EXCLUSIVE: When I meet five-time Oscar winner Francis Coppola at his home high atop the mountains above his spacious Inglenook vineyard, you can feel ambition animating his every step. No, not for the 50th anniversary of his masterpiece The Godfather or its restoration that brings him to Hollywood this weekend for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a lifetime achievement award from the Publicists Guild and a tribute onstage Sunday at the Academy Awards. Or even him completing the sale for part of his vineyard holdings that solidifies the credit line that will enable him to finance as much as he needs to of Megalopolis, on track to begin this fall as the capper of a maverick career.
What Coppola is most excited by at this moment is the shiny silver fermenting machines – 122 of them at a cost around $250,000 a pop – that for the first time will allow him to keep separate the harvest of that many parcels that produce grapes on his 250 acres. The scheme came to him in a dream, as has many of the shots and way he worked with actors from The Godfather trilogy to Apocalypse Now and others. It essentially will improve the quality of the wine by allowing his experts to sample the yield from each parcel – there are different subtle characteristics to each – as opposed to simply mixing all of the grapes together. Each machine looks like a shiny silver lunar landing module and it occurred to Coppola he could avoid blighting his picturesque vista if he put them in underground caves he’d dug to house wood barrels where the wine fermented.
It is that kind of boundless enthusiasm that Coppola brings to Megalopolis, a film he hopes will star Forest Whitaker and Oscar Isaac, and Zendaya if she can square time after shooting the Dune sequel. Coppola looks trim; he has kept off the 64 pounds he’d freshly shed when I met him three years ago in The Captain’s Quarters further down the hill of his winery. That was the original lavish mansion built by Gustave Niebaum, the Finnish sea captain who made a fortune trading furs in Alaska, who planned to give the French a run for their money making premier wins, but deciding to do it in Napa when the captain fell in love with a California girl.
Today, we are in the more modest home Coppola shares with Eleanor, his wife of sixty-something years who’s best known for being by his side during the making of Apocalypse Now and filming the famed docu that chronicled the insanity of making that film. The house is glass with walls made of molded concrete stamped with wood veneer from lumber that was then used to make the ceiling. The home looks like it could withstand the constant wildfire threat that forced the family to evacuate not long ago as blazes from Sonoma that consumed some nearby vineyards stopped short of coming over the mountain but luckily was extinguished before that happened.
Coppola has done interviews for the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, its limited theatrical run and imminent DVD release. Here, he agreed here to share his many memories of the Academy Awards, which like his film career spans the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. A planned hour interview turned into three as he discussed everything from Megalopolis to a nightmarish childhood bout with polio that leaves him baffled with those who won’t get the Covid shot, and many reminiscences. The result is a long interview, but who can refuse the offer for a trip down memory lane with arguably the greatest living film director?
DEADLINE: The Oscars have become a ratings-challenged punching bag, with younger audiences no longer held rapt with the glamour of the evening and suspense over the winners. What do you remember about watching as a kid?
FRANCIS COPPOLA: I remember the Oscars very well. In our house was, there was a television in a recreation room, but we watched on the television in my mother’s and father’s bedroom, in Great Neck, Long Island. They had a bed and the television was a black-and-white one against the wall. I remember this very vividly, what we used to do was come in and lean against the bed on the floor, while my parents were sitting on the bed watching. My family did watch the Oscars together, and I loved it. I didn’t think of myself as someone who would make movies, but I knew I loved movies. We’d go to movies as a family. I usually would go to the movies with my brother pretty much every Saturday and the family would go to a pizzeria. We’d save the pizza crusts and eat them during the movie.
But the Oscars weren’t a big show. In in those days, the early-’50s to mid-’50s, they were in the house of someone like Gregory Peck. A beautiful house in Hollywood, all done up for the Oscars. All the Oscars that were going to be given out were on a coffee table, so it was very informal. People felt like they’d been invited into this place where you normally wouldn’t be invited, into Gary Cooper’s house or whoever it was.
DEADLINE: The nominees?
COPPOLA: They were the guests. It was still an awards ceremony but it was very personal because it was in a home and these people were all there. It didn’t have the red carpet but there was Hedy Lamarr and there was Rhonda Fleming. They were in beautiful clothes. They gave these people the award and they cried. It was a thrill. I remember it so well. Not just me, but everybody enjoyed it. The Oscars was the first award ceremony that I knew of. These people were all like gods to me. I didn’t so much watch it for my opinion of what I thought was the best picture. It was more awe at even being invited.
DEADLINE: This Oscars, the controversy surrounds pre-taping eight categories to speed up the show and make it more watchable. Oscarcast producers have for years pushed for this, because most TV viewers around the world don’t know who those winners are, and certainly not all the people they thank.
COPPOLA: Well, in that ’50s period, I don’t think they showed those categories. They did have important categories. I know they had composer because my father was there. My father always had opinions about the composers. There were some composers that he thought was the real thing like Alex North, Dimitri Tiomkin. He respected those guys. There were other composers that he thought were phonies, because my father was a Julliard-schooled musician. I remember loving it one year when all the contenders in a category got onstage together. It seemed so sweet. The someone who had that original idea got slammed for it. I don’t know how to answer you. One thing I will say is in my heart I have love for the Oscars. I loved it when I was young, and I still have that love. I don’t dislike the Golden Globes because some of those foreign writers, they’re eccentric and interesting and often their choices were appropriate. But I have to confess I’m happy that it isn’t an Oscar-type show right before the Oscars.
DEADLINE: So now to your own first experience with the Academy Award…
COPPOLA: That I won? Patton.
DEADLINE: You’ve told me that Fox didn’t love your script.
COPPOLA: No, no. The producer of Patton was a guy named Frank McCarthy, who was actually an aide to General Marshall. It’s funny because he interviewed me and because I had a sort of pseudo credit, mainly because I was in the Writers Guild and the other 16 writers weren’t. The credit for the film was Gore Vidal and me, mainly because we were the only ones in the Writers Guild.
DEADLINE: You had worked together before…
COPPOLA: Is Paris Burning was a little bit of a mess. We did some good things, and I looked up to Gore Vidal. I had that credit but I didn’t think it was a very good movie. So I got interviewed by General Frank McCarthy, he asked me if I had military experience, because he was considering me to write. I had gone a year-and-a-half to military school, so I said yes. I got the job, miraculously. I did a good job. I worked very hard on it, did a lot of research. I came up with a unique approach, two ways. I wanted the general to appear, walk right up to the audience, and be in all of his splendor, General Patton. I wanted someone to say “A Ten Hut.” I wanted them to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” because I wanted the whole audience to stand up. I loved the idea that the first scene of Patton would be like the audience was his men. The guy who directed did a great job, in my opinion, but of course they decided not to play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” so the audience didn’t stand up. They played “Taps,” which you play when you lower the flag.
