Francis Ford Coppola is trolling me about our resemblance. “This guy looks like I did 30 years ago,” he says when my bearded face appears for the first of our Zoom calls. (He’ll reprise this theme at the end of our conversation.) Coppola, 81, might be grayer now, and he hasn’t technically made a new film in nearly a decade, but he has been releasing a steady stream of material. Last year saw reedited iterations of 1979’s Apocalypse Now (which had previously been revised several times, despite its status as a modern classic) and 1984’s The Cotton Club (whose longer cut was, frankly, a revelation). And now comes one of the most extensive and personal recuts of them all: a new edition of 1990’s The Godfather Part III, which critics have long considered the Fredo of the Godfather saga. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (see, even the title has changed considerably) is shorter, leaner, and certainly clearer, with a new ending that ironically lets Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone live and continue suffering indefinitely for his sins. In our broad-ranging conversation, Coppola discussed the new cut, the continuing relevance of the Godfather saga, his own family’s legacy, and the many dramatic arcs of his career — which has been marked by absolute triumph and unfathomable loss.
How was your Thanksgiving?
It was actually very nice. We did it outside, around two o’clock. We arranged the family, the participants, at their own tables. It was sort of like an outdoor restaurant. It was very safe, because the theme is, Let’s do it in a very safe way, so that we can have a real Thanksgiving in 2021. We all made different components. I chopped and carved the turkey and made one of the dishes. Everyone has their favorite that they make.
Which dish is your favorite?
Usually it’s the stuffing. That’s everyone’s favorite. The recipes are enormously different, so it depends who made the stuffing when they were young and what goes in it. [Mine] has bread crumbs, a lot of spices, chestnuts, pecans, mushrooms, some garlic. Basically it’s the pecans and the chestnuts that make it so good.
So, let’s talk about …well, I still can’t help but call it Godfather Part III, even though the title is now Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. What prompted you to go back to it?
A third Godfather was not something that I had thought necessary. But I had a very happy collaboration with Mario Puzo. He was like an uncle figure to me. And as we talked about a third film, he came up with the idea that we should call the film The Death of Michael Corleone. Interestingly, when I decided to call the second film The Godfather Part II, it was considered very far out by the studio, and they pushed back on that very hard. Sequels in America were always called The Return of Frankenstein or The Son of Monte Cristo or The Invisible Man’s Revenge. They always had a title like that — or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. They said, “Oh, if you call it The Godfather Part II, people will think it’s the second half of the film they already saw.”
You weren’t too keen on making the second film, either, back in the day.
I wasn’t that nuts about making [Godfather Part II] when they first entertained the idea. But I always had an idea in my head to write a story about a father and a son at the same age — with the story of the father, when the son is a little baby running around the house, and then the story of the son at that age (say, age 30) with the father as a doddering old guy. And I realized that I could apply it to the Godfather story. That’s what happened with the script for Part II. For Part III, at that point, I had been through a bankruptcy. Frankly, I had a family to support, and I was trying to protect this Napa property, which was in danger. So, I became intrigued with what Mario said — that we should call it The Death of Michael Corleone. And it shouldn’t be a third film. It should be a coda or an epilogue. When I suggested that to Paramount, just as they had pushed back on Part II, they said, “No, it has to be called The Godfather Part III.” And I realized that was also probably because that meant there could be a four and five and … But I didn’t have the clout that I had had years earlier when Godfather was such a success.
