Saturday, January 22, 2011

Coppola on Writing

Francis Ford Coppola (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I recently transcribed an inteview I conducted with Francis Ford Coppola about ten years ago at a lunch in Chicago. The main purpose of the lunch was to introduce some of the newest releases of his wines from his estate in Napa Valley; I did talk with him about his wine business, but of course, wanted to know more about his work as a director and writer.

Most interviews from a decade ago tend to be dated, but much of what Coppola has to say here about writing for film is timeless. Thus I thought I would share sections of this interview in this post. I hope you enjoy the discussion - just remember to keep in mind this interview is from 2001.

Tom Hyland: So you’re slowing down with filmmaking lately?

Francis Ford Coppola: No, I’m making a very major transition. I’ll tell you a quick story and you’ll probably understand what I mean. When I was a kid, I was sort of the Boy Wonder of the theater department at Hofstra when I was an undergraduate.

I ran it beyond the faculty in a way. I had all the keys. I directed all the shows. Did you see Rushmore, the movie with Bill Murray? I was like that kid, but as a result the faculty always had a hard time with me. Basically I discovered that the shows were financed by student activity funds, and therefore the clubs could control whether or not the faculty got to direct them. I wanted to direct, so that’s what I did.

I found that I was in this fabulous position, but I was flunking my Shakespeare class. I was directing one Shakespeare, but the test was on the one I hadn’t read! I remember writing a paper on some Shaw play that I really hadn’t read… remember those days when you wrote a paper on something and you just sort of wrote it all around and you’d embellish it?

It came down to it that I realized if I didn’t do something drastic, I wasn’t going to graduate. So I switched and became an English major to get out of the grasp of the drama faculty, because I was such a counter force to them.

In an ironic way, I went into the wine business the same way I went into English, because the studios can’t touch me. We’re a big company, we could finance a movie. So what I’ve done is I’ve stepped out of there… they control everything, the five companies.

I’ve sort of eluded the control of the studios because they have nothing to do with the food and wine industry. They control everything else. If they want, you can get the distribution, you can get a good vision; they can make all kinds of trouble for you. In an ironic sense, I’ve sidestepped them. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, I began to see the parallel of college. And beyond that, when I say I’m trying to make a transition, is that always throughout my career, I really wanted to write original material for film. That’s why I like The Conversation better than my other films, because they’re adaptations of books.

I’m sort of getting myself back in the ability to sit down and write. Really I have been writing a major film, as though it were a novel with the same time and care that one would write a novel. In the movie business, very rarely someone comes out… it’s not like a new film like Ibsen wrote a new play or even, if I may say, Shakespeare was going to write a play or someone was going to write a book, it’s always an adaptation of something else.

That’s because the whole system works in a way that discourages that. Number one, you don’t get the time. To write a novel, sometimes people spend ten, twelve… well, how long did it take to write War and Peace?

After this tour, after June, I’m just going to be a writer. I’m not going to talk to anybody. If you want me to do what you want me to do through the year, I’ll do it in one week. I’ve done this only once before in 1994, but I wanted to clear the board so I could… you know, I know guys who are novelists, it’s amazing. You call up them up and the wife says, ‘Oh John is working. Even we can’t talk to them.’ But when I’m working, ‘oh yea, there he is, go over there and do that.’ Wait a second, doesn’t anyone respect what I’m doing?

Every writer I know will develop a daily pattern and they’ll know that when they go to the garage or wherever they go, they’re not going to be talked to or they’re not going to answer your calls.

TH: What about writing for the screen? You’re talking about writing a novel.

FFC: Well that’s an interesting thing because I have thought over many years that I would like to write a novel or write a play. But I really came to the conclusion that the cinema is an exciting format and one in which people have only touched 10% of what it can do. Certainly the way the system is now where companies control it, you don’t even get the chance to ever venture out of that because you can’t get a movie financed today.

TH: How did you get the idea for The Conversation?

FFC: It was a conversation I had actually that had to do with how the technology was changing their dilemma. I was talking with a friend of mine that there was this long microphone and you would have a sight and you could hear what someone was saying. And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if you had a story about this couple having this conversation and every once in a while you wouldn’t hear because someone walked in front of them and the conversation was totally ordinary. But then you realized that someone went to great lengths to record it and you started think, ‘My god, I wonder what is really going on.’

So it was a little film, a personal film and I  only got to make it because I said I’d make a second Godfather.

TH: With Tucker, I loved the scene where Preston Tucker is making a slide presentation to auto executives and talking about safety in car crashes. He has photos of people going through the windshields and at the same time, he is serving these exectutives rare roast beef for their lunch.

FFC:  That’s a true story, that really happened.

Do any of you work for the Chicago Tribune?

TH: I write for the Tribune.

FFC: The reason I mention it is because Col. McCormack (former publisher of the Tribune) got into a Tucker with his cowboy hat and it sqiushed the hat on his head and from that moment, the Tucker was dead!

Text ©Tom Hyland, 2011


  1. What a fascinating interview. The idea of using a wine company to get around the politics of film making is inspired.

  2. Maurice:

    Thanks for the comment- very perceptive for you to pick up on that. Coppola has always stayed true to himself.