A little over a month ago I did something that I’d only dreamed about since moving to Los Angeles – I got to ask Francis Ford Coppola some questions at the press day for his new movie “Youth Without Youth.”
After all, this is a man who’s made a number of movies that are revered by millions of film lovers worldwide. From “The Godfather” to “Apocalypse Now,” or from “The Outsiders” to “Dracula,” he’s made films that mean a great deal to a lot of people… myself included.
So when I got the invite to participate in a roundtable interview with one of the legends of cinema… I cleared my previous commitments and got to the hotel quite early. And I wasn’t alone… as a number of the other journalists in the room were just as excited, as Mr. Coppola hasn’t done a press day in many, many years.
He was doing press for “You Without Youth,” his first film in ten years. The film stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, an aging professor of linguistics who survives a cataclysmic event to find his youth miraculously restored. Dominic’s physical rejuvenation is matched by a highly evolved intellect, which attracts the attention of Nazi scientists, forcing him into exile. While on the run, he reunites with his lost love, Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara), and works to complete his research into the origins of human language. When his research threatens Laura’s well being, Dominic is forced to choose between his life’s work and the great love of his life.
The best way to describe the movie is… it’s like watching a few episodes of “Amazing Stories” and “The Twilight Zone,” but instead of the normal transitions between the different storylines…the film has just left them out. It’s not to say the movie doesn’t tell a coherent narrative story, it’s more like Mr. Coppola is trying to push the boundary of the language of cinema. While it’s pretty clear that some audiences won’t “get” the movie, I’m just happy that Mr. Coppola is back behind the camera and making movies.
Anyway, during our roundtable interview we talked about his return to making movies, what “You Without Youth” means to him, his next project, and everything in between. For someone out of the limelight for quite awhile, Mr. Coppola had a lot of interesting things to say.
As always, you can either read the transcript below or download the audio as an MP3 by clicking here. And since I’m not going to be transcribing the Tim Roth interview, you can click here to listen to that interview. Sorry…I’m just very behind.
“Youth Without Youth” opens tomorrow in limited release.
Q: What about this material made you want to return to directing?
FFC: I don’t think it’s such a hiatus because most directors make a film and then three years later they do a project and they can’t get the money. It also depends on the director’s need to earn money. You’ll find that they wait three years or so. Of course I was older so I wanted to sort of rediscover my place in movies. I didn’t want to be, what can I call it, a studio director. You know how they do it. They have four scripts being written and the best one they take and do and they produce the others and they are always looking for the project that can pay them a lot of money and have the big stars. They might be my age, but they want to make the big movies and be number one and stuff like that. I didn’t particularly feel that so much. I wanted to make more personal films. I want to make the kinds of films that I wished I could have made when I was 20. But when I was 29 I made the Godfather so my life changed. I had this big career when I was young and I was hoping maybe I could have this more personal, I’m not allowed to say art film, but more personal film. You know, real movies that are about ideas and feelings and real things and not just to make a lot of money to make the same film over and over and over every time. Plus I also felt that the cinema itself can change. Who said that all the ideas of how you tell a story or express the cinematic language were all in the silent era? Why aren’t there new ideas that are changing the language of film now? It’s partially because film is much more controlled. In those days guys went out and made movies and no one knew what a movie was so if they wanted to invent the close shot the producer wasn’t going to argue with him. Today, what is he doing? We want to make money on the film. We can’t just make experimental films.