Burt Lancaster didn’t like that at all. His reasoning as I understood it was that there was a whole story about Patton starting as a lower guy who didn’t have all those awards and stars and stuff. So he didn’t understand why I just hit the audience in the face with him as a two-star general. I don’t know. He was Burt Lancaster, and I was this twentysomething-year-old kid, so what did I know? Secondly, [Lancaster] didn’t like all the implications of reincarnation I put in, which were true. Patton was an interesting man, and he believed that his spirit had been alive when Napoleon invaded, so when he saw the Nazis retreating from Russia, he felt that he had been there. So, in other words, he believed he had been reincarnated from a previous warrior. Burt Lancaster didn’t like that, so basically they fired me. They don’t fire you in the movies. They didn’t pick up my contract, so I was out. So George Lucas and I went to San Francisco and I forgot about it.
DEADLINE: How did you end up winning the Oscar?
COPPOLA: Maybe three years later, George and I had these horizontal editing machines, which no one else had because I was always interested in technology. We had no money. We were really on the verge of going out of business. So, we would live by renting these machines and one was rented to Fox. We got a call that it was broken, send a repairman. Of course, there was no repairman, so I went down. It really wasn’t broken. They were threading it wrong. I threaded it right and said look, here. Then I saw the scenes that I recognized from my script. I said what is this movie? They said this is Patton. I looked at it. What had happened is, Lancaster didn’t do it and later they hired George C. Scott and he didn’t like the script they had written for Lancaster.
And this wonderful man David Brown said, we had a really interesting script that a young guy did that you might like. I said, okay, I wrote this script. I was the repairman and that’s how I discovered it. I was so happy. I must say that David Brown was a sharp guy, and he saved the script basically.
DEADLINE: Why weren’t you there when your name was called?
COPPOLA: I was in New York, in the middle of getting fired from The Godfather. I saw the Oscar show with Marty Scorsese, my friend.
DEADLINE: Whom you told me last time you wanted to direct The Godfather Part II and the studio rejected the idea…
COPPOLA: Much later, that happened. At that point, I really thought I was going to get fired. There were maybe four times I felt that. I guess production had started, and I do remember watching the show with Marty. I don’t remember where, but I won.
DEADLINE: While were watching on TV…
COPPOLA: Yeah. I was thrilled, and Marty said to me, I don’t think they’re going to fire you now. He was right. In other words, they probably wouldn’t fire me for a while because, how do you have the guy who wrote your script and is directing your film and then he wins an Oscar and then you fire him? Marty recognized that winning the Oscar was going to preserve me. I was really worried.
DEADLINE: You are saying you really owe your greatest success, the 50-year-old The Godfather, to a movie that you didn’t even realize you were still a part of until you were repairing equipment at the Fox studio?
COPPOLA: It’s true.
DEADLINE: How did suddenly being stamped an Oscar-winning screenwriter bring credibility to your disputed casting choices that included Al Pacino and Marlon Brando?
COPPOLA: I don’t know, it’s hard for me to evaluate. Who could have fired me? Bob Evans could have fired me. All of the executives could have.
DEADLINE: Was there discussion of you going out for the Oscars?
COPPOLA: No. Not at all. My mind was so on the problems I was having. How would I get there? They weren’t going to send me. I didn’t have any money. I like being with Marty. There are a lot of Italians in the movie business. Marty Scorsese, Bobby De Niro, Brian De Palma, Mario Puzo. But a lot of those Italians aren’t the same kind of Italian I was. Marty’s kind of Italian is like my house. The smell of the kitchen was being Italian. De Niro, whose father was a great artist, none of those other guys were raised in that kind of Italian-American culture the way Marty and I was. I always felt like he was my cousin. I loved his parents and the way his mother cooked. My parents even liked his parents because they were real Italian-Americans. He was four or five years younger than me. I admired him immensely. I met him at a film festival, and I hit it off with him immediately. I’m very sentimental about Marty because he’s like family.
DEADLINE: So the Oscar win for Patton got you to the finish line on The Godfather 50 years ago, and that was your next Oscar experience.
COPPOLA: The first Godfather, yeah. I had been shocked with its success. I remember I was trying to write the script for The Great Gatsby because I was totally broke. My wife was in New York, and I was in a hotel in France trying to write this script, which I had three weeks to get done. My wife was saying, “Francis, The Godfather opened and it’s a big hit. There’s people in lines around the block. It’s unbelievable.” I was on the phone and I was very pleased, but I was so worried about the script that I had to figure out and deliver. I was like, “Sure, that’s great, but right now I have big problems.” That’s how I remember it. I was in Europe trying to write, and The Godfather was this colossal hit. When it got the nominations I was thrilled.
Then I won the Directors Guild Award for Best Director, which usually nine times out of 10 predicts the Oscars. When I went to the Oscars I won the screenplay, so I had a second Oscar, and the film won some other things. Marlon Brando famously turned his down. But then, I didn’t win the directing award. Bob Fosse won for Cabaret. Deservedly. I love Bob Fosse’s work and can’t speak highly enough of him. But I was crushed. To win an Oscar for directing is the pinnacle. And I did win the Directors Guild, so I guess I thought I was going to win it, and I was just crushed that I didn’t.
Then it won Best Picture. The joke there was that Al Ruddy, who was the producer, he was the only one who got the Oscar for producing. The company that produced it was called Alfran, because he had a French wife who actually had supplied a lot of the money. But he was concerned that people would think the Fran was me, which it wasn’t. I had no clout at all. So at the last minute he changed the production to Albert S. Ruddy Productions, which used to be Alfran. So, he took the Oscar for Best Picture. He had very little to do [with making the movie]. He was never around. He was always doing something with the Mafia, but he’s the only one who got the Best Picture. I got best script with Mario, whom I loved, and I didn’t win director and I was crushed.
DEADLINE: What did you think when Marlon Brando didn’t show up?
COPPOLA: And he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse it? Well, for one thing, in truth, I’m the one who had introduced him to Sacheen. She was a lady I had met in San Francisco, when she had a regular name. Somehow, I remember that I was the one who had introduced Marlon to Sacheen Littlefeather. So when she shows up in Native American garb and refuses to accept the award on behalf of Marlon, I was totally confused. I had no idea it was going to happen. Marlon was a very fascinating, curious guy, very unusual. I’ve known a lot of geniuses; I met Marcel Duchamp as a kid, Fellini, Antonioni. One of the greatest geniuses I ever met was Brando, and not because he was such a great actor, which he was. But because as a man what he talked about was so unusually interesting. He was a fascinating man, so I would have been proud to see him win the Oscar and disappointed that he didn’t.
DEADLINE: Did his refusal to accept the prize cast a pall on the evening for The Godfather?
COPPOLA: I don’t think so. It was a wonderful victory to win Best Picture. That is the big award, to say yours was the best of all the pictures. But I do remember that my heart was broken that I didn’t get that Best Director Oscar. I remember [Gulf & Western chairman] Charlie Bludhorn telling me that I won the Bank of America Award, because he’d heard how unhappy I was. But I’m glad I lost to Bob Fosse because I truly admire him. And Best Picture is Best Picture. A movie is made by many people. The guy who goes up and happens to be the producer obviously is accepting it on behalf of his director, his cast, his writers, his costumer, all these wonderful people. We had some wonderful people in all those jobs. Best Picture meant a lot to me.
DEADLINE: Those people you felt wanted to get rid of you, questioned every casting and script decision…when you won these Oscars, did they ever come back and say, Francis you were right?
