“I’m Just Gonna Be A Student Again”: Francis Ford Coppola on His Five-Year Project to Redefine Cinema

The 'Godfather' director also discusses 'Apocalypse Now,' Screening Room, and supporting himself with wine.

“I told them, I have absolutely no idea what we’re gonna talk about. So I love that, because then I’ll really talk.” So announced Francis Ford Coppola, legendary director of the Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and many, many more, at the beginning of his Tribeca Talk (moderated by novelist and fellow wine enthusiast Jay McInerney) Wednesday.

And talk he did, spending an hour holding court on everything from digital filmmaking (“Unfortunately, what I had in mind did happen — aspects of it were embraced and used to make superhero movies”), the strange state of personal movie-making (“What’s happened today in the movie business is a split between the so-called studio pictures, which have too much money and are basically franchises, and the independent cinema, made by our very talented young filmmakers — and you can include Woody Allen in that — and they don’t have enough money, their budgets are very miserly”), and this transitional moment for our culture (“All our institutions seem to be changing right in front of our eyes — marriage, journalism, religion, politics, who would’ve imagined politics would become reality television — and institutions are the bedrock we rest on, so when they’re changing, this becomes quite an exciting time”).

One of those transitions, Coppola maintains, comes in the form of our definition of what film is. “Cinema and television have become the same thing,” he says. “Those wonderful long television shows — starting with [TheSopranos, Breaking Bad — those are movies, so it’s all cinema. There is no more ‘television’ as such. Cinema can be seen in the home, it can be seen in the theater, it can be and will be seen in both the home and the theater, and it can be a minute or less, or it could be 90 hours or more.” If that middle part sounds like an endorsement of the controversial day-and-date home/theater viewing service Screening Room, well, Coppola didn’t name-check it, but he seems to see the concept as an inevitability. “The truth is that you’re gonna be able to see it in the theater or at home or wherever you want to because you are the boss of that, you are the patron. And the theaters owners can’t make those kinds of stipulations, it’s the audience… It’s wonderful to see a movie in the theater, with the full big screen, and it’s also wonderful nowadays, with the extraordinary home screens that you can have — but it’s all cinema.”

Coppola has always been ahead of the curve on technology — and eager to see the industry through moments of transition. That’s how he became an industry player, back in the golden era of ’70s studio filmmaking during which, thanks to studio heads desperate to connect with young audiences, projects like his were possible. Not that he was there to conquer: “On a movie like The Godfather, all I was trying to do was not get fired every week,” he says, convincingly. “I was so scared. I had three kids — or two, and one eminently on the way, and when the baby was born, that was the baby in The Godfather, turns out it was Sofia… And on Apocalypse Now, I was terrified, I had a $32 million loan at 29%, with everything I had up against it, which is why I own Apocalypse Now at this moment… I was so scared, but I didn’t know any other way to do it.”

That 1979 classic marked the end of an era for Coppola, and the industry. “The studios were getting wise to us,” he recalls. “They were taking the keys back, after Heaven’s Gate. And today, a movie director, what do you do? Some of the greats, like Marty [Scorsese] and Steven [Spielberg], it’s still an effort to do a personal film, they’re more under pressure to do what is commercially viable.” So he began working less frequently — and found his main source of income not in directing, but in wine-making. “The wineries, thanks to all of you, do very well. I often think you should all be credited as associate producers of what films I do, because that’s what’s paying for it.”

But he does hope to work more. He’s currently focusing — and spent a good deal of his talk discussing — a five year project based in “what I think is one aspect of the future of cinema.” It’s a very long piece, a cycle of plays, telling the story of an Italian family over four generations, mirroring the conception, birth and ubiquity of television. But he doesn’t see it as a play, or a television series, or even a fusion of both; he describes it as “live cinema,” in which “you will be able to see something which looks like a beautiful movie, yet it is being performed live for you.” If that sounds impossible, or inexplicable, or irrational, Coppola gets it. But that’s how he works. “In my career, I’ve always been in a situation where I’m doing something big and ambitious,” he says. “And I’m trying to sell people to sponsor me, like I did with Apocalypse Now, and the truth is I had no idea how I was gonna do what I was saying I was going to do. But when I got there, and I said, how am I gonna destroy villages with helicopters and all this stuff, I had no idea how I was gonna do it. But step by step, we learned.” So he’s been doing small sections during stints at universities, which is calls “proof of concept experimentation”; the 77-year-old filmmaker plans to spend five years on it, to “for sure get me into my 80s.”

Yet what’s most striking about Coppola, at this point late in his life, is the clarity with which he sees where he is, and where he’s been. “Y’know, I am well aware that some great artists — say, Tennessee Williams — have a success very young. Williams had The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire and lived a life of great heartbreak, because he did do some spectacular plays after that, but he always felt he was in competition with Streetcar or Glass Menagerie. And that could be true of a first novel, and it seems to be a pattern.

“So I knew at age 65, I was never gonna make a film that connected with the public the way that The Godfather did – and I didn’t even see the point of trying. So I decided that when you have had the good fortune of coming on the scene very young, you should kind of kill yourself in a form, and then go back and be a student again and reinvent yourself and work your way up again, and see what that new person is… So I decided I’m just gonna be a student again.”

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 24th.