His latest hero dreamed of producing a new automobile. Francis Ford Coppola simply wants to create a whole new art form.
September 1988
By Jill Kearney
Art Director: Kerry Tremain

Francis Coppola sits in his customized airstream trailer on a sweltering day in midtown Manhattan. The trailer that Coppola has used on every film since One From the Heart is parked beside the small elegant park that borders the Plaza Hotel. Dubbed the "Silverfish" by Coppola's staff, the vehicle with the smooth chrome reflective skin and mirrored one-way glass seems at first inscrutable, a UFO descended on Fifth Avenue. In fact, the Silverfish reveals more about its famous proprietor than it conceals. First, there is the question of style: no ordinary movie trailer with its graceless boxy angles and fake wood paneling would do, since nothing Francis Coppola has ever touched has overlooked design. Second, with its futuristic-deco styling the Silverfish betrays Coppola's unique sense of time. Never entirely comfortable in the present, Coppola has always made himself at home within the future and the past. And last, it is a vehicle, and Coppola is a connoisseur of vehicles. Inside the trailer lies a sophisticated production facility boasting the latest in advanced editing and sound equipment, not to mention a Jacuzzi and a cappuccino machine. An avid admirer and collector of cars, Coppola is the kind of guy who'd like to take his studio out for a spin.

Wearing a heavy grey suit and tie in the stuffing heat, Francis Coppola seems otherworldly and preoccupied. He is anxious to finish shooting Life Without Zoe, a short film about an 11-year-old poor little rich girl who lives in dreamy isolation at the Sherry Netherland Hotel. Coppola's 17-year-old daughter Sofia cowrote the script and designed the playful, ditzy costumes the young cast members wear. Zoe will be one of the three short films anthologized in New York Stories-the other shorts being directed by Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese. And Coppola is eager to return to Napa, California, to resume writing on two projects consuming him now: a screenplay based on Goethe's Elective Affinities and an unnamed experimental project that he is unwilling to detail. But Coppola is willing to talk about his just completed Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

Produced by Coppola's longtime friend and associate George Lucas, Tucker is the true story of the inventor Preston Thomas Tucker, who in the late 1940s designed and built a revolutionary new automobile. Promoted as "The Car of Tomorrow-Today," the Tucker was radically different from its contemporary counterparts, featuring a cyclops headlight, safety pop-out windshield, seat belts, and an air-cooled rear engine among its many odd and innovative touches. A kind of pre-Ralph Nader consciousness of rising traffic fatalities, a reverence for good design, and a desire to make his product affordable to the Average Joe motivated Tucker's design. But even before it hit the showrooms, Tucker's car became a victim of its own success. The Securities and Exchange Commission, likely succumbing to pressure from the threatened Big Three Detroit monopolies, investigated Tucker on securities violations. The investigation frightened off investors just as the first prototypes were rolling off the assembly line. Financially overextended and dependent on attracting new investors, the company collapsed. Though Tucker was acquitted of all charges, the damage had been done. Deeply in debt, his reputation ruined, Tucker continued to design and invent until he died, a relatively young man, in 1956.

Though most of Coppola's films have paralleled his life to an uncanny degree, the Tucker story is perhaps closer to Coppola's psyche than any of his 16 films, embodying the twin strains of Coppola's Capraesque optimism and his attraction to darkness. When Coppola was seven years old, his father invested in Tucker stock. The car never arrived and Carmine Coppola's investment went down the drain. An Italian immigrant and flutist who could ill afford the loss, Carmine remained sympathetic to Preston Tucker, and despite the avalanche of negative publicity in the media portraying Tucker as a con man and charlatan, instilled in his son Francis the same sense of admiration and outrage at the result.

