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Francis Ford Coppola talks with the SGN
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Francis Ford Coppola talks with the SGN

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

I'm not a guy that gets star-struck. I've met a few famous people along the way, and most of the time I find they're just a person. Maybe an incredibly talented or wealthy person, but underneath all the celebrity, they're still just a person. This is my midwestern center peeking out from behind my fractured urbane Seattle façade.

So I was a bit chagrined to find myself getting antsy as I waited to meet with Francis Ford Coppola and the Robin to his Batman, Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Bennie in Coppola's new film Tetro.

My trepidation was understandable if you consider that I'd been up late re-watching Youth Without Youth and getting my first taste of The Rainmaker (grrrrrr Grisham). The lack of sleep was compounded by dealing with my day job(s), finishing a review of another film, and preparing for the big meet with the legend himself. To top things off, the interviews were running late so I spent a bit more than an hour milling around the Central Library, drinking iced tea, and urinating every 15 minutes.

All of my angst was pointless, because once in the ridiculously large room filled with a small round table, three chairs, and little else, I began to chat with Francis and Alden and all of my unease began to melt away.

Francis is an unassuming nice guy with a demeanor much less poetic than his films. Alden is an angel-faced college student (perhaps the luckiest one on the planet) who slipped back and forth between fidgety boredom and stabs at eloquent discourse.

They are funny together, this odd couple. They obviously enjoy each other's company and I think they both actually like doing interviews. Whatever the case, these charming men at opposite ends of nearly every spectrum you could put forth melted away my anxiety with grace and charm.

Scott Rice: How's it going?

Francis Ford Coppola: Hey, Scott. How are you?

Rice: Excellent. You guys seem fresh.

Alden Ehrenreich: We seem fresh?

Rice: Yeah, you do.

Coppola: That's because when people ask you questions you don't expect or that you didn't have to answer before, you suddenly wake up.

Rice: You know that throws down the gauntlet for me.

Coppola: Follow your heart. I'm sure if you ask something you're really interested in, it will be fine.

Rice: First question: when did you become a European filmmaker?

Coppola: You know, my generation had two traditions to stimulate them. One was, of course, the wonderful American films that we all got taken to the movies to see. But also this incredible new European tradition that was, for me, coming out in the newer scene in the late '50s or middle '50s. You know art films; Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa, the New Wave, and Rossellini, who sort of spawned that group with Fellini and Antonioni&.

Rice: I never hear you mention Ozu.

Coppola: I love Ozu. In fact, this film is shot as if Ozu had shot it because the camera never moves. I love Ozu.

Rice: Yeah, I thought of that in the early scenes in the apartment.

Coppola: There was a double influence since I was a theater major and I wanted to be a playwright. Of course, there began to be this idea that I could write my own stories and then just go and make it. The question was, who would let me do that?

Rice: Even though you bring in a lot of European aesthetics, you're still distinctly American in your storytelling - until the last two films.

Coppola: I think partly because that was the so-called auteur movement where people wrote and directed. In the Hollywood or American film tradition, the idea of the writer/director had not ever happened. There were a few writer/directors but they were really screenwriters like Richard Brooks or Joseph Mankiewicz. The idea of writing about some theme that caused you to write something personal was associated with the Europeans and the so-called auteur theory that Andrew Sarris identified. I was influenced by all of it because I was in the theater. I was trained in the theater so I was very interested in all the American playwrights, but also by these European auteurs. So I'd have to say with my first film, The Rain People, it was more European because I wrote and directed it. And then The Conversation, which was the second script I wrote but I didn't get to make it because nobody would give me any money and it wasn't until I had gotten a job and made The Godfather that I was able to make The Conversation. My theory is that Tetro might have been the film after that [The Conversation] had I not gotten so successful with The Godfather.

Rice: Do the notes from Tetro go back that far?

Coppola: Yeah, it went to that same time, but there was like half a page, it just said "Tetro" and all it had was a guy staring at a light bulb with moths and there was a sailor coming down the street in Detroit looking for his brother, and the brother worked at a burlesque house operating a follow-spot. But it was literally not even a page.

Rice: I'm still interested in what I believe is a renaissance in your career. I love these last two films, and I want to understand what happened. Were you, like our friend in Youth Without Youth, struck by lightning?

Coppola: What happened, I think, is that I became rich for the first time in my life.

Rice: [Laughs.] That helps.

Coppola: I got a lot of money after The Godfather, I mean it wasn't a lot by Seattle standards, but I'd never had any money until then and suddenly I had some money. [Laughs.] And I immediately used that money to continue my dreams and then I lost it. I would say what unites those films [The Godfather and The Godfather II] is that I was trying to do something that would make a lot of money so then I could make personal films.

Rice: Gotcha.

Coppola: Even Apocalypse Now, really my motive was to make a big war film, the first one on Vietnam that would be like A Bridge Too Far or Guns of Navarone and it sort of became a more personal film by accident and calamity. Then I was in hock, so all my motivation in my first career was to make money. I mean not only to make money, because I wanted to make beautiful films if I could, but from age 40 to 50 I was paying off a $30 million Chase Manhattan loan, so I had to pay $3 million a year or I would lose my home, which happened to be this winery in Napa. So, I think now what's different about my career is that I don't care about my career. I don't care if I never make a film as successful as The Godfather. I don't care if I make a lot of money. In fact, I'm calculating these movies by how much I'm willing to lose each time.