They wanted to release it on Christmas. It was a big, complicated movie. When we were ready to shoot the daughter’s scenes, we had been stalling because of Winona Ryder not showing up, and then Winona Ryder showed up and we were able to keep shooting, but she then dropped out. Paramount was pushing very hard to put in a name actress, but they were all 32 or 33 years old, and it was very important to me that it be a teenager; you should see the baby fat on the girl. She was just a kid who had a crush on her cousin, which was all it was. Sofia had been in some little films for me, as all my children had. She was in Peggy Sue Got Married as the sister. So, I asked her to come in, and she tested for it. She didn’t particularly want to do it. She was in school, but she did it. And then, of course, there was an article written for Vanity Fair by a journalist, who, although he was coming to the set, [already] knew what he was going to write about. He was knowledgeable about the controversy going on at Paramount: Why wouldn’t I cast Annabella Sciorra, who’s a wonderful actress? So, when the picture came out, of course, this Vanity Fair article came out. You know journalism — what’s written tends to guide what gets written afterwards. And then they came after Sofia so much that it was just like the story: The bullets that killed the daughter were really meant for the father. I felt that I did this to her. Of course, Sofia went on to have a wonderful career of her own, but it must have hurt her terribly to be told, “You ruined your father’s picture,” when in fact, she hadn’t — in my opinion. At any rate, the whole subject of The Godfather III was painful for me.
The film was quite successful at the time, financially and critically.
At first, the picture had a good reaction, but then, little by little, the opinion of Godfather Part III started to erode. I was haunted by how I had missed the boat, so to speak. What was wrong with the picture? I felt the story wasn’t clear. And the story was really interesting. You probably don’t know this, but at that time, there was a guy named Charlie Bluhdorn, who was the head of Gulf and Western, and he bought Paramount, but what no one knew was that the Paramount studio was [linked to] the Vatican. The Vatican had a huge real-estate company under Archbishop Marcinkus, who was somewhat corrupt, or involved with some very corrupt people. They had this huge corporation called Immobiliare, and [Bluhdorn owned both Paramount and part of Immobilaire].
Charlie Bluhdorn told me all of this stuff to amuse me, I guess. And so I thought, Wouldn’t it be ironic if I used what Charlie Bluhdorn had told me about the Vatican’s involvement? And the more I learned about it, the more corrupt it was. But I hadn’t really made that clear enough in the first cut. A lot of people didn’t know, I think, what was going on in terms of the business story. I hadn’t started the [film] right where it should have started, which is the deal that Michael Corleone was involved in with the Vatican.
It’s amazing how just changing a few minutes can have such a huge impact on a movie.
Movies are an illusion, and the emotion that the audience gets out of the movie doesn’t really come from the movie; it comes out of themselves. I have seen movies change from devastating to wonderful in my life. And those changes could be made in a day, the audience reaction. When we previewed The Godfather Part II in San Francisco, we had a tepid reaction. And it was a mixed movie, meaning the sound and everything was done. That night, I made 121 changes, which is unheard of, because to make an editorial change when the film already has music and everything is really hard. We went three days later and previewed it again in San Diego, and the difference was night and day, which was the version that generally people value, which is Part II. I mean, if you make a car and the thing is not quite in there, it won’t go. Then you do one little stupid thing and suddenly it goes. This is the nature of all complex constructions.
I was watching George Lucas’s documentary about you, not long after I’d rewatched Hearts of Darkness, your wife’s documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. One thing that really stood out to me from both those films is that you seem very stressed when you’re on set. Is that accurate?
I think that is accurate. Being on a movie set is like running on a track with a train coming at you faster than you can run. Because there are so many elements that have to come together, and you’re trying to catch lightning in a bottle. There are some directors — I don’t guess; I even know who they are — whose attitude is just basically, “If we don’t get it today, we’ll come back and get it tomorrow, and we’ll come back the next day. Money is no object””
Usually, the way I put these productions together, I’m also responsible for the money. Consequently, I find that when I have all the actors there, and the light is going, and maybe [things are] not going well, I don’t have the ability to say, “Look, I’m just going to relax, and if it takes three days, then it takes three days, despite the fact that it’s only budgeted for one day.” I take the limits of it really to heart. The Godfather was a little bit like that. I had this minder who was always there to say, “Okay, you’ve got an hour, and then that’s it. You can’t do that.” He was always shutting off the production, and it was horrible.
How many times were you almost fired on The Godfather?
