“When I was seven years old, [my older brother] used to take me to these unusual movies, and we also went to see films like Abbot and Costello Meets Dracula, but then he would take me to things like Tales of Hoffman,” five-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola says, fondly recalling his childhood days spent at the cinema with his brother August, who first introduced him to the boundless joys of the Michael Powell and Emile Pressburger classic. “I just had never seen, as you could imagine—a little kid—this type of thing, but whenever I think of my brother, some part of me thinks of Tales of Hoffman.” Family has always been a central, thematic focus of Coppola's work, from The Godfather trilogy to his newly released cinematic rumination on the family tree, Tetro. Slant caught up with Coppola at the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles to discuss the vibrant second phase of his career and what it means to be a personal filmmaker these days in Hollywood.
For every glorious, creative triumph in his career (the first two Godfather films, The Conversation), disappointments (One from the Heart, Jack) have loomed in the background. Still, Coppola remains quite grounded and optimistic about his time in the limelight. “At [70 years old], I think I've done everything,” he confesses. “Although, I can say I've never become jaded. I've had fame and I've had wealth and I've had failure and I've had wealth again. All these wonderful privileges—but the real happiness in life is to learn something.” Coppola doesn't shy away from admissions of monetary problems (the first Godfather film was, in fact, a director-for-hire gig), but his thirst for cinema and the constant challenges of filmmaking have kept his wheels turning.
Now in the second phase of his career (as he puts it), Coppola is finding that Hollywood has become less open to stellar, game-changing cinema. “I'm surprised—when you think of contemporary films, everything has to be simpler and more dumbed-down,” he laments. “If you attempt anything a little more ambitious, you're immediately condemned for being—what's the word—'pretentious' or you get slapped for doing that. I admire literary greatness and I'm sad that our films are narrowed down to reach 4,000 screens throughout the country. Partly, that's what took me to Latin America.”
Coppola's Tetro—a penetrating study on the dueling, complex nature of a father-son relationship—begins as American teenager, Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), arrives in Argentina on a docked cruise ship, searching for his elusive brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo). Still embittered and filled with regret, Tetro takes a while to warm to the overeager Bennie, but soon they reminisce about the past and their father, who is revealed to be an indifferent, cold man yet widely respected composer.
The director's most personal work to date, Tetro unmistakably opens up a window into his own family dynamic and history, but Coppola wholly denies this torn familial portrait is a spot-on memoir. He affirms, “Well, it's not a real story. Nothing in my life ever quite happened like [in Tetro], certainly, but you kind of use your personal life as source material, and you use your memories and your feelings to put the flesh on a fictional story you might cook up.” Further commenting on detractors that might label his more recent work as indulgent, Coppola remarks, “Since I put up the money, and I don't get paid, I figure I'm allowed to do anything I want, and by 'self-indulgent'—what does that mean? I hear that all the time, because obviously I'm doing that. All that tells me is I'm on a more personal desire to learn and to try things out and follow my heart. Is self-indulgent different than heartfelt?”
Casting, at first, proved difficult, but when he found his two leads, Coppola instantly recognized the great chemistry between Ehrenreich and Gallo: “Working with [Ehrenreich]—he's young. I think he's 19 now but he's precocious and he has a good head on him and a desire to learn. When he got together with Vincent Gallo, who [plays] the older figure, Alden was very interested to learn from Vincent about the art scene and the music scene because he's an interesting guy. Immediately they started to hook up like an older and younger brother with Vincent teaching Alden, not only about acting, but all these other areas.”
Now that the film has been released in New York and L.A. and a whole new generation can embrace this of-his-time filmmaker, Coppola provides poignant candor about his career. He firmly points out, “I'm not trying to have a movie career. I do not have a movie career. And as to my importance now, am I perhaps a has-been? For sure I'm a has-been.” He ends with one last sobering quip and a smile plastered upon his face, proclaiming: “But I 'has-been' in something very exciting at the time, but I don't want that anymore. I would like to learn a lot and make films that I'm in love with, and I don't care if I don't get paid and I don't make money.”