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

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Best "Best Pictures"

Awards season in Hollywood has gotten underway; the Golden Globes ceremony following the announcements of several critics' associations on the best pictures and performances of the year. Soon it will be time for the Academy Award nominations to be revealed (January 25) followed by the Oscar awards themselves on February 27.

This means that the blogosphere will soon be alive with all sorts of posts about the Academy Awards with subjects ranging from the new nominations and who will win to famous omissions from previous years. No doubt the tone of many of these will be highly critical of the Academy for their selections.

To be sure, I've been puzzled at some of the results over the years - who hasn't? - but for today, I'd like to focus on the positives. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, so over the next few weeks, I'd like to point out some of the best awards in my mind. I'll cover categories from acting to music to editing; for this post, I'd like to name my choices at the best 5 selections of Best Picture over the course of the Academy's history (the first Oscars were awarded for 1927/1928 film seasons.) To only select five is a bit of a daunting task, so I'll list them in chronological order.

Casablanca (1943)
Is there a more beloved movie ever to emerge from Hollywood? Everyone knows the story of Rick (Humphrey Bogart at his most suave) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman at her most beautiful) and how their lives and loves become intertwined again in Casablanca during the Second World War.

This is classic Hollywood filmmaking at is best, from Arthur Edeson's vibrant black and white photography to the superb art direction and set decoration of  Carl Jules Weyl and Georges James Hopkins - who could forget the look of Rick's CafĂ© Americain?

Of course, the screenplay by Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip, is a certified classic, combining intrigue, romance and illicit deals; the characters they created were among the most living, breathing, complex you've ever seen on the screen. And that's not just the two main stars, but also lesser roles such as Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) an of course Sam, the piano player (Dooley Wilson) - who could ever forget those two characters? Michael Curtiz contributed the most elegant direction of his career, but in reality, this is a film that lives in our memory thanks to the contribution of dozens of extremely talented craftsmen - clearly this was supreme evidence of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This drama about soldiers returning to the uncertainties of home life shortly after the end of World War ll certainly touched a nerve at the time of its release, but the fact is that this marvelous film has not lost any of its emotional appeal some 65 years later. William Wyler's subtle direction and an excellent ensemble (especially Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and of course, Harold Russell) were among the highlights of this film along with Gregg Toland's famously celebrated deep focus photography. The  scene where Andrews climbs back into the cockpit of a plane in a junkyard is only one of several heartbreaking moments in this film. As beautiful a tribute to the American soldier as has ever been made in Hollywood.

Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of our Lives 

On the Waterfront (1954)
A great film from director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg about life in the longshoreman's union in the mid-1950s, from the dull, everyday routine of the work to the criminal activities of the union that decides who will work each day. This is one of the finest on location shoots ever and Kazan has commented often about the brutally cold days during the film's shooting. The sparse, moody black and white cinematography of Boris Kaufman (he won the Oscar for his work on this film), adds greatly to the realism of the drama's setting. The acting - especially from Marlon Brando - but also from Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger, is miraculous.

Of course, everyone remembers the climax with Brando getting up from a bloody battle with the union honchos as well as the scene in the taxicab ("I coulda been a contender"), but for me, several of the quieter scenes in the picture are even more memorable, such as the one in which Brando tells Saint that he was indirectly responsible for her brother's death. This is filmed near the water's edge and we can only hear a few introductory words, as the whistle of a tugboat drowns out most of Brando's dialogue. It's a superb scene from an outstanding film.

The Godfather/ The Godfather ll (1972/1974)
Each of these films won the Best Picture Oscar, so I am combining them. Francis Ford Coppola gave us an epic, the likes of which we had truly never seen on the screen, be its graphic (but necessary) violence or its internal look at crime family politics. The stunning images in these works - the horse's head in the bed and the brutal murders at a tollbooth - are only two of the most memorable in screen history.

This was another brilliant combination of multiple talents, especially those of Production Manager Dean Tavoularis and sound designer Walter Murch. Marlon Brando left us with one of the screen's most imitated roles as Vito Corleone and what a wonderful ensemble of Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall, as well as Robert DeNiro as the young Don in the second part of this film (actually predating the first film, in terms of chronological order). Almost 40 years on, the two films are riveting entertainment and epic filmmaking at its best, as the small details of everyday lives are never overshadowed by the vastness of the subject matter. 

Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood had been winning over the critical mass for almost a decade with his meticulously crafted Westerns, but it was with this film that Hollywood finally admitted that he was a truly gifted filmmaker. This study of how a former killer has to return to his former ways is a moralistic Western that never preaches, but instead challenges us to examine the demons in our own lives - how would we react in a similar situation?

This was a tribute to classic Westerns of the past and at the same time, a remarkably fresh examination of the genre's myth. Beautiful photography by Jack Green and first-rate editing by Joel Cox (an Oscar winner) added to the film's excellence, but at the heart, it was the combination of a brilliant script by David Peoples and Eastwood's masterful storytelling (he won his first Best Director award for this film) that set this film apart. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Olympic Visions Realized: Bud Greenspan 1926-2010

Usually when a critically acclaimed film director dies, the blogosphere is filled with tributes to that individual. But there's been precious little written about the recent passing of Bud Greenspan who passed away on December 25, so I'd like to remedy that, especially as I believe he was a supremely gifted storyteller who left us with several outstanding sports documentaries, the most famous of which were about the Olympics.