I would say maybe three times I seriously came close to getting fired.
What saved you?
In one case, it was winning the Oscar for Patton that saved me. In another case, it was that there was a group of roughly 14 enemies within my own group, and I was going to be fired that weekend. I fired them all on Wednesday. It was a peremptory attack on my part that I wasn’t fired. Another time, it was the fact that I was getting along with the actors, [as opposed to] the technical people, the jocks. Then, of course, the reaction to the Sollozzo scene. That was shot pretty early, maybe in the first two weeks. That was deemed to be a strong scene. So that had a lot of sway, to save me.
What’s the smoothest production you’ve ever had?
Godfather II. It was the most complicated movie, but it was a production dream. It took 103 days, but it had scenes in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, the Dominican Republic, Italy, and in period New York. It was less frantic because I was in control of the production so firmly. We went to Sicily, and the sun never came out. Well, why would you want to shoot Sicily if there’s no sun? For many days, we just sort of said, “Well, there’s no sun. Let’s go home.” It was a very complicated movie — much more complicated than the first Godfather, but there was no interference. I was the producer, and it went very smoothly.
So you went from the smoothest production of your life to Apocalypse Now, possibly the most chaotic?
Oh, for sure. Godfather II was a really well-produced movie, and Apocalypse Now was a style of movie that I had no experience with. I mean, I didn’t know how to shoot helicopter sequences or such large-scale pyrotechnics. Then I had a lot of natural issues to deal with — the weather, the typhoons, and Marty’s heart attack. Also the management. In those days, the Philippine Air Force was basically flying our helicopters, but they were also fighting a war with Muslim separatists. We knew that all the helicopters that the Philippine Army had were in one place, and if suddenly they just flew away, it was because there was word that someone was going to try to blow them up. There were other things going on in the Philippines that had higher priority than our movie. Although I must say, in retrospect, President Marcos, who was the leader, and Mrs. Marcos, kept their agreements, and the Filipino people who worked on the film were stellar.
You said you’d never done a film of that scale or with battle scenes and things like that, and yet, Apocalypse Now has some of the greatest battle scenes anyone has ever seen, still to this day. What accounts for the success of that?
I think the fact that my technique is to just go for broke and just actually do it. All the scenes inside helicopters were actually inside helicopters — while they were flying. It’s one thing to have the helicopter on the ground, shake it, and make it look like bombs are going off and just missing it. But when we’re in the helicopter, and things are hitting us, they really were hitting us. They were pyrotechnics. They weren’t bullets. But everything we did was extraordinarily dangerous. I thank God a thousand times that no one got killed during the making of that movie. There was one death, during the construction of one of the big sets. It wasn’t during the shooting period. That weighs heavily on me. It was tragic.
One thing about Hearts of Darkness that I find fascinating is that throughout you’re talking about the fact that you’re convinced Apocalypse Now will be a failure. This is while in production. You keep saying things about how maybe in the past you’ve succeeded against terrible odds, but this time around, you’re definitely going to fail — no question.
When I would come home to my wife, so depressed and so scared, I would say to her, “Oh, this film is going to get an F. It’s a failure.” I was hoping that she would say, “Oh no, dear. It’s going to be fine.” But she was shooting a documentary, so she would say, “Can I put a microphone on you, and would you say that again?” I was going there to her for a little encouragement, and instead all I would get was her encouragement to say dramatic things for the documentary. I think that explains part of it. But indeed I did feel that I was never going to climb out of the mess.
In the 1970s, obviously you were like a god to so many people. Do you ever miss having that kind of power and clout?
I don’t know that I really took advantage of it, or really felt I had it. I was always trying to learn as much as I could about moviemaking. That’s why I did so many. I mean, why would anyone go from making a movie in the style of The Godfather, to go to a movie in the style of Apocalypse Now, to go to a movie in the style of One From the Heart? I was deliberately making decisions like that. But that’s not a good thing if you want to have a career. I wouldn’t change my life. There’s one movie I wouldn’t have made because it cost me everything, and that was one of the movies I made at a time when I had to make a movie every year to just keep my house and my household together. I fantasize having not made Gardens of Stone. I wouldn’t have lost my son.
