Francis Ford Coppola to Movieline: 'Godfather Never Should Have Had More Than One Movie'
Though many of his famous peers like to say they'll soon make smaller, more intimate movies, only Francis Ford Coppola actually seems to be doing it. The director's latest, Tetro, is a moody family drama about young Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) reconnecting with the titular brother (Vincent Gallo) who fled the family years before to escape from their overbearing father. When Bennie unearths one of Tetro's discarded stories and secretly adapts it into an acclaimed play, the already-riven family dynamics become even more fraught.
Movieline talked with Coppola about his own familial rivalries, the criticism his films have received (including the famous franchise he regrets serializing), and the splashy action film he's unexpectedly looking forward to this year.
The family in Tetro is consumed with success -- the success of their father looms large over the sons, and when Bennie starts to taste critical adulation, he changes completely. How have you personally seen people affected by artistic success, for better and for worse?
Well, I've always been interested in just that: the idea that if you make a film or painting or symphony, it's really something that's separate from you. You could be a nice person or you could be an awful person, it has no bearing on what you create, but somehow the way we live, our whole value is in this work. I mean, you go to a party and you want to meet a girl, she says, "What do you do?" Our value and our status comes from something that's so apart from us. I always think of Picasso, who was this wonderful painter but he was mean to his kids and he was mean to his wives. I maybe wouldn't have liked him had I gotten the chance to meet him. The dilemma of that really struck me in what I saw firsthand in my family.
In what ways?
Now, of course -- really, since me -- the Coppola family is thought of having all these people who are either famous or successful. It's so odd, because then there are some cousins and things who are not yet successful. Nicolas Cage is buying all these yachts and jet planes and doing all this crazy stuff, but his brother, maybe, is struggling. You begin to see that as a question, and I think I wanted to digest it a little bit in this film.
Your own father, though, is very different than the domineering dad in Tetro.
The father in Tetro is a world-famous conductor, so famous that people would know his name and ask him for an autograph. In my family, that's more like me in a way, because my father struggled. He was a man who wasn't getting the attention. He wanted to be another George Gershwin, he wanted that. Of course, when he was older he was working on The Godfather and stuff, so he did get a little taste of it. People think, "Oh, your father was a very successful man," but my father was a frustrated man.
When I was a kid, my father was not even the conductor -- he was the assistant conductor of musicals that would go on the road. He would be playing in the pit on the flute, and I would be sitting there watching the show, and then at the end of the show, the conductor would take his bow and leave and my father would get up and conduct the exit music. And of course, he was so serious about it! He would conduct it in such a real way, and the musicians were tired -- this was just the music to go out of the theater during! They'd say, "Who does he think he is, Toscanini?" And I, as a kid, was heartbroken because the ushers were just folding up the seats [while he conducted], but he saw that as his chance.
Did it change him once he finally attained that success through scoring your films?
Well, yeah. A little bit. My father yearned for that type of recognition, and I guess he got it as an old man, when he was about sixty. But he was always a little egotistical. Swimming your way through our family with all these types and talented people, all the friction that caused, was very interesting for me...Have you ever had a friend or someone you like who got a break, and there was a bad [critical] reaction to it, and secretly you were satisfied?
Well, one sees that emotion and is on the lookout for it. Sure, everybody does. There's a famous quote: "It's not enough that I succeed--my best friend must also fail." Humans are funny. You know, I had a very talented older brother, and I sort of modeled myself on him. It's not that he was competitive -- he was just older, so he was better at everything than I was. And I always thought, "Oh, someday we could be Julian and Aldous Huxley!" In history, there are any number of brothers or sisters who were both acclaimed poets or stuff like that, and I always thought that would be really great.
I think the young brother in Tetro, he wants his brother to be successful. What he's really doing when he gets in and works on the play is he's trying to make his brother be the successful older brother so he can copy him. I don't know how I personally feel about those themes, although I know more than I did before I made the movie, which is why I made this movie. It's tricky. I have some very successful kids and nephews and in my family they all love each other, so it's easy to hate each other. [laughs]
Tetro was once treated very well by the notorious theater critic Alone (Carmen Maura), but he says that she eventually turned on him. Does that have any personal relevance to your own relationship with film critics, especially after your last film, Youth Without Youth, was panned?
You know, I'm a very interesting figure, because arguably, I got more famous as I got older. I became more like an icon -- partly, because people need to have some old guys as icons. We don't have Ernest Hemingway around anymore, so whoever's old more or less could qualify! So I realize that on one hand, I'm considered this great old director, and on the other hand, it's like, "What's he done lately? He's washed up, I don't even care what movies he makes anymore." But in truth, my films were not successful in their time. I mean, The Godfather was, but...
People forget that as the years go by.
People say a lot of the time, "You could never compete with those successes...Apocalypse Now, and this and that." And I say, "Those movies weren't successes! They were failures, read the reviews!" So I'm used to films being slammed and then, twenty years later, turning out differently. It's all vague, nothing is definite. Criticism is often wrong, as we know through history. Carmen, which is now the most popular opera in the repertoire, was a tremendous flop [when it premiered]. Why did they hate it?
Still, do you take any of that criticism to heart?
What I look for with critics is more that they're going to write about something I did and I'm gonna read it and not make those mistakes again, I'm gonna learn something from it. Often, though, they don't do that: they say, "It's a muddled mess." "It's pretentious." I can't learn a lot from someone saying "It's pretentious."
I wanted to ask you about some of the projects in development you're often associated with -- in particular, the sci-fi project Megalopolis, which you've long tried to mount. Is that something you'd like to come back to soon?
Eh, you know. I feel pleased to have written something, and then I'm done with it and I want to go on and write something else. Someday, I'll read what I had on Megalopolis and maybe I'll think different of it, but it's also a movie that costs a lot of money to make and there's not a patron out there. You see what the studios are making right now.
Maybe you should have turned it into a comic book first.
Yeah, I know. If it were...Well, the movies that are coming out now on a Friday night, they're basically copying what was set up by Star Wars and Jaws, you know? Except now, they have digital effects. They're just this nonstop roller coaster ride. I went to see Night at the Museum 2 the other night...
Yes, with my wife. [pause] It was enjoyable. There were a couple of laughs. But basically, now every movie is the same thing. Transformers, and all that...it's nonstop action, but it's not even action you never saw before. Even with digital effects, everyone knows that they're digital so they're not impressed.
There were also reports a few years ago that you were involved in a potential fourth Godfather film. Care to clarify?
I don't think Godfather ever should have had more than one movie, actually. It was not a serial, it was a drama. The first movie wrapped up everything. To make more than one Godfather was just greed. Basically, making a movie costs so much money that they want it to be like Coca-Cola: you just make the same thing over and over again to make money, which is what they're doing now. But Godfather was not really a serial, you know? I mean, how would you spin off Hamlet?
Ghosts are good. [laughs] You know what I'm saying. Some things lend themselves to being serialized, but there's also a law of diminishing returns. I mean, even as demonstrated with Godfather, once it shows you its stuff and has all these things you've never seen before, then each time you make it again, it's gotta be less interesting. Although!
I saw the coming attractions for Sherlock Holmes, and at first I thought, "What the hell is that? Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr.?" And then I watched it, and I thought it was really interesting. Have you seen the attraction for it?
I have, yeah.
Of all the coming attractions I saw...a lot of those movies have already been made, like [Public Enemies] with Johnny Depp, that was already a pretty good Dillinger movie with Warren Oates. But I was intrigued by Sherlock Holmes, it seemed to put a new perspective on it that seemed like it could be fun. Robert Downey Jr...he's really a talented guy. ♦