Exclusive Interview: Francis Ford Coppola

By Marcy MacDonald

If he hadn't become a five-time Oscar winner, hotelier, winemaker, producer, director and resort owner, Francis Ford Coppola would probably be stirring things up in his mother's kitchen. Ford, 71, got his start studying theater on the East Coast before he moved to the West Coast -- and film-making -- and never looked back.

Q. The world has their opinion; who are you, really?

A. I think of myself as an inventor of sort, but I was trained in theater and film as a writer, director. I started in the high-school theater programs, and in college I became a drama major, specializing in writing and production and all of the university-level productions. After graduation, I went to the UCLA film school where I completed the MFA program in film.

Q. You were born into an artistic family, right?

A. My father was the solo flute for the NBC symphony under Arturo Toscanini... so that was the household I was raised in. My older brother (by five years) was very interested in literature, and my father's background in musical theater in New York in the early '50s led me to become a playwright. In my junior year, I was very active in the theater department, directing plays and involved in activities there, and they were screening a film in the little theater -- 'October: 10 Days That Shook the World,' by Sergei Eisenstein: a silent movie -- and I was so impressed and overwhelmed, I decided I'd take off for film school at UCLA... I didn't know anyone who actually made movies, so it was breaking with tradition to go to Southern California.

Q. You take the acolytes and interns as seriously in your world as you do your pasta...

A. I've always liked young people. From the time I was 17 or 18, I was a drama counselor and would go off to some summer camp and direct little children in plays and direct the big musical between the girls and boys camps of the older teenagers -- so I liked being with kids. When I began a movie company at the end of the '60s, I patterned it on the theater organizations that I had founded at the colleges I went to. At American Zoetrope, I was surrounded by young film grads, only four or five years younger than I was.

Q. Of what are you proudest?

A. My children. My son has made only one film; now, but he's involved in other areas like television and commercials. My daughter, Sofia (for whom three of his organic blanc-de-blanc wines are named), has her own career. In general they are wonderful kids and have made me very proud. And I have had the same wife for over 40 years.

Q. What if?

A. I had originally wanted to be a playwright, and made this crossover into film at age 20 and 21, when I was going to UCLA, I thought I was going to be one of those types of filmmakers who wrote a script for the stage, and then I would be a writer/director like those in the 1950s. And then I had an unexpected big success with 'The Godfather' and became the Hollywood film director. But even with all of those films, I figured if I made a lot of money, I could go off and write a movie. It didn't play out that way, like Woody Allen. It was frustrating.

The film industry is an industry with little interest in the screenplays that I had originally wanted to make. There was an idea that if we could make one big success, with that money I could subsidize the rest of my career because it was clear that nobody else would want to subsidize an independent film. As I was ahead of the great wine curve in which the U.S. began to be interested in wine, and drinking it more than in the past, I fell into a really successful group of companies.

Obviously I wasn't going to make a big movie that would subsidize an independent film career, so this last phase began when I found that I could finance small films myself, so that I didn't have to shoot for a big film to satisfy everybody else: I could satisfy myself with something like 'Tetro' (his latest film), irrespective of whether the big studios thought it would be successful of not. We've all seen what's happened in the film business: big, computer-animated films based on comic book characters. The more personal drama, not based on a television series or another movie is what I've always really been interested in.

Q. Would you have done anything differently?

A. I wanted to make these films in my 30s, and instead I was making bigger projects. I never thought I would have that career: Originally, I wanted to make 'The Conversation' -- not 'The Godfather.' I don't regret anything that's happened to me; but now, at this age, I'd like to focus on films I write and more personal films.

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