Godfather III always felt like a very personal movie to me, partly because it includes the death of a child, which anyone who was aware of what you had been through would have understood. The way that it concludes with that silent scream of Pacino’s — you really get a sense that it’s bringing everything full circle. Because despite bursts of violence and emotion, the Godfather series has always had, I think, a lot of repressed emotion. And finally to have it all come out like that in that final scene … I watched all three movies back-to-back recently, and it was just incredibly powerful to have it all end that way.
Oh, it’s worse that he doesn’t die, because as the subtitle at the end says, “a Sicilian never forgets.” He lives with the fact that he destroyed his child, which is why he was doing it all. Whether we realize it or not, you tend to make your life something that ultimately is going to go on with your children, and if you lose your children, if you lose your child … So many people go through this one way or the other. The death of a child is something that is unlike any other loved person’s death, because the first person who usually dies in your life are your grandparents, and you think of them and you say, “Yeah, I wish I had talked to them more and learned more about what it was like when they were kids, except all I cared about was cars and girls, and so I never did.” You regret it. But with a child, you’re not just losing the child, you’re losing all the things the child would have been and the children they would have had, and … It’s very profound. And what Michael did in his life was terrible. When he does his confession with the Cardinal, I mean, he is truly grieving for his sins. But he has to pay for them, and he does.
What kind of say do you have over what happens to The Godfather?
I have no say, really. Paramount owns it. Obviously, they are interested in me endorsing what they do with it, but they’ve done some things that I didn’t … They made a terrible video game out of it. And they’re making a television series. It’s theirs. It’s not mine. I’ve always tried, even, to always recognize that it’s substantially Mario Puzo’s.
I guess they’re making a TV series about the making of The Godfather, which sounds interesting. Oscar Isaac is going to play you. This is something that you have no say in?
Well, there are two. The one with Oscar Isaac playing, essentially, a character like me is being directed by Barry Levinson, and that has nothing to do with Paramount. My attitude is that Barry Levinson has made all kinds of wonderful films. I’m lucky that it’s him and not someone else. One thing I heard about Barry’s script is that my character curses a lot. I rarely curse, especially in front of ladies. In fact, if I do for any reason, I give any lady present a dollar for each curse word.
Paramount’s making another one that’s based on the book that the producer Al Ruddy wrote. He was more involved with the negotiations with the so-called mob, and he wasn’t on the set as much. It was really Bob Evans and Bob Evans’s executives who were given the job to harass me and make my life miserable. [Laughs]
As I understand it, you felt that Robert Evans later tried to take a lot of credit for some of the things that happened on The Godfather, when in fact it seems like he was on the other side of that.
Well, he was a talented man, and, let’s be honest, The Godfather was weird. It was an anomaly. He could be forgiven for not seeing that the Nino Rota music was appropriate and that the Johnny Green music he wanted to put on it was not. I got to know Bob Evans as he got older, and I helped him walk after his stroke, and I saw how impaired he was. At the time, he was my active nemesis. And he did take the music of The Godfather and throw it out. He did tell me that if the cut was more than two hours and 15 minutes, he was going to take it away from me. So, when it was two hours and 45 minutes, I took a half hour out of it to show it to him, and then he said that great line, “You shot a movie, but you brought me a trailer,” and he said, “Put back this scene and that scene,” and I just put back the half hour I cut out. So, there were a lot of things which, at the time, infuriated me. But I came to feel some love for him. One of the human things is to recognize that even our enemies … we want to find ways to love them rather than despise them.
Over the years, I imagine there have been lots of attempts to capitalize on The Godfather. I’m shocked we haven’t seen a whole series recasting all the parts.
