The prevailing wisdom might be that Francis Ford Coppola peaked as a filmmaker with “Apocalypse Now,” but he was undoubtedly the star attraction on Sunday at the PGA’s sixth annual Produced By Conference. The 75-year-old writer-director-producer held court in a packed Steven J. Ross Theater on the Warner Bros. lot, waxing nostalgic about the early days of Zoetrope in 1969-70 as well as the Hollywood of today, which he feels harbors an embarrassment of riches.
But those riches, he says, are mostly confined to the voices of filmmakers who take a more personal approach to the medium — the David O. Russells, the Alexander Paynes, the Wes Andersons and, yes, the Sofia Coppolas of the world, versus what he called the makers of “industrial films,” or franchise tentpoles, largely being shepherded by the major studios.
The man who once talked about filmmaking completely converting to digital more than three decades ago now feels that the next technological wave will involve a kind of live cinema — not unlike what was done with “The Sound of Music” on television recently, but involving the latest screen technology and available on everything from movie screens to mobile devices. “The cinema can be composed for the audience while they’re seeing it,” he said. “Movies no longer have to be set in stone and can be interpreted for an audience.”
The suggestion was that a movie could be customized for its intended viewers, and could be altered at will. “Live cinema could be like live theater,” he said. “Streaming will be broadcasting.”
Coppola also pointed out narrative as one of the medium’s fastest evolving aspects, citing Sarah Polley’s last film as a director, “Stories We Tell,” as an ingenious way of combining documentary-styled storytelling with narrative fiction.
There was the suggestion that the project he’s writing now, a multi-generational saga about an Italian American family not unlike his own, could weave fact and fiction together in a similar way.
He also explained why his long-in-the-works project, “Megalopolis,” an Ayn Rand-like epic about building a utopian city of the future, stalled. “9/11 happened,” he said when he was shooting second-unit footage on the film set in New York, “and we couldn’t figure out how to rewrite the script. My attempt at utopia ran into Islamic terrorism.”
The 75-minute discussion, moderated by producer Howard “Hawk” Koch, covered a fairly wide swath of territory, with Coppola, among the first wave of the film-student generation of directors, talking everything from process to philosophy.
Using an example from when he was shooting “Godfather Part II,” he talked about how to juggle the responsibilities of wearing many hats on a movie when problems arise. He cited coming up with a solution to Brando, unsatisfied with what he was being paid for a cameo, not showing up for what was intended as a sort of family reunion scene in the film’s coda. “The producer of the movie came to the director of the movie who said ‘Talk to the writer.’”
Of course, Coppola was talking about himself in all three instances.
He ended up writing the scene so that the Corleone family’s anticipation of seeing their father substituted for Vito, as played by Brando, actually being in the scene. “Often the decision that doesn’t involve throwing money at it is the best one.”
As for his less celebrated films, Coppola talked about how movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Tucker” were initially dismissed but that the best cinema improves with time. “The weird stuff of yesterday becomes the wall paper of today.” he said. “Art has the ability to change, and change everyone with it.”
He also reminisced about the late Gordon Willis, the d.p. of “The Godfather” trilogy who emphasized the “structure” of movies and “shots as building blocks. Coppola said Willis had “a very precise aesthetic — that cinema is told in shots and that these shots shouldn’t move, and each shot should relate to the next one. He said ‘don’t use the camera as an elastic tool.’”
He described Vittorio Storaro, d.p. on “Apocalypse,” on the other hand, as 180 degrees opposite in his thinking. “Vittorio thought you could write the film with the camera, that it could fly like a bird and capture everything.”
On how to bridge the gap between art and commerce, Coppola was adamant that you have to choose between the two, although he did mention people like George Gershwin and Steven Spielberg as being able to achieve both.
“I don’t think it’s ever good to choose that you want to be rich and famous,” he told those assembled, many of them veterans, and many aspiring producers. “Make personal work about you and what you feel and what you know. Art should be personal and filled with life and illuminate contemporary times.”