One of America’s most erratic, energetic and controversial filmmakers, Francis Ford Coppola has enjoyed stunning triumphs and endured monumental setbacks, then resurrected himself, rising Phoenix-like to begin the process over again. Known primarily for his successful “Godfather” trilogy (“The Godfather” 1972, “The Godfather, Part II” 1974 and “The Godfather, Part III” 1990), Coppola breathed life into a generation of filmmakers, promoting and subsidizing the likes of George Lucas, John Milius, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, while indirectly influencing Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. He continued his patriarchy as an executive producer, championing the work of Wim Wenders, Paul Schrader and Akira Kurosawa, to name a few, and played an important part in the restoration of Abel Gance’s classic silent film, “Napoleon” (1927). The quality of his directing fell off throughout the 80s and 90s, however, and the big studios, remembering his colossal box-office failures, became leery of backing his more personal projects, preferring instead to employ him as a hired gun.
Winner of five Academy Awards before he was 40, Coppola grew up in a creative, supportive Italian-American family. His father Carmine was a flutist who during the course of his career played in several orchestras including Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, which he often conducted on tour. His mother, the former Italia Pennino, had been an actress. Although his fascination with film had begun early (he made his first movies at the age of 10 with his father’s 8 mm camera and tape recorder), he chose to seek a rounded theatrical education “because Eisenstein had started like that” and attended Hofstra University, where he capped his collegiate career by conceiving, producing and directing the first play ever written and staged entirely by Hofstra students. From there, Coppola entered UCLA film school in 1960, eventually earning a Masters Degree (1967), but his discontent with the classroom led him to direct some soft-core porn films, then hire himself out to low-budget king Roger Corman. His first job for Corman was to dub and re-edit a Russian science fiction film, turning it into a sex-and-violence monster movie entitled “Battle Beyond the Stars” (1962).
Coppola directed his first feature, the unremarkable Corman-produced “Dementia 13”, while in Ireland in the summer of 1963, and, on the strength of his Samuel Goldwyn award-winning UCLA screenplay “Pilma Pilma”, secured a job as a scriptwriter with Seven Arts. He made significant contributions to “Is Paris Burning?” (1966) and “This Property is Condemned” (1966) and eventually won his first Oscar for co-writing Franklin Schaffner’s “Patton” (1970). Frustrated at not seeing his vision on the screen, though, Coppola bought the rights to a David Benedictus novel and fused it with a story idea of his own. His adaptation of “You’re a Big Boy Now” (1966) became his UCLA thesis project and received a theatrical release via Warner Brothers. Critics praised the funny and fast-paced film, applauding the appearance of a new director of great talent and promise, but a more polished movie with a related theme, Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” (1967), dwarfed it at the box office.
Coppola agreed to direct a screen version of “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968), a musical starring Fred Astaire, and though it bombed on release (the studio blew it up from 35mm to 70mm chopping off Astaire’s feet), it did introduce him to George Lucas who would work as a production assistant on his next movie, “The Rain People” (1969). Written, directed and financed by Coppola (until his money ran out and the studio had to help out), it starred Shirley Knight as a distressed housewife who takes to the road and befriends along the way the brain-damaged football player James Caan (who had also attended Hofstra). Coppola next launched American Zoetrope as an idealistic alternative to the way studios operated. The company intended to produce mainstream pictures to finance “off-the-wall” projects and give first-time directors their chance to direct, but when Warner Bros. disliked Zoetrope’s initial offering, Lucas’ futuristic “THX-1138”, and demanded their money back, Coppola was $300,000 in debt and unsure of his future as a filmmaker.
“The Godfather” changed all that, but only after Coppola had fought tooth and nail for the cast of his choice and narrowly avoided dismissal by a skittish Paramount that feared he was in over his head. Thanks to producer Bob Evans’ faith in him and a timely Oscar for “Patton”, Coppola survived to bring his monumental epic to the screen, earning his second Oscar for the screenplay he co-adapted with Mario Puzo from the latter’s bestseller. One of the highest-grossing films in movie history, “The Godfather” captured the country’s imagination by skirting the traditional gangster territory and reinventing itself as a family chronicle. When family is so strong, so loving, it does not matter that their trade is slaughter and graft. Coppola’s brilliant opening juxtaposed the brightly-lit wedding outside with the dark interior of the Don’s court, and the finale intercut murder with baptism, closing a visual feast of nearly three hours containing not an ounce of fat. Marlon Brando presided over the festivities (and rekindled his career), aided ably by an extraordinary supporting cast, including Caan, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Coppola’s sister Talia Shire and Diane Keaton. “The Godfather” ushered in the era of the blockbuster, making Coppola a rich man, and his career soared on the wings of his revived prospects.