Don’t forget, Paramount has been through many regimes since then. So, there have been many attempts to do that. As I became more influential in that mix, I always tried to discourage just the wholesale commercialization. Even my own family. My father wrote a lot of the music in The Godfather, especially in the first one. All those tarantellas and dances … My mother wanted The Godfather Cookbook. The rush to commercialize The Godfather was embarrassing to me. There is even a Godfather’s Pizza, but that has nothing to do with anybody; someone just did it.
You know, I have very pure ideas about commercial stuff and making money in that. It’s not bad to make a lot of money, but you should do it by contributing something to the world. If you invent the cure for polio and become wealthy as a result, that’s okay. Think of all the young children you helped. Or even if you make Star Wars and you become rich, that’s okay, because you gave everyone something that they wouldn’t have had. That’s making money in a just way. An unjust way is when you’re not giving anyone anything, you’re just grinding out a new kind of soft drink or something that’s not even good for people.
Star Wars was your protégé George Lucas’s project, and he continued it for many years. It has become this giant property. What’s your take on Star Wars now?
Well, he created something that brought joy and happiness and pleasure — and even some wisdom — to so many people. Whatever benefits he got from it, he deserved and is welcome to. If I feel sadness, it is that he didn’t make the other movies he was going to make. George is truly a brilliant, talented person. Just look at American Graffiti and see all the innovation. We should’ve had more.
Have you expressed to him this notion that he should make more personal films?
Oh, yeah. He knows. I’m at the point where I can’t bring it up anymore. I do sort of think of him as a kid brother. We older people have to celebrate the success [of younger people]. I recognize that my daughter, Sofia, is, in a way, more successful than I am, and people are more interested in what she’s going to do next than [what I’m going to do next]. That’s how it should be.
We critics love to psychoanalyze filmmakers, of course. And a lot of Sofia’s films often feature a younger woman dealing with a larger-than-life father figure. Is there any element of your relationship with her in those films?
Well, how could there not be? There’s only one girl in our family. My brother had all boys. My sister had all boys. And I had all boys — [except for] Sofia. She was the lone girl, and she was surrounded by boy cousins. She was extremely precocious. She was always saying funny things and doing interesting things. She had a sense of design and art. She was a talented painter. I would sometimes do fantastic things — take her on a trip with me and just make her a table of lunch items that were all desserts. I’m sure I spoiled her. But she only became more formidable the older she got.
Do you think your name, your career, your stature, looms over her a little?
I think anyone who has a parent who is that famous or well-known … Did John Huston loom over Anjelica Huston’s career? Did Jon Voight loom over his daughter? How do you avoid that?
A lot of big directors say this: “One day I’m going to stop and go back to my roots and make a small, personal film.” I feel like you’re one of the few people who actually did that with your past three films.
I really did love the novella that Mircea Eliade did [Youth Without Youth]. I was very impressed with that kind of writing. It was like a Borges story. And then of course, Tetro was a film that I might’ve written as a 20-year-old. And even with the last film [Twixt], which was not well received at all, I became interested in it being like a Roger Corman horror film, and I realized that there was more of a personal story. So I’m working on a new version of that. I feel all three of them can be improved. They’re mine, and I’m not done with them.
The dynamic within the Corleones, as an American mythology, seems so applicable to so many other families. The Trumps, the Kennedys, the Bushes. Even in the way that the individual dynamics between brothers will shape out.
Well, Mario Puzo had a big heart, and he loved his family, and he loved his wife, and he loved his children. He didn’t know a lot about the mafia. He read it all in the Valachi papers and in the books, as I did. Even his Italian was nonexistent. I mean, any real Italian knows that Vito Corleone would never be called Don Corleone. You would call him Don Vito. I’m Don Francesco, I am not Don Coppola. What came out in Mario was a natural understanding he had of the family. A lot of the Godfather character he wrote, the so-called Don Corleone, was based on his mother. A lot of those lines about, “A man should be a real man to his family,” all came from things his mother said. He wrote The Godfather just to make money for his family. So, of course, it ends up being true to the family idea. I made the Godfather films with my family. Here I am working with my sister, my father’s writing music, my daughter’s the baby in The Godfather. So, yes, of course it reeks of family. Because it is a family. It’s a real family.
