10 Fantastic Stories From Francis Ford Coppola

By  · Published on June 17th, 2014

Producers Guild of America

This post is in partnership with Cadillac

Cadillac and the Producers Guild of America recently launched Make Your Mark, a short film competition that challenges producers to create compelling content with limited resources. Contestants will make a short film over a single weekend in late June, and the 30-second Cadillac spot featuring the grand prize winner’s film will air during the 2015 Academy Awards.

The Guild also recently hosted the Produced By Conference, offering some incredibly storytellers sharing their filmmaking experiences, and the event couldn’t have ended on a better note: an hour-long discussion with Francis Ford Coppola. That’s right, the legendary director behind The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Jack, The Outsiders, and perhaps his most underrated work, and one of my favorite movies, Rumble Fish. If that isn’t reason enough to attend the Produced By Conference in the future, then what is?

This panel was easily the most talked about. Up until that point, I hadn’t seen a line as long or a more packed house. Thankfully, the wait was worth it, because Coppola knows how to work a crowd. He’s charming, thorough, and exhibits no signs of an ego he’s earned. Not once did he refer to one of his many landmark films as a “classic.” In the case of Apocalypse Now, he didn’t go much further than saying it’s looked upon more fondly now. Coppola could’ve said he made one of the greatest pictures ever, and everyone still would’ve applauded his modesty. He was that charming.

His 1979 epic was one of the many talking points of a panel that everyone would have been glad to see continue for hours. There’s so much to discuss with Coppola that, even in this great conversation, the surface was only barely scratched.

Amid that scratching, Coppola shared many excellent stories about making his movies, and we picked the ten best to share with you.

Not Even Francis Ford Coppola Knows Everything

“A lot of times information doesn’t get to the director. I was once directing a picture, and it involved this cyclone fence. They asked me, ‘Do you want the car on this side of the cyclone fence or the other side of the cyclone fence?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll have it on the inside of the fence.’ I went to the trailer, started working on the script, making calls, and doing what you do. I realized an hour and a half had gone by. I go outside and they’re just putting the cyclone fence back. I said, ‘You didn’t say you had to take the cyclone fence down to put the car there.’

So often that’s what happens. There’s these absurd time-consuming things that they don’t tell you!”

Stay True To Difficult History To Make a Point

“When I made The Godfather I was adapting a book, and I adapted it pretty slavishly. I thought, ‘Can we cast some black people in this movie?’ We realized the only black people in that book and period would be train porters, servants, and stuff. If you’re going to depict something that happens in the 1940s, are you obligated to show what the social situations of people were in those days? Maybe you have to. Maybe that’ll make the positions all the more unjust.”

Robert Duvall Wasn’t The Only One Unhappy With His Godfather Paycheck

“I remember so many times where trying to get out of a producer’s pickle led to an idea. I think the most dramatic story I can tell on that is from Godfather II. My idea for the end was to have the same time period as the first film, where the whole family is together and having dinner. At the end of this there was going to be a big scene between Marlon [Brando] and Al [Pacino]. We made the deals with all these actors. Of course, a lot of the actors were mad at us because the first movie was cheap and nobody got paid a lot of money.

We were going to shoot this scene on Monday, but we heard on the Saturday Marlon wasn’t coming. He felt on the first movie he was barely paid. I thought, ‘How the hell are we going to get out of this?’ The producer in me went to the director in me who said, ‘Talk to the writer!’ On my little typewriter I wrote a scene where they’re all together and, for the big scene with Brando, the sister says, ‘He’s here!’ They sing happy birthday to him, but he wasn’t there. You just have a shot of Al alone, and that was purely to get out of the pickle of Marlon not coming.”

Never Trust A Japanese Distributor

“Apocalypse Now was really scary when it came out. Artists tend to be insecure, so you tend to side with the people who don’t like your work. What I’ve noticed is that the movies that were very shaky are now thought of much more generously. The reason the thirty minutes got cut from Apocalypse Now, which were later put in the Redux, was purely because of the initial reactions. I mean, the expressions on the Japanese distributors after they came out of that picture were so terrifying. I took all the editors back to the room, we stayed up all night, and we cut 25 to 30 minutes after that. The reaction still wasn’t spectacular, but it was a lot better than the Japanese distributors’ expressions.”

Apocalypse Now Wasn’t The Problem. Time Was.

“20 years after Apocalypse Now I was in a little dumpy English hotel. I found the opening of Apocalypse on this little TV. I always liked that opening scene, so I watched it. I hadn’t seen the picture, really, since it came out. I ended up watching the whole movie and thought, ‘You know, this movie isn’t so weird.’ The times we were living in were weird. The weird stuff of yesterday becomes the wallpaper you put in your son’s room of tomorrow.”

The Gordy Willis School of Thought

“Gordy had a very precise aesthetic, and it was wonderful to learn and understand. His aesthetic was that cinema is told in these shots, and these shots shouldn’t really move. Each shot should have some reason for existing and coming after the previous shot. Gordy had a philosophy that shots were building blocks… that the subsequent editing would give you the impression you wanted, so don’t use the camera as an elastic tool.”

The True Prince of Darkness

“I remember I wanted this explosive scene where I didn’t want the actors to go to the marks Gordy had. Gordy was shooting in such a way that if the actor wasn’t on his mark, they’d be in total darkness. He was called ‘the prince of darkness.’

Anyway, I thought we were about to get these great performances, but when they start to do the scene and don’t hit their marks, Gordy said, ‘That’s not good.’ I thought it was wonderful. At the end, I understood we were both right, but at the opposite sides of the fence. I had a hard time with Gordon always for this reason. He always wanted actors on their mark, while I was always trying to liberate the actors to really be their characters. Now, as I think back, there’s no reason ‐ if the actors are liberated and are their characters ‐ they can’t hit their mark.”

Why Gordon Willis Didn’t Shoot Apocalypse Now

“[Cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro was the opposite of Gordy. Vittorio, being an Italian and a European, felt you should use the camera as writing. Gordon felt it all had to be structured, while Vittorio felt the camera could fly like a bird and pick up everything. In the end, I thought having the expressive and descriptive camera was more appropriate for a wacky film like Apocalypse Now instead of a classically structured story like The Godfather.”

Why Someone Would Watch The Godfather With A Spoon In His Mouth

“If you send your work out, it can go anywhere. You have no idea how the world is going to see it. When I went to Albania I was told the young people in Albania… if you don’t know, it’s a very closed and restricted place, like North Korea… these young kids wanted to see The Godfather, so they went to this part of Albania where there was this dock close enough to Italy. They figured out if they all put spoons in their mouths and connected it to the set, they’d get a very bad image of The Godfather transmitted from Italy. These five guys sat there with spoons in their mouths and a little black-and-white television set.”

Do You Wanna Have Hair Like Jim Jarmusch or Make The Next Hook?

“The day before yesterday I was listening to a classical piece of music by my father. I was very impressed. If he had stuck to that very serious music I bet he would’ve been considered an American composer of note, but instead he wanted to do commercial things. When you’d tell him to focus on the classical he’d say, ‘George Gershwin did both.’

Well, George Gershwin is the greatest American composer we have, and he did do both. Steven Spielberg can do both. You know, those guy are prodigies. They can do a personal film or… I think you gotta ask your heart what you wanna do, and stick to that. You gotta choose if you wanna be Jim Jarmusch or Steven Spielberg.”

Learn more about the Make Your Mark competition.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.