So I was working on a bigger project, but I wanted to explore consciousness and how movies, you are obviously looking at a whole person, with feelings and ideas. And everyone is. How do you express that in film? How do you just get inside, beyond just a wonderful actor who was able to give you that, or the use of metaphor, which is what film does because film is sort of like poetry in that it does beautiful things with metaphor. So I wanted a subject matter that enabled me to learn about consciousness and the difference between so-called reality and dreams and imagination. And in the Eliade story, who was a great scholar, I felt if I followed in his footsteps I would learn a lot about these things and I found the story fascinating and it was different than, oh, I get it, he’s wanted by the Nazis and they are chasing him. This story just kept blossoming like a flower into other things. Old man and he never finished his work and he’s heartbroken because he lost the love of his life and he stupidly didn’t marry her when he had the chance. And then he lost her and he spent his whole life wishing he hadn’t lost her. Then he get the chance. It was like Faust. He becomes young, but then he doesn’t only become young. He gets an increased intellectual ability and he can finally speak Chinese and he can read books and he can go to bed at night and say, oh yeah, that was good. Then he splits into two personalities and he’s in a debate over the future of mankind with his double. Then the Nazis discover he has this almost immortality and they try to get him and they try to shoot lightning at him so maybe he can do that to Hitler. The story just kept taking fascinating new turns and I thought, well you can make this movie and if you just enjoy it as a fable story you can enjoy it, but if you want to think about the other issues you could think about that later or just as we all live our normal lives. We’ve got a job and so and so and so, but sometimes we say, what is life? Where did I come from? What is going to happen when I die? What’s really important? All those kind of ruminations should also be in a movie, I thought.
Q: How did that influence your visual style?
FFC: I thought because the move goes from 1938 to 1960 something and has occasional references to 18-something when he was 25 and was in love with this girl, that I wanted to be very classical in my style so that I wasn’t just taking so many interesting ideas, but also putting it in a jumble of weirdness. So I tried to tell the story in a more classical, more like the Godfather, but more extreme. Most like Ouzu where the camera never moves. When a camera doesn’t move then movement is more accentuated because every time and actor walks in, the next movie you see look at the corner of the frame and you’ll see it’s always doing this. It never stops. In this movie the camera is that and that’s it. Everything is accomplished in a classical shot to another shot, which then gives you more, which is one way to make a movie, but I felt that was appropriate for this because by giving it a very classical style then you could relax about that, and not feel, where am I, I can’t see anything because it’s cutting so fast. And then you might feel more comfortable to follow the story, but then ruminate. That’s interesting. It’s a dream and in the dream he’s reading books. So I made the style very deliberately classical and also got to do what I’ve always wanted to do, is to make a movie without any movement just to see what happens.
Q: What about people who don’t understand the story?
FFC: That’s good! I think the problem is that the story itself is sort of simple. A guy gets hit by lightning and he gets young and bla, bla, bla. All of that is interesting stuff, but the problem is that you know it all means something. And what it means, just like I said, your life is or my life is very mundane. I wake up and have a banana and coffee. Our lives are mundane, but at the same time something happens and you wonder, what does that mean? Where do I come from? All of these big questions, which of course as you learn more, are dealt with in Oriental myth or Sanskrit. The Orientals understood that life isn’t quite as up and down as we think it is. So when you make a movie that isn’t quite as up and down as movies are supposed to be, which you have to realize have been influenced incredibly by 60 years of television. So the audience is like little kids, that’s not Goldilocks and the Three bears. What are you telling me here? So movies are at a big disadvantage now because everyone sort of wants them in a way to be like the last movie they saw just because it’s entertainment and I’ve got enough problems at work. I don’t want to have to think about…I tried to make a movie you don’t have to think about. And you can enjoy it as a work. But later on if you want to see it again or you want to think about it you’ll get more. And you can see it over the years just as you can see…isn’t that what happened with Apocalypse in a way? Everyone said, this is weird. But that’s good, I think. I don’t like to go to a movie and say, I already saw this movie.
Q: Do you think about those big questions each day on set?
FFC: Yeah, I was trying to tell the story of what happened to this Dominic Matte, who was a great scholar, who spoke Sanskrit and Indian Myth and who understands that the great amount of Oriental philosophy is very different than Western thought. They don’t believe that there is good and evil, up and down. We believe that because it’s useful to survive. If you’ve read Kant, the world of our brain is very much wired for humans. Probably the world as it really is, we don’t even see. So I felt the Orientals are a little like that. Buddhists, they say, it’s like that wonderful thing she talks about, well, what I just said is so, but it’s also not so. Or it’s so and not so combined. Or it’s neither so or not so. And that’s a perception understanding more, so many little fables from India. Or like the story of an emperor who dreamt he was a butterfly. If you can try to look at life, certainly in a practical sense, because we all want to not get hit in the car when we are driving, but at the same time realize it’s much more interesting and much more beautiful in a way. That’s all the film has underneath it.