Did you see the viral video of Chris Cuomo at a bar where somebody called him Fredo? He just went ballistic on this guy, and he was screaming that Fredo was an ethnic slur. Then I think Donald Trump Jr., of all people, responded to him on Twitter saying, basically, Fredo “just means you’re the dumb brother.”
I heard about it. I’m constantly amazed at the fact that Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie was The Godfather. One of Donald Trump’s favorite movies was The Godfather. It’s Rudy Giuliani’s favorite movie. By the way, I had the great privilege of meeting Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo. What a wonderful man. I was talking to him because I was writing this utopian film that I’m still trying to do. And I asked him, “What could America be one day?” And he told me, and I was very inspired by it.
Did you ever meet Donald Trump?
Oh, yes. I went to the same military school he did, the New York Military Academy. In the old days when I knew him, whenever he saw me, he would always go like that [holds up his index finger] meaning The Godfather was number one. He was pretty insulated. I was interested in him because he owned those 76 acres in New York, and he had this project called Television City. My piece Megalopolis is about a utopia being built in New York City by a character who is a combination of Robert Moses and Walter Gropius. It’s a confection. In a way, Donald Trump was a man who would do daring things, which appealed to me. I went to see him once, and he was kind enough to meet with me. I admired his audacity and his ability to have a dream project. But, I guess a dream project can go wrong if it started for the wrong reasons. Obviously, today, he has behaved more like someone in 1934 Germany than he has a dream builder.
You’ve been working on Megalopolis for a long time. Is that the project you’re trying to get off the ground now?
Yeah. Of course, the movie business is in a state of confusion. Nothing can be released in theaters, and big films are very difficult to finance. People are thinking more of streaming and that type of thing. The taste of what film you could get off the ground is not one that involves risk. All of my movies, certainly the best ones, had a lot of risks. I was once asked by Kirk Kerkorian, the famous bad boy in media who has passed away now, “How is it you can make a film that gets tremendous creative acceptance as a great movie and also makes a lot of money?” And I said to him one word. I said, “Risk.” Risk is a part of art.
I am doing great in the wine business, but most of the businesses I have — which involve hotels and wine — are closed by virtue of the pandemic, which is either a momentary lull or the kiss of death. I don’t know. But should I be blessed to recover from that, I may well choose to finance Megalopolis myself, or a great part of it. It’s not a little movie like those last three. It’s a big movie, and it would take everything I have to do it.
You also have an uncanny eye for talent. You have cast either people who were at the beginning of their careers or total unknowns who went on to become huge stars — James Caan, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, your nephew Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Jim Carrey — or in some cases, like Marlon Brando, resurrected their careers. What do you look for when you’re casting?
Say you go to a party, and you meet several dozen people. There’s always someone the next day that you’re still thinking about, who stuck with you. Obviously, when you’re young, it might be a woman. Or it just might be some old guy who said something. But something sticks, and you don’t know why. That’s how I cast. Also, I have this extraordinary colleague named Fred Roos who was very meticulous in searching out new talent.
It was funny watching The Outsiders again, and seeing young Tom Cruise. Somehow, in that cast, he was the least good-looking one at that age.
I really like Tom Cruise. And he was a trade-off. Fred Roos was not as hot for Tom Cruise as I was. I said that okay, Rob Lowe could be in the picture and play the bigger part, Sodapop, if Tom Cruise could play the part he played. I personally championed Tom Cruise. And I must say, Tom Cruise was all business. He would do anything to have his part be a little better. He would do dangerous falls. He would chip his teeth. He was a hundred percent invested in doing whatever… I don’t think he cared for me very much because maybe he thought I was a jerk or something. I did a lot of funny things on that picture. I treated all of the greasers, the poor kids, so they had terrible accommodations and they were picked up by crappy cars and they didn’t get the same per diem, and all the ones who were playing the rich kids were in nice hotels. I just wanted them to really have that difference, and I always try to make the cast have an experience that’s useful to what they’re doing in their characters.