COPPOLA: Yeah. But that had happened earlier. They didn’t say, you were right. The mood of negativity was because they all needed the success. I didn’t know the real story of what was going on with Bob Evans and Gulf & Western. Later I learned a little more, but now I realized that some of the behavior that was so intimidating to me was because they were scared for their positions, more than I realized. Yes, I can remember some meetings, in fact a funny one where they were talking about whether the picture could do conceivably $75 million, which was like, no way. It was a $6 million movie. I remember Al Ruddy and Bob Evans and those people talking about that it was in five theaters. One of the reasons that The Godfather negative got so destroyed is that they weren’t anticipating the success, so they printed the hell out of it. They really damaged the negative. Only recently on this new version…I would say it looks as it did on that first screening but maybe even better. When I say better, I mean more of what Gordy had in mind because that final imagery was Gordy Willis. There was such daring photography, to let the picture go so dark. Paramount has done a great job with the restoration. We helped, but they paid for it.
DEADLINE: Have you seen The Offer, Al Ruddy’s version of events in the making of The Godfather?
COPPOLA: No, I haven’t. As I said, he wasn’t around. If it’s about the making of the picture then maybe Gray Frederickson, who was around and was Al’s partner, may have told him what was going on, but I don’t remember Al ever being on the set that I can remember. Maybe he was. There were two scripts of the making of The Godfather. The other is by a great director, Barry Levinson. Levinson said to me, “Francis, here’s this thing that’s about you and this experience. What do you think?” I said, “Barry, all I want is that it’s a Barry Levinson movie. Do whatever you want, because I’m sure it will be good if you make it. I don’t want to know the script. If you ask me a question I’ll answer it, but I don’t need to know anything other than that you’re going to make it.” I mean that sincerely because I do admire Barry so much. It ran into the other one. Because Paramount is doing The Offer, and not the Barry Levinson one, he can’t use the logo or any of the music. I hope he will still make it.
DEADLINE: Your next Oscar experience was American Graffiti, which was nominated for Best Picture, and on which you produced for your buddy George Lucas. It sounded like the director ran into obstacles with a studio that hated the groundbreaking film…
COPPOLA: Well, in answer to your question, one obstacle is that it really was a very low budget, like $700,000. Being that it was all night shooting and involved a lot of cars and stuff, it was really a challenge for him to be able to do it on that money. But American Graffiti, I think, demonstrates his genius in so many ways. Number one, it was the first movie ever to have a complete soundtrack of the hit songs of the period. No one had ever done that before. And the cost for all those great songs was less than $100,000. Later, that was what one song would cost. But no one had ever done it, so that was one innovation. Also, it was the first film that at the end of the movie had little biographies to say what happened to the characters. It’s been done a million times since, but he did it first. And the audience loved it. So, when we previewed it, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but it was previewed and there was a very significant Universal executive. You probably know his name.
DEADLINE: Were his initials NT, as in Ned Tanen?
COPPOLA: Yeah. So, he was there and they were there and the audience went wild. They were literally almost dancing in the aisles. We all thought, wow, we hit a home run. The executive came, disturbed, somewhat distraught, and said we’re upset and mentioned a few things I didn’t even understand because we were still high. This is the honest truth. I said to him…first of all, you ought to get on your knees and thank this young man for what he’s done for your company. I said that. And if you have any reluctance about this picture, I will buy it back from you for what you have in it. At that point, I made The Godfather, so I had a little half-assed line of credit. I could have done it. I’ll buy it myself. George was astonished because literally…I’ve been through a few previews with the audience, loved the picture, so we didn’t know where this was coming from. They actually did take the picture, and made changes against George’s will that he was very upset about.
DEADLINE: So the released version was not Lucas’ cut?
COPPOLA: They said, but it’s the really the same movie you made, George, why are you so upset? George said a great thing. He said, “If you take my little daughter and you have her for a while and you cut off some of her fingertips and then give me her back…well, that’s practically what you did, and I’m still going to hate you.” I thought that was a brilliant thing to say. You took it and you gave me her back but you had cut off some of her fingertips. It was absurd. Of course, I wish I had financed it. I went to a bank, I forget which. The guy said to me, you can do this, with what you have from The Godfather. This picture cost $700,000. We could fund it, but I want you to think about it because we did this for another famous actor whose name I can’t remember. He ended up losing a lot. You have to think carefully when you start financing a movie. My wife said to me, “You know, Francis, some day it would be nice if you financed a movie, but maybe you should finance a movie you want to make that no one wants you to make.”
Of course, had I financed it, I would have enjoyed the benefit of what is the most successful low-budget movie ever made. There was a period in which they were selling Fox. We went to the meeting. Remember when Fox was controlled by a guy who was a naval officer previously? Fox was for sale. 20th Century Fox with the studio, everything. Had I financed American Graffiti, I would have been able to buy it and I would have because I loved Fox. I’m one of the few people who ever saw the Fox back lot before they put Century City there. It was a wonderland. I mean that’s irrelevant because I didn’t finance Graffiti and so I didn’t buy it.
DEADLINE: But it’s still very interesting to see…
COPPOLA: What could have been.
DEADLINE: Universal wanted to put your name on the movie, like “From the director of The Godfather…”
COPPOLA: I was only a producer. I made a couple of suggestions. There was a big fight over the title. They did not want American Graffiti. Even I said to George, maybe if you had a title that more indicates that it’s a fun movie with music…Universal thought that people would think the movie was about feet. American Graffiti. That they didn’t know what the word graffiti meant. George held out like a rock. He said it’s American Graffiti or it’s nothing, and he was right. I backed him 100 percent, but I thought maybe it needed to have a song that implies more the fun music aspect because American Graffiti, which is a masterful title, didn’t imply that there was a lot of fun music in it.
DEADLINE: Your next Oscar experience came when you directed two of the five films nominated for Best Picture…
COPPOLA: The Conversation was nominated the same year that The Godfather Part II was.
DEADLINE: Two great films, competing against each other. How did that happen?
COPPOLA: I don’t know. I had written The Conversation before. I had hoped that Marlon Brando would play it, and he turned me down. This was before The Godfather. Usually, my movies are made…what’s the word for this? I work on a project. I start to hate it, and I abandon it. Then I work on another project and I start to hate that one, and I look at the one before. I say, this wasn’t so bad after all, and I make that one. So, I always make the film that was the old one that I had abandoned. There’s a reason for it because, when you’re writing a script or an original thing, there literally is a hormone secreted in your bloodstream that makes you hate it. And then after time, when you look at it, you can look at it in a new context, and say, well, that wasn’t so bad.
