Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to claim the Lumière Festival’s lifetime achievement honor, the Lumière Prize, in a stirring celebration that marked the festival’s 10th edition on Friday night in Lyon, France.
The four-time Academy Award winner accepted the prize after a series of video tributes, musical performances and testimonials from family, friends and colleagues that left the filmmaker visibly moved.
Festival directors Thierry Fremaux and Bertrand Tavernier played masters of ceremony, introducing the director’s wife, Eleanor, and son Roman, as well as filmmaker Bong Joon-ho and actress Nathalie Baye, both of whom spoke about their experiences with the honoree and his work, while directors Sofia Coppola and James Gray beamed in with pre-recorded messages.
Tavernier delivered the most sustained analysis of Coppola’s work, its political implications and style, such as the mix of “narrative liberty and formal experimentation” in 1969’s “The Rain People,” a “foundational” work anticipating “Apocalypse Now,” “One From the Heart,” “Outsiders” and “The Godfather” Part 1 and II.
While Baye reflected on her time serving on Coppola’s Cannes jury, Bong spoke of his experience seeing “Apocalypse Now” nearly 10 years after the film’s initial release. The Palme d’Or winning film was banned in South Korea until 1988, explained Bong, and so the “Parasite” director could not see it until he himself was a fledgling young filmmaker, noting that the film fueled his own desire to work in this field.
When Coppola took the stage, he displayed particular appreciation for the tribute. “You actually represent my highest goal,” he told the recent Cannes winner.
“You work on something, you put it out there and you don’t know where it’s going to go or who’s going to see it. And I always felt that the greatest gratification of all is if some young person sees something that I worked on and decides that they want to write a novel or make a film,” Coppola added.
“That really is the greatest consequence of all. It means you have become immortal.”
Earlier that day, the filmmaker spoke before a sold-out crowd of local students and industry professionals at an almost ninety-minute Q&A session that he pointedly refused to call a masterclass.
“The cinema is so young,” said Coppola, “that there are no masters. I’m a student of the cinema. If there is a master it would be Martin Scorsese… but everyone else is a student.”
Coppola made sure to emphasize this point throughout the talk. When speaking of his diverse filmography – which takes stylistic swings from the urban paranoia of “The Conversation” to the musical fantasy of “One from the Heart” to the Grand Guignol horror of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Coppola noted that his guiding vision was curiosity.
“I could have had a whole career doing gangster pictures,” he began. “[Instead] I went from project to project with different styles and intentions because I wanted to learn what I was good at… Every film I made as an experiment to teach me. You could take one of my films and put it next to another and you wouldn’t even think the same person made both, and I did that deliberately because I wanted to learn.”
He then added: “Learning is one of the few human pleasures that you don’t get fat doing, you don’t get diabetes, and your wife doesn’t get angry at you. How many things can we do where you do all you want, and there’s no bad effects?”
Sharing the stage with Fremaux and Tavernier, Coppola reflected on his beginnings as a theatre student, his decision to become a filmmaker after seeing Sergei Eisenstein’s “October: Ten Days That Shook the World,” and his early days working for Roger Corman.
After Coppola detailed the many strategies Corman used to make films with very limited means and how important it was to work economically, Tavernier cheekily asked, “How did Roger Corman react to ‘Apocalypse Now?’”
Though he winced at the term masterclass, Coppola spent much of the session addressing the students in the audience, offering them encouragement and advice. “Make personal films,” he told them. “Make a film that demonstrates how unique you are.”
Advising the students not to become dejected by setbacks, the director referred back to his early work writing the film “Patton.” The film’s original star Burt Lancaster hated Coppola’s additions — which included the famous opening monologue – and had the young screenwriter dropped from the project.
Years later, George C. Scott took a liking to Coppola’s more offbeat version and helped push that script — which would win Coppola his first Oscar — into production.
“Remember one thing,” Coppola told the audience, “the things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you get the lifetime achievement award for later on!”