You say Tom Cruise didn’t like you. Did he ever say anything or …
He never said, “I don’t like you.” But in the end, he wanted to leave the picture early because he had gotten the job to do Risky Business, which really made him a star, and I held him to stay there for the whole thing. I just don’t think he liked me. Not everyone likes me. Tom Cruise actually wrote a very beautiful and warm thank-you letter after the film.
Who are other actors that you haven’t gotten along with?
I didn’t get along as much as I wanted to with Shirley Knight on The Rain People, but the picture turned out nicely for her, and she became a friend and a supporter. Generally, I get along with the cast, because my view about acting is it’s the actor who does it. I always react negatively when they say, “Oh, such and such a director pulled a great performance out of that actor.” That’s not true. The actor does the performance. The director is like a coach or a person who tries to create a safe environment so the actor feels comfortable to do what he [or she] can, because an actor’s in a tough spot.
Were you disappointed when Robert Duvall didn’t come back for Godfather III?
Very much. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Everyone who had been in the film was, in a way, a star, but you couldn’t pay them all the same as what you had to pay Pacino. I always admired [Duvall] and liked him. Even later, after all that, I sponsored his Argentina movie. I tried to show there were no hard feelings. But I was very disappointed.
Did you stay in touch with Brando after Apocalypse?
Somewhat. Yeah. He had a love-hate relationship with me. I’ve known a lot of great people in my life. I got to meet Akira Kurosawa. I got to meet Jean Renoir, Orson Welles. I met Marcel Duchamp. But if I were to say who were the geniuses that I met, number one, I would say Marlon Brando. He had the most extraordinary thought process of anyone I’ve ever met. He could talk to you about termites for two hours.
Do you remember your last conversation with him?
It had to do with this movie he did called Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp, [which I produced]. I remember I was with him, and he said, “You know, we’ve both been through a lot,” implying that I had lost a son and he had lost [a child]. He loved his children. Brando loved children and loved innocent creatures. I remember I went to him when Sofia was born, and I used her as the baby in Godfather. Sofia probably was like three weeks old, and I said, “Marlon, you’ve been so good. I have this award I want to give you.” He took the baby in his hands so gently and with such assurance. He lit up like it was the most beautiful thing. But getting back to that scene after Don Juan DeMarco, he said we went through some tough patches. I think he was very sensitive that it was construed that I had blamed him for coming to Apocalypse very overweight. I think he was sensitive to press reporting. Though it was true; he said he would come thin, and he came even fatter than he was, and I didn’t know what kind of uniform to put on him. I think he took umbrage that I had criticized him. He acknowledged that we had some tough passages between us. But I totally admired him.
Those of you in the generation of filmmakers that emerged in the ’70s really redefined American cinema and led to a kind of renaissance. In recent years, some have looked back on that period and interrogated it more. They’ve noted that it was a very male period — a lot of guys making movies about guys and for guys.
Well, Hollywood was that. The American film industry had a handful of women directors, notably Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino. But that was it. There was no precedent. We at Zoetrope made a very big effort to develop women directors in the ’80s. I was the first one to hire a woman to be head of production, with Lucy Fisher. Our concept for developing women directors wasn’t to find some actors who wanted to direct a picture, but to look at 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds who were making little silent movies, and we came up with the generation of women like Martha Coolidge and Susan Seidelman. In other words, we looked for filmmakers the same way we would have looked for male filmmakers — kids who were beginning to play with film, rather than Hollywood established persons.