Every movie I’ve made other than when I got hired, it was made that way. So The Conversation was written before The Godfather. That’s when Charlie Bluhdorn came to me and said Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen and Barbra Streisand formed a company, The Actors. I think that was it. Charlie said, “Why don’t you put together the three other directors and make a company called The Director’s Company? And you can make whatever you want to make. If it’s over a certain budget limit and you all the three directors or four directors would own it and have a piece.” So I went to Peter Bogdanovich, and he went for it and I went to Billy Friedkin and he went for it. And then I tried to sell Billy Friedkin on taking George Lucas. Had we done it, The Director’s Company would have had Star Wars because that was the next film George made, and no one was jumping up and down to do it. It was Alan Ladd, Jr., who just died, rest in peace, he was the visionary who said to George he could make that. Basically, I tried to sell Friedkin on taking in George, but he didn’t want to. So it was us three. And Peter made Paper Moon, a wonderful movie that made us all money. I made about $300,000, and Billy did too. And then Peter made Daisy Miller, which wasn’t so successful and blackened his incredible track record. … Paper Moon was a wonderful film, though.
And I made The Conversation, which didn’t make a lot of money, but it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which was nice, and it got nominated. So at least it was honorable. Billy never made a movie actually. That we all made money on Paper Moon was awkward because near the end, Peter was broke after all the marriages and stuff. I very much personally wanted to give him the Paper Moon money back, which was tricky because I had already paid taxes on it. But without going into the details…I basically did that, when he needed it most. He was a wonderful person. And he had been married a lot of times and was out of dough and he needed it. And then we lost him. So I’m glad that we made a little effort to help him out.
DEADLINE: Why did a company built around three of the top directors of that era not sustain itself?
COPPOLA: Well, it was Billy’s turn to do one, and he didn’t. And what was next? I don’t know what happened. It probably was in bankruptcy or something. I mean, it was a good idea. And if we had only put George in it…
DEADLINE: Another missed opportunity…
COPPOLA: What I sincerely feel about that kind of stuff, Mike, is that everybody wins half the time and loses half the time. And the difference is how you do the bet. In other words, I’ve won, I could tell you things that I almost did, like saying I could have owned Fox. But in the end, I’m very grateful for what I did do. I mean, I won a lot and I lost a lot, but in the end I won more than I lost. And even if I hadn’t, I was in the game and it was fun. And when you die it’s not how much money you have. It’s that you don’t want to die and say I wish I had done this. I wish I had done that. You want to die saying, well, I got to do this and I got to do that.
DEADLINE: Back to the Oscars in 1975, when you had two of the five movies, the others being Chinatown, Lenny and The Towering Inferno. By then you’d grown past the young man who feared every day he’d be fired from The Godfather…
COPPOLA: Right. I must say that The Godfather II was a very complex movie. And if you remember, it had sequences in Lake Tahoe, in Hollywood, in Las Vegas, in Cuba, in 1920 in New York, and Sicily. And it was all over the place and it was expensive. But it was the smoothest movie I ever worked on, really, because there was no producer. I was the producer.
DEADLINE: That was the condition under which you came back, that nobody was allowed to mess with you like the first time around?
COPPOLA: But it was a big, ambitious movie in terms of scope. We were in Cuba, theoretically. It was actually Dominican Republic. We were in Hollywood, we were in Las Vegas. We were in 1920, New York, in Manhattan, and Italy. It was twice as complicated as the first Godfather. And it was smoothest of all the movies I worked on.
DEADLINE: I watched some of the Oscar speeches. And on the first Godfather, Sinatra was the host.
COPPOLA: I don’t remember.
DEADLINE: We see him squiring you off after you won the Best Adapted Screenplay prize. I wondered if he still had lingering hard feelings about being the rumored inspiration for the Johnny Fontane character that led to the famous horse’s head in the producer’s bed scene.
COPPOLA: What I remember about Sinatra is, before I made the picture I ran into him. I didn’t know him. But he recognized me and I remember he was nice, sort of. He said, “Why don’t you and I buy The Godfather and I’ll play the old man.” I remember him saying that to me. I heard that he ran into Mario and was a little more negative. But that’s what I remember what Sinatra told me. He said, let’s buy it and I’ll play the Godfather, you know what he was saying he would play the old man.
DEADLINE: Could you envision him as Don Corleone?
COPPOLA: No, no, I don’t know. The Godfather was tricky because he had to be this incredible, charismatic, soulful person. He couldn’t be just a new discovery. Very often there’s a person that no one’s ever heard of, that you could put in that thing and he could be great. But a 65-, 70-year-old man, it’s hard to think you’re going to just find someone. Evans had the idea of Carlo Ponti, who was a producer. Carlo Ponti was certainly wonderful. But the difference was that The Godfather was not an Italian. He was a New York Italian, an Italian-American. That Italian-American is very different. They have a different way of speaking. They have more of a Brooklyn accent. Carlo Ponti and Dino [De Laurentiis], they were Italian gentlemen. That’s not what the Godfather was.
DEADLINE: But you considered Laurence Olivier, and he was not that.
COPPOLA: I came down to it with my erstwhile casting associate Fred Roos. We didn’t know what to do. I said, well, Fred, who are the two greatest actors in the world? Well, there’s Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. Laurence Olivier actually looked a lot like Vito Genovese. So he almost looked more like the part. But he was elderly. He was British, and he was sick. And ultimately, his agents said he can’t consider that, he’s not well. So he was off the chart. Brando was 47, a young man and of course, not Italian. But he’s such a great actor. You know, I saw him do Zapata. I saw him do Guys and Dolls. His Marc Anthony, the one he did with Joe Mankiewicz, he was brilliant. That “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. It’s great. You understood it the way Brando did it. Even his role in Mutiny on the Bounty was so brilliantly conceived, because if he was going to be a guy who’s going to give up ever going home again. To play him as a sort of urban fop with girls and stuff was a brilliant concept because then when he gives it up and goes and lives in the woods, he’s giving up everything. So I just thought he was a genius. And he was.
DEADLINE: So that was a glorious night where you won the Best Director prize denied you on The Godfather, and you accepted Best Picture.
COPPOLA: But the greatest moment there…you have to understand something about me. My whole life, ever since I was a little boy, my mother would say, pray that daddy gets his break. When I was 4, I thought it was the brake for the car and I prayed for that. I didn’t know what a break was, but my whole life was dedicated to my father’s disgruntled and heartbreaking moments.
He was one of the greatest flutists in the world. When you were a great flute player in those days, there was no Jean-Pierre Rampal thing, where you had LP records. The flute player was in an orchestra, a principal soloist. In other words, if you were the flute player for Toscanini, which my father was, you sat…he’s Toscanini and you’re the flute player. In most of the music of symphonic work, the flute is like the star. So my father’s problem all my life was that the flute held him back. He was such a good flute player, but he was also a good composer and conductor. He was a widely educated man. He went to Columbia University, and Juilliard, and was a very, very great musician.
But he was very unhappy all the time because he always felt the flute held him back. It’s funny, you get this incredible gift, and you don’t want it. When he was 16, he did a concert at Carnegie Hall, but he didn’t want that gift. So when I was like 13, I worked at Western Union. My job is, I would sit there and the telegram would come like on a yellow strip of paper and I would cut the telegram, put on my hat, get on my bike and go deliver it. But most of the time I was just sitting there in the office. So I played with the machinery. And one day I made a telegram to my father. Dear Mr. Coppola, we would like you to come to Hollywood immediately to begin scoring the new production of Flight of the Flying Saucer. Blah blah blah blah. Signed Louis Lipstone, Paramount Pictures. I so was involved with my father’s angst that I knew who all the important people that he was hoping would give him a break. So I knew who Louis Lipstone was, the head of the music department at Paramount.