Coppola launched his friend Lucas’ career, producing the 60s nostalgia flick “American Graffiti” (1973) and, following work on the screenplay for “The Great Gatsby” (1974), directed the “The Conversation” (1974), his own script about a lonely surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) whose obsessive eavesdropping leads to tragedy. The film, which brought Coppola two Oscar nominations and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, featured the high-tech gadgetry that would fascinate him throughout his career. The real star turned out to be sound designer Walter Murch who, besides providing the superb soundtrack, also ran post-production when the director had to abandon the project to work on “Godfather II”. Coppola again co-wrote with Puzo that hugely successful sequel, winner of six Oscars, including three for Coppola as producer, director and writer. “Godfather II” daringly intercut the story of the rise to power of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), a prelude to the first film, with the parallel, contrasting story of his son Michael’s ascendance 30 years later. (Both parts of “The Godfather” were later recut in chronological sequence for a TV miniseries.)
By the end of 1975, Coppola had begun work on “Apocalypse Now” (1979)–a version of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” updated to the Vietnam War. John Milius had written the original script years earlier under Coppola’s sponsorship and George Lucas was to have directed it before Coppola assumed control. The film tracked a CIA operative (Martin Sheen) traveling up a Cambodian river in search of the legendary Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who had established a bizarre empire deep in the jungle. Everything that could conceivably go wrong during production went wrong. Coppola replaced his leading actor after shooting began, the replacement Sheen had a heart attack delaying the production at length and Typhoon Olga destroyed the sets. The director’s personal journey into self mirrored the story he was filming. The cost overrun was staggering, and Coppola had to mortgage everything he owned to cover some $16 million of the $30 million budget. His wife who had gone to the Philippines to make a documentary about the process wrote of her husband in a March 1977 entry in her diary: “I guess he has had a sort of nervous breakdown.” Coppola has remarked of the experience that “little by little we went crazy.” After many months of difficult jungle shooting and strenuous editing, the long-awaited production enjoyed an emotional premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or. Parts of the movie (like the helicopters attacking to the music of Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries”) were sheer genius, and despite its overall lack of unity, “Apocalypse Now” was undeniably visually breathtaking and a modest hit at the box office, winning two Oscars and once again saving Coppola from ruin. It also took its toll on the director, perhaps doing irreparable damage to his psyche and permanently undermining his confidence.
“Apocalypse Now” marked the end of Coppola’s “golden period”, and a succession of box-office disappointments ensued, his films often suffering as a result of his megalomania. The $26 million production of the movie musical “One From the Heart” (1982) was a major financial and critical bomb, due largely to Coppola’s preoccupation with costly high-tech gadgets and experimental computer and video techniques at the expense of storytelling. “One from the Heart” brought him to the brink of personal as well as business bankruptcy, and he would spend the rest of the decade working to pay his debts. (Zoetrope Studios finally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1990). In 1983, Coppola directed two adaptations of teenage-themed novels by S.E. Hinton, “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish”, both criticized as overly-stylized and lacking in strong narrative impact. Both also lost money. Nevertheless, they captured the writer’s world, as Coppola had intended, and provided screen introductions for an astonishing number of young actors who would, within a few years, dominate the Hollywood scene, including Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Christopher Penn and Diane Lane.
Coppola’s run of bad luck continued with “The Cotton Club” (1984), an ambitious musical set in the famous Harlem jazz club of the 1920s. Despite putting the script through nearly 40 drafts before the trouble-plagued production began, Coppola was hamstrung by the predetermined character of white cornetist Dixie Dwyer (dictated by Richard Gere’s contract), which led to an improbable and incoherent story. Coupled with that was his unmitigated fascination with huge state-of-the-art production methods that ballooned costs to $48 million and had him spending most of his time in his customized high-tech trailer, the ‘Silverfish’, surrounded by cameras, monitors, consoles and computers. It was a pure recipe for disaster. Still, he continued his love affair with technology for his TV directing debut, “Rip Van Winkle” (Showtime, 1985), crafting many of the fantastic scenes with computer imaging systems, and he was really able to indulge himself making “Captain Eo” (1985), a 12-minute space fantasy for Disney theme parks starring Michael Jackson and produced by Lucas.