You know, when I was in college, the girls in my theater activities were all always our colleagues. In other words, there would be a woman who would be president of the newspaper club or the president of the short-story magazine. We were shoulder to shoulder with the girls in everything we did. Then when we got out of college, and suddenly you noticed that the only professions for women were either nurses, teachers, or housewives. That was the world that I graduated into. The world changed dramatically on our watch. This was not anything to do with Zoetrope; this had to do with changing politics and social norms.
After Godfather III, and what seemed like a comeback, you made Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A lot of people, I think, were expecting this very stately, serious Dracula movie from the guy who made The Godfather. You went in a completely different direction. It made money, but critics were mixed on it.
Critics have been mixed on all my films, with the possible exception of Godfather I. Frank Rich famously said that Apocalypse Now was the worst production of Hollywood in the last decade. I mean, really. I said, “Was it really the worst?” But he said that. See what the critics said about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or what the critics said about Bizet’s Carmen. The critics at the time, what they pronounce rarely makes sense 40 years later. That we know. I have always had very mixed critical responses because my films stick out. What critics really want you to do is the same thing the Catholic Church has wanted you to do, or the Calvinists want you to do. They want you to toe the mark.
Tell me about the thinking behind your approach to Dracula.
The approach was very simple. Dracula [the novel] was written at the same time that the birth of cinema happened, in the hands of people like Georges Melies — essentially, magicians. My concept with Dracula was to make it in the same style that the cinema of 1905 or 1900 would have been, in the style of early cinema. That was it, in a nutshell. Also, I knew that the studio would be afraid of me doing a runaway production. If I had gone to Romania to do it, then I wouldn’t be able to just go over budget and everything. The truth is, I didn’t want to go to Romania, either, because I was sure that I’d be shooting at three in the morning in some castle in Romania, and Dracula would show up and get me. In other words, I sort of tendered a way to make the film at the studio, at Columbia, knowing that they would jump at it, because they figured they could control me more. But, really, I wanted to do it in the studio.
With Tucker and Godfather III and Dracula, it really seemed like you were back, in a way …
I have never, in my entire career, been “back.” I’ve always been doing weird, stupid things and following my heart. It made no sense to handle my career the way I did, but I wouldn’t do it another way.
I was going to ask you about Jack. A lot of people were surprised to see you go in that direction.
You know, recently the wonderful filmmaker who made Eraserhead, David Lynch, invited me to come and show one of my films and talk about it. I said, “Well, I’ll only do it if I can show what people think is my worst film.” That. of course, was considered Jack. I was proud to show Jack at the David Lynch festival, and I thought the audience enjoyed it. They laughed a lot. I don’t dislike Jack. The biggest thing that’s wrong with Jack is that Big, the film that Penny Marshall made, is better.
I was shocked recently to learn that you directed an episode of Saturday Night Live.
That was pretty funny. The actual night, it was the only Saturday Night Live that had a continuous story to the skits.
There’s a great moment in Hearts of Darkness where you say something like — I’m paraphrasing here — “I don’t really want to be self-indulgent anymore.” And your wife says something like, “But you do your best work when you’re self-indulgent.” Did it take a while to come to terms with the fact that you often do your best work when you’re going for broke, emotionally, artistically, and financially?
Well, I have a talent for putting myself in that situation, and I’m sure I will do it again before I pass on. But [Megalopolis], I think, would be beautiful and even somewhat transformative because the pandemic has brought about a situation where many people are saying, “Well, what’s the future of the human being? What are we meant to be doing? What will glue us all together and make us a happy human family again?” It’s well-known that the climate crisis is not really a climate crisis for the Earth. The Earth will make it. It’s the human species that’s at risk. I think we have to start thinking of ourselves as a family. In truth, we are.
Okay, I think that’s all the time we have. Francis, thank you so much.
Okay. I’ll look like you now for a second. Here we go. [Puts on a pair of glasses.] You’ll be me in 20 years, or 30 years. Good luck to you.
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