Coppola: technophile Renaissance man

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA HASN’T directed a film in over two years. The same is true of his friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Each in his own way, however, has done something much more gratifying than making a movie. They’ve created their own private universes.

While Spielberg and Lucas have basked in the spotlight in recent years, Coppola has grown more private. But here he was last week, hurrying about town, immersed in a dizzying array of activities. The immediate occasion for his visit was to present yet another career achievement award to his friend Spielberg, this one from the Directors Guild. At the same time he was closing a momentous 10-picture deal with United Artists that would instantly make him one of the principal suppliers of independent films.

There was also other business to attend to. His winery is one of the fastest growing in California, generating some $ 35 million in annual revenues. His food line of sauces, pasta, mozzarella and olive oil also is expanding quickly. He is building a second hotel in Belize, this one on the shore. His short story magazine, “Zoetrope: All-Story,” based in New York, is thriving. And he is excited over his Internet activities, aiming some day to create what amounts to a virtual film studio.

Hence, far from slowing down, Coppola more than ever is doing what he likes best: Namely, everything. As he approaches 60, Coppola has emerged as a sort of Renaissance technophile, gourmet, winemaker, hotelier, writer, showman and dreamer. While some may suggest he’s scattered, he never acts that way, always seeming to be focused intently and calmly on whatever task is at hand. As one long-standing associate says of him, “Francis has a genius for generating chaos. He feeds off it. It energizes him.”

AND TYPICALLY, LAST WEEK things weren’t going entirely well for him. Because of the incessant rains, a giant oak tree had fallen on his sprawling Napa Valley home, seriously damaging it. And while he was delightedwith his new deal with MGM, the parent company of United Artists, friends say he’s frustrated because he’d still like to own a major stake in UA, controlling its destiny. For 30 years, Zoetrope, Coppola’s production company, has ricocheted between blockbusters and bankruptcies, owning studios then losing them but always plowing ahead with new ventures. The experience of serving on the board of MGM for six years has heightened his desire to run a studio yet again. “The MGM board has been like a business school for Francis,” said one friend. “It’s changed him from a dreamer to a realist.”

When it comes to directing, however, the “dreamer” trait still seems dominant. A succession of solid commercial projects has been submitted for Coppola to direct, but he’s remained an elusive target. When asked about directing, he’ll divert the topic to a mystery project he’s been writing called “Megalopolis.” Set in what Coppola calls the “ultra-present,” but suffused with futuristic ideas and settings, “Megalopolis” has been a long-standing dream of his, and he’s been writing and rewriting it for years. This will clearly be a movie of ideas, an expensive movie at that — in short, a Big Movie about Big Ideas in true Coppola style.

On the other hand, the films he’ll supervise under his UA deal will be both economical and accessible. The first such project will go into production by summer and, like those that follow, will be budgeted at under $ 10 million and will display the talents of newcomers, not the filmmaking establishment. The funding will emanate partly from MGM, partly from European sources. As one who venerates UA’s proud traditions, Coppola believes his program of films will embellish those traditions.

ONE THING’S FOR SURE: They will not be predictable. Nothing Coppola does fits that description. In buying the old Inglenook winery 25 years ago, few predicted that he would not only regenerate that company but also produce a fine premium wine under the Rubicon label. In starting his short story magazine, skeptics doubted that it would develop into a seedbed for movie ideas, yet that’s what has happened.

Ask Coppola about his compulsion to reinvent the rules, and he’ll harken back to his undergraduate days at Hofstra College on Long Island where, as a theater major, he found himself caught in his first career trap. Coppola had become so enamored of the college’s theater program that he found himself directing all of its productions, inadvertently displacing some faculty members from these posh assignments. The professors responded by flunking him. Always a moving target, Coppola abandoned theater and switched his major to English, thus managing to get his degree.

To his dismay, this experience was repeated in various forms in the coming years. Having completed the two “Godfathers,” “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now,” Coppola was again pushing the envelope, financing his own films and buying a small studio. “When I made ‘One From the Heart,’ my new ‘faculty’ in Hollywood decided it was time to flunk me again,” he recalls. “But just like in college, I shifted to other fields — wine, food, resorts. That was the only way I could think of surviving. They all worked for me.”

Francis Coppola is a big boy now, to borrow the title of his first film. No one’s going to flunk the Godfather again.

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