Peter Bart: Turning 80, Francis Coppola Looks Ahead While Reaching Back To Re-Edit ‘Cotton Club’ & Other Gems

Francis Coppola Cotton Club The Godfather

He seemed like a serious young filmmaker at the time, but his career was a mess. I decided to be candid with him. “Why does it always seem like you are in trouble?” I asked him, knowing that he was looking for a new gig. “Is it that you like trouble?” He shook his head emphatically. “I like to learn,” he told me. “Learning means trying new things and that sometimes means trouble.”

This week I decided to renew my conversation with that filmmaker, since he was now turning 80 and seemed more dedicated than ever to “learning,” with all its perils. The upshot: For Francis Coppola, “learning” now entails still further innovative adventures in moviemaking, but also in other arenas. This year he would open two new hotels, bringing his total ownership to seven in Europe and Latin America. His burgeoning wine business would also announce new brands and winery events. And then there was news about his magazine, his restaurant and so on.

So then there were also new troubles: The fire season scorched the fringes of his property and floods impinged on his Napa vineyards. Trouble was familiar territory, but Coppola’s complex empire survived its threats and Coppola himself, more than ever, seems eager to explore new arenas. Even if they mean rediscovering his past, as I shall explain.

When I first encountered Coppola, he was not yet 30 and Warner Bros claimed that his “learning” forays had already set the studio back some $600,000 – a lot of money in those days. The studio was impatient not only with Coppola but with his band of “confused and unfocused” colleagues like George Lucas, as corporate chief Ted Ashly put it.

In ensuing years Coppola’s propensity for risk taking seemed to replicate itself. Halfway through his first major film, the studio fired him, then reversed itself. His decision to start a new indie studio in Hollywood resulted in a declaration of bankruptcy. A major war film he shot overseas was widely rumored to be un-releasable.

Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now Snap Stills/Shutterstock

To be sure, the “troubles” ultimately emerged as major triumphs. The credits are by now well known if not exalted – The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, etc. Even the erstwhile studio, American Zoetrope, still exists, though now in San Francisco.

And a robust Coppola, having dropped over 60 pounds this year, is brimming with energy and a desire to keep learning. “Eventually, I will find my true voice,” he says cheerfully. “I didn’t leave the movie industry, it left me. But I have found ways to revisit it.”

The “re-visiting” a few years ago took the form of several small experimental films, and re-visiting what Coppola describes as “Zoetrope’s electronic archives” has encouraged him to re-assess the edits of his earlier films and, as he puts it, “to learn from past perspectives.” Last year, he completed a re-imagining of The Cotton Club, cutting extraneous scenes and adding several high-energy music and dance numbers. The new version is being scrutinized by several distributors, who believe it will find a new audience. Its nightmare conflicts of overseas rights (again reflecting troubles) has also been cleaned up.

Coppola also is re-examining his three Godfather movies, mindful that the 50th anniversary of his first iteration in 1972 will stoke fervid excitement about the revered films. Again, perspective has helped: For several years after completion of Godfathers 1 and II, Coppola sought to distance himself from their legacy, putting the bitter disputes that marred the initial production behind him. “I may have been my own worst enemy on that film,” he now reflects, but, in fact, studio politics, not Coppola mistakes, prompted most of the intrigues (full disclosure: I was present on the scene).

Will the 50th anniversary bring forth new “learning” experiences? Coppola, at 80, clearly has new surprises to spring. And is also fortified to deal with their resulting “troubles.”

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