“What’s a to-do list?” Francis Ford Coppola asks, and there’s a long, pregnant pause on the end of the phone line before he answers his own question. “It’s a list of things that you don’t really want to do, or even think about. Everyone you know makes these lists. But how many people get up every morning and make a list of 10 things they want to learn or enjoy that day? Very few. And that’s really what I’m trying to do now.”
Whether Coppola actually scribbles down a running tally of new things he wants to deep-dive into every day is irrelevant (though it’s the sort of thing you could imagine him doing); even in his autumn years, the 80-year-old filmmaker, Oscar-winner, winemaker and entrepreneur is not the kind of person to sit idly by. He may no longer own a film studio like he did in the late 1970s, the decade in which he became the hirsute face of New Hollywood and had an extraordinary run of critically and commercially successful movies ranging from The Godfather to Apocalypse Now. But he’s expanded his winery into a sort of Coppola Inc. brand that now encompasses restaurants and eco-tourism resorts; he continues to publish Zoetrope All-Story, a literary journal; and he’s just launched his own cannabis lifestyle project dubbed the Grower’s Series.
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And the director continues to revisit his old work and push the boundaries of where the movies are headed. Coppola hopes to stage more “Live Cinema” events, his way of blending live performances and moviemaking simultaneously; he also recently premiered Apocalypse Now: Final Cut at the Tribeca Film Festival, a new version of the film that incorporates previously unseen footage originally left on the cutting-room floor (“We’ve put a lot of the weirder stuff back in”) and will be released on Blu-ray in August. And he hints at something else on the horizon — a few days after we speak, he’ll announce his first new film in eight years, a long-in-the-making pet project titled Megalopolis. Even in his ninth decade, Coppola still wants to keep breaking rules and upending expectations the way he did when he was a film student. “The things you get fired for when you’re young,” he says, “are the same things you get Lifetime Achievements for when you’re old.”
For Rolling Stone’s Last Word interview, Coppola opened up about why Marlon Brando is one of his heroes, how he almost invented the smartphone and how Apocalypse Now helped turn him into a world-class vintner.
What’s the best and worst thing about success?
I can tell you what the worst aspect of success is: trying to separate it from failure.
What do you mean, exactly?
I mean, it’s like trying to talk about “light” and “dark.” I look at them as two sides of the same thing. Failure is not the absence of success — it’s a step on the way to success. It goes back to ancient times: “Hey, let’s go kill that rhinoceros. Well, we didn’t get it this time, but we learned how to do it so in the future, we won’t go hungry.”
It was the first animal that came to mind. But I think failures can be constructive.
Apocalypse Now was
initially viewed as a failure; now it’s considered a classic.
The avant-garde of yesterday is the wallpaper design of today. Some of the greatest artists of their day, we may have never heard of them. But the “failures” like Van Gogh or Rousseau, who had to take his paintings around in a wheelbarrow — you’d give your eyeteeth now to have those paintings.
Who are your heroes?
Marlon Brando. He could talk for hours about termites, or about the early Chinese settlers in America, or how shortwave radios worked. He just had this wonderful appetite to understand things. And the people who worked at Bell Labs and dreamed up every major technological advancement in the last 60 years.
Speaking of which — you invented an early prototype for the smartphone, right?
I was friends with Mr. [Akio] Morita at Sony, so I showed him this thing I’d made with balsa wood, a little beta computer from England and a recording device, and told him, “This is the car of the future. Right now, if you want something, you have to drive to find it. But in the future, you’ll just reach in your pocket and order it from there.” So he sent me to Sony’s telephone department. I quickly realized that they were still stuck in the Alexander Graham Bell era. And I laid out this thing for them, basically what would become a smartphone, and nope, no thank you, no interest.
What’s the best advice you ever got?
Fred Astaire told me that his biggest regret was giving up the license to the Fred Astaire Dance Studio. All his life, he was haunted by seeing his name on a bunch of dance studios he hated. He told me, “Never give up your name.” If our name is on something, then it’s wine that we personally like to drink, or food we like to eat or places we like to stay. Your name is your word.
So what advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
“Listen, kid, you don’t know what life has in store for you. You don’t know whether this thing you’re working on, which you think is going to be awful, will turn out to be the thing that turns out great and you’ll be remembered for. All that heartbreak that you’ve wasted about not being as good as your heroes … don’t waste your time. Don’t worry about it.” There were any number of pickles I got myself into when I was younger where I wish my older self would say, “You think you’re screwing this up? In 50 years from now, you’ll be honored for it!” [Laughs] The things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you get Lifetime Achievements for when you’re old.
I’d also tell my younger self to try taking the pleasure I had for eating and transfer that into the pleasure I now have for learning. It’s a lesson I’ve had to adopt in my later years. The trick is to find the pleasures you can indulge in endlessly without getting diabetes or having your wife be angry at you.
married for 56 years. What is your
You have to give each other a certain degree of privacy. In the old days, a woman wasn’t allowed to have a private life of her own. [His wife] Eleanor has always had her own interests, her own sense of who she is. I love getting a little bit of time with her in the morning because I always learn something.
What are you reading right now?
A book called Jacques the Fatalist, by Denis Diderot. He produced the first encyclopedia, which almost got him killed, because every other chapter was filled with ideas that the Catholic Church disagreed with.