Q: Do you think about this when writing the screenplay?
FFC: I very much adapted the story. I was walking behind Mircea Eliade’s footsteps.
Q: Did you listen to a sentence for yourself?
FFC: Oh yeah, I viewed it to understanding my own consciousness.
Q: So it’s a movie about a man and his consciousness?
FFC: I thought of it as a love story wrapped in a mystery like in Vertigo. Except in Vertigo the mystery is some guy is trying to kill his wife. In my movie the mystery is the real mystery that we are really all in.
Q: You introduced all these philosophies.
FFC: I wanted it to be a banquet, but when you make a movie it’s sort of like when you cook a meal. If I were to cook for you I’d certainly want you to enjoy the meal. I wouldn’t want you to say, Tell me what this weird meal is? I didn’t want that. I want you to enjoy it. But later on I wanted you to savor other things, other flavors that were there. And I wanted you to want to go see it again. There are certain movies I love to see again. And certain other movies I don’t care if I ever see again, that are good, that I enjoyed.
Q: What about the casting?
FFC: As I said, I wanted it to be a European co-production because it helped me to be able to do this because I financed it all myself and it’s not a little picture. People say, oh, it’s a small picture, it cost $5 million. That’s not true. The $5 million was how much the guarantee was between Italy, France, and UK. That’s the guarantee, after I made it. Variety said it cost that. It didn’t cost that. It bugs me because it was my dough, because they wanted to say it’s a little picture. It’s not, and I admire John Sales very much, but it’s not like a John Sales movie. This is like an epic production like if I were making the Godfather and I didn’t skimp. It has costumes and sets and shots and all the lighting and I think beautiful photography. But I very much wanted to work within the Euro treaty rules because that protected me. Alexandra was German, Bruno Ganz is German, Tim is UK, and it helped me to be able to organize all that. But I was looking, I thought Alexandra was an actress who had a wonderful ability to know what she’s feeling just by looking at her face, and that’s a big thing in a movie. And Tim, the demands on him to give me the time to stay and all the languages with the makeup guys to convincingly try being some guy who is 80 and a guy who is 25. It’s not so hard to be old, but to be young is hard.
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Q: What age would you like to go back to?
FFC: I’ve been a 6 year old all my life because at 6 I just thought everything was just so beautiful and just so wonderful and I’ve tried to always…as a kid I was pretty…I went to many schools. I wouldn’t say I was a lonely kid, but I was a lonely kid so I never really lost about how I felt about things being 5 or 6. So I’ve always looked at the world with that kind of mentality, I think. And I think I still do because I’m enthusiastic, which is why I get in so much trouble. I don’t do what I do to make money, although I’ve made tons of money. I never tried to make money. I never tried to be a success. I always tried to do films of things I love and when I got in trouble, when I owed all that money after One From The Heart, I ended up having to make a movie every year to get the check so I could give it to the bank. I’ve been in those kinds of pickles, but always my enthusiasm, I think I have a good imagination, I have a lively imagination and I have a lot of energy and that’s all I have.
Q: How has the robbery in South America affected your next project?
FFC: Anyone who’s gotten robbed, it’s always depressing, and I did lose some data. I didn’t lose the script. They said the script is gone, but I have other copies of the script. Obviously I had to send it to actors and stuff, so no. I was astonished that that got such news coverage.
Q: The next project?
FFC: The next project is exciting because I’ve used Youth Without Youth as a crutch to get into a world of personal filmmaking where I’m not subject to the notes of studios. You know, I get the notes from my colleagues, Walter Merch. It’s not that I don’t want notes. I do want notes, but I don’t want so many notes that they start contradicting themselves or that they start turning it into the typical movies that come out every Friday. So basically part of my work now is that I can create the money I use to finance the movie. And in this case the film, it’s called Tetro, the name of a character. It’s very personal. It’s kind of like Tennessee Williams’ period. I want to make a passionate story about brothers and fathers and all of that tumult that I’ve seen in different times of my life. It’s a little bit the stuff I’ve seen in my family, but it’s not, it’s totally fiction.
