Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola in the fourth of a five-part feature… read parts one, two and three.
“[Preston Tucker] developed plans for a car way ahead of its time in terms of engineering; yet the auto industry at large stubbornly resisted his innovative ideas,” remarked moviemaker Francis Ford Coppola who wanted to do a musical on the life and times of the post-World War II maverick car designer with Leonard Bernstein composing the music. The project was stalled with the financial collapse of Coppola’s studio. “I thought it was the best project Francis had ever been involved with,” stated filmmaker George Lucas (American Graffiti). “No studio in town would touch it; they all said it was too expensive. They all wanted $15 million Three Men and a Baby  movies or Crocodile Dundee, Part 73 sequels.” Lucas agreed to provide the funding for the $24 million budget which allowed filming to commence on Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), but with some changes to the story. “Francis can get so esoteric it can be hard for an audience to relate to him,” observed the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie franchises. “He needs someone to hold him back. With The Godfather , it was Mario Puzo; with Tucker, it was me.” George Lucas added, “I wanted to make it an uplifting experience that showed some of the problems in corporate America, and Francis didn’t resist.”
Coppola’s lack of creative resistance was not due to having a mutually shared vision with Lucas. “I’d lost some of my confidence,” confessed the director. “I knew George had a marketing sense of what the people might want. He wanted to candy-apple it up a bit, make it like a Disney film. He was at the height of his success, and I was at the height of my failure.” Midway through the production Paramount Pictues agreed to cover most of the costs for the picture which stars Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), Joan Allen (Manhunter), Frederic Forrest (The Two Jakes), Elias Koteas (The Thin Red Line), Christian Slater (Heathers), Nina Siemaszko (Jakob the Liar), Dean Stockwell (Blue Velvet), Lloyd Bridges (Airplane!) and Peter Donat (The Game). Grossing $20 million domestically, Tucker: The Man and His Dream received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau), Best Art Direction & Set Decoration and Best Costume Design; it also contended for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau) at the Golden Globes and was lauded with the BAFTA Award for Best Production Design.
Collaborating with filmmakers Woody Allen (Annie Hall) and Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), Francis Ford Coppola contributed one of the three stories featured in the movie anthology New York Stories (1989). Co-writing with his daughter Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Coppola directed the segment titled Life without Zoë about a wealthy and mature twelve year old girl (Heather McComb) who attempts to reconcile her divorced parents (Giancarlo Giannini and Talia Shire). The title character is loosely based on Sofia Coppola and described by her father as being “like one of those rich kids you see in New York who have their own credit cards and have lunch at the Russian Tea Room.” The picture which features the screen debut of Adrian Brody (The Pianist) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Produced on a budget of $15 million, New York Stories earned $11 million domestically.
“The thing that is different about The Godfather: Part III  is that Michael is different,” said Francis Ford Coppola who returned to the Mafia saga once again. “I wanted him to be a man who was older and concerned with redemption. Michael Corleone realized that he had paid very dearly for being a cold-blooded murderer and was now a man who wanted to make his peace [with God].” Al Pacino (Serpico) was reluctant to reprise his signature role. “I didn’t know if I could be Michael again,” confided Pacino. “Seventeen years had gone by; a lot had happened. Michael is not the most pleasant of characters.” Seeking to legitimize his business dealings, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) becomes the target of an assassination attempt. “I worked out a concept,” explained Francis Ford Coppola. “Then I met Mario in Reno and [we] talked it through.” Key to the storyline of the third installment is the short reign and the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 and the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano in 1982.
