Don’t Hold Back
Francis Ford Coppola urged young SCU filmmakers to aim high right away. The legendary director was the featured guest at the Vari Symposium, part of the College of Arts and Sciences Vari Italian Studies Initiative.
All the ingredients needed to make the next great film are easily accessible to any young person, Francis Ford Coppola said to a crowd of students at the 2019 Vari Symposium on Wednesday. Just look at the 2015 movie Tangerine.
Shot entirely using an iPhone 5S, director Sean Baker told the story of a transgender sex worker living in Los Angeles. The film offered a window into a rarely explored world for most of its audience, Coppola said. It offered a unique perspective. That’s why it was powerful.
“It was a privilege to be able to partake in or understand these other worlds,” Coppola said, imploring the young filmmakers to tell their unique story. “By sharing what you have and what’s unique to you, you’ll get my first vote of thank you. You’re letting me share in something I normally wouldn’t have the chance to.”
The event, sponsored by the Center for the Arts and Humanities and the Dr. Victor and Julia Botto Vari Italian Studies Initiative, was hosted by faculty members Evelyn Ferraro and Mike Whalen. Conversation ran the gamut, touching on Coppola’s Italian heritage, wine, and—of course—film.
Coppola started the event by answering questions from the two faculty members, but quickly turned to the audience, imploring students to ask him anything about his creative process. For the next hour, The Godfather director was peppered with questions and shared his stories and wisdom from five decades in filmmaking.
Best of Both Worlds
With the backdrop of the Vari Italian Studies Initiative, Coppola started the event by detailing his Italian heritage and the importance of family in his life and career:
“My mother would tell me, you’re so lucky Francis because you’re an American and America is the greatest country in the world,” Coppola said. “And my father would say, ‘But don’t forget you’re Italian and Italy has this incredible tradition of arts and music. So I thought, ‘Gee that’s wonderful. I have the best of both.’”
Coppola is third-generation Italian, born in Detroit—one of three children and the son of Carmine, a world-class flautist who had dreams of being a composer. His middle name, Ford, is a relic of the Motor City—in honor of Henry Ford—but Coppola moved to New York City when he was 3. The family moved within the city throughout his youth, with Coppola attending 22 different schools before college.
“Half the time I was in a place where I didn’t know anybody, so of course I became attached to my family.”
Coppola joked that he never understood how anyone could not be close to their family, and says they still impact him at 79. His father’s unfulfilled quest to become a composer defines much of his life’s work, Coppola said. And as an adult, he’s continued to explore his Italian roots. He was the first person in his family to return to Italy after his grandparents immigrated to the United States.
One Dunk and Toss
Coppola got into theatre as a child because he loved the camaraderie and—perhaps most important—because that’s where the girls were.
But film soon became a passion. Coppola told stories of his early career and spoke of his insecurities while adapting and filming The Godfather, explaining that people didn’t expect much from the project.
And when The Godfather opened to rave reviews in 1972, he didn’t even get to enjoy it. He was out of the country editing a screenplay to adapt The Great Gatsby for the screen, reading old F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories to find inspiration for dialogue between Daisy and Gatsby.
“I called my wife and she said, ‘Francis, I’m here in New York and The Godfather has opened and it’s the biggest hit and there are lines around the block.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, yeah, OK but I got a lot of work to do,’” Coppola joked. “The one really big success [in theatres] I had.”
The Godfather is Coppola’s masterpiece, but he said sometimes directors get too much credit for the performances of their actors. He explained the misconceptions of the actor-director relationship. And detailed just how hard acting is.
“I always am resentful when people say, ‘Oh you got that great performance out of so and so.’ I never got a great performance out of anybody. They did the performance. I was just trying to be helpful.”
Gene Hackman once told Coppola the role of Jimmy Doyle in 1971’s The French Connection was a struggle. One morning during filming, Hackman came down to the breakfast table, grabbed a cup of coffee, dunked a donut in it, took one bite and tossed the donut. From behind him, the director yelled, “That’s him. [Jimmy Doyle] is the kind of guy who would dunk the donut, take one bite, and throw it away.”
“Just that little thing the director observes can mean the difference to an actor ‘getting’ it,” Coppola said.
Fear, Coppola said, is at the root of most problems actors have. Even Marlon Brando had moments of fear and insecurity while filming The Godfather.
“In addition to being a brilliant actor, he was a genius as a man, just in terms of what he talked about. But once in a while [he would get scared],” Coppola recalled. “Actors are interesting because they talk about acting, they love acting, they dream about acting, they know all the good actors, but to get them to get out there and act is hard, because it’s scary.”
As a director, Coppola said it’s your job to help them get over that fear.
“Really, I’ve never seen an instance of any difficulty with an actor that couldn’t be [fixed] by having them understand how much you believe in them.”
Before My Feelings Get Hurt
That fear crops up for writers, too, Coppola said, particularly for those just starting out.
“You have to understand that when you’re young, when you write some pages and you look at those pages, there’s a hormone being secreted into your system that makes you hate whatever you wrote.”
His solution? Don’t look at the pages. Write until you’ve reached your goal for that day before reading any of the work. Also, find out when you like to write.
“I’m an early in the morning guy. Why? Because I like to sit down to the task without having had my feelings hurt. So if you’ve already gotten a phone call and someone has hurt your feelings, you’re dead for that morning. … So I like to work early in the morning before that can happen.”
Film to ’Flix
While Coppola is a legend in the industry, he told the students in the audience they were the ones who would make the next big advancements in filmmaking—not him.
The shift from film to digital is already completely changing the future of movies, Coppola said, and young people are best equipped to take that technology and run with it. He reminded students that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 26 and The Manchurian Candidate director John Frankenheimer did great work in his 20s.
Even Albert Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity at 28.
“Every major breakthrough in quantum physics was made by a 20-year-old,” Coppola said. “The incredible geniuses who began to unlock the mysteries of physics—they [were] all in their 20s. So, what an age you’re in.”
The next great film could be shot on the phone of an SCU student and debut on Netflix. Coppola told the students to start now.
“Be audacious,” like only a 20-something can, he said in closing. “Don't hold back.”
Jan 16, 2019
Photo by Charles Barry