Coppola next helmed the light time-travel comedy, “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986), and though it suffered for its inevitable comparisons to “Back to the Future” (1985), it managed a respectable box office. In spite of a weak script, Coppola constructed the tale around a series of poignant encounters, the most powerful (i.e., when Peggy sees her grandparents as they were 25 years earlier) causing the audience to choke-up right along with the time-traveling heroine. A high school student himself in the 50s, Coppola effectively conveyed an authentic look and feel for the period. The film solidified Kathleen Turner’s reputation and made a star of Coppola’s nephew, Nicolas Cage, although some thought him grating in his turn as Peggy Sue’s husband. An aura of tragedy surrounded “Gardens of Stone” (1987), a well-acted Vietnam War-era drama played out on the home front, which pleased some critics but not audiences. During its filming, Coppola’s son Gian-Carlo was killed in a boating accident. The far more impressive “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) starred Jeff Bridges in the role of the real-life 40s auto-industry visionary. Coppola had been planning to make this film since the early 70s, when he had become fascinated with the story of Tucker, the brash but intelligent entrepreneur who dared to challenge the Detroit establishment. The story is not without parallels to Coppola’s own career in Hollywood but, more importantly, “Tucker” focused attention on entrepreneurship and innovation at a time in American history when those qualities were sorely lacking. Like “Peggy Sue”, “Tucker” also revealed a striking sense of period. Because Coppola used the cinematic conventions of the 40s to capture the look and feel of the time, “Tucker” was as much about his (and our) memory of the period as it was about the period itself.
Coppola was working in Rome when the opportunity arose to direct “Godfather III”. In desperate need of a hit, Coppola acceded to Paramount chairman Frank Mancuso’s pleas for a third installment in the series. Bargaining for full artistic control over the project, he began what was to become a $55 million rumor-bound production in November 1989, reuniting screenwriters Coppola and Puzo and stars Pacino, Keaton and Shire. Coppola’s decision to cast daughter Sofia in a pivotal role backfired; her failure to capture the part was widely cited as one of the film’s worst flaws. (Winona Ryder has originally been cast but withdrew because of illness). Studio pressure to meet a December release terminated the editing process prematurely, leaving essentially an unfinished product that seemed aimless and uncertain. The revised “Godfather III” available in the videotape version of all three parts of “The Godfather”, though not as good as the first two parts, is far superior to the theatrical release, thanks to Walter Murch’s additional cutting during assembly. Autumnal, sad, and full of confessions, it is one of Coppola’s most candid films and better than originally believed.
Coppola scored a huge success at the helm of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) with the help of a stunning production design (Thomas Sanders) and superb cinematography (Michael Ballhaus) and music (Wojciech Kilar). A sumptuous visual extravaganza that more than compensated for lapses in the story, the film grossed $200 million worldwide and carried home Oscars for makeup, sound effects editing and costume design. His 9-year old granddaughter’s asking when he was going to make a movie for kids influenced his next directorial choice. “Jack” (1996) starred Robin Williams as a child with a disorder that caused him to grow four times faster than normal and have the appearance of a 40-year-old man when he was only 10. The fable, a kind of “Peggy Sue Got Married” premise dealing with Jack’s diminished life expectancy, appealed to Coppola for its parallel to his son Gian-Carlo’s tragically short but full life. He also related to Jack, the outsider, having felt cut off from other children as a result of a bout with polio at the age of 9. Regrettably, this movie, which he dedicated to Gia, and for which he had so much personal feeling, did not resonate with audiences, pulling up lame at the box office. He picked a proven winner as his next mount, scripting and helming the film adaptation of “John Grisham’s ‘The Rainmaker'” (1997), one of the best of the Grisham adaptations but still lacking the fire and inspiration of Coppola’s finer works. Coppola planned a return to the director’s chair after taking eight years off, to helm the self-financed big-screen adaptation of “Youth Without Youth.”
