Five decades after his directorial debut, Francis Ford Coppola sees himself as something of a student filmmaker trying to create cinematic art. At 74, the filmmaker whose staggeringly influential body of work includes Apocalypse Now, The Conversation andThe Godfather trilogy still retains the maverick spirit that led him to abandon the Hollywood machine to build a winery and pursue personal projects. One of these projects was his third self-financed film: the gothic, old-school ghost tale Twixt (available now on VOD/DVD/BD), a dreamlike horror tale about a has-been author (Val Kilmer) on a book tour that stops in a small town that happens to be cursed.
As he ponders a return to large-scale filmmaking with a brand-new Italian-American generational saga inspired by his own family, Coppola reveals how he’s approached his most recent work with fresh new eyes and personal passion – and how the film student in him feels he may be ready for a big breakthrough all over again.
Movies.com: Twixt has a dreamlike – and occasionally nightmarish – quality to it, and we understand the origins for the project had a place in your own dreams as well.
Coppola: I did have a particularly vivid dream: I was actually in Istanbul, and as I was having it I was thinking, my God, this is so weird! If I could remember this, it could be a little movie, because it was unfolding in that way. As it was going on, I was horrified, and yet I was enjoying it. All of a sudden, the window blew open, and there was a call to prayer to which they do early in the morning there in Istanbul. And I said, "No, no, no! I can't wake up! I want to get the ending!" And I ran up and I closed the window, and I tried to go to sleep and bury my head into the pillow. But of course by then I couldn't. And I recorded the entire dream that second on my iPhone.
And later on, when I looked it over, I said, "This reminds me of the days I was making gothic films for Roger Corman. If I could remember this…" But I never had an ending. As the story was proceeding, I thought I was almost like [Val Kilmer’s novelist character in the film]. It was sort of based on a guy like me, so the film turned more personal, which was interesting.
Movies.com: You mentioned your Corman days. Between those films and Dracula, you've shown a certain affinity for the horror genre. Was it fun to flex those horror-crafting muscles again?
Coppola: Well, one of my objections to the modern cinema is that it's gotten so broken down into little genres that they're almost rules, and if you want to do a horror film, you have to be this way. In this case, Twixt is more of a gothic romance – more of an Edgar Allan Poe tradition than the Corman films. My feeling is that comedy and horror and mystery and coming of age, all those things are all mixed up in our lives, but that making of films working through genres is so that they can sell it. In reality, life is a mixture of all these things, and it's for us to figure out whether life is a comedy or a horror film or a love story – and most of our lives are all those things. So now that I'm at a point of rediscovery at an older age, I'm more enjoying what can things be and how can they be mixed.
My feeling is that if a review of a movie [calls it] “a mess” or “a mish-mash,” what that really is saying is "You haven't conformed to the rules of genre, and therefore we're going to punish you." But I don't think in life or in work, you have to obey the rules of genre if you're willing to stand by your work and enjoy your work.
Movies.com: What have been some of the personal pleasures for you since you've been working in this intimate, artistically oriented sphere over the last few films that you've made?
Coppola: I decided that if you're a person who has a body of work that you made when you were young, it's very hard as an older person to try to compete with that – because, in fact, you can't. There are lists of wonderful playwrights and artists and filmmakers – Tennessee Williams made The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire when he was young and spent the latter rest of his life being grumpy because he didn't feel that people appreciated his later work. Fellini, after Juliet of the Spirits, was very downtrodden because he felt that people didn't like his later films. So I just decided I wasn't even going to try to compete with what happened when I was young and try to start again.
I did that by becoming a student again and making films which were very personal. I thought that if I worked with like literally no budget at all, that that would be a good catalyst of being a student again. I made three little films that way. They were of themes that mainly I was interested in, that didn't fit into any commercial genre whatsoever. And certainly Twixt is an “in-between” film -- between success and failure, dream and waking, old age and youth, life and death. So I was trying to create a kind of in-between twilight, that magical time when you're asleep and dreaming and wake up, and you consider the dream you had, it really expresses something about your real life. At any rate, I tried to find a little beacon of light in my own life by allowing myself to be a total washed-up failure. Which, of course, we all end up, one way or the other.
Movies: Given the current Hollywood franchise mentality, does Paramount call you every year or so and offer to back the money truck up to your front door if you have an idea for another Godfather film?
Coppola: You know, Godfather was never the kind of story that was prone to sequels. It was a drama, which the studios are not interested in as much. It was a drama, and it had an ending: this promising young man who, in an attempt to protect and be the leader of his family, ends up destroying his family. I always felt that The Godfather was really a one-movie piece. You don't hear about Hamlet Part One and Hamlet Part Two and Hamlet the Return. That emphasis of genre is purely so you can sell the movie, and at my age, I've already made my fortune. I'm not interested in selling anything. I'm interested in learning about the cinema and having some personal expression, which is honest. And Twixt is a very honest film. It's not trying to be anything other than a work of cinema that a person makes in all sincerity and whatever skills that he has and limited amounts of money.
If you're in a position where you can really do art, you're indeed more like an amateur, which I consider myself at this point. The word amateur means you do it because you love it, and you do it out of love. And that's why I try to make films. My day job is I'm in the wine business.
Movies.com: Do you have any desire to return to the studio world?
Coppola: Yes. I've been for the last year writing a very ambitious fourth film of this later part of my life, and it's not necessarily more conventional, but it's much bigger and will require a far larger budget. It will be almost as though the young “beginner” who made Twixt and Tetro and Youth Without Youth has gone on to make a sophomore film that is bigger and more ambitious, and that's what I'm working on right now.
Movies.com: There have been reports that you’re working on another Italian-American, epic-feel kind of movie. Is this what you're talking about?
Coppola: Well, it deals with an Italian-American family, a fictional family. There are similarities to my family because my family's pretty interesting. How this group of impoverished Italian immigrants came here at the turn of the century with what we call working poor, and yet were able to mount a family that distinguished itself in the arts in so many generations. So that's a curious story. How did that happen? Why did that happen? There's more to it than genetics, certainly, and it has a lot to do with luck. But nonetheless it's an interesting story of how in America we continually give people from different lands a chance to make good, and we still do it in modern times. I'm interested in that theme and in the period of the film, from the '20s to the '70s, with such a change of American society, so my film deals with that as well. Ultimately, when it really comes down to it, family and America are the two powerful themes in my life.
Movies.com: Next year marks the 40th anniversaries of both The Godfather Part II and The Conversation. In what ways are you making your films exactly the way you were making them years ago, and what ways are they radically different?
Coppola: Well, I always look for a personal aspect of any story, even when during a period of having to pay back a lot of debts I made. At a certain period of my life, I made a movie every year just to be able to stay afloat. When I was making movies like Peggy Sue Got Married, which was clearly a job – I didn't write it. I was hired – I looked for something I could love. To me, art has to be personal. Once it becomes industrialized, it loses interest.
We'll always be on Earth living together, looking for whatever clues as to life, love, marriage, profession, ethics, morals, all those things which keep being redefined. I think it's the job of art to try to shed light on that. And what can you ask from an artist? Of course, you want to be entertained, but you somehow want a little glimmer of truth in it all. As an artist, you have nothing really much more to work with than yourself and your memories and your dreams.