When Francis opened a winery and vacation spot near Geyserville, CA in the early 2000s, he had his art director design the entire layout, complete with bocce ball courts, performance spaces, cabins, sections devoted to Coppola's film work, and a movie theater.

"I’ve always been influenced," Coppola writes on the website, "by the idea of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, which was the inspiration for ultimately all modern amusements parks. I remember the beautiful theater pavilions with the curtains painted with peacock feathers that had little ballet performances. At Tivoli, there were rides, but more important than the rides were the cafes and the refreshments, and just the sense of being in a children’s garden, a ‘pleasure garden’ for all people to enjoy – which perhaps is the best phrase to describe what we’re creating here. This vision was replicated at places on Coney Island, like Luna Park, and George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park, or Palisades Park.

"These were basically wonderlands, and I thought Francis Ford Coppola Winery could become such a park for the family to go and enjoy, where there are things for kids to do, so they can be close to their parents who are sampling wines and foods.  I’ve often felt that modern life tends to separate all the ages too much. In the old days, the children lived with the parents and the grandparents, and the family unit each gave one another something very valuable. So when we began to develop the idea for this winery, we thought it should be like a resort, basically a wine wonderland, a park of pleasure where people of all ages can enjoy the best things in life – food, wine, music, dancing, games, swimming and performances of all types."

Now looking at images of the locale, and of its more movie-centric features, it seems like the perfect spot for a film geek's--or a wine enthusiast's--dream vacation:

Coppola's voluminous awards collection is on display, including five Oscars, two DGA awards, five Golden Globes, the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival, and one of his two Palme D'ors from the Cannes Film Festival (photo: Chad Keig)

I'm by no means a wine expert, but Coppola's output, stewarded by Director of Winemaking & General Manager Corey Beck, is extremely impressive. There a higher end product, sold at first only to restaurants, called Directors Cut (the complex wraparound label demanded a change, and afterwards it was available to stores). Then there's a champagne designed and inspired by his daughter Sofia (with her high-end tastes, she insisted on the pink cellophane wrapping, Coppola says), another designed by his wife Eleanor (which Coppola says might be his favorite of the entire line), and another by his granddaughter Gia (she's the daughter of the late Gian Carlo Coppola, who died at the young age of 22 in a boating accident, and who has just recently entered into the filmmaking frey with Palo Alto, based on the short stories of James Franco). The vast number of choices the Coppolas and Mr. Beck have come up with are kind of mindboggling. 

Hearing the man talk about all of these varieties, which are so intimately connected with his family, was just astounding. After experiencing this, I had to conclude--even more strongly than I had before--that the Coppola clan is simply one of the greatest American success stories out there. His immigrant grandfather Augustino was involved in the creation of Vitaphone, the first sound system for movies; his father Carmine was a member of Arturo Toscanini's NBC Orchestra and went on to compose score for The Godfather Part II (for which he won an Oscar), The Black Stallion (my favorite of his scores), Abel Gance's Napoleon, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, and The Godfather Part III; his wife Eleanor made one of the great filmmaking documentaries with Hearts of Darkness; his daughter Sofia (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring) and son Roman (CQ and the screenplay to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom) continue to create notable films; and now his granddaughter Gia is in the mix. Add to that his sister Talia Shire, his nephews Jason Schwartzman and Nicolas Cage, his cinematographer brother-in-law John Schwartzman, and you're left admiring a remarkable family tree--five generations--of filmic ability. Only the Huston family, with Walter, John, Anjelica, Danny and Jack, can come close to rivaling it in longevity and cultural impact.

When it came time for the Q&A section of the program, Mr. Coppola was extremely giving in both his reception of the questions, and in his answers. There was reluctance in the audience--which I understand. How does one address a legend such as this, even one who's obviously so social and hearty? I had a few questions of my own, though I held back and waited for others to break the ice. "You can ask me anything," he eventually asked the audience (though there were really no shortage of questions at the event). Right now, I kind of wish I had asked him some different questions.

I wish I would have asked him something fun. Something like "I know that Marlon Brando had some unusual acting methods. First, is it true that Brando used to stick his lines on tiny sheets of paper everywhere? Second, where was the most unusual place he ever hid these bits of paper? Third, do any of these still survive in you archives?" Or I could have asked him something deeper, like "What is it that you've gotten out of the other ventures you've delved in that you haven't gotten out of filmmaking?"  As much as I respected his delving into the wine industry, I felt I had to go up and ask some film geeky inquiries, though. Luckily, after a few wine-centric inquests, an Italian journalist piped up with five challenges of his own.

On the first, Coppola revealed that he's working on a screenplay that might be expanded into four separate movies, though he was not forthcoming on what those pieces were about. On another, he revealed his feelings about the previous night's Oscar ceremonies (pleased with the winners, he added "I think they should go back to five Best Picture nominees," he said. "I believe that's the influence of the Golden Globes, which have two Best Picture categories, but I think the Oscars should be more exclusive than that. But then, I think there are too many awards ceremonies, just like I believe there are too many film festivals"). Someone asked him his feelings on Spike Jonze's win for his Her screenplay, and Coppola was magnanimous there, reminding us Jonze is his former son-in-law (he was married to Sofia from 1999 to 2002), and that "even though he's no longer part of the family, that doesn't mean I don't like him anymore. He's extremely gifted and kind, and I'm happy for his success." 