A major rewrite resulted from a salary dispute with actor Robert Duvall (Something to Talk About) whose character of Tom Hagen was to be the pivotal figure in the tale. “The character he portrayed so subtly and vividly had such a place in those two pictures,” marvelled Al Pacino who missed working with his Oscar-winning co-star. To compensate for the absence of Duvall, a new role was created with George Hamilton playing B.J. Harrison, the lawyer who represents Michael Corleone. More casting problems followed for the production. Julia Roberts was originally cast as Mary Corleone (Michael’s daughter), however, the actress dropped out because of scheduling conflicts; Winona Ryder (Reality Bites) was hired in her place but after shooting three movies back to back she left the project because of exhaustion. To solve the situation, a controversial and much criticized choice was made by the director. “There is no way to predict what kind of performance Francis Ford Coppola might have obtained from Winona Ryder,” remarked film critic Roger Ebert. “But I think Sofia Coppola brings a quality of her own to Mary Corleone. A certain up-front vulnerability and simplicity that I think are appropriate and right for the role.” Coppola was unapologetic about his casting decision and fumed that movie reviewers were “using [my] daughter to attack me.”
“Having your back to the wall can make you do some great things that you otherwise wouldn’t have done,” stated Francis Ford Coppola who was still rewriting the script with Mario Puzo when principle photography commenced in November of 1989. “I would have enjoyed working on [the movie] more, but at the same time I felt it had taken on a life of its own.” Shot over a period of one hundred and twenty days, the picture which stars Diane Keaton (Reds), Talia Shire (Kiss the Bride), Andy Garcia (The Untouchables), Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Joe Mantegna (Searching for Bobby Fischer) and Bridget Fonda (City Hall) was originally going to be called The Death of Michael Corleone as it was intended to be the epilogue to the series; the title was nixed by Paramount Picture executives. At the Oscars, the movie franchise became the first trilogy to have all three parts nominated for Best Picture; The Godfather: Part III also contended for Best Supporting Actor (Andy Garcia), Best Art Direction & Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Original Song. The film, which was made for $54 million and earned $137 worldwide, was nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Actor – Drama (Al Pacino), Best Supporting Actor (Andy Garcia) and Best Screenplay. The Directors Guild of America handed out a nomination to Francis Ford Coppola while Sofia Coppola won Razzie Awards for Worst New Star and Worst Supporting Actress.
The classic Gothic horror tale Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was to be a TV movie helmed by Michael Apted (Nell) but the project became a theatrical release when Winona Ryder showed the script to Coppola who agreed to direct, with Apted staying on as an executive producer. A young English woman (Winona Ryder) needs protection from the seductive and deadly advances of Dracula (Gary Oldman) who believes her to be the reincarnation of his dead wife. During preproduction, Coppola came up with the idea that in the presence of a vampire the laws of physics are defied, allowing shadows to act independently and rats to run along a ceiling upside down. Auditioning for the role of the bloodsucking count were Andy Garcia, Armand Assante (American Gangster), Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro) and Viggo Mortensen (The Road); the part went to British performer Gary Oldman (Romeo is Bleeding).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which features Anthony Hopkins (Magic), Keanu Reeves (The Matrix), Richard E. Grant (Gosford Park), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), Bill Campbell (Ghost Town), Sadie Frost (Empire State), Tom Waits (Mystery Men) and Monica Bellucci (Irreversible), was dubbed by journalists as the “The Bonfire of the Vampires” in reference to the decibel surrounding Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Empire film critic Tom Hibbert was in agreement with his press colleagues. “Has a film ever promised so much yet delivered so little?” asked the film critic in his review. “There was so much potential, yet when it came down to it, Coppola made his Dracula too old to be menacing, and gave Keanu Reeves a part and took out all of the action. So all we’re left with is an overly-long bloated adaptation, instead of what might have been a gothic masterpiece.” Richard Corliss of Time magazine was of a different opinion. “Coppola brings the old spook story alive,” wrote Corliss. “Everyone knows that Dracula has a heart; Coppola knows that it is more than an organ to drive a stake into. To the director, the count is a restless spirit who has been condemned for too many years to interment in cruddy movies. This luscious film restores the creature’s nobility and gives him peace.”