I made the telegram. I went and I delivered it to my father. My father got this telegram, and I can’t tell you the joy he expresses, finally. We’re going to go to Hollywood. I’ve got this movie. Louis Lipstone. He’s celebrating. And then I had to tell him the truth. I got such a beating. I got hit by my father. But what was I trying to do? I was the 13-year-old kid who wanted to give my father his break.
I know it was stupid. I know it was ridiculous. I deserved to get a beating to do that to him. But I didn’t do it to hurt him. I did it to make him happy. So with Godfather Part II, I got to see my father win an Oscar. And I can’t tell you how that made me feel. That was the telegram that I tried to give him as a 13-year-old. And in the end, I did give it to him.
DEADLINE: Was that your greatest Oscar moment?
COPPOLA: That, and seeing my daughter Sofia win an Oscar. Do you remember what my father said when he won the Oscar? My father said, well, I wouldn’t be here without my son. But on the other hand, my son wouldn’t be here without me. That was the highest Oscar moment.
But a little side note about the Oscars is my father was nominated for the third Godfather for Best Song, which he really wanted because my mother’s father…they were all in the music business, and he had had a hit song. My father never had a hit song. He wrote a beautiful song for the third Godfather, and it got nominated and he didn’t win it. Harry Connick sang it. I forget who won, but my father, when that disappointment happened, he had a stroke at the Oscars. I rode with him in the ambulance, telling him what the son tells the father at a moment like that. He died three weeks later. As a result, he never got out of the stroke that happened because he didn’t win Best Song.
DEADLINE: How can you be sure that caused it?
COPPOLA: The night we were all at the party, my editor Barry Malkin said, Francis, you better come. Your father’s acting funny. And I went to the table, and he was slurring his speech and stuff, so I put him in an ambulance and I rode with him from the Oscars to the hospital, and they diagnosed it as a stroke and they kept him there. But then when he didn’t die, I was hopeful. But he died three weeks later, and never went home from the Oscars. He went to the hospital and we thought he was getting better. I was in San Francisco when my brother told me he died. I wept and I wept, for hours. I don’t know. I was very…we’re all involved with our families, with our parents, our mother, our father. So, it’s funny because his story does weave through the Oscars, but he did get that one wonderful moment that meant a lot to him.
DEADLINE: So you then make Apocalypse Now, an incredible ordeal of a film that took so long it came out after another powerful Vietnam-themed film, The Deer Hunter. And there you are, presenting the Best Director prize to Michael Cimino.
COPPOLA: For the first film about Vietnam to come out and a wonderful success.
DEADLINE: What emotions did you feel, handing the Oscar to the guy who stole your thunder because your movie was beset with so many problems?
COPPOLA: Oh, I really liked Michael Cimino, and I thought it was a wonderful picture. He just got it out earlier, before me, but I was pleased for him. I was proud to be the one to give it to him. But do you remember what I did after I gave him the award, which was really ridiculous?
DEADLINE: As I recall, you talked about the promise of technology.
COPPOLA: I looked at the audience and I said, You know, we’re on the eve of something extraordinary…and I see everybody look at me funny…Ali MacGraw is up there with me, looking at me like, what’s he saying? Now, everything I said came true, but I was very embarrassed having done that.
DEADLINE: Was that impromptu speech, or did you plan it?
COPPOLA: Want to hear the real truth? I was a friend of Bill Graham, the concert promoter. A wonderful guy who wanted to go to the Oscars, more than anything. Being that I was going to be a presenter, I had the two tickets. I went with Bill Graham, and he was thrilled. My wife and my family were in the lesser seats. I’m sitting next to Bill Graham and he takes out a cookie from his coat pocket and he’s eating it. I was very overweight then, and hungry. And so I said, give me that cookie. And while I ate it, he said, no, no. And I didn’t understand.
By the time I went to present, I was feeling weird. I didn’t know what was in the cookie, but it must have been something, because of his reaction when I grabbed it. And so when I gave Michael Cimino the award and I turned and I said, we’re on the eve of a wonderful change, there…I started to get very nervous. I remember I was scratching my beard a lot and everyone made fun of that. But in the big perspective, when people really read what I said, it was astonishing how accurate everything was. And I said, face it, digital electronics is coming. Satellites. They made a lot of fun of me at the time. Like, this guy’s nuts and the way he’s scratching his beard, does he have fleas? But now people say Francis Coppola outlined everything that the film industry was going to morph into it. So it turned out to be something that I should be proud of, and I am.
DEADLINE: Ever find out what was in that laced cookie that prompted your epiphany?
COPPOLA: Grass, or something like that? I don’t know. All he said was, no, don’t eat that. I remember the expression on Ali MacGraw’s face after she said her part, and I talked about this wonderful thing where we’d take human talent, then we’re going to now combine it with satellites and digital electronics and all of this stuff, and it’s going to be heaven. It’s going to be a golden age of art, instead of this, what it’s become.
DEADLINE: What are your Oscar memories from Apocalypse Now?
COPPOLA: My career has always been making movies that were very different. I mean, the style. If you compare the style of Apocalypse Now to Godfather it’s like two different people made it. I always try to make the style fit the theme. But I also always chose movies that I didn’t know how to make. Why? Because if you choose a movie that you don’t know how to make, like Apocalypse Now, you’re going to learn a lot. Because what happens when you don’t know how to make a movie, the movie itself helps you make it. The movie tells you how. Mike Nichols said that in a documentary and he’s right. He said that when you don’t know what you’re doing, the movie starts to tell you, hey, do this. When you’re not repeating yourself, you’re going to learn a lot. And in a way, you might even get to something more beautiful. I remember when we were on this boat in the Vietnam setting and one of the characters sets off a smoke grenade. The Army had all these colors like blue meant the helicopter could land, yellow meant something, red or green. So, the kid opens a smoke grenade on the boat and it makes this weird looking cloud and my production designer Dean Tavoularis and I looked at it and said, that was really nice. Let’s do more of that. And so the movie told us, and it all became more surreal than I had intended.
DEADLINE: Another variable must have been staring into the abyss of bankruptcy…
COPPOLA: You know what interest rates were in those days? Twenty-five percent. Under the Carter regime it had gone to crazy heights. So I didn’t think there was a hope in hell that I’d ever get out of that mess.
DEADLINE: After taking that great risk, and then losing Best Picture to Kramer Vs. Kramer, how disappointed were you?
COPPOLA: Apocalypse got different kinds of reactions, some very good. But I remember it had a terrible review in the New York Times by Frank Rich, who called it the biggest disaster. And I said, was it really the biggest? I mean, aren’t there any movies worse? I was very hurt and scared I’d never make the money back and I’d be broke. Kramer vs. Kramer won everything. We won some technical awards.
DEADLINE: But it was Kramer vs. Kramer’s year. How did you feel about that? Do you say to yourself, I think my movie’s better?
