Coppola don of the dedicated

Francis Ford Coppola

On Oct. 4, 1997, a relaxed Francis Ford Coppola greeted guests at a $1,000-a-plate charity gala on the grounds of his Niebaum-Coppola chateau at Inglenook, in the Napa Valley. Turning to top brass from Paramount and the California wine community, he said: “I feel as though I were at a wedding, bringing the in-laws together, because film and wine are two great American-Californian industries, and we ought to get to know each other…”

The remark and the occasion epitomized Coppola’s situation during the ’90s. After a roller-coaster career that has brought him five Oscars, fame and fortune, he awaits the release of “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” with equanimity and in the knowledge that previews have gone well and the buzz on the net is good to excellent.

“I liked the book,” he says in an exclusive interview for Variety. “I felt it was about a milieu I knew nothing about and I hadn’t ever seen or read about the sleazy side of the legal profession. I enjoyed the many interesting characters, and the ‘good heart’ of the story. I think the film is very faithful to the novel. The screenplay’s main challenge was to squeeze a 500-page book with lots of characters and stories into a two-hour movie.”

Much of “The Rainmaker” was shot in Memphis (“most hospitable, lovely people,” says the director), and the actual court scenes were filmed near San Francisco. Coppola sings the praises of Steve Reuther and Michael Douglas, who independently financed the production via their company, Constellation Films, and at Paramount, where Coppola made “The Godfather” a quarter of a century back in somewhat more turbulent conditions. He calls Sherry Lansing “bright, straight-ahead, collaborative and helpful.”

Coppola made his name as a brash young graduate of UCLA’s film school in the ’60s, probably the only major director in history to use a feature film (“You’re a Big Boy Now”) as his thesis. How does he rate the current crop of film school alumni? “I consider the tag ‘Generation X’ inappropriate,” Coppola replies. “To me, they are ‘Generation P,’ the promising generation. They are talented, intelligent, passionate — totally indifferent to the hype and advertising they have lived through. They will be the tidal wave that will hit the film industry in four years and change it as surely as neo-realism knocked down the hokey costume epics of the Italian industry in the ’40s, and spawn 50 years of true cinema for America and the world.”

For admirers of Coppola’s epic films like “The Godfather” trilogy and “Apocalypse Now,” the Detroit-born director hasn’t been making enough pictures during the ’90s. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” enjoyed considerable success throughout the world, and earned Coppola sufficient funds to restore the Inglenook winery and secure his family’s future, but “Jack” sank without a trace after being roundly and cruelly drubbed by the critics. (Even so, it took in more than $60 million at the U.S. box office, much more than earlier, more personal pictures like “The Conversation,” “Rumble Fish” or “Tucker, The Man and His Dream” (see separate story). “Actually, I’ve made two films (“Jack” and “The Rainmaker”) in about two years,” Coppola demurs. “That’s a maximum effort for a director.”

In part, Coppola’s screen reticence is due to his obsession with improving the huge vineyard estate that he finally secured in 1995 in Rutherford. The old Inglenook Chateau, previously the property of Heublein, has been restored with meticulous care, under the artistic supervision of Dean Tavoularis, Coppola’s perennial production designer.

It now contains a museum tracing not just the story of Gustave Niebaum, the Finnish sea captain who founded the winery in the 19th century, but also the early stages of cinema history and then of Coppola’s own career. You can see the Godfather’s chair and desk, the surfboard used by Robert Duvall in “Apocalypse Now,” and even the gigantic martini-glass in which a nubile Nastassja Kinski writhed in “One from the Heart.”

Wine and films, says Coppola, “are both art forms and thus are approached in similar ways: source material, production and editing/finishing. Yes, the wine business requires a lot of money to be laid out and then one waits. But as we have been doing it since 1977, the rewards are now coming in.”

Whatever the fate of “The Rainmaker,” Coppola plans “to use this next year to focus on my own interests and ideas. A period of study and research.”

What kind of subjects would he like to tackle if a studio were to give him carte blanche? “Obviously I am running out of years,” he replies, “so I hope I can prioritize the many, many things I want to do. I need a big project, a major campaign, you could say. Also, I’d like to direct a musical.”

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