The Craft of Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola (above, on the set of Captain Eo) recently gave a fascinating interview to The 99%, in which he outlined his principles of film-making. Here are my top five.

  1. An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk. I always had a good philosophy about risks. The only risk is to waste your life, so that when you die, you say, “Oh, I wish I had done this.” I did everything I wanted to do, and I continue to.
  2. The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.
  3. You have to remember that it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script. In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” Because there are ways around it.
  4. A screenplay has to be like a haiku. It has to be very concise and very clear, minimal. When you go to make it as a film, you have the suggestions of the actors, which are going to be available to you, right? You’re going to listen to the actors because they have great ideas. You’re going to listen to the photographer because he will have a great idea.You must never be the kind of director, I think maybe I was when I was 18, “No, no, no, I know best.” That’s not good. You can make the decision that you feel is best, but listen to everyone, because cinema is collaboration. I always like to say that collaboration is the sex of art because you take from everyone you’re working with.
  5. When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In “The Godfather,” it was succession. In “The Conversation,” it was privacy. In “Apocalypse,” it was morality.  The reason it’s important to have this is because most of the time what a director really does is make decisions. There are many times when you don’t know the answer. Knowing what the theme is always helps you. I remember in “The Conversation,” they brought all these coats to me, and they said: Do you want him to look like a detective, Humphrey Bogart? Do you want him to look like a blah blah blah. I didn’t know, and said the theme is ‘privacy’ and chose the plastic coat you could see through. So knowing the theme helps you make a decision when you’re not sure which way to go.

Are movies better than they used to be?

In my annual top ten list for 2008 I quoted a conversation with my friend Paula, who had suggested that films overall were getting better. Last night, on the other hand, my co-producer was bemoaning the fact that a movie star nowadays, by comparison with the Seventies, has far fewer opportunities to produce intelligent, politically engaged work: we were comparing the careers of Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, who starred in a string of provocative pictures, including All The President’s Men, The Candidate  and Three Days of the Condor.

So which opinion is correct — or is there room for both? Certainly there are plenty of film fans who talk about the Seventies as a vanished golden age, when audiences flocked to gritty adult dramas like The Conversation, Serpico and Midnight Cowboy, rather than today’s gross-out comedies, cheesy musicals, tired sequels and superhero movies. Let’s look, then, at the US box office from exactly thirty years ago. Here are 1978’s top 5:

1. Superman

2. Grease

3. Animal House

4. Every Which Way But Loose

5. Jaws 2

Ah. But then, a lot of people date the decline of movies from the phenomenon of Jaws, which set the template for today’s wide release summer blockbusters. So let’s take the year before Jaws, 1974. Here the top 5 looks like this:

1. The Towering Inferno

2. Blazing Saddles

3. Young Frankenstein

4. Earthquake

5. The Trial of Billy Jack

Admittedly, The Godfather Part II comes in at #6, but I think it’s fair to say that popular taste hasn’t changed that much over the years. But of course, in this awards season, popular taste isn’t all that counts. How about the Academy Awards? Here are last year’s nominations for Best Picture, the winner in bold:

No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Atonement, Michael Clayton.

And here are the winners for the other years we’ve looked at:

1978: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman.

1974: The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno.

By any standards, 1974 makes a strong case for the Seventies: this is a Best Picture list as good as any since the all-time best year, 1939, whose nominations included Gone with the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. But in truth there have always been good years and bad years; the box office has always been dominated by crowd-pleasing genre entertainment; and each new generation of film-makers includes a few great talents who will produce outstanding, lasting films. Any period that can offer directors as varied as Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Boyle, Fernando Meirelles, Alfonso Cuaron, Tsai Ming-Liang, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Shane Meadows, Thomas Vinterberg, Lukas Moodyson, Jonathan Glazer and James Marsh just for starters has no need to fear for the future of cinema.

What is depressing about the current crop of English-language movies is the lack of passionate contemporary drama, particularly set against that Oscar list from 1974. The current box office is dominated by super-hero movies, the awards shows by self-consciously artistic period films. All the more reason, then, to applaud the triumph at the Golden Globes by Slumdog Millionaire, which is largely subtitled, has no movie stars and engages with one of the great changes of our time, as the axis of the world shifts eastwards. That alone is cause for optimism as we look forward to the year ahead.