‘Small,’ personal films reflect grand vision

Francis Ford Coppola

LONDON — Throughout a 35-year career, Francis Ford Coppola has veered from one extreme to another, from the epic to the intimate, from the studio vehicle to the long-cherished personal project. He has appeared equally at home marshaling hundreds of extras in the Filipino jungle, or directing a few friends in a rarely used warehouse in San Francisco.

The irony remains that the small, private film has always been harder for Coppola to set up than the mega-budget, star-laden blueprint that lands on his desk his way with monotonous regularity. “The tragedy of my life,” he concedes, “is that nobody ever wanted to let me do my own personal little projects.”

Box office disappointments, and seldom revived, Coppola’s “chamber films” embody some of his finest work. There’s an arthouse intensity, a European ambivalence of tone, to “The Rain People,” “The Conversation,” “Rumble Fish” and even the more lush and costly “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”

The idea for “The Rain People” stemmed from a parental tiff at home. “My mother and father had an argument,” Coppola recalls. “She went to her sister’s house for two days and wouldn’t say where she had gone. She told me she’d stayed in a hotel. It just clicked with me, you know, the idea of a woman leaving, just staying in a motel.”

In the film, Shirley Knight’s Natalie quits her sleeping husband in Long Island one rain-swept morning and embarks on an odyssey through Middle America. Along the way she encounters Killer, James Caan’s gentle giant of a footballer, and together they drive from West Virginia to Tennessee, and on to Nebraska, until Killer runs afoul of Robert Duvall’s cop and Natalie loses the only sensitive relationship she has discovered in her life.

“When we made ‘The Rain People,’ ” Coppola reminisces, “we had this unusual format of this very small caravan that could strike anywhere … and we began to feel like Robin Hood and his band. We really had the filmmaking machine in our hands and it didn’t need to be in Hollywood, it could be anywhere.”

George Lucas, on his first assignment, joined the 20-strong troupe and made a 16mm documentary about the production.

“The theory was that the we would travel from New York to as far west as we wanted to go,” recalls lighting cameraman Bill Butler. “We had this little van; Coppola had a large camper van that we had an editing table in, and there were several station wagons.” Made in 1968, “The Rain People” cost just $740,000 and was given a limited release by Warner Bros. in the late summer of 1969.

After the unexpected triumph of “The Godfather” at the worldwide box office, Coppola found himself able to revive a project he had been nurturing since 1967, about a professional wire-tapper (based on Hal Lipsep, then living in the Bay Area). Irvin Kershner had told Coppola about the extraordinary capacity of long-distance microphones and their effect on industrial espionage.

“The Conversion” studied the character of Harry Caul, the surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman who discovers something nasty in his tapes. In part inspired by Antonioni’s “Blowup,” it did not get a greenlight from Paramount until 1973 — by which time the country was obsessed with the Watergate investigation. Hackman, who had been attached to the production since 1968, won the Academy Award for “The French Connection” and became a bankable star, helping to justify the $2 million budget.

“The Conversation” never ignited at the box office, despite winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1974, and despite some wonderful reviews, led by Variety’s comment: “This is Coppola’s most complete, most assured and most rewarding film to date, and the years it took him to bring (it) to the screen should be considered well worth the persistence.”

Much of the credit for the remarkable sound and rhythm of the film should go to Walter Murch, who labored on editing it while Coppola was shooting “The Godfather, Part II.” The director would spend his weekends in the cutting room with Murch. When “The Conversion” unfurled at Cannes in the spring of 1974, he was on location in Trieste with that sequel, and flew to the festival only on the final night to accept his award.

The Harry Caul of “The Conversation” reflects an essential aspect of Coppola’s personality: “The idea was that he was always this anonymous person who was observing and eavesdropping on the personal lives of the other people and he yearns to be personal with them, and tell them something of who he is, rather than just being this cipher.” From the opening zoom down into the heart of San Francisco’s Union Square, to the closing pan shots that observe Caul’s playing his sax in chaotic solitude, “The Conversation” is made with a confidence and an intensity rare in American cinema. Dean Tavoularis, who had joined Coppola’s team for “The Godfather,” created a haunting design scheme for the production, and Coppola gave Harrison Ford the first real break of his career, playing the sinister “director’s assistant” who pursues Caul for the incriminating tapes.

Along with “The Conversation,” “Rumble Fish” is probably Coppola’s personal favorite of his films. Made back-to-back with “The Outsiders” in Tulsa, Okla., “Rumble Fish” used some of the same actors (Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, Tom Waits) and introduced Nicolas Cage in a key role. By far the most “experimental” of Coppola’s works, it contains dizzying crane shots worthy of Welles, a scene in which Matt Dillon “levitates” after being beaten up in an alley and a soundtrack seething with the music of Stewart Copeland, who would go on to score films like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and Ken Loach’s “Raining Stones.”

“Rumble Fish,” although adapted like “The Outsiders” from a novel by S.E. Hinton, marks a kind of exorcism for Coppola, whose relationship with his gifted elder brother, August, is reflected in the uneasy tension between Dillon and Mickey Rourke’s “Motorcycle Boy” in the film. Once again, the American public turned away, but “Rumble Fish” became a cult hit in France and Scandinavia, where its aesthetic audacity and its references to German expressionism were more readily deciphered.

Through much of the 1980s, Coppola had to do commercial penance for the extravagance of “One From the Heart,” until his old friend George Lucas agreed to guarantee the entire budget for “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” Like “The Conversation,” this was a project long in gestation. As early as 1976, Coppola had declared to his staff at American Zoetrope that the film would enter production. There was talk of Leonard Bernstein developing it with Coppola as a musical.

Most young Americans had never heard of Preston Tucker, the eccentric, headstrong inventor and amateur engineer who built one of the post-war era’s most remarkable cars — and then went bankrupt. Coppola’s father had been one of the original investors in Tucker stock, and had lost every cent.

“Tucker” may have reveled in a budget of $25 million, but its theme mirrors the experience of Coppola himself. Like Tucker, he had tried to buck the system, boycotting Hollywood as Tucker had disdained Detroit. Like Tucker, he relied on family and close associates in a time of crisis (the family home in the film even looks uncannily like Coppola’s own house in Rutherford). Shot in lush, creamy tones by Vittorio Storaro, this art deco film boasts costumes by Milena Canonero in a subtle palette of biscuit and beige, and the imaginative period design of Tavoularis (notably a huge hanger where Tucker meets Howard Hughes beneath the Spruce Goose).

With U.S. rentals reaching only $8.9 million, “Tucker” could never turn a profit for Lucas, but it survives as a humorous fable celebrating the fate of the maverick in American industry. “I’m always looking for some smaller or more distant, more private way to work,” Coppola told me when he was shooting the film.

Today, a decade later, if the advance buzz on “The Rainmaker” proves accurate, he may again be within sight of the freedom to make a truly personal work.

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