Rice: Good for you, because they're beautiful, especially Tetro. I think it is the best thing you've done since Apocalypse Now. I wanted to stay in the theater after the press screening and have them play it again with the sound off. [

Ehrenreich laughs.] I would have been happy to sit there and just look at it. And the only other director that I feel that way about is Tarkovsky.

Coppola: Thanks a lot. I think it's beautifully made. With a lot of my films, the reaction was always very wobbly. Journalists have said to me, "Are you competing with yourself? Do you want to get back to the successes of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now?" And I say, "Hey, those movies were not all successes." If I have become important, I have failed my way up the ladder.

Rice: [Laughs] That's hilarious.

Coppola: This film [Tetro] is the only film that I can remember that I went to the big screenings, like at Cannes, and there were lines around the block and people seemed genuinely enthusiastic.

Rice: Other than The Godfather films, none of my favorites were successful at the box office.

Coppola: If you took The Conversation, Rumble Fish, two other of the better ones, and put them all together, they couldn't buy that. [He gestures to a candy dish.]

Rice: As an aside, for the period of time from Peggy Sue Got Married to The Rainmaker, what's your favorite film?

Coppola: I like Rumble Fish, but I don't know&.

Rice: That was before Peggy Sue.

Coppola: I guess I like - as an extravagant, mad, illogical, piece - I like my version of Dracula.

Rice: Good answer. [Laughs.]

Coppola: Because it was really weird.

Rice: It was.

Coppola: And then how it was made was weird because that entire movie was made in a sound stage. Everything was fake; it was shot live. It was not optical effects; it was all in-camera effects the way Méliès made movies.

Rice: I can see that thinking back. So Alden, you realize the camera absolutely adores you, right?

Ehrenreich: [Laughs and looks around, bewildered.]

Rice: It's okay to say yes.

Coppola: That's a good question, because some people are just photogenic and he is photogenic. And some people are not. It's as simple as that.

Ehrenreich: I don't know. I see myself in a mirror and I see myself on film and it's always a weird thing. But I know that when I'm filming stuff, there's a really interesting chemistry between a person and a camera. When a camera is on you, especially in very intimate scenes like we have in the film, you really feel there's so much spiritual lore about the camera and stealing your soul.

Rice: Yeah.

Ehrenreich: The experience of watching yourself on film, it's sort of like I'm watching a movie and then I walk into it and it's just sort of there. I am in this movie and it's so strange to me because I've never been in a film before.

Rice: When you look at the film, are you happy with it?

Ehrenreich: Yeah, yeah.

Rice: You should be.

Ehrenreich: It's impossible for me to be objective about my performance, or about the film at all. There are so many things you know that you shouldn't if you just want to see the story. But I know that it's the film we were very heartfully trying to make, and I know that it's beautiful imagery.

Rice: You were subtle and charming. I was very impressed with the acting you did. So, huge first film, right?

Ehrenreich: Yeah, absolutely.

Rice: So, you're going to high school, you like hanging out with your friends making movies, and all the sudden you're cast in a Coppola movie.

Ehrenreich: Yeah. [Laughs.] The fact that it's Francis and the fact that it's these themes and this story and it's the iconography of so many films that I grew up loving and that we're working in that tradition. When I was little and I'd see some film where someone - you know, Montgomery Cliff in From Here to Eternity - and it's black and white and it's beautiful and these beautiful moments and god, I wished I could be in a film like that. Pretty much, nowadays, you can't. So to be able to be in one like that, but one that is asking questions that haven't been asked before, is a dream come true.

Rice: How long did it take you to realize you were going to be working with these amazing&

Ehrenreich: How long did it take to sink in?

Rice: Yeah.

Ehrenreich: It still hasn't. I'm still completely enamored and it's still completely surreal for me that this is what I get to do.

Rice: [To Mr. Coppola] Tell me about meeting the cinematographer, how do you say his name?

Coppola: ME-high MAL-a-MAR-ay [Mihai Malaimare, Jr., who also worked with Mr. Coppola on Youth Without Youth]. When I began this second career, my idea was to go to a place where the exchange rate favors you, that has a cultural tradition, a lot of theaters so you'll have actors and stuff, and that plane tickets, hotel rooms, gasoline, food - the per diem are the big items - so basically don't bring anyone with you. So when I first went to Romania, I went without anybody except all the equipment.

Rice: Your own camera, right?

Coppola: Everything, because it's a system. You know, I brained it out. It's all in one truck.

Rice: I love the idea of you with your self-contained studio driving around Romania.

Coppola: That's the way it was. At one point I started to shoot some tests of actors. I would hire a different cinematographer to do each set of tests. And there were five who could do it, I thought. But one was only 29, the youngest one. He just had something - a wonderful personality. At any rate, I went with the youngest one and had a very good experience with him, so when I went to Argentina, I brought him with me. We were there, a little group of four, and we all took Spanish lessons together. That was how that happened.

Rice: One more question: So you've got these relationships between these three men and you have the cruel father figure, the benevolent&

Coppola: Well, there are the two boys and the woman, Maribel Verdú [Miranda], she's the heart holding them together because she believes that Tetro will be&

Rice: Redeemed by Bennie.

Coppola: [She believes] that this boy is going to help Tetro find himself. And then there's the father who's never seen, but he's felt.

Rice: They're telling me my time is up. Anything I should know about the film that I haven't asked?

Coppola: For me, what it has and what I wanted & it's heartfelt and handmade.

Rice: It shows.

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