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Coppola looks forward to his own films

There is a kind of shyness, a modesty, about Francis Ford Coppola that is so surprising. Here is the director of "The Godfather," and the epic "Apocalypse Now," and the paranoid psychodrama "The Conversation," and he talks about whether he has the right to put his name above the title. Kids out of film school put their names on their first films, and here he is explaining why his movies are called "Mario Puzo's The Godfather" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "John Grisham's The Rainmaker."

"Someday," he was saying, "I really dream to make a movie that's `Francis Coppola's.' But I can only do that if I write it from scratch. With those other films, my job is to make their work come alive, as I tried to do with Mario or John Grisham. I really believe that I should not put in my own two cents other than as an interpretive artist. Right now I'm writing something original, and I am totally willing to use all the money from `The Rainmaker' to make that happen, and then I would put my name above the title."

Other directors sign movies they didn't write. They do it all the time. Coppola doesn't say that's wrong. It's just that . . . he couldn't.

"I know all about everything there is in a film," he told me, "but what makes me different, I think, from even some of my very great colleagues, is I really can write from nothing."

He can, and has, and yet here he is sitting in the Chicago Ritz-Carlton talking about his new movie, which has John Grisham's name above the title. I wonder if, in a sense, he puts Grisham's name there as a way of not putting on his own name. But, no, he likes the film and likes the novel it was based on: "I'd never read a Grisham novel before. I saw The Rainmaker in an airport. I got it and enjoyed it. It had a lot of humor. In some ways it sort of reminded me of The Godfather. People like the idea that if injustice has happened, they can go to somebody and get it remedied. In `The Rainmaker,' they've been paying premiums to an insurance company for 20 years and then the company says, `Well, your policy doesn't apply to that.' And here's this idealistic kid, with a good heart but hardly any equipment, and he wants to see justice done."

The kid is played by Matt Damon, as a new graduate of a second-tier law school, who ends up in a storefront office with a hustling paralegal (Danny DeVito) as his sidekick. The large, deep and rich supporting cast includes Teresa Wright as a widow who rents the kid a room, Claire Danes as a battered wife, Mary Kay Place as the mother of a dying son, and Jon Voight as the slimy insurance company lawyer. It's a good movie, but you can kind of see why it's "John Grisham's" and not "Francis Ford Coppola's." I was talking not long ago with Tom Luddy, who has been Coppola's friend and a producer for his company for many years, and he told me "The Rainmaker" is the last film Coppola has had to do for money, in order to finally get completely out of debt and be able to make his own work. I asked Coppola point-blank if that were true.

"To write your own film takes a year," he said, "and while you're writing, what does everyone else do? How do you pay your company? There's a tremendous force that says, the second I go to work, then everyone works and the money flows. I'm the elder of the community - my own fault, since I aspired to have a company and employ people in the first place. Only now after all these years am I in a position to say - `You know, I'm gonna write something and I'm not going to make another film for a while.' "

Few directors have had a more unremitting struggle than Coppola. To the glory of his Oscars you have to match the dark side of his career. He literally almost lost his health and his mind in the nightmare of filming "Apocalypse Now." (If you think I exaggerate, look at the documentary about that experience, "Hearts of Darkness," and listen to the despairing conversations his wife, Eleanor, secretly recorded.) Then he founded his own studio, American Zoetrope, to produce the film "One From the Heart," using still-experimental video and editing techniques. Coppola felt the distributor tested it incompetently, before the wrong audiences, and pulled it out of release. It never had a proper theatrical run, and buried Coppola and Zoetrope in a mountain of debt. Then there was his decision to buy a vineyard in the Napa Valley and go into the wine business. Still more debt. There was a day, he recalled, when process servers were knocking on the door to evict his family from their home, and he and Ellie were hiding upstairs while his daughter Sofia boldly ordered the strangers off the property. And there was the 1986 death of his son Gio in a boating accident.