Throughout Coppola’s career, shaky business ventures magnified the problems of his box-office flops. In the 60s, he poured profits from screenwriting into an ill-fated venture called Scopitone, a precursor of music videos, which showed short movies on a juke box, and the 70s saw him quickly lose $1.5 million on the San Francisco-based CITY MAGAZINE during his stewardship. Though the bankruptcy of American Zoetrope (the studio) signaled his ultimate failure to establish himself independent of the Hollywood power structure, the success of “Dracula” restored Coppola’s fortune, and subsequent investments have thrived. He bought Blancaneaux, a 50-acre property on the banks of the Privassion River in Belize, and began operating it as a luxury hotel in 1993. The following year, he opened (along with partners Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and restaurateur Drew Nieporent) Rubicon, a San Francisco restaurant. Coppola paid $10 million in 1995 to purchase the balance of the old Inglenook wine-producing property, completing his dream estate and expanding his wine company Niebaum-Coppola. He has a food line, “Francis Coppola Selects”, reflecting his love of cooking, that features olive oils, vinegars and sun-dried tomatoes. Continuing to serve as an executive producer on projects as mixed as his own films, Coppola also launched ZOETROPE, a literary magazine, in 1997. Doubling as a film development lab, ZOETROPE hearkens back to the golden age of film, a time of greater respect for the short-story form as an impetus for movies.
Coppola’s latest rebirth has been much more monetary than artistic, and the big studios have remained reticent to back the movies he really wants to make. Whatever he does in the future, the “Godfather” series will stand as the monument of his career, the first two installments alone earning more than $800 million at the international box-office. The pervasive “Godfather” theme of the sanctity of the family is what has mattered most to Coppola throughout his life, both as paterfamilias to his filmmaking community of the early 70s and as advocate for his relatives, including father Carmine, sister Talia Shire, nephew Nicolas Cage and daughter Sofia, as key contributors to his films. With prospects for financial ruin growing dimmer and dimmer, one hopes that Coppola’s many interests don’t spread him so thin that he can’t devote himself to a personal project and shepherd it to a conclusion worthy of his best work.
Also Credited As:Albert Posco, Francis Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola, Thomas Colchart
Born: on 04/07/1939 in Detroit, Michigan
Job Titles:Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Composer, Executive, Magazine publisher, Restaurateur, Vintner
Brother: August Floyd Coppola. born in 1934; dean of the School of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University; involved with “Audio Vision” which provides a taped soundtrack of a narrator describing visual information for blind filmgoers; father of Marc and Christopher Coppola and Nicolas Cage
Brother-in-law: William Neil. born in 1939
Daughter: Sofia Coppola. first screen appearance as infant in “The Godfather” (1972); born in May 1971; played Kathleen Turner’s younger sister in “Peggy Sue Got Married”; co-author, costume designer and main title designer of Coppola’s segment, “Life Without Zoe” in “New York Stories” (1989); replaced Winona Ryder in “The Godfather, Part III” (1990); directed first film “The Virgin Suicides” (1999); married to director Spike Jonze in June 1999
Father: Carmine Coppola. born on July 11, 1910; died on April 26, 1991; Italian-American; played in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra; scored some of son’s films, including “The Godfather, Part II” for which he shared an Oscar
Father-in-law: Clifford Neil. born in 1891; died in 1945
Granddaughter: Gian Carla Coppola. daughter of the late Gian-Carlo Coppola and Jackie De La Fontaine, born six months after Gian-Carlo’s death in 1986
Grandfather: August Coppola. emigrated to USA from Naples as Enrico Caruso’s piano accompanist
Mother: Italia Coppola.
Nephew: Christopher Coppola. son of August Coppola; born on January 25, 1962
Nephew: Jason Schwartzman. son of Talia Shire and late producer Jack Schwartzman; born on June 26, 1980; star of comedy hit “Rushmore” (1998)
Nephew: Marc Coppola. born in 1957; son of August Coppola; acted in “Cotton Club”, “Jack” and “Deadfall”
Nephew: Nicolas Cage. son of August Coppola; has acted in films directed by uncle; born on January 7, 1964; won Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas”
Sister: Talia Rose Coppola. born on April 25, 1945; has acted in films directred by brother; formerly married to composer David Shire who scored “The Conversation” (1974); subsequently wed to the late producer Jack Schwartzman with whom she had two sons, actors Jason and Robert Schwartzman
Son: Gian-Carlo Coppola. born on September 17, 1963; killed in boating accident in May 1986
Son: Roman Coppola. born in 1965; heads Black Diamond Productions; first feature as executive producer, “The Spirit of ’76” (1990)
