A Conversation with Francis Ford Coppola

On film (it's over), critics (can be lazy), and marriage (it's tough to be his wife)

Out from under the $25 million debt incurred from self-financing Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, and so no longer seduced by Hollywood moolah, 70-year-old wine mogul—and, oh, yeah, legendary filmmaker—Francis Ford Coppola returns to his early indie roots with the self-released, black-and-white, and breathtaking Oedipal drama Tetro, which opens next week and is his first original screenplay since 1974's The Conversation. Vincent Gallo and newcomer Alden Ehrenreich star as brothers Tetro and Bennie, who reunite in present-day Buenos Aires, both estranged from each other, their world-renowned conductor father, and themselves. I drove upstate to meet Coppola at a quaint Rhinebeck inn, where he was staying (for his granddaughter's college graduation) with, appropriately, a very large segment of the Coppola clan.

You were first invited to Cannes 40 years ago with a little independent film, The Rain People, and now you've just returned from the Directors' Fortnight, again with a relatively small indie.

I always wanted to make more personal films, and usually in the film business, the bigger the budget, the more mainstream and middlebrow it has to be. The more modest the budget, the more leeway you have to make a personal expression, which might be successful, or it might be [successful] eight years after it's made. A lot of works of art are not appreciated in their moment, and later on, they grow in prestige. I always chuckle when people say, "You probably won't be able to make the kind of successes you made when you were younger. How do you feel about that?" I just shrug. Shy of The Godfather, most of my films were not really, in their day, successful.

Shooting Tetro (and 2007's Youth Without Youth) in HD certainly helps lower costs, but shouldn't a filmmaker of your generation—not to mention stature—be a purist about film?

I love that young people want to hold on to film as long as they can. It's been with us for the hundred years of cinema, but it's really over now. The new digital medium can be beautiful, but it's really the lens and photographer that make the image beautiful. My daughter [Sofia] won't shoot on anything but film, and I love that about her. Film is more emotional in a way because it's all jiggly, and it gets scratched. [Laughs.] You see that it's film. It's like vinyl. But every movie today—unless it's a really low-budget one and can't afford to—is digital. Some are shot on film and converted, all the traditional post-production balancing and color is done digitally, and they put it out as film. I would guess that within six years, every projector is going to be electronic. We used to shoot 8mm black-and-white, and then, all of a sudden, you couldn't buy it anymore. So I consider this like my second career, and this is my second film.

Why did you decide to self-distribute Tetro?

The distributor screening process is trickier than you think because you have to show it to everyone. They want you to show it to them separately and first, but then if they don't take it, they all know, and the other guy doesn't want to take it. Independent films all come out in October, if you notice, so I wanted it to come out early in the year. I just booked the theaters, and that made us a distributor because we said, "OK, it's coming out. Eight cities. June 11." That decision was made three months ago. The film wasn't even finished. In the summer, you have a choice to see the Tom Hanks movie, or Wolverine, or God-knows-whatever the big movie is, and for that percentage that might want to see a more personal film, hopefully they'll come. It's funny, when you [release] a movie, it's like turning the shower on in a hotel you haven't stayed at. The water either comes out with all this pressure, or just dribble, dribble, dribble.

Tetro is my favorite film of the year thus far, but the reviews have been mixed. What do critics mean to you these days?

For me, the role of the critic is to teach me how I can make the next one better. I realize what my flaws are. I could learn a lot from my daughter because she's very economical, and I tend not to be. There are obviously good critics and bad critics—who, just because the movie isn't like anything they've seen, immediately call it a "muddled mess." If you do a Google search for "muddled mess," you'll see that that's the common phrase they use when they don't want to come out and say what's muddled about it. People are a little bit like sheep, and unable to accept or take anything to heart unless they can link it to something that was successful before. This young kid, Alden, is very talented, and right away, he's "like Leonardo DiCaprio." If a movie comes out and it's really fresh and new, it's not like anything else. What's Punch-Drunk Love like? It's unique. It's a work of art.

Tetro's father, much like The Godfather, is a bigger-than-life patriarch who casts a long shadow. How aware are you of your own shadow with your filmmaking children?

I always had a policy when I was lucky enough to have kids that, if I was going away for two weeks, I'd take them out of school. They were with me all through my career. Obviously, in the Philippines [for Apocalypse Now], there's nothing else to do but play on the set, so they all learned about movies the same way as if we had been a circus family. I'm sure I can't know the difficulties of having me for a father from the point of view of a young person who wants to do similar work. I never said, "You don't want to do that—you gotta do this." I was happy when my kids expressed a love of movies. When my two little boys were 12 or so, they were the co-producers of Rumble Fish. I always elevated them, but if you talk to my son, he might say, "Oh, the guy's a nightmare." I don't think so, but I don't think I can know. I immediately saw Sofia's talent at a very young age. I made her first couple of films possible, and protected her. My son, Roman, when he did the second unit on Dracula, he made all those beautiful, in-camera optical effects. I gave him that responsibility.

More difficult is my wife, because she has many ambitions and talents, but who's going to be my wife? Who's going to fix the house up and make it nice? It's more difficult with a wife because there becomes a job vacancy if your wife is going to go off and become an artist. Who's going to be the wife? We both need one. I'll do the cooking, but who's going to worry about the household and stuff? That's been a very big, frustrating aspect. I've been married 46 years, and it's never been resolved.

Check out next week's Village Voice for J. Hoberman's review of Tetro

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