COPPOLA: I thought my movie was more ambitiously unique than that, but I very much admired Meryl Streep, because not a lot of people know this. You know who Johnny Cazale was? He played Fredo in The Godfather. John Cazale was a wonderful person. And I remember he had a cute redheaded actress who, when he got sick with cancer, this pretty redheaded girl just disappeared. You know what I mean. But he had a new girlfriend. And so for a long time, I always used to call him up. Everyone loved Johnny Cazale. You know, how are you doing and chat with him, and he had this girlfriend. I didn’t know who she was, but she always would answer. I’d say, this is Francis. She said, oh, it’s so nice when you call Johnny. It makes him so happy and I said well, I love talking to Johnny. And so I would always do that. But I was always impressed that he had this nice girlfriend, and she was an actress. And the other actress had just disappeared. So I liked this woman, and that woman was Meryl Streep. And so with Meryl Streep, I was on her team. In other words, I thought she was a good girlfriend. She stayed with Johnny Cazale to the end. And so when she won for Kramer vs. Kramer, which was her big debut, I was so pleased for her.
DEADLINE: She had met Cazale when they did The Deer Hunter, which, like Apocalypse Now, was a punch in the nose about the chaos and trauma of Vietnam.
COPPOLA: Well, I divide my life.
DEADLINE: Your film was more like a fever dream.
COPPOLA: I divide my career in three acts. The first act is The Godfather and all the movies I did in and around The Conversation. Then I go to doing something that’s way more different. More unusual, more personal, more strange. And Act 2 is Apocalypse Now, which leads to a point where the films were so different. You got to realize that I wanted to make Apocalypse Now off the heat of winning five Oscars and being one of the most successful directors, and nobody wanted to make it. Paramount didn’t sponsor it. The reason I own Apocalypse Now is because nobody wanted it.
Fortunately, Mike Medavoy gave me the start, but then as it started to go over, I had to guarantee it. Mr. Krim and Mike and all those guys, Eric Pleskow. They ran the Tiffany company United Artists, which everybody loved, not only for the heritage but because of those executives. They were wonderful. So basically, what I’m saying to you is that then my second act is more weird, which means, harder to finance. But the memory of those films sometimes last longer. And now the third act is Megalopolis, which is a way is way more weird.
COPPOLA: Way harder to finance, but probably it will last longer because it’s going to have so much in it that’s so interesting. Like Apocalypse, it will last, so I feel confident. In other words, I view my career in those three acts.
DEADLINE: Before I get to Megalopolis…
COPPOLA: Yeah. I didn’t mean to sidetrack you. All I’m saying is that just as different as Apocalypse is from Godfather, Megalopolis is going to be from Apocalypse. It’s going to be yet again like that. People will enjoy over the years going back to it, just as they’re doing with Apocalypse.
DEADLINE: I do that all the time with Apocalypse, fixating on something new. Like, how could Francis know that Laurence Fishburne could be that good at age 14? Most recently, I fixated on Martin Sheen’s character getting drunk and tearing up his hotel room in some existential crisis breakdown.
COPPOLA: As happens with me, that came to me in a dream. I was worried about the fact that the character is always looking at stuff. Martin has a beautiful face that I felt, you know, if the audience knew something about him at the very beginning, that was extraordinary. Then throughout the movie, whenever they saw this guy looking at this or that, that they would remember that he was an interesting guy. And my dream said, and now this is just in my dream, but Martin’s vain in my dream. In other words, if you would just tell him how handsome he is and what a beautiful face he has, it would somehow get to him. So what I did is, I was sitting on the bureau when we shot that scene. One thing I honestly swear I didn’t know was that he had any history of being an alcoholic. Actually, I was surprised when I heard that later. I didn’t know and if I had known he had any history with alcohol, I would never done it. Like, if you’re a nonsmoker, I’m not going to ask you to smoke. But I swear I didn’t know it. I was up there on that bureau, and he was drinking the brandy. And I kept saying things like, what a beautiful face you have. Look at yourself in the mirror. Aren’t you handsome? That’s what I was saying to him because the dream told me that that would get him crazy. And it did. But then he smashed the [mirror]. I didn’t expect that.
DEADLINE: Why did he do that?
COPPOLA: I don’t know. My dream was right. He is a very good person. And what I was saying to him was always, look at yourself, oh, you’re so handsome. Look at how beautiful your eyes are! That was just me, being a nutty director. Thinking that might get a rise out of him, but I didn’t realize he was going to react by punching his image.
DEADLINE: So that was real blood…
COPPOLA: But then it was scary because he’s bleeding, and I’m saying, what do I do? Of course he’s got to have emergency treatment, but if I stop, I ruin it. He’d have gone through all this and it’s wasted. So I said, I better wait a little. It was scary.
DEADLINE: How long did you wait?
COPPOLA: Well, the length of the scene. And then, of course, immediately we bandaged things. But the wife looked at me like, how could you do this to him? I felt terrible. She adored him, you know.
DEADLINE: That’s a one-take shot, yes?
COPPOLA: Oh yeah. But I did feel guilty and later, when they said he had a drinking history, I felt bad. I wouldn’t have done it. I honestly wouldn’t have. I would have had him drink tea or something.
DEADLINE: You’ve had so many great actors in these movies. Every time I watch the first two Godfather films and track Michael Corleone’s slow transformation from outcast son to steely family leader, I think, how could Al Pacino not have won an Oscar or two?
COPPOLA: I know how the Oscars work. The block of the SAG are vastly the votes that matter because there’s so many of them. Every department votes in proportion. It’s like states in the Congress or something. The Oscars are like our present politics, but there is only one real test of how good a movie is, and it’s not what critics think. It’s not about the Oscars. The only really valuable way to evaluate art is the test of time. Who’s reading those books a thousand years later? Who’s seeing those movies 75 years later? That’s the test.
DEADLINE: Onto the third Godfather…
COPPOLA: Which is called Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.
DEADLINE: When that was nominated for Best Picture…
COPPOLA: Was it? I think it got a lot of nominations.
DEADLINE: After being put through the ringer with your daughter, how much validation did those nominations give you?
COPPOLA: You’re right, that was terrible. And the winner was that cowboy picture from Kevin Costner.
DEADLINE: Dances With Wolves?
COPPOLA: Yeah. But personally I really felt that Marty should have won. For Goodfellas. That was a great picture.
DEADLINE: Dances with Wolves holds up pretty good.
COPPOLA: Dances with Wolves is a wonderful picture. But Goodfellas?
DEADLINE: After all the times you were doubted and won, you still get second-guessed. Deadline has followed your progression on Megalopolis yourself, and the reports seem to say, why does Francis want to put himself through this again? How much of your willingness to gamble comes from not wanting to be on your death bed, thinking, why didn’t I see it through?
COPPOLA: Beyond that, it’s pretty exciting to have an opportunity to delve into themes that are really important. There are three opinions about human beings. One is that we were born bad and through time, we got a little better. If there’s a terrible accident on the highway, people are going to volunteer until the police get there…we are good. But the question is, were we born bad and got a little good or were we born good and got a little bad? Or were we born both good and bad? There are three questions. I have an answer that I feel and know not only from my study but from opinion and my gut reaction. And that is that we are so extraordinary when you think of what we can do, because our species was friendly and when you’re friendly, you say, come on over. Let’s talk. Let’s eat. You learn more from a living friend than you do from a dead enemy.