Uncle: Antonio Coppola. conductor of symphony orchestras and opera with the San Francisco Opera and New York City Opera; also conducted Broadway musicals like “My Fair Lady”; was opera advisor on “The Godfather, Part III” (1990)
Uncle: Archimedes Coppola. born in 1909; died in 1927
Uncle: Michael Coppola. born in 1914
Wife: Eleanor Coppola. born in 1936; married in February 1963; co-directed documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”
Companion: Melissa Mathison. had been hired as baby-sitter for the Coppola children; became Coppola’s assistant; had relationship around the time of the filming of “Apocalypse Now”; later married to actor Harrison Ford
Hofstra College, Hempstead, New York, drama, BA, 1960
School of Film, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, MFA, 1967
1947 Stricken with polio as a child (dates approximate)
1962 For Corman, re-wrote, dubbed and re-edited two Soviet films; credited as Alfred Posco for adapting “Sadko (1952) into “The Magic Voyage of Sinbad” and credited as Thomas Colchart on adaptation of “Nebo zovyot/The Heaven’s Call” (1960) into “Battle Beyond the Sun”; served as assistant to director Roger Corman on “The Premature Burial” and as dialogue director on “Tower of London”
1962 Joined Seven Arts (later Warner Brothers-Seven Arts) as scriptwriter
1962 Won the Samuel Goldwyn Award for his UCLA screenplay “Pilma, Pilma” (never produced)
1963 Directed and co-wrote first “legitimate” feature, “Dementia 13”
1966 Directed and wrote UCLA thesis feature, “You’re a Big Boy Now” (received theatrical release)
1969 Established American Zoetrope (later Zoetrope Studios) for which he executive produced John Korty’s 1972 TV thriller, “The People”
1970 Co-wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Franklin Schaffner’s “Patton”
1971 First American Zoetrope film, George Lucas’ futuristic “THX-1138”
1972 Scored huge success with “The Godfather”, winning Oscar for co-writing (with Mario Puzo) the screenplay
1973 Directed revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” at the American Conservatory Theater (San Francisco) and Gottfried von Einem’s opera, “The Visit of the Old Lady”, for the San Francisco Opera Company
1973 Formed The Directors Company (with Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin), which produced only two films: Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” (1973) and Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974) (date approximate)
1974 Co-wrote (with Puzo) and directed sequel “The Godfather, Part II”; won Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Director
1974 Scripted the film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby”
1979 “Apocalypse Now” released to mixed reviews but great box office; Coppola had mortgaged everything to personally cover some $16 million of the $30 million cost
1982 American Zoetrope dealt a crippling blow by the failure of the extravagant musical film “One From the Heart”
1983 Directed two film adaptations of S.E. Hinton novels, “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish”
1985 TV directing debut with “Rip Van Winkle” (Showtime)
1988 Directed “Tucker: The Man and His Dream”
1989 Co-wrote (with daughter Sofia) and directed the “Life Without Zoe” segment of “New York Stories” and received the weakest reviews of the three participating directors (also Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen)
1990 Returned to the Corleone saga for “The Godfather, Part III”; considered the weakest of the trilogy
1992 Produced and directed “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”
1993 Appointed to the board of directors at MGM
1993 Opened a hotel in Belize
1996 Dedicated “Jack” (which he produced and directed) to granddaughter Gia (Gia Carla), daughter of his son, the late Gian-Carlo
1996 Served as president of jury at Cannes Film Festival
1996 With Wayne Wang and Tom Luddy, formed production company Chrome Dragon
1997 Announced first feature to be produced through Chrome Dragon, Sherwood Hu’s “Lanai-Loa: The Passage”, starring Angus Macfadyen
1997 Directed and scripted screen adaptation of “John Grisham’s ‘The Rainmaker'”, starring Danny Glover and Danny De Vito
1997 Launched the literary magazine Zoetrope
1998 Served as one of the executive producers of the Sci-Fi Channel series “First Wave”
1998 Won lawsuit against Warner Bros. claiming the studio had stolen his idea for a live-action version of “Pinocchio”; awarded $20 million in compensatory damages by a jury; further awarded $60 million in punative damages; on appeal, however, $60 million damages were dismissed; appelate judge let stand the $20 million award
1999 Produced “The Virgin Suicides” the writing and directing debut of his daughter Sofia Coppola
2003 Executive produced “Lost in Translation” the award winning film written and directed by Sofia Coppola
Founded the Niebaum-Coppola winery
Published CITY Magazine
Will return to directing on “Youth Without Youth,” a low-budget, self-financed project adapted from the novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade (lensed 2005)
Worked on various non-mainstream and “nudie” movies (e.g., “The Playgirls and the Bellboy” 1962, “Tonight For Sure” 1962) before being hired by Roger Corman