Breakfast with the FT: Francis Ford Coppola

The film legend talks about switching from making films to making hotels and wine, idealistic movies and ‘traumatic’ business lessons

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“Little by little,” says Francis Ford Coppola in a documentary that I have just watched the evening before our breakfast appointment, “we went insane.” The film, Hearts of Darkness, was about the making of Coppola’s own film, 1979’s Apocalypse Now, which remains a cornerstone of postwar American culture. Coppola gave heart and soul, as well as his sanity, to the project. He had to deal with a typhoon, Martin Sheen’s cardiac problems and Marlon Brando at his heaviest, in all senses. He watched spending on the film, much of it his own money, spiral into scary sums. And so he lost his mind, a little bit.

But he recovered. Unlike the great American movie culture of the 1970s, which suffered a terminal decline. There was to be no other movie like Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s masterpiece, which won a Palme d’Or, an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, marked a turning point. No one wanted movies to aspire to high art after that. It was too much trouble. Coppola went on to make some very good films. But he also made some lovely wines, from his own Napa winery. And he has built some beautiful holiday resorts. To restore himself to good health, he slowly moved away from the movies and back into real life.

So here he is in London, where he is to receive a cultural award for his life’s work. I am taken to a discreet table in the corner of Claridge’s, which is set for the two of us. We will be sitting underneath a striking black-and-white portrait of Yul Brynner.

Coppola, 75, approaches the table with an ursine gait and a friendly handshake. “Did you know he was a television director?” he asks me as soon as he sees me looking at the portrait. “It was just after the war. John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet were his assistants. And one day he said he had to go off to do an audition. It was, of course, The King and I.” A handsome fellow, I say. “He was quite an unusual man,” says Coppola.

 . . . 

We order some breakfast: coffee and assorted pastries. Coppola orders some cold water on the side. I explain that he is our guest, and he is most welcome to a glass of vintage champagne because I want to toast one of the greatest movie directors of all time properly. “At this hour?” he says lugubriously. It is just past 10am. Coffee and water it is.

London is at its windiest and wettest and I say I wish we were having this breakfast over a papaya or two in one of his resorts (there are two in Belize and one each in Guatemala, Argentina and Italy.) “That’s why they’re there,” he answers cheerfully. He begins to tell me about his Italian venture, Palazzo Margherita, in the small hilltop town of Bernalda in the impoverished southern region of Basilicata.

“It’s where . . . what is that great Visconti movie where the brothers move north?” Rocco and His Brothers, I reply. “Right. That’s where they are from.” It seems like all of our conversation will be refracted through the history of cinema, which suits me fine.

“It was this mythical place in our family,” he continues. “I had this great character of a grandfather, Agostino, who was born in Bernalda, and he used to tell all of his seven sons all these great stories from the past. And so as a 17-year-old I resolved to visit the place. No one from the family had ever been back.”

It was Coppola’s grandparents who emigrated to the US, and his father Carmine became a flautist for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. His concerts for The Ford Sunday Evening Hour gave Francis his middle name.

“I did an early job for [director] Roger Corman which involved going to Europe. He enabled me to buy a car there and bring it back to the US. I had just won a writing prize and bought this Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider for $2,200. It was a fabulous car.” One of the most beautiful cars ever, I say. He looks momentarily misty. “Some day I am going to have to get one again.

“Then, later, after The Godfather, I was famous in Italy so they received me as an honorary citizen. And, of course, in that small town, this person is a cousin, that person is a cousin. The whole town is ‘a cousin’. Or so they said.” The cousins persuaded him to buy the palazzo.

It was the stresses of making movies that indirectly led him to buy his first resort, he says. “I had just made Apocalypse Now [in the Philippines]. They say that when David Lean made Lawrence of Arabia, he was so embedded in the desert that he almost couldn’t bear to leave it. And I had that with the jungle. It is a very misunderstood place. It seems wild and frightening but it is, in fact, a very safe place. You can find what you need, you are protected.

“So I stayed a little longer than I thought. And I found this beautiful island there. I wanted to buy it but my wife said we should find a place closer to California.” In the end they went to Belize and bought a small retreat, which soon turned into a boutique hotel.

“It was like a surrogate movie project,” says Coppola. “A hotel is a show, with costumes, staff, an entire cast of characters. It was very familiar to me. It was like being at the theatre.”

It must be easier to open a hotel than make movies, I say. There is no supersized Marlon Brando to contend with.

“Not really. The manager goes crazy and runs off with the chef. Things like that.” He chomps on a croissant. I say I thought that only happened in movies. “Anything that is some kind of show, where people from entirely different fields are brought together, it’s very hard to get it right.”

I imagine, at that time, he must have been exhausted. “Well, you know I had made the first Godfather, The Conversation, the second Godfather and Apocalypse Now, all in the space of a few years. And I was kicking and screaming the whole time. It wasn’t like any of them was easy. I didn’t do them because I was so in demand. I did them the hard way.

“And then I was struck by the fact that I had had what seemed to be an unusual amount of success but I still couldn’t get what I wanted. It was still very hard to get anyone to listen to me.” The film business, he says, had gradually “lost its daring”. Entertainment became the key word. “All those wonderful people slowly faded away: Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner, Sir Alexander Korda — he lived in this hotel, which is why I will always love Claridge’s. But the fun of the movies started to go.