There were a few famous Olympic documentaries (most notably Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia in 1936) before Greenspan initially tackled the subject in 1964 with Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin. This moving work was honored as one of the most human stories in sports ever told on film and instantly linked him with the Olympics. Several films about the games followed over the years - he became the official Olympic documentarian - the most famous of which were  The Olympiad (1976), a 22-hour series on the history of the Olympics and 16 Days of Glory about the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. That title became synonymous with Greenspan who would go on to craft several more films with the 16 Days of Glory name, including looks at the 1988 Winter and Summer Games (held in Calgary and Seoul), the 1992 Summer games of Barcelona and the 1994 Winter games in Lillehammer. He continued making Olympic films until the Torino Winter games of 2006.

I've seen excerpts from several of his films and am catching up on more this week as Universal Sports of NBC is broadcasting a number of his works from January 1-9, cleverly titled 9 Nights of Glory. The first thing you notice in these films is the photography, as Greenspan amassed an army of cameramen to cover each event. Given the massive amount of film he could work with in the editing room, there were a myriad of camera angles to go with and as you can imagine, the finished product offered us some pretty remarkable views of the competitions. There were the telephoto shots at the end of the 100-meter dash or 110-meter hurdles that compressed the race into a frenzied mass of bodies (admittedly done before), but there were also lovely shots one didn't often see, such as an isolated shot of relay runners waving their hands in an effort to urge on their teammates or a tight focus on a balance beam just before a gymnast made a move.

But while the visuals were bringing you in, it was Greenspan's feel for the hidden stories of the athletes that made his films so compelling. In the Los Angeles 16 Days film, the director captured the most famous participants and their gold medal pursuits (such as the performances of Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton and Sebastian Coe), but his most deeply felt sections of the film dealt with lesser-known athletes who persisted, yet often failed in their attempt at Olympic glory.

The initial story in the Los Angeles film (after an introductory montage of the opening ceremonies) was classic Greenspan. It dealt with Dave Moorcroft, a British long-distance runner who had set the world record in the 5000 meters just two years earlier. He was expected to be the favorite for the race in 1984, but over the previous two years, he was beset with injuries that affected his performance. The most serious of these was a pelvic disorder that made it severely painful for him to even run.

This condition would come and go and as things turned out, he suffered through it the day of the gold medal race. Greenspan isolates the race of Moorcroft as we watch him drop back farther and farther as the race proceeds; all the while we hear sound clips of the runner and his wife commenting on the fact that they knew he could only make his way around the track instead of competing for gold. Moorcroft was determined to finish the race without being lapped by the leaders near the race's end and this race within a race as filmed by Greenspan is as mesmerizing as the one run by the medal winners.

It's this Olympic spirit of competition and never giving up that Greenspan captured so well in his films. In the Los Angeles film, he also gives us the enthralling story of Japanese judo wrestler Yashuhiro Yamashita, who was expected to win a gold medal quite easily, given his four year undefeated streak coming into the games. But in his second match, the wrestler injured his right leg and he admitted that he might actually lose. Greenspan trains his cameras on Yamashita leaving the ring as he hobbles along for everyone to see; sure enough, his opponents in the next two matches attack his injured leg and it's through sheer persistence - and the dream of a gold medal - that allows him to continue wrestling. It's a touching story and one with a wonderful message.

There was also a brief segment on a rowing competition that is among the most creative sequences I've ever seen in a sports film. Greenspan decided to film this without the benefit of any narration or even identifying shots of what particular race this was; the only sound in this segment is a hauntingly beautiful theme of Lee Holdridge, who composed the stirring score for this work. Who wins the race - indeed even who is competing in the race - is not as important as the race itself, is what Greenspan is saying in this sequence. Indeed, we focus on the little things that makes up this race, from the rowers carrying their boat to the water to the tight images of the athletes moving their oars in perfect harmony. Among the final shots are the reactions of the winners as well as the losers; it is the latter athletes that react in a stronger fashion as having spent every ounce of energy in their efforts to medal, they hang their heads or scowl in disgust over their failure - in this way, they are seen in a lonely, very human light. This is a thing of beauty and after seeing this brief segment, you may never think of the sport of rowing in the same way.

To me what made Greenspan such a wonderful filmmaker was that he realized that sport is as dramatic and as unpredictable an experience as anything in this world. Put these sporting competitions on a stage as big as the Olympics and that drama is increased tenfold. The narratives are there and it was to Greenspan's credit that he found so many little stories - as captivating as the more famous ones as shown by the television coverage at the time - to concentrate on in his work. Few of us, no matter the endeavor, can emerge as the best, so perhaps it was proper that Greenspan focused his cameras on the individuals that fought an uphill battle that while often unsuccessful (at least in terms of winning a medal), displayed the human spirit at its finest.

We should be thankful that Bud Greenspan shared his visions with us over the course of almost 50 years. I, for one, can't wait to watch more of his Olympic documentaries over the next several days.