Francis Ford Coppola, who was born in Detroit on April 7, 1939, had a career that could have easily been the topic of a movie in itself. He was for years one of the most influential and commercially successful directors, but also faced disastrous box office flops that brought financial ruin. At 80, he is a longtime legend of US cinema, writes DW’s Jochen Kurten.
In all likelihood, at some point in a few years, a film will be made of Francis Ford Coppola’s life and career. There would be plenty of material to draw on and Hollywood loves such biographies. Any potential scriptwriter could consider only the numerous highs and lows of his career and have a banging plot.
Francis Ford Coppola, the director whose films have won many Oscars, the Palme d’Or in Cannes and numerous other festival prizes, a man whose films have been incredibly successful at the box office in nearly every country in the world, has become sufficiently familiar with the dark sides of his profession.
Apocalypse Now: a nightmarish shoot
With his studio company Zoetrope, Coppola went bankrupt at least twice. A few of his films took in only enough to cover a fraction of the production costs and Coppola tossed himself off projects, replacing his role with other producers and authors. And on days when he was on set, like when filming the epic about the Vietnam War ‘Apocalypse Now’, he surely would have been cursing his calling of being a director. On the shoot, everything that could go wrong did, with shooting interrupted repeatedly, pushing the project to the brink of collapse.
That experience provided enough material for a film of its own. The documentary ‘Hearts of Darkness’ was produced years later by three directors, including his wife Eleanor, who showed Coppola at work. The director had shot his Vietnam epic while drawing on motifs from Joseph Conrad’s book, ‘Heart of Darkness’, and the result is a film filled with legends. The documentary tracing its creation, which takes the same name as Conrad’s book, impressively depicted the journey into the heart of the dark shooting.
The Godfather makes film history
In spite of the adversities, ‘Apocalypse Now’ became a triumph for the director; in Cannes, the opus was acclaimed and awarded with Oscars. It was the second great success for the man who was born in 1939 in Detroit, Michigan to a musician and an actor. A few years earlier, Coppola had already written film history by debuting the first two films in his trilogy, ‘The Godfather’.
Regarded as one of the leading filmmakers of “New Hollywood” cinema, Coppola had the world at his feet in the 1980s. The movement that wanted to unhinge the old system in Hollywood with its traditional, long-established film studios led Coppola to found his own production studio Zoetrope – an endeavor that failed miserably. ‘One from the Heart’, which he produced and directed, was a gigantic flop.
Small fish to fry at the end
Some film historians say that he never really recovered nor found his way back to his old artistic strength. Of course, Coppola shot more movies, both small and large, but such memorable successes as ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ didn’t materialize.
Although he proved himself again in 1984 with ‘Cotton Club’, the financial damage was immense. As a result, the director also had to shoot a few movies simply to earn money. In later years, he got the cash flowing from another source – wine.
The old wine fan Coppola had turned a hobby into a second job and founded a winery. The Francis Coppola Winery is world-famous today as one of California’s most successful wine producers. In addition, the enterprising, Italian-born Coppola now also sells pasta and pasta sauces and operates several luxury resorts.
Sofia Coppola walks in his footsteps
Yet it’s for a completely different reason that you’ll still hear the name Coppola bandied about the film scene today. If you ask younger people about Coppola’s films, you would probably hear titles like ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and ‘Lost in Translation’. His daughter Sofia, who is now one of the world’s best-known film directors, shot them.
That, too, is a beautiful legacy of this giant of American filmmaking. And the 80-year-old director himself still has a dream. According to the online portal Deadline.com, he will soon be shooting his long-planned project ‘Megalopolis’, a science-fiction epic set in a futuristic New York.