Coppola's life has not been without its own quixotic projects, financial gambles, triumphs, and bad luck. In 1979, after such critical and commercial successes as the "Godfathers," The Conversation, and the epic Apocalypse Now, Coppola himself undertook a massive financial gamble, opening a new movie studio in Hollywood. Zoetrope Studios promised to revolutionize the process of filmmaking by creating an environment where art and commerce might more peacefully coexist. Coppola hired an eclectic staff of Hollywood old-timers and young rebels (Gene Kelly and Tom Waits worked in the musical department, for example), invited children to offer their opinions as apprentices, and set about producing a quirky, innovative slate of films. One studio department devoted to "The Electronic Cinema" explored new uses for developing technologies in film. Within a year Zoetrope was in a grave financial state, and Coppola, who had pledged his own house as collateral, gambled everything on the reception of his surreal musical love story, One From the Heart. The film, like Tucker's automobile, was lambasted in the press, the audience stayed away in droves, and the Utopian studio collapsed. Though the parallels between the Tucker and Zoetrope stories are striking, Coppola had begun developing the story long before he owned the studio. Says Coppola, "People often said on Apocalypse that the movie was paralleling our lives, and I used to say, 'All movies parallel your life.' Certainly Tucker parallels my life, but I really feel that whatever it is that you do, it's like a glass; you put water in it, and people say, 'Oh! The water's the same shape as the glass!"

The '80s have not been kind to Coppola. Though he was hurt by the undoing of his studio, that loss was tragically eclipsed by the death of his eldest son, Gio, in a boating accident in 1986. Since then, Coppola has withdrawn from the life of Hollywood moviemaking, a world that even as its darling he eyed warily. Coppola has had his studio, his Oscars, his astronomical grosses, wealth, and fame, and now aspires to become an amateur. "I now think," says Coppola, "that all my dreams and my attitudes toward creativity and culture are possible on an amateur basis. The amateur basis is the big muscle that can smite them all because it never gets itself wormed into the complicated vested financial world. They can never control you because you're not using immense amounts of money; you're just using personal enthusiasm. I'll be immune because I'm not in that world; I'm not in that economy. An amateur by definition is one who does it out of love."

Near midnight, Coppola's trailer is illuminated by the blue glow of Manhattan streetlights. The man who sought to make some of the biggest films in history describes how he now aims to "compose" films like symphony scores. He speaks of these films as blueprints that need not be realized on the big screen. Does that mean they would exist only on paper, or in his head? Not necessarily: Coppola is purposely murky on the technical details, but he believes that technology will someday give him the means to create films that don't require the use of film, films that therefore won't require big crews, big budgets, big risks of reputation and ego. The more Coppola talks the more it seems he is dreaming of a way to make the ultimate home movie.

The idea says at least as much about Coppola as it does about Hollywood's technical state of the art. It is the logical want of a man famous for his desire to be fully in charge of the process. But Coppola's latest dream is a hopeful one, too. And that is most important of all, because as the hour grows later, the discussion turns to more personal ruminations, and Francis Coppola reflects on his struggle to find purpose in his life and art after the still too fresh and painful loss of a son.

KEARNEY: Why the Tucker story?

COPPOLA: I learned about the Tucker through my father when he became interested in the car. I was always interested in scientific things and Popular Mechanics and anything to do with the future. We were all going to have helicopters in our garages in the future, and I used to fall asleep wondering what it would be like.

K: And your father remained sympathetic to Tucker, even after losing his investment in the company. Why?

C: I think one of the things I picked up from my father was an appreciation of ingenuity. We had the first television in the neighborhood and the first tape recorder, and a certain playful part of him that liked fireworks also appreciated cars and devices. What appealed to him about the Tucker was that here was something really done out of ingenuity. I think he felt there were these other conservative forces that really run our economy, and that probably they just squeezed him out.

K: Is Tucker a fable? A fantasy?

C: I would say it's a somewhat loaded but realistic portrayal of the hold that big business had on the industrialization of the country as a result of the war. The Roosevelt administration made an effort to spread things out after the war, but a force that big is hard to resist. Tucker tells a small but very romantic story, through a carmaker, of probably thousands of similar things that were going on at the same time. Instead of stimulating new industry, wartime connections and government "pull" were able to turn the wealth of the country into making the old industries even bigger. And that, combined with what I call the era of the Harvard Business School, planted the seeds for our financial decline. With that bigness we also lost that spark of life that comes from people who love the products they make and who do not view business with a kind of short-term means-justify-the-ends attitude. To me, the only thing that produces wealth and prosperity is creativity and idealism.

K: Did you make Tucker out of anger, then?

