As several excellent books and articles are reminding us, 1968 was a year of tumult. Regimes were collapsing on this date 50 years ago, protesters jammed the streets, and the worlds of music and film were being re-imagined. Even the tightly regimented Cannes Film Festival exploded in a noisy chaos of demonstrations.
The convulsions of five decades ago, to be sure, did not have the enduring impact that many had imagined. Game-changing ideas crashed and burned, taking promising careers down with them. Indeed, it became cool in the ’60s to carefully study the rituals of survival rather than the keys to success.
Given this realization, I decided to seek out three proud ’60s survivors who not only defied the fates but actually managed to build on the frenzy of the times: Francis Coppola, Billy Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich. Their careers were just starting to burgeon in 1968. Today, they seem as passionate as ever to build on the past, not reject it.
Coppola is often on the Paramount lot these days, staging a succession of readings of a major film which he will shoot in 2019 – a multi-generational saga of an Italian American family. Coppola has visited this terrain before, of course, but his focus this time will not be on the crimes and thuggery of his The Godfather films but rather on the creative destiny of the family. Coppola has also devoted much of his time and resources (to wit, $500,000) to create Cotton Club Encore, an expansion and re-edit of his 1984 film. The new version incorporates five big musical numbers that brighten and enhance the period gangster movie. Distributors are now bidding on the project. Coppola, of course, continues to expand his other various businesses — hotels, wine and food – entities, which, in his mind, further represent the art of storytelling.
Friedkin, meanwhile, has been busily promoting his new film The Devil and Father Amorth. The riveting documentary takes the audience through an actual real-life exorcism, with important scholars analyzing the psychological and religious repercussions of these fierce interactions. It’s been 45 years since the release of Friedkin’s award-winning thriller The Exorcist, which featured a staged exorcism. He also will direct several major operas in various capitals of the world, as he has done for several years, and is prepping other features.
Bogdanovich, on the other hand, is completing work on a famously incomplete project: Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. A longtime admirer of that filmmaker, Bogdanovich and his associates have re-edited and restored Wind based on Welles’ notes and assembled film, and Netflix is committed to releasing it in the fall. The new version was supposed to be shown as a major event at this month’s Cannes Film Festival, but that plan was canceled because of the Netflix-Cannes battles — the French demand theatrical distribution from the streaming service. Bogdanovich also is completing a documentary about Buster Keaton, but not for Netflix.
It seems appropriate that all three filmmakers are consumed both with present and past, since all were involved in an innovative company, conceived 50 years ago, that was intended both to innovate and re-create. At the time the Directors Company was developed, all three had made their breakthrough films. Bogdanovich’s was The Last Picture Show (1971), Friedkin’s was The French Connection (1971) and Coppola’s first film was The Rain People (1969). Their basic precept in forming their company at Paramount was to afford filmmakers the autonomy to develop and green light their own projects, provided budgets were $3 million or under (a healthy sum at that time). Further, each director was obliged to mentor both younger and senior directors, guiding their work on future projects.
Bogdanovich announced that he would foster the future work of Welles, not exactly a youthful protégé but nonetheless a filmmaker who urgently needed both capital and discipline. It would take Bogdanovich 50 years to fulfill his mission.
During its initial years, the Directors Company produced Paper Moon, The Conversation and Daisy Miller and plans were afoot to expand the slate — part of my job at Paramount at that time was to be the studio supervisor for the company. It soon became clear, however, that some top corporate executives bridled at the autonomy afforded the filmmakers; Frank Yablans, the president, was especially distrustful. Within four years the company was disbanded. Each of the filmmakers went their separate ways, taking their lumps along the way — some projects dazzled, other imploded. Yet all three remain at work today, with each endeavor paying homage to the past as well as seeking new ground.