- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

The man who directed the third film on the American Film Institute’s top-100 list — “The Godfather” was beaten only by “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” — no longer wants to be thought of as the legend he is.

“It’s been years since I made that kind of film,” Francis Ford Coppola points out. “I’m more eccentric, an independent who happens to be rich.”

Mr. Coppola turned 70 in April and is enjoying what he calls a second career in which he’s “learning how to make movies” again. His latest, “Tetro,” opens today. A black-and-white film about an Italian family of creative types, it’s an artistic film that’s also an artistic departure.

Mr. Coppola won the first of his five Oscars in 1971 for writing the screenplay of “Patton.” Two years later, he won another for co-writing “The Godfather,” the film that catapulted him to the A-list. It wasn’t the kind of film he really wanted to make, though.

“Back when I started, when I was really in my 20s, ‘The Rain People’ was a personal film I got to make,” he says. He then wanted to make another film of that type but had trouble getting it financed. “I found it was tough, even tougher than I imagined, to make a film like ‘The Conversation,’ what they called an art film.”

He had two young children to support, so, he recounts: “My then-young associate George Lucas said, ‘You gotta get a job.’ I had this offer, and he said to do this, do it the way they want it, get the money, and we’ll get back to doing personal films. That ended up being ‘The Godfather.’ It was my third film. It was such a success, it swept me off my feet.”

You might think the director of a best-picture Oscar winner would have no trouble making any film he wanted. Hollywood doesn’t work that way.

“As I got older and the movie business started to change, every movie started to become a formula,” he says. “You can see four of them every week on any Friday.” That’s because making movies has become such an expensive proposition. The “economic system” that has developed around the industry decrees, for example, that actors must have trailers, and certain crafts are unionized.

“Before you know it, the only one who can finance a movie is a big company,” Mr. Coppola says.

“It’s a form of censorship,” he declares. “It’s a kind of cinema gulag in which Stalin would tell the composers what kind of music they could write. They’ll say make any kind of movie you want, but no one will finance it and no one will distribute it.

“I found that my heart was still in more unusual films, so I was crushed when, after making successful films like ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Conversation’ and ‘Godfather II,’ winning a ton of awards, two Oscars, that they still wouldn’t let me make ‘Apocalypse Now.’ I financed it myself, putting up my assets. ‘Apocalypse Now’ was hard to make.” (That’s a bit of an understatement, given the nature of that infamous shoot.)

Mr. Coppola continued making big-budget films with big-budget casts, such as 1992’s “Dracula.” After 1997’s “The Rainmaker,” though, he quit filmmaking for a decade, returning with a film unlike any he had made before, 2007’s experimental head-scratcher “Youth Without Youth.” “Tetro” is in the same independent vein. These two films mark the start of his second career.

“I decided to continue where I left off with ‘The Conversation” — more personal films, smaller budgets — because I was lucky enough to make a fortune in other businesses quite by accident,” he says.

“Tetro” is his first original screenplay since “The Conversation.” “It turned out fine,” he says of the 1974 succes d’estime starring Gene Hackman, “but it didn’t make any money. From that point on, I thought, how can I make a lot of money so I can make these independent films?”

When he says “a lot,” he means “a lot.”

“To finance your own films, you don’t just need some money, you need a great fortune,” he explains. “You need to put up large amounts of money and not be worried about losing them.”

The director made that fortune by providing people with pleasure another way. Anyone who has visited a wine shop knows the director is a vintner. “We’re not just making some wine, we’re making a million and a half cases of wine a year,” he says. He also owns some “wonderful resorts” in Belize, Argentina and Guatemala.

He’s continuing his international travels as an independent filmmaker. “Youth” was filmed in Romania, “Tetro” in Argentina.

“In this new career, I like to go to an interesting country and have an adventure, maybe learn the language,” he says. “It’s always a country with a great cultural heritage, theater, cinema. I pretty much make the film with a crew in the country. It’s an immersion in another way of life. God knows where I’m going to pop up next. It’s one of the thrills of this whole way of working.”

Critics, however, don’t seem to like the idea of an Oscar-winning director reinventing himself as an experimental filmmaker. His films are reviewed as if he’s still the old Francis Ford Coppola, a master of straightforward, often epic, storytelling. “Youth” suffered some harsh reviews.

“They hated it, of course, and no one came to see it,” he acknowledges matter-of-factly. “At this point in my life, I’m not trying to have a successful film career, I’m just making films I love to make.”

He adds, “When you make a famous gangster film, they only want you to make a gangster film.”

He actually took some of those critical comments to heart, though, in writing “Tetro.”

“People said [‘Youth Without Youth’] was too difficult to understand, but I didn’t think so. They said people don’t want to learn about philosophy in a movie, they want to feel something, they want emotion,” he says. “So to do that, I had to find something that made me emotional.” The answer seemed obvious — his family. “Tetro” is not particularly autobiographical in fact, but he says it is in feeling.

He’s working on another original script, and when one talks to him, he sounds more invigorated about his work than men half his age and very happy to be making art-house films.

“I feel really, really privileged to be able to think about film in a way that I can dream something up and know I can go do it and not have to go hat in hand to ask permission,” Mr. Coppola says. “I just feel totally blessed.”

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