Q: Is it a more typical narrative or more like this one?
FFC: I think Youth Without Youth is a narrative. I believe cinema is more like poetry than the narrative so it works on metaphor and stuff so, whereas I see this as, you’d call this as a more traditional narrative like Rocco and his Brothers or something, but I hope it will have poetry and metaphor in it as well. But it’s got as its theme trying to investigate the notions of existence and consciousness.
Q: Is restlessness and panic part of any creative and intellectual pursuit?
FFC: I don’t think so. Panic is like, there’s a fire, I better get out of here.
Q: Isn’t panic a through-line with Dominic?
FFC: You are right. Dominic was like a bookish little professor from Pietra, nuns taught his boys in Elisie and what have you, like it he didn’t want the neighbors to know. Even when he was forlorn he was going to commit suicide he went on a train to a park in Bucharest and take this things, he didn’t want to make a scandal with the housekeeper. So I would say when this started to happen, my and Tim’s interpretation was that was this gentle little Jimmy Stewart older kind of professor who never even had the courage to take the woman he loved because he was so bookish and sweet. So suddenly when the girl has the swastika lingerie and the Nazis are trying to capture him and he’s realizing he is like a science fiction man. He has powers and stuff. He panicked. He wasn’t like, a ha, I’ll take over the world! Although maybe he fleetingly thought that he could. It was more like, do you remember a movie called The Man Who Could Work Miracles? With Roland Young, a beautiful film made in the 30s. Roland Young played him and he was this gentle little man who could suddenly work miracles. He could make the cup go like that and he was very timid about it. I think there is an element in that, being that he was a professor for his whole life.
Q: What about the conversation about the devil?
FFC: It has to be this way because he is a humanist and let’s face it, he’d been through two wars, the Cold War. He’s saying by 2010 it’s inevitable. There is going to be an atomic deal. And he said, how can you say that? People will be killed and we’ll lose cultures and we’ll lose languages? He’s an archeologist. We’ll lose our beautiful heritage. He says, the devil says there is no other way. There is no other way. The people who left will have been radiated by the electricity. They’ll be smarter so they won’t do those stupid things. I can’t say to the world, although I believe it, that if you start dropping atomic bombs on each other there still will be a human race 300 years from now, and probably a better one. But I can’t say that because it’s too heartbreaking to me so that part of me is Dominic saying, I don’t accept that, I’ll break them. But the double (or devil) says this is nature. The species that survives survives.
Q: Can you discuss the metaphors in the film?
FFC: The rose is a classic Buddhist metaphor. I read, although says she didn’t know that although she knows more than I do, but the rose is a metaphor for the Buddha himself. Then when I told her where I got it and she said, if he said it, he knows. But it certainly is a metaphor for the unfolding of existence. For me, I also used the rose as a metaphor for grace because I remember when I shot the movie and he was lying in the snow, this old man, and some Romanian said, Oh, he dies like a homeless. And I thought about it and gee, we all die alone. You could be surrounded by people, but you die alone. What’s the difference, and the difference, I think, is if you’ve loved in your life, or you’ve been loved, or both. And I wanted to express that although he died just an old man in the snow he had loved that woman for so long and in the end even gave up the very thing that lost her in the first place, that maybe the third rose could even be in his hand as an old man. So that’s a metaphor. I think filmicly the film has a lot of beautiful imagery and photography and there is lots of metaphors, but I can’t think of them. We’ve got to see the movie again.
Q: Tim said there is a 5-hour version of the film.
FFC: They always say that! There isn’t a 5-hour version of Apocalypse Now. Usually there is a 3-hour version and you squeeze it to two hours, but there isn’t a 5-hour version.
Q: Are there things you’d like to use in another edit?
