Godfather proves a mixed blessing for director Coppola

For good and for bad, the Don changed Francis Ford Coppola's life, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 12:36pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 12:36pm

Rarely has a director seen such a turning point in his career as Francis Ford Coppola did with The Godfather. After its release, "my life went another way", the American filmmaker said when we met in 2007 - and it's still true.

Before The Godfather emerged in 1972, Coppola was just another struggling director with dreams of changing the art-house landscape. Born in Detroit, Michigan, he'd majored in theatre at Hofstra University, graduated from UCLA film school and then began working for indie producer Roger Corman.

I think it's better to be overly ambitious and fail, than to be under ambitious and succeed in a mundane way
Francis ford coppola, director 

Making his directorial debut with the 1963 horror-thriller Dementia 13, he followed it with sex comedy You're a Big Boy Now, Broadway musical adaptation Finian's Rainbow and, in 1969, the low-key marital drama The Rain People. "I wanted to be this European-style filmmaker that was coming to the United States in the 1950s. We were seeing films by [Ingmar] Bergman and [Akira] Kurosawa, and we thought this was wonderful. The thing about seeing a good film is that it makes you want to make a film."

The Rain People was the first film produced by American Zoetrope, the company that he and George Lucas set up to bankroll their own movies and foster other fledgling talents, away from the restrictions of the studio system. The second was 1971's THX 1138, a bleak sci-fi work that marked Lucas' directorial feature debut. A box-office failure, its costs left Coppola personally in debt for US$400,000.

Never mind that Coppola had just won his first Oscar for the screenplay for 1970's Patton when he was just 31. Nor that his wife Eleanor (whom he's still with, after 51 years) was pregnant with their third child. The mounting money crisis threatened to sink him and American Zoetrope before he'd truly got started. He needed a job just to pay back the money - and along came The Godfather, a money-gig adaptation of Mario Puzo's mafia potboiler for Paramount.

It was not, to borrow from one of the film's most famous lines, an offer he couldn't refuse. Coppola feared it would glorify the mafia and reflect poorly on his own Sicilian heritage. It was not as if he was the first choice: Sergio Leone had declined; so did Peter Bogdanovich. Even when Coppola did go on board, he disagreed wildly with Paramount, which was set against him casting Marlon Brando as patriarch Don Vito Corleone.

"I was always on the verge of getting fired," he says. "It was an extremely nightmarish experience."

Perhaps the only delight was that he got to work with his father, composer Carmine Coppola, who collaborated with Nino Rota on the score. But with a young family to support, the director was heading for a meltdown. "I thought The Godfather was a total failure, and everyone told me it was." To escape the furore, he went to Paris to work on a script for Jack Clayton's 1974 version of The Great Gatsby that he'd been commissioned to do.

When he returned, he was the toast of Hollywood.

By the end of 1972, The Godfather had become the all-time box office champion, with estimated worldwide grosses of US$150 million. "I was shocked to see how it hit in that way," says Coppola, who owned a six per cent stake in the movie. He became an instant millionaire. The film also won him two Oscars - including for best picture. " The Godfather changed my life, for better or worse. It definitely made me have an older man's film career when I was 29."

At first, it didn't. He - briefly - became that European-style director he so craved to be, when he got to make The Conversation, a sublime piece starring Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert that arrived in the midst of the Watergate scandal and was influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up. Written in the mid-1960s, Coppola had been trying to make the film for years - and suddenly he had some major leverage. "After The Godfather, they said, 'Well if you make another Godfather film, you can do that.'"

As trade-offs go, it's what you might call a win-win situation. The Conversation won Coppola the Palme d'Or in Cannes. Then, to fulfil his obligation, he made 1974's The Godfather: Part II. Even now, 40 years on, it remains a towering achievement, from fleshing out the back story of a young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) to deepening the themes and characters as Corleone's son, Michael (Al Pacino), rises to power.

Another six Oscars, including three for Coppola, mean it remains the greatest sequel of all time.

At this point, Coppola's reputation - unfounded, he says - for megalomania swelled as he ploughed into his own heart of darkness making Apocalypse Now, his surreal, stunning take on the Vietnam war. Everything from set-busting typhoons to a heart attack for leading man Martin Sheen sent the film way over budget and schedule, forcing the director to pump US$25 million of his own money into the production, as he mortgaged the wine estate in Napa Valley that he'd purchased in 1975.

He called it his own "idiodyssey".

When Apocalypse Now finally emerged in 1979, it shared the Palme d'Or in Cannes with Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum. But Coppola denies it capped the end to a remarkable decade. "A lot of people say to me: 'How do you feel? Your movies in the past were so successful.' My movies were never successful! Apocalypse Now got terrible reviews! Read the Variety review of The Godfather - arguably my most successful film."

Indeed, the trade paper dubbed it "occasionally confusing", "overlong" and "never so gripping as to be superior screen drama".

There was worse to come: One from the Heart, his highly stylised 1982 Las Vegas-set musical, went millions over budget and forced Coppola to file for bankruptcy. Then in 1986 his 22-year-old son, Gio, died in a speedboat accident.

Coppola found no solace in work either. Flops, such as jazz-era gangster film The Cotton Club, were followed by sell-outs, such as the limp The Godfather: Part III.

By 1992 he listed his personal deficit at US$98 million - though turning entrepreneur (wine, cigars, hotels) helped push him towards financial solvency again. But his work began to slip, reaching a nadir with 1996's man-child tale Jack, starring Robin Williams. A director for hire on the 1997 adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainm aker, it took a decade before he returned with 2007's Youth Without Youth, a low-budget film that took him back to his pre- Godfather days, back to that European-style director he'd always wanted to be.

He's made two more films since, Tetro and Twixt, but - at age 75 - he may never direct again. Last credited on daughter Sofia Coppola's 2013 film, The Bling Ring, as an executive producer, there's still no sign of his long-gestating sci-fi Megalopolis. While that got too expensive to produce, he has no regrets. "It's good to be overly ambitious. I think it's better to be overly ambitious and fail, than to be under ambitious and succeed in a mundane way."

The Godfather , April 26, 2pm, The Grand Cinema; and The Godfather: Part II , April 20, 2.30pm, HK Arts Centre, April 26, 7pm, The Grand Cinema, May 18, 7.30pm, HK Arts Centre. Part of the HK Cine Fan programme