The Man and His Dream: A Francis Ford Coppola Profile (Part 1)

Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola in the first of a five-part feature…

“I used to have synchronized movies,” recalled filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola of his industrious childhood. “Most of them I cut together from home movies my family had shot.” Charging admission for the neighbourhood screenings, the cinematic venture proved to be a lucrative enterprise for the young Coppola. “When I was about eighteen, I became very interested in Eisenstein. I read all of his work and went to see his films at the Museum of Modern Art,” stated the Detroit, Michigan native. “Taking my example from him, I went to theatre school and worked very hard.” After directing a number of plays, Francis Ford Coppola was drawn back to moviemaking. “In my third year at Hofstra, I sold my car and bought a 16mm camera…I went out to make a short, which I never finished. It was a subjective piece about a woman who takes her children out for a day in the country and she shows them all of these beautiful things [After falling asleep in an orchard she awakens to discover that her children have vanished].” Earning his Bachelor of Arts degree, Coppola attended the film school at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“While I was going to UCLA I became one of Roger Corman’s assistants. He’d called me when he wanted cheap labour. I was the dialogue director on the Tower of London [1962] and I was Roger’s sound man on The Young Racers [1963].” Francis Ford Coppola took advantage of the legendary B-movie producer’s shrewd inclination to get the most of his travel expenses by having his film crew make two pictures rather than one. “I talked Roger into putting up $20,000,” recalled Coppola who sought out other investors. “I met an English producer in Dublin and he heard we were making a movie – which we weren’t, really yet – and he was willing to buy the English rights… With the $20,000 he paid me and the $20,000 Roger put up, I was able to direct my first feature film – based on a script it had taken me three nights to write. I shot it with a nine man crew and some of the actors who were in The Young Racers. At the time, I was twenty-two and still a student at film school. Some people – including friends of mine – paid their own way to come over to Dublin and work on the film. That’s how I met my wife [Eleanor Neil served as the assistant art director]. Dementia 13 [1963] was meant to be an exploitative film. Psycho [1960] was a big hit; William Castle had just made Homicidal [1961], and Roger always makes pictures that are like other pictures. So it was meant to be a horror film with a lot of people getting killed with axes and so forth.” Reflecting on the movie which stars William Campbell (Blood Bath), Luana Anders (The Last Detail), Bart Patton (Gidget Goes Hawaiian), Mary Mitchel (A Swingin’ Summer), Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange) and Eithne Dunne (No Resting Place), the director mused, “I think it showed promise. It was imaginative…In many ways, it had some of the nicest visuals I’ve ever done. Mainly, because I composed every shot. In the present circumstances, you never have the time so you just leave it to others. Dementia 13 got very good reviews and I made money on it. In England, it was released as The Haunted and the Hunted.”

“I came back after Dementia 13 and I got married,” remarked Francis Ford Coppola. “A week later I got this chance, really on the basis of the Samuel Goldwyn screenwriting award I won at school, to write Reflections in a Golden Eye [1967] for Seven Arts [later Warner Bros.-Seven Arts]. They liked it very much and gave me a contract for three years at $500 a week, so I left school.” The studio work was creatively frustrating for the aspiring filmmaker. “I know that none of my eleven scripts – Reflections, This Property is Condemned [1966] – ever got on the screen very much like I wrote them,” said Coppola. “It was traumatic. I was one of ten writers on Is Paris Burning? [1966], but Gore Vidal [Last of the Mobile Hot Shots] and I got the full screen credit for that fiasco. I quit and was fired at the same time. I was broke. I’d lost all of my money. I owed the bank $10,000, and I had two kids and a wife to support.”

Matters turned worse for the moviemaker. “Seven Arts had appropriated my script of You’re a Big Boy Now [1966], which I had written during nights in Paris to stay sane,” lamented the director. “They maintained that since I wrote it on their time they had the right to keep it.” Bad luck gave way to good fortune. “20th Century-Fox hired me to write the life of General Patton for $50,000,” said Francis Ford Coppola who won his first Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Patton (1970). “With that money, I girded myself and I made Big Boy.” For writing and directing the cinematic adaptation of You’re a Big Boy Now by novelist David Benedictus, Coppola was paid $8,000. Breaking away from his domineering parents (Geraldine Page and Rip Torn), a young man (Peter Kastner) heads to the big city. “I really had to hustle to get that film made,” stated the American filmmaker of his first major studio picture. “I buffaloed the whole thing through. I got everyone committed before they even realized there was a package I’d put together.”

Shot entirely on location in New York City over a twenty-nine day period, the coming-of-age comedy cost $800,000 to produce. “By the time I got to make it, I didn’t know whether I wanted to make it anymore.” The three year production delay caused complications. “One of the great pities was that I had written You’re a Big Boy Now before Dick Lester’s The Knack […and How to Get It, 1965] came out, and yet everyone said it was a copy.” Francis Ford Coppola submitted the completed picture as his thesis to UCLA and obtained his Master of Cinema degree. Newsweek published a praiseworthy movie review, “Not since [Orson] Welles was a boy wonder or [Stanley] Kubrick a kid has any young American made a film as original, spunky or just plain funny as this one.” The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (Geraldine Page) and contended at the BAFTAs for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Peter Kastner); the Golden Globes lauded it with nominations for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (Elizabeth Hartman), and Best Supporting Actress (Geraldine Page) while Francis Ford Coppola was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Best Written American Comedy.