My friend Jane Garvey got up to the microphone and, having just completed an excellent cover story for Georgia Magazine on the booming film industry in this state, encouraged him to consider Georgia for any future filmmaking (he directed her to give a copy of the magazine to his assistant). And finally, I got up to the microphone. Emboldened by that journalist who asked five questions, I decided to simply look towards the future. I wanted to know what was happening next for him, moviewise.  But first, strangely, I wanted to look to the past--not only to the cinema's past, but to his family's past. I have to admit, up at that microphone, my voice cracked for a second, overwhelmed as I was with emotion at talking to one of my moviemaking heroes. I first let him know that, back in 1982, I attended the Fox Theater--the theater we were in--to see his father conduct his orchestrations for Abel Gance's Napoleon. 

"Oh, Napoleon played here? Wow..." I told him it was an event that changed my life and, pleased to hear this, he probably anticipated my question. Gance's film has long been unavailable for viewing, and has yet to be released on digital because of disagreements between the head of the film's reconstruction, Kevin Brownlow, and Coppola (both of whom, ironically, won special Academy Awards in the same year, 2011). Coppola said that 40 additional minutes of Gance's film have been uncovered, and that his team was deep in the process of further reconstructing Napoleon, and digging deep into Carmine Coppola's archives for pieces of music that could be blended with his father's 1981 score to make a "final cut" of the film, which he said has been contracted for release by The Criterion Collection. He characterized Brownlow's cut as a "competing version," and left it at that. I thought "Anything that leads to Napoleon being seen again, that's great news in my book."

I then asked him about the screenplays he's working on, and I wondered if they had anything to do with his long-gestating project Megalopolis, which was scuttled not long after the 9/11 incident, reportedly because it involved a similar catastrophic NYC event. Coppola answered "No, that's a project that I just cannot get financing for." I then asked, given that his current project seems to be headed for a cumulative 8-hour running time (over four separate films), if he would consider approaching a TV network for financing and distribution. "That's an intriguing possibility," he said. "Our idea of what cinema is is undergoing a radical change these days--and I'm including television in this as well--so I'm not ruling that out."

Later, another audience member asked if he'd been watching any of the TV productions that have captured the public imagination. "You know, a few months ago, I finally sat down to watch The Sopranos. It took a week--binge-watching, y'know. But I went through all 90-some hours of it, and I liked it very much. It wasn't all great, but there was greatness throughout. And then I took another week and went through Breaking Bad, and I felt very much the same way about that." He seemed encouraged about the detailed storytelling potential with which television work is now finding success, and this impressed the audience as a whole. (Incidentally, they cooed when he mentioned  Breaking Bad; not so incidentally, is Breaking Bad the new Godfather?).

It was also fascinating to learn of Coppola's 80s and 90s work as being something that he was contractually bound to do given that, in order to keep the winery going, he had signed for a bank loan that required him to make one movie a year until the money was paid back. Coppola said, on some of these projects, he found it difficult to find his way into the heart of the story. Peggy Sue Got Married, he said, was a particularly tough nut to crack, but he found a pathway into engagement when he considered the reaction he might have if he had the opportunity to revisit his own lost family members, just as Kathleen Turner's character does in the film. He also admitted that 1990's The Godfather Part III was a picture he would have never made if the requirements of running the winery had not necessitated it. "I always looked at the first two Godfather movies as a stand-alone tale, like Hamlet. And there was no Hamlet Part II..."

One of the highlights, in a night full of them, was the revelation of Coppola's musical abilities. He, of course, come from a musical family (on Inside the Actor's Studio in 2003, he told James Lipton his favorite sound was the flute, which was the instrument that his father played). He admitted to having no real musical teachings himself (though he did take co-writing credit with his father for the Apocalypse Now score). Yet he played for us a song that he'd written for his grandchild Romy Croquet (Sofia's first daughter). Lush, like a Nelson Riddle piece by way of Michel Legrand, with a full orchestra and with Coppola singing quite surely of his love for her, it was a brilliant bit of bravery for Coppola to feature this as part of his presentation (though he has nothing to be ashamed of; that song was gorgeous, and his singing was pitch perfect and, dare I say, rather Sinatra-like). "I knew I had let myself in for it, because I knew the other grandchildren would want their own song, too," he said, and so he dutifully played another he had written for Sofia's second child Cosima (another beautiful piece), and finally one he'd written for Gia when she was in her 20s (this one was different--a raucous tarantella bemused by Gia's honesty and talent for making Francis laugh).

My final comment to him--this man that had moved me to such intensity with his films--was to compliment him on his singing, and to thank him for taking the time to visit Atlanta, which we found was the first stop on a multi-city tour promoting his winery and its yield. His spry talk with us was wonderfully cozy, enlightening, and even gave us a glimpse into his firm but affable directing style, since it was obvious every move in the presentation was by his design. It was easy for all in the room to see how any collaborator, whether a family member or a fellow artist, or even a fan, would go to the earth's edge to garner his favor. Francis Ford Coppola is the kind of person you would just naturally want to please, because he's so pleasant, and so demanding of himself.

Francis Ford Coppola in Atlanta, February 2014. (photo: Atlanta Event Photography)


Unknown said...

Shared via G+, tweeted and facebooked. Good work.

Sam Juliano said...

One of the most spectacular posts of all-time by anyone! Really superb and comprehensive Dean! You have so many photos here that it is very tough to scroll down, but it certainly is well-worth it. One of the most gifted and fascinating of all American filmmakers!

Dean Treadway said...

Thanks, Rich. And you too, Sam! I took measures to reduce the number of articles on my main page--it wasn't the photos that was slowing down the load time, but all the You Tube videos I had on previous posts. For some time, I've been meaning to make it so that only three articles appear on the main page. So thanks for your comment, cuz it made me finally do it!