“I got into the film business, not to make a fortune, or to become famous, but to make those movies we used to see in Europe in the 1950s. Cinema was this magical extension of the theatre. It was a new art form. And I was very idealistic about the kind of films I wanted to make.”

 . . . 

The films Coppola wanted, and somehow managed, to make in the 1970s are cultural beacons of that turbulent decade. The four he mentions so fleetingly received 32 Oscar nominations between them, winning 11. But the next film he made, 1982’s musical fantasy One from the Heart, was not only an indulgent oddity but a box office disaster, forcing Coppola to sell his Zoetrope studio.

“I had a couple of serious financial mishaps, notably one big bankruptcy,” says Coppola when I ask him about that time. “Bankruptcy is a funny thing. It’s not something that just happens once. It is like an earthquake, it has aftershocks. It was very traumatic for me. Everything I was worth was suddenly pledged over to Chase Manhattan Bank.”

He made a deal with the bank, which allowed him to keep the Napa winery, which he had bought in 1975, provided he made one major payment to the bank every year. A string of movies throughout the 1980s, of varying quality, kept him afloat. But he fell out of love with film-making. “Rather than just get a job to make some movie about the Crusades — and there is nothing wrong with being a professional director — I always wanted to do something more personal, like a novelist,” he says.

“But by the time I had done these pictures, people were less and less interested in anything personal. Even now, there are wonderful directors out there trying to scam money and subsidies; it is not easy for any of them.” The financial troubles served as a kind of epiphany for him. “I realised that [the point of] life was to pursue things that bore your enthusiasms. That gave you the chance to get some pleasure.”

 . . . 

A waiter arrives on cue, to give Coppola the chance to expand on his point. Offered another drink, he decides to have a cappuccino instead of another americano. I join him. “You see, the way we just went from classic coffees to cappuccinos?” he asks with a big smile on his face. “That’s how I went from movies to the hotel business. It seemed right. That’s how I did it. That’s the way I ran it.”

The coffee switch instantly puts him in more expansive mood. “You know, life is romantic. All these things, the unity of the arts, food, and people coming together, to see a beautiful show or have a good meal, these are the joys that we are blessed with. People find it unusual because I am an artist and also a businessman but all I am doing is following my instincts for things that seem to be fun and pleasurable. I don’t have any secret formulas.”

One of the keys to Coppola’s contentment is, famously, his regard for his family. Not only is it something of a movie dynasty (the extended family includes Talia Shire, Nicolas Cage, Jason Schwartzman and Coppola’s own children Roman and Sofia) but they appear on the labels of his wines, and always appear extremely close. He has been married to his wife Eleanor, who made the Hearts of Darkness documentary, for more than 50 years.

There is a clip from a press conference for Apocalypse Now that shows Coppola taking the chair with his children alongside him. “I always had that policy,” says Coppola. “Wherever we went to work, I took the children out of high school and we went together. And I was right. Because I knew that six months in some country soon became a year and a half, and the family would not survive that.”

Taking a child out of school in London is as logistically taxing as making Apocalypse Now, I tell him. “The same in New York. I’m sure I fractured their formal education. But they picked up some stuff. When Sofia was four years old, she was speaking some Chinese because the only school that would take her was a Chinese school. It was like a circus.

“You know, when people tell me that family is so important, I scratch my head. Isn’t it for everybody?”

This has a flip side, I say, thinking of a certain Italian-American who has his brother terminated for “going against the family”. “You know what they say about Italian Alzheimer’s?” quips Coppola instantly. “You forget everything but the grudge.”

He tells me that the flagship wine in the Coppola estate is named after his uncle Archimedes, who was himself named after the ancient Greek mathematician by Coppola’s grandfather Agostino. “That was his first son. And that was a big deal in a family in which every first son was called Carmine, and his first son Agostino, for longer than you know. But he so admired Archimedes. He, correctly, thought he was the greatest scientific mind the world had ever produced.” It was an unusual tribute, I say. “He was quite an unusual man.”

This love of the family permeates Coppola’s Godfather movies and gives them both their operatic splendour and their emotional resonance. Anyone can make a gangster movie; hardly anyone can make us secretly love the baddest gangster in the movie.

Coppola caught a break when he made his greatest movie, he says. A previous film about the Mafia, The Brotherhood (1968), had been a flop. “I guess that everyone was offered The Godfather,” he recalls. “The only reason I got to do it was that I was cheap, I was young, I was Italian and I was a screenwriter. It was a total stroke of luck. I had no business having such an important movie. I was always on the verge of getting fired. They didn’t like my ideas.”

That was then, and this is now. Only the most scrupulous of movie followers can today name Coppola’s latest film (it was 2011’s Twixt). But the Francis Ford Coppola Presents brand comprises pasta sauces, a literary magazine and cafés, as well as the wines and resorts. Everyone likes his ideas. Having fallen in love with his fiercely engaging movies, we are buying into his preferred lifestyle: a glass of white, a plate of spaghetti, a nap in the shade of a hot sun. It could be an allegory of what has happened to western culture in the past 40 years; or just the tempering of a happily mellowed maestro who nearly lost his mind to his art but didn’t allow it to destroy him. Quite an unusual man, as he likes to say.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Illustration by James Ferguson

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