“When I finished Big Boy, I resolved I wouldn’t make the same mistake as a lot of guys – to suddenly get into projects over their head, films they didn’t have complete control over,” declared Francis Ford Coppola. Finian’s Rainbow [1968] came along and I took it, though I didn’t know the play. I only knew the [musical] score. When I read the book [by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy], I was amazed.” For his Hollywood sophomore effort, Coppola found himself directing Fred Astaire (The Towering Inferno), Petula Clark (Made in Heaven), Tommy Steele (Skywatch), Don Francks (Johnny Mnemonic), Barbara Hancock (Cry for Poor Wally), Keenan Wynn (Nashville), and Ronald Colby. “I was hired because they [Warner Bros.-Seven Arts] wanted to zip it up and do it à la Big Boy,” observed the moviemaker on how he came to be behind the camera for the $3.5 million musical production. “I tried to be very faithful and to do all of the work underneath so it wouldn’t come out like what they did to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum [1966] and films like that. I really tried to show some discipline, to make it work on its own terms.” A mysterious Irishman and his daughter arrive in a small Southern town, pursued by a leprechaun. “The whole picture was made on the Warner’s back lot. I shot just eight days out of the studio. The location footage was carefully interspersed in the film and used with the titles. Yet look at what we were competing with. The Sound of Music [1965], where they go and sit on the Alps for a month.”

There was an issue with the source material. “I think I always knew that the show, critically, was going to be received ungenerously,” admitted Francis Ford Coppola. “A lot of liberal people were going to feel it was old pap, because of the dated civil rights stance…And [I knew] the conservatives were going to say it was a lot of liberal nonsense.” Coppola does not believe he is entirely blameless. “Directing takes a lot of concentration, being able to be blind to certain problems, and just focus where you should be focusing. I did that in some cases. In some cases I failed. With Tommy [Steele], I wanted a different kind of performance and he eluded me.” Despite his misgivings about the production, Finian’s Rainbow received Oscar nominations for Best Musical Score and Best Sound; at the Golden Globes it competed for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Musical or Comedy (Fred Astaire), Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (Petula Clark), Best Supporting Actress (Barbara Hancock) and Most Promising Newcomer – Female (Barbara Hancock). The Writers Guild of American nominated the screenplay, written by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, for Best Written American Comedy.

“Nobody else could have made The Rain People [1969],” declared Francis Ford Coppola of the $750,000 project. “That film was a labour of love. We had a very small crew in a remodeled Dodge bus that we rebuilt ourselves and filled with the most advanced motion picture equipment available. I presented the movie to the studio as a fait accompli. I told them on a Friday, ‘Look, I’m starting to shoot on Monday and I need some money. If you don’t give it to me, I’ll get it from someone else.’ They gave me the money and I never showed them the script.” Summarizing the storyline, the director stated, “What it really comes down to is a pregnant woman [Shirley Knight], sitting in a car, literally walking out on all the responsibilities one associates with a young wife.” Portraying the hitchhiker whom Knight picks up on her journey of self-discovery is James Caan (Thief) who performs along with Robert Duvall (The Apostle), Marya Zimmet, Tom Aldredge (What About Bob?), Laurie Crews and Andrew Duncan (Slap Shot). “We traveled for four months through eighteen states, filming as we went” recalled Coppola. “We did not set out with a finished screenplay in hand but continued filling it out as shooting progressed. When I spied a setting that appealed to me along the way, we would stop, and I would work out a scene for the actors to play.” The Rain People won the Grand Prize and Best Director at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.

“I wanted to own all of my pictures,” declared Francis Ford Coppola who obtained a $300,000 development deal from Warner Bros for ten screenplays as well as another $300,000 from the Hollywood studio to allow him to establish his own independent unit based in San Francisco. “Francis saw [American] Zoetrope as a sort of alternative Easy Rider [1969] studio where he could get a lot of young talent for nothing,” stated filmmaker George Lucas (Star Wars) who served as the director’s assistant on Finian’s Rainbow and spearheaded a behind the scenes documentary on the making of The Rain People. “We had very off-the-wall ideas that never would have been allowed to infiltrate the studios.” One of the unconventional concepts was expanding a short film co-written and directed by Lucas, as a film student, into a theatrical release. “George was like a younger brother to me,” remarked Coppola, who produced his protégé’s feature length debut THX 1138 (1970). “I loved him. Where I went, he went.” Francis Ford Coppola served as the mediator between George Lucas and Warner Bros. while the science fiction tale about a futuristic dictatorial society, where emotional attachments amongst co-workers are forbidden, was being developed and assembled. When the picture starring Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence (Halloween), Maggie McOmie (Grand Junction), and Don Pedro Colley (Sugar Hill) was screened for studio executives as a work in progress, it was deemed to be so unintelligible that they demanded back their investment of $600,000. Having already spent the money, Francis Ford Coppola found himself in the midst of a financial crisis which threatened the very existence of his newly formed production company.

Continue to part two.

For more on Francis Ford Coppola and his body of work visit the online home of American Zoetrope.

Movies… For Free! Dementia 13 (1963)

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

  • Anonymous

    interesting article, thank you