The secret of the human, extraordinarily, is that we’re very friendly people and we learn from being together. And if we got to do bad things, that happened really the last 10,000 years when certain male ideas came from the steppes of Asia, when the first horses were born and men came and they killed everyone and they enslaved women. We had 10,000 years in which the women were enslaved. And before that, we used to be partners with the women. In that matriarchy, the way it works is men and women are partners. Earth is in our earliest culture, mother Earth. Without getting into anthropology, I believe that we are good. And this last 10,000 years of civilization where we’ve been dominated by a male idea is where a lot of these bad things have come. But our real nature for 60,000 years before that is that we are friendly and kind. We are generous. And that’s what we’re really like.
And so my script is about that idea that we can be better. And now we have this terrible climate thing we got to solve, and the fact that there’s this war going on, which the horrible thing about it is that everyone’s mind is on this injustice going on. And we’re not working on solving the real issue, which is that the Earth is going to be ruined and we’re going to be extinct in 70 years. Anyway, I feel that my movie is going to be pregnant with ideas just like Apocalypse had that are going come out over the years that are going to be helpful towards this idea that human beings are friendly and that we can have a life on Earth that’s wonderful, if we can figure out how to not destroy it. And so I’m thrilled to do it. And when you say to me, why…I feel so lucky that I even my life has evolved in such a way that I could even hope to do it. To me, it’s a…
DEADLINE: I’m not knocking your ambition.
COPPOLA: No, no. You’ve always been encouraging to me in that way.
DEADLINE: I like celebrating risk takers. I admire them even if I’m not one myself. You went bankrupt, you risked this vineyard a time or two, and here we are, at the top of the mountain where you generate a massive amount of wines with your name on them. It seems doubtful you are facing the abyss you stared down before, even if you risk $120 million to see through this film that’s been burning in you for decades. Why shouldn’t you have this one last risky epic adventure?
COPPOLA: What’s the worst that can happen to me? I’m going to die and be broke? I’m not going to be broke. My kids are all successful. They’re going to have this beautiful place…You’ve seen Inglenook. They’re going to have that. I’m confident that if you can make a film that people can keep getting something out of for 10, 20 or more years, you will not lose money. I look at my movies. They’re all being looked at 50 years later. The Outsiders, Dracula, they are still seen. My films, the more weird they are, the longer they seem to last. I don’t even know why.
DEADLINE: You believe we can get to a utopia. But given the polarization, the politics, the refusal by so many to even take a Covid vaccine after it killed millions, it feels like the end of the Roman Empire. I know you deal with some of that stuff in your Megalopolis script…
COPPOLA: I do. And you know what utopia really is? It’s not a place. Utopia is a discussion. We sat around here for an hour and talked about the film business. We’ll say, what would be some good things that we could do. I’m sure we would throw out some good ideas. I would say, make the American Film Institute do what it was meant to do and have it take a quarter of a percent of the gross of all the movies, put it in a fund. And when there’s a young person who wants to make a personal film, do what Europe does and give them $100,000. In other words, have some sort of subsidy from what the big films are making. Do you know what some of the budgets of these Marvel pictures are?
DEADLINE: Three hundred million dollars?
COPPOLA: I’m not going to say but it is more. So how hard should it be to give $300,000 to some bright, promising person to help them do a more personal film. That wouldn’t hurt. It would be good. So what I’m saying is we can sit around and talk about good things that could be done. And then at the end of the session, if maybe three or four of them got enacted on we would have improved things. And that’s all I’m talking about here, about society. You know, we could come up with some good ideas of what might be best. I hear a lot of people talking about mental health, but it’s like talking about lung disease while everyone is smoking.
What’s really going on with CNN and Fox and this addiction to daily news? To me, it’s very simple. They give you four minutes of bad news that there’s nothing you can do about. I mean, you look at the kids in Afghanistan and you cry about these babies. I want to help. You look at what’s happening in Ukraine and you say, oh my God. But there’s nothing you can do about it, and they give you that. Then they show you six minutes of commercials, options you can do something about it. You can give yourself a treat and buy a bad unhealthy hamburger, or you can…but everything they suggest that you can do involves you’re spending money. So that’s what’s going on.
DEADLINE: I never thought of that.
COPPOLA: Commercials are basically subliminally telling you that you’re not okay the way you are. And you’d be better off if you could have a Mercedes, because then you can have a pretty girlfriend. In other words, it’s not telling you you’re okay. It’s telling you you’re not okay, repeatedly. Some poor guy is working in an office and he’s working as hard as he can, and he can’t get any more money. So he can’t have a Mercedes and he can’t get a nice girlfriend that looks like Cheryl Tiegs. And so he just goes berserk and he shoots five people, or some 17-year-old kid commits suicide because he’s being bullied. That stuff is not all necessary. I finally figured it after I looked very carefully at what the news was saying, and I realized everything that I feel bad about is because the news is telling me I can’t do anything about it. It’s very frustrating because I want to help the Ukrainians. I want to help, but I can’t. It’s beyond my ability. But then the next commercials are things I can do. And some of them will give me a little shot of dopamine. I could get that pizza. I can act. I can just do it.
DEADLINE: Like a sugar rush?
COPPOLA: Everything that they tell you that you can do involves you spending money, which is what it’s about. Did you know that the real statistics about what’s happening with the human race are very positive? No one knows this. I’ll give you one statistic. It’s a true statistic. So, 150 years ago, what percentage of the world in darkest Africa or the outreaches of India is there such poverty that you see the babies with swollen stomachs and the poor little things that have flies in their mouth and they’re not going to eat and they’re going to die? What percentage of the world 150 years ago do you think was at that level of poverty, terrible poverty?
DEADLINE: Don’t know.
COPPOLA: About 87 percent of the world. You know what it is today, and this is a verifiable statistic?
DEADLINE: Sixty percent?
COPPOLA: Nine percent. I mean 150 years ago or less, children in orphanages in England and Scotland had to pay for their meals. And so they worked in mills, 14 hours a day, these 8-year-olds. Doing whatever you do in a mill. I mean, maybe it’s going on in Bangladesh or something, but this would be unheard of today. And there was like one Scotsman who inherited a mill from his father, who said, what if we took those kids and instead of them working 13 hours in the mill, what if they only had to work 12 hours and they got five hours of education? I can’t remember his name and it’s worth remembering. He was one of the first people to do this, and this is not that long ago. So, so there’s so many things that today would be impossible. In England, they had what are known as the poor laws and they’re famous because you can read them. So in whatever it was, 1820 or not that long ago on paper, is the poor laws that say, okay, if you’re a poor guy and you didn’t pay the bank, they can’t take you and put you in prison, which is what they did.
So somewhere down the line, way after I’m gone, all I want is for them to discuss [Megalopolis] and, is the society we’re living in the only one available to us? How can we make it better?