“The things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you get Lifetime Achievements for when you’re old.”
You once said that the future of filmmaking will be “a girl in Ohio with a video camera,” and that filmmaking would become both digital and democratized. You’ve more or less seen these predictions come to pass.
Everybody has a few tricks in their bag — the key is to discover what your trick is. And one I seem to have is the ability to see a little bit in the future.
So where is cinema going to go next?
You know about the book I wrote, Live Cinema and Its Techniques?
I do. This was the basis behind your “Distant Vision” project, yes?
Yeah. It was based off of a number of workshops I’d done that explored whether you could do “live” movies. I’m not talking about theater or live television; those are their own things. I’m talking about cinema, which is shot-based and instantly recognizable — if you’re flipping through channels and you come across a movie, whether it’s black-and-white or color, you instantly recognize it as a movie.
So I thought it’d be worthwhile to see if you could make true cinema, with shots and cuts, within this live form. I want movies like those made by the masters of today, the ones who can do one-offs and aren’t forced to do TV series and franchise movies, to be an event. Let’s use Marty [Scorsese] as a wonderful example — there’s nobody better at making movies in America right now than him. So what if you could go see Marty make his new masterpiece live, as he was doing it for you? That would be something so singular you’d never forget it.
You’ve been making wine since the Seventies. What’s the one thing people misunderstand about good wine?
That you don’t need an expensive bottle of wine to have it go well with food. People started figuring out that wine is like music: The more you know about it, the more you can enjoy it.
What made you decide to go into the wine business?
As a child, I never saw a dinner table that didn’t have wine on it — it was right next to the salt and pepper. My grandfather had seven sons, and they all lived in what used to be called “Italian Harlem” in uptown New York. During prohibition, the government, in all its wisdom, allowed wine-drinking families to make and keep two barrels of wine on the premises for their own consumption. My uncle used to tell me stories about how his brothers would send the littlest kid down on a rope to steal them — it was hilarious.
When I went to Hollywood and was at UCLA, I had no money. I didn’t have enough to take a girl out on a date; I lived off of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, which is why I got so heavy! So when I got a little bit of money after the success of The Godfather, which everybody had predicted would be a colossal disaster, I told my wife, “Let’s buy a little cottage.” The agent who was showing us around mentioned that the Niebaum estate was going up for auction. “We’re talking about a $100,000 property, but you guys might want to just go see it.” And it was like, yeah, I wanna go see it!
You remember that scene in A Place in the Sun, where Montgomery Clift goes to see Elisabeth Taylor’s house and he gets wide-eyed at where the rich people live?
It was just like that. There were lakes and thousand of acres of land and this beautiful Victorian home — it was beautiful beyond your wildest imagination. So we made an offer on it at auction, and we didn’t get it. They wanted to build condos or something on it. Maybe eight months later or so, I went to the owners and said, “If your partners can’t build on this land like they want to, would you be interested in selling it?” And they said yes.
So right before I was leaving to make Apocalypse Now — which was also predicted to be this huge, colossal financial disaster — I bought this estate. And I kept thinking, it’s such a pity that I’m going to lose it. Because I have this huge amount of debt hanging over me, and I’m making this movie which, as everyone now knows, was an absolute nightmare to make. I’m thinking, OK, I’m done for. But at least I had this lovely place for just a second. And then, things somehow ended up working out in my favor. I was able to pay off a lot of that debt and keep the place. It was a good thing I ended up owning the rights to Apocalypse Now.
How did you end up owning the rights to it?
No one else wanted to make it! I had to put up the money for it just to get made. As you said before, it had a bit of a strange reception — it started out being called “the biggest movie disaster in 40 years!”
That seems like a bit of an exaggeration.
I mean, there had to have been worse movie disasters than that before my movie came out, right? Come on! [Laughs] But what happened was, people just wouldn’t stop going to see it. It was at the Cinerama Dome Theater in L.A., and week after week, month after month, it turned out that it had stronger box-office appeal that anyone would have thought. Not to mention that when it came out, it was considered extremely weird … and then as time went on, it was considered less weird. Time caught up with it. It’s why we’re putting this new version out; we’ve been encouraged to put a lot of the weirder stuff back in. But that movie allowed me to keep the estate, and to start making wine of my own.
Is there a movie you’ve done that feels the most personal to you?
[Long pause] If you line up all of my movies, they’re completely different — from a gangster movie to a war movie to a musical to a surreal movie about kids. I was really just trying to please myself rather than stick to an industry template of success, you know? So they’re all personal in that respect. Although I resisted doing a sequel to The Godfather to a point where it almost wasn’t made, that was personal, too.
You took the project because there was this father-and-son story you’d had in your mind and thought it might fit the Godfather sequel, right?
That’s true. Totally apart from anything having to do with the first Godfather movie, I’d been toying with the idea of making a movie about a man and his son, and trying to compare their stories when both were at the same age. It was just this idea I had floating around. But I thought it might work for that. And it did.
And now we have you to thank for the rise of sequels.
[Sighs] I guess so. The whole idea of doing another gangster movie right after that one was anathema to me! The powers that be told me, “You have the formula for Coca-Cola! Why wouldn’t you just keep making Coca-Cola?!” I said, “It’s not like that, guys. I’d rather just make wine and enjoy my life.”