"Things happened," he said, "so that I will never be the same. It was a test of my will and resiliency. `Apocalypse' obviously was a scary situation, because I not only was making this strange movie that looked like it was going straight down the tubes, but my family's home was mortgaged to pay for it. I was in a state of fear. And I had to come up with $2 million a year to the bank in New York and I didn't know where to get it from.

"I never made a film where I didn't find something that I loved. But I did make films that I wouldn't have made had I not had to work. Time does heal a lot of feelings. I never felt burnt out, I always felt alive - but my mind wasn't on film in the same way it was when I was a kid. If I made any mistakes in my life, it was that I allowed the success of `The Godfather' to sweep me off the course that I had set for myself as the young man, which was to always creatively write original material."

Now the bad times are at least behind him.

"I'm out of the dire financial straits, and with this movie, I'm ahead - which is why I did it. I've made my family secure with the wine business and so with the money I've made on `The Rainmaker' I have my wife's permission, everyone's permission, to invest in my own next movie. The only way you can make unusual movies is if you put your money where your mouth is."

We are sitting, talking, drinking coffee, so casually it is necessary to recall that this is Francis Ford Coppola, and not some struggling would-be auteur. He is all but apologizing for films that would crown anybody else's career. He thought the script for "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986) was kind of dumb, he says, and I reflect that I thought it was one of the year's best films. "The Outsiders" (1983) was not a box office hit - but it was Coppola's eye that picked out Tom Cruise as a promising unknown.

On "The Rainmaker," he said, one of the joys was playing games with the actors. Literally games. Exercises from the classic acting book Game Theater by Viola Spolin of Chicago, who was once his teacher, and whose son, Paul Sills, founded Second City.

"I tried every trick in the book. The stunts we pulled on these people! You don't get life from actors by smothering them. You lay around opportunities for them to go to themselves. The joke was that when I worked with Marlon (on "The Godfather') I put around Italian cigars and Italian cheese, and just the smell on your fingers starts making you feel a certain way.

"A week before `The Rainmaker' we began playing Viola's games. They break the ice. But also teach concentration. We played games with the actors the whole time we shot. You know how on a movie the photographer will say, `Uh, oh - there's a glare,' and then everything will stop for the lighting department? Well, on this movie I said we were going to have an acting department. I had a dialogue coach and an acting coach and we'd take half an hour and do improvisations. Or stage little scenarios. At one point, for example, I told Matt Damon, `Gee, Matt - I just got a call from Paramount and they're looking at the dailies and they're not real happy with your work. Apparently Ed Norton is available . . .' Then he had to go and play a scene where he got fired from his job. He knew I was making it up, but in a way, it got him in touch with the feelings . . ."

The movie is unusual, I said, in the way it gives good screen time to so many different characters. In the movies with the $20 million paychecks, we seem to get the same two people in every scene.

"It's very much economics. If you paid $20 million for someone, you'd want to use them. Also you don't have any money left for anyone else. Grisham has written a lot of great characters, and that meant I could have a wonderful cast and focus on the acting."

Coppola's eye for actors has paid off time and again. He created the third act of Marlon Brando's career with "The Godfather." He was there at the beginning for Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro. Look at the cast of "The Outsiders." These are the unknowns he cast in 1983: Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane, and, yes, Tom Cruise.

"I really felt this Tom Cruise kid was gonna be incredible," he said. "I don't know him now, but he was such a hard-working kid. I mean, he'd do anything for his character and I understand even today when they work on films he's extremely hard-working."

He's certainly getting his ultimate test right now, I said. He and Nicole Kidman have entered the 11th month of shooting on Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." The contract says they have to work as long as Kubrick needs them.

Coppola nodded. "I wish I could do a movie and all these stars would stay around for a year. I'd have them all stomping on grapes. OK, crew, that's it for today. Actors, you're going to work. We've got a lot of grapes to pick."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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