In other words, the conditions were so bad that they had to come up with new laws, which is the beginning of what you’d call welfare. So you see that 200 years ago, that’s what it was like. And it’s so much worse than it is today that I guess my point is that we are improving. But no one knows it because people are in the habit of saying all people are bad and Trump…because dictators and populists stay in power by having you hate someone else. Trump is saying all those Mexicans, they’re rapists. Putin is calling the Ukrainians Nazis. All I’m saying is that if you knew the real statistics. We’re doing…better. We could be proud of being human beings.
DEADLINE: What would you attribute these advances to? Empathy?
COPPOLA: It’s civilization. A lot of civilization is bad because things like war and slavery and stuff that I do not believe existed 40,000 years ago. I attribute these advances from these things to the fact that the human being in its heart is good, and if I would find it intolerable to take little 8-year-old orphanage kids and make them work 16 hours a day, and they began to make laws. Eventually we begin to understand that it’s absurd that women should not have the right to vote, to participate. Women can be geniuses. But we finally have realized that, and little by little, you know, there was 100 years ago and thing going on in New England. You know, you’ve heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, who worked with women as colleagues, and they were saying the same stuff that I’m telling you now. In fact, there’s a lot of it I read, and that’s where I’m not making this up. I’m learning. So I would say the level of education is very important.
Anyway, so in the end, I’m very hopeful. I think humanity is good and I’m proud of being a human being. The last 10,000 years has been a dead end because it’s been this male patriarchy. I am king. You are my slave. I kill you. All that didn’t exist before. Human beings like us have existed for about 250,000 years. That’s a long time, and civilization is only 10,000 years old. That’s recent history. And that’s when all this male dominance began.
DEADLINE: What would make this last big cinematic journey successful?
COPPOLA: What would make me really happy? It’s not winning a lot of Oscars because I already have a lot and maybe more than I deserve. And it’s not that I make a lot of money, although I think over time it will make a lot of money because anything that the people keep looking at and finding new things, that makes money. So somewhere down the line, way after I’m gone, all I want is for them to discuss [Megalopolis] and, is the society we’re living in the only one available to us? How can we make it better? Education, mental health? What the movie really is proposing is that utopia is not a place. It’s how can we make everything better? Every year, come up with two, three or four ideas that make it better. I would be smiling in my grave if I thought something like that happened, because people talk about what movies really mean if you give them something. If you encouraged people to discuss marriage and education and health and justice and opportunities and freedom and all these wonderful things that human beings have conceived of. And ask the question, how can we make it even better? That would be great. Because I bet you they would make it better if they had that conversation.
DEADLINE: It seems we are further away from utopia because we are so divided. You have to be on one side or the other. You mentioned the climate crisis, and the last American president said he didn’t believe in it. And it’s possible Covid will always be generating variants because of the large number of people who will not get vaccinated.
COPPOLA: Well, worse are the vaccinations. I’m a polio kid. Which means at 9 years old, I woke up in a hospital to the sound of screaming, crying kids and when I looked around — I remember this vividly — I saw gurneys stacked up high, and a row of iron lungs, which was scary looking to me. With kids who could see only through a mirror because the iron lung only allows the head to stick out. All of these kids, crying for their parents. And I’m in the middle of it, and I couldn’t believe the horror of it. And then I crawled out of bed, and fell on the floor and I realized I couldn’t walk. But I was never concerned at that time for myself. I was scared for those kids in the iron lungs. Well, when there was a vaccine for polio six years later, the Salk vaccine and the Sabin vaccine… and by the way those two doctors donated the patents to the world…everyone got a vaccination, and they wiped out polio. There was no more polio, except in some fringe area in Africa. You don’t have people worried about polio here anymore. That was because of the vaccination, and it was a scary vaccination.
Today’s vaccination, the Pfizer or Moderna, that’s not even inoculating you with the disease. That one is totally safe. So it is so absurd that this got politicized because we could wipe Covid out. But we’re not going to and now we’re going to live with it, like flu. And every year, there’s going to be a scarier, newer one, whereas there’s no polio at all, because we vaccinated 100 percent of people…so somewhere along the line, whatever, whoever got that anti-vax thing is crazy.
DEADLINE: How long before you regained the power to walk?
COPPOLA: I was at home and in bed, not seeing one kid — because everyone was so scared of polio – for a year and a half. It was my father who really saved me because in those days there were two very different treatment theories. At first they safety pinned me to the bed sheets and pillows so I couldn’t move because the idea was that if I had moved, I would damage these muscles. But there was the Sister Kenny method, which came from an Australian nurse, and her theory was the opposite. You should train muscles, because it wasn’t the muscles but the nerves that got killed. So some muscles were going to atrophy, but you had other muscles in your body that were there for other reasons and you could train those muscles to take over the job of the ones that no longer worked. That was the Sister Kenny method. So I had a lady come, paid for by the March of Dimes. Miss Wilson, her name was, this very sweet gray-haired lady, and every week she would do these very gentle movements. And thank God, my father had the genius to recognize that the pinning you to your bed method was wrong. My whole left side was paralyzed, and I didn’t see any kids or anything, only my parents. And they all came up once because it was after a year. And I remember going, look, mom, and I went like that with my hand, which I had never been able to do before. And they were like, my God! And so I started to get better.
DEADLINE: Had your father allowed you to be pinned to the bed?
COPPOLA: I would have been in a wheelchair. In fact, remember I said when I was in the bed and I saw the kids in the iron lung, I was scared for them, but I wasn’t worried about me for some reason. I felt I was going to be okay. But then my father brought me two weeks later to this French doctor, who I’ll always remember because he said, you have to be like a soldier. You are going to get better and live a good life, but it will always be in a wheelchair. And then we went and had Chinese food, which is what I love. That was when I really cried, and I knew I was in deep shit because the doctor said I was going to always be in a wheelchair.
DEADLINE: Wow. What happened to those kids in the iron lungs?
COPPOLA: Many of them died. Or they lived their whole lives that way. That was because the polio in the spine had attacked the lungs. And the diaphragm and the iron lung was an artificial breathing device…it was horrible and it was jammed with kids. They were stacked three high. The vaccine…
DEADLINE: I came to talk about Oscars, and maybe there is a tie to what your dad did here, and how you helped him realize his dream to win the Academy Award. But every time I come to Napa and spend time with you, I think to myself, did that just happen? Did I dream it? It’s always wonderful.
COPPOLA: We’re just having a conversation. I’m sure half of what I said isn’t even relevant. But I have a very good memory. I can remember that French doctor’s name, I can see it like it happened yesterday.
DEADLINE: I think your memory and willingness to take risks keeps your filmmaking skills from atrophying.
COPPOLA: I do feel like I’m failing my way upward. I’ve always felt all through my life that I was failing. I didn’t make a movie as good as The Godfather. And then I did that and then I went bankrupt. And that was when everyone hated One From the Heart. But they’re still looking at it and they’re still copying it, which is weird.
DEADLINE: I’ve always felt I was motivated by self-loathing and figured it was an Irish Catholic thing. Do you have the same affliction?
COPPOLA: I realize that I was just telling my wife this morning, that there’s no one alive that I haven’t forgiven. All the people who drove me crazy. Bob Evans. I’m fine with it. They were not without talent. They were wonderful in their own ways. But the one person I can’t forgive is myself, which is just the hardest thing to do.