Made on a budget of $40 million, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a commercial hit which grossed $216 million worldwide and saved Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios from bankruptcy; it spawned a board game, a pinball game, a video game and a four-issue comic book adaptation with a hundred collectible cards. The Academy Awards presented the Gothic vampire story the Oscars for Best Costume Design, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Makeup along with a nomination for Best Art Direction & Set Decoration. At the BAFTAs, the picture contended for Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Production Design and Best Special Effects; while the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films lauded it with Saturn Awards for Best Actor (Gary Oldman), Best Costumes, Best Director, Best Horror Film, and Best Writing as well as nominations for Best Actress (Winona Ryder), Best Makeup, Best Music, Best Special Effects and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins).
Tom Hanks was Francis Ford Coppola’s first choice to play the title role in Jack (1996) because of his youth-trapped-in-an-adult-body performance in Big (1998); however, it became Robin Williams’ (Patch Adams) responsibility to portray a fifth grader inflicted with a rare aging disorder (based on a real condition called Werner Syndrome) that causes him to have the appearance of a forty year old man. Cast in the $45 million comedy-drama that earned $59 million domestic box office receipts are Diane Lane (The Perfect Storm), Brian Kerwin (Hard Promises), Jennifer Lopez (The Cell), Bill Cosby (Mother, Jugs & Speed), Fran Drescher (The Beautician and the Beast), Adam Zolotin (Zerophilia) and Todd Bosley (Little Giants). Clint Morris of Moviehole wrote, “Williams at his versatile best.” Judith Egerton remarked in her Courier-Journal movie review, “It seems unlikely that a Francis Ford Coppola movie starring the outrageous, hyperkinetic Robin Williams could be bland, but Jack is.” The Kid’s Choice Awards nominated Robin Williams for the Blimp Award for Favourite Movie Actor, and Adam Zolotin contended for Best Young Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture at the Young Artist Awards.
In The Rainmaker (1997), Matt Damon (Invictus) plays recent law school graduate Rudy Baylor who struggling to find work, legally prosecutes a prestigious law firm representing a corrupt insurance company. Author John Grisham, who penned the novel which Francis Ford Coppola cinematically adapted, actively sued insurance companies for a decade while a pursuing a career as a lawyer. Taking into account all his stories which have made it onto the big screen, Grisham proudly declared, “To me it is the best adaptation of any of them.” Starring in the legal thriller that was made on a production budget of $40 million are Roy Scheider (Jaws), Danny DeVito (Romancing the Stone), Claire Danes (Stardust), Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy), Mary Kay Place (It’s Complicated), Dean Stockwell, Teresa Wright (Shadow of a Doubt), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Mickey Rourke (Sin City), Andrew Shue (Gracie) and Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon). Jack Mathews of the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Coppola has infused The Rainmaker with enough humour, character, honest emotion and storytelling style to make it one of the year’s most entertaining movies.” Cynthia Fuchs of Philadelphia City Paper was less impressed in her review which observed, “What’s missing is Coppola’s daring imagination and visual flair.” Grossing $46 million domestically, the picture received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Jon Voight), and competed at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards for Favourite Actor – Drama (Matt Damon), Favourite Supporting Actor – Drama (Danny DeVito), and Favourite Supporting Actress – Drama (Claire Danes). London Critics Circle Film Awards nominated Matt Damon for the ALFS Award for Actor of the Year and the screenplay was presented with a USC Scripter Award nomination.
Francis Ford Coppola was recruited to reedit the science fiction movie Supernova (2000) directed by Walter Hill (Red Heat) and featuring the acting talents of James Spader (Stargate), Angela Bassett (Strange Days), Robert Forester (Jackie Brown), Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba), Peter Facinelli (Can’t Hardly Wait) and Robin Tunney (Vertical Limit). Unfortunately, Coppola could not save the troubled production which grossed $15 million worldwide and cost $49 million to make. It would not be until seven years later that Coppola would return behind the camera to produce his own sci-fi tale set in the period prior to World War II.
Continue to part five.
For more on Francis Ford Coppola and his body of work visit the online home of American Zoetrope.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.