FFC: No, because since I really made this movie as the boss, as the financier, which is the boss. It was my dough, in other words, and I didn’t, I got to make it the first time through as I wanted it, but in Apocalypse Now I pulled out some of the French sequences because I had sort of promised the distributors it was going to be like a big war film and poor Japanese distributors came and they looked at this and I felt guilty that the movie had gotten so surreal so I did say we better make it shorter and a little less weird, but in this film, maybe I am getting weird, but I don’t think the film is so weird or the narrative is so strange. I think the narrative is very clear, but the implications are very inviting of thought.
Q: What do you think making a film like this?
FFC: It’s a little sad because I realize that so many people, not only in the audience, but people who write about film think of movies as being a certain thing that it has to be. And if you want to make a real successful, make a movie like a classic story in a way that everybody expects a movie, but do it very well. And that will be a wonderful success. But if you want the film itself to be alive and follow the story and the themes and the kind of movie I like, then it has to be…one of the movies I hated, I’m in there 20 minutes and I said, I saw this movie already, but that’s most of them. And even movies you may not think are the greatest movies, I remember I went to see Punch Drunk Love and I said, I never saw a movie like this before. For that reason I loved it even though I don’t know if it was good or not. All I know is that I never saw a movie like that. And that’s why I like, even though other people were disappointed, I like The Life Aquatic because it was weird. It was the first time I saw that movie. I like movies to be the first time. Kids telling a story, they want to tell you a story about a tulip that wanted to be a, no no no, I want Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But you know Goldilocks? I like it. So you have to tell them, and I think that’s because of 50 years of TV, that’s what’s happened to our cinema. They don’t understand that, sure it’s great to do a beautifully done entertainment film and by the book and by the rule and it has character development. Marie Antoinette is a good example. She made a totally non-verbal poetic film and she made it about the first part of Marie Antoinette’s life. It didn’t get into the French Revolution and the guillotine and neither did Napoleon, he didn’t get into Waterloo and Elba. And Sofia made Marie Antoinette without dialogue. It was all, if you look you can see what she’s saying. But because she didn’t follow those rules, although she was appreciated by many people, she was lambasted by others. So that’s the danger in the cinema today. There is this whole group, but it’s any kind of political movement. Movies have to be this! Well, movies don’t have to be anything except beautiful and in some way illuminate life and get you thinking and stuff.
Q: What do you think about the studio system?
FFC: Because the cinema and movie and studio system are all owned by big corporations that only want one thing, they want more profits than they made last year. And that’s all it’s about. The aim is not for movies, it’s for money. And that’s great, that’s fine. I think movie companies should make money, but I think they should use their profits to produce movies that are surefire entertainment delightful movies to enjoy and a little bit they should make films like The Best Years of Our Lives or films like William Wire used to make that are also very rich and beautifully…there is no variation in movies today. They just want to make money and that’s all.
Q: What about Roman directing?
FFC: Roman, I think has a lot of ideas of movies he wants to make, but he recognized that, he wants to only make personal films. Sofia could get a job and direct Jane Austen’s something or other. The nice thing about the young people, my son as well, and Sofia, but also people like Kim Pierce and Tamara Jenkins and David Russell and all the wackos and stuff is that they just want to make cinema. They want to make movies. They don’t care. Don’t give me money. I don’t need your money. Tamara Jenkins made the Slums of Beverly Hills how many years ago? She’s a wonderful talent and she has no money at all, that girl. She just lives like a poor person because she doesn’t want to take the money and make movies she doesn’t love. I think you have to love what you make, in anything, not just movies. If you are making products make products you love and then they’ll be good products and you’ll be successful.
Q: Have you cast Tetro?
FFC: Yeah, I have Tetro completely cast. I already mentioned Matt Dillon. Did I name all the actors or should I make a press release of it? I have the whole cast. What’s been announced already is Javier Bardem, but his part is not a huge part. Matt Dillon, a very exciting young new actor who you wouldn’t know anyway, but to give you one tidbit Maribel Verdu, the Spanish actress who was in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Do you know Maribel? She’s wonderful. So it’s going to be an interesting thing. I was supposed to start filming next month but because of the opening I’m unable to so I have to start right after Christmas, which is a drag. In Buenos Aires, in La Boca.