C: Well, at different times maybe I saw the story more as an American scandal, but by the time I made the film, I had more experience along the lines of losing a company, and I was more of the view that it isn't just a particular villain or a group of conspirators but rather a system on a bigger scale working itself out. It's hard to be angry about it. The most you can do is try to contribute to the good-spirited things and try to assure their victory.

I went through different phases with the Tucker project. After Apocalypse Now I became interested in doing it as a musical, a multi-image extravaganza. I brought in Leonard Bernstein and we worked for a week trying to come up with a musical. And Bernstein, who is a wonderful character, said to me, "But Francis, we can't just work on this in the jungle like Apocalypse Now; you have to decide what it's going to be." And of course he was right.

I guess I began to realize that one of my worst flaws was the fact that I had so many ideas and so much enthusiasm that I tended to make projects so big that I couldn't really pull them off. So I was very anxious to collaborate with George [Lucas] and have George pull me down to a scope and kind of film that had a chance of being successful, and paying for itself. So we put it into a format that was simpler, more like a Frank Capra film. To be honest, after Apocalypse Now, the only film I made that the public seemed to want from me -although I don't by any means think it was the best of the group- was Peggy Sue Got Married. So we both agreed to make it more like Peggy Sue Got Married.

K: I understand you think of the movie itself as a sort of Tuckeresque invention.

C: I wanted the movie to be a contraption. I wanted the movie to be just like a Tucker, kind of put together by hand. I never thought it would be really sophisticated. I tried to find a style that was kind of like American advertising at the beginning of the '40s, and if it wanted to have the telephone scenes on split screens it would; it would just not be embarrassed to do any dumb thing it wanted to do.

K: Is the Tucker story an allegory for the rise and fall of your Zoetrope Studios?

C: Well, in my own little company there were quite by accident lots of parallels to the Tucker story. It was a family operation without a lot of dough behind it, and gathered together a lot of very talented individuals who fought for the right of the company to exist and to get to a point where it could compete. Usually you're knocked off before you can compete-and probably so you won't compete.

K: How about the media? Do they get some of the blame?

C: Certain big interests did not like Preston Tucker. There was a story in Colliers that really was his undoing. But on the other hand, the media had made him. The word of an attractive guy with the car of the future who was the underdog-he was popular with the public in the first place because of the attention of the magazines and newspapers.

K: Was that analogous to the role the media played in covering Zoetrope's troubles?

C: As I look at it now, the troubles I had with Zoetrope or the troubles I had with Apocalypse weren't so much the media's fault. I think it was more the fact that I tended to talk too much, to tell too many of my dreams too early. I disclosed too much, and thereby just left myself open to all levels of failure, if the things I said I was trying to do did not come true, or if I was not able to sell people on the idea that they were coming true. If people are armed with too much information about something, that something usually doesn't get to come true.

K: What about America in 1988? Would a Tucker stand a chance in today's economy?

C: Well, our economy is failing, and our cultural health and our power in the world are diminishing. But I think maybe the days when they'd tear down Pennsylvania Station -a building that could never be built again- just so somebody could make a lot of dough, may be behind us; and our country might be ready for the stimulation that made it powerful in the first place, which was our creative talent. I don't mean either to imply that there are Ayn Rand kind of talented people who should run everything. I believe all people have talent and creativity, and that we must cultivate and encourage them. At the end of a few years of that we will have real financial health.

K: A sort of creative renaissance. Any chance it would find you working in Hollywood? Or do you feel Hollywood let you down?

C: Well, I've always, oddly enough, been grateful to Hollywood. The old movie moguls, and even some of the old guys who are alive, really respect talent. I can't imagine that most of our American companies respect talent. But Hollywood is a little different. I've always found that when push came to shove, in its own funny way Hollywood offered me support. Although it maybe didn't want me to get too big, or too independent. Even the press in Hollywood was more encouraging to me than it was in New York. New York has always had a very cold attitude toward me, and San Francisco, which is a really sort of dumb, culturally provincial kind of town, has always been very rude and unencouraging to me.

Basically, I failed on a financial level because everyone knew, including myself, that I didn't have enough money to launch the kind of program I was launching, unless I was very, very lucky right in the beginning. I was like Tucker in my own personality flaws in that I didn't want to start compromising on the baby while the embryo was being formed. My attitude was, well, just because I don't have enough money to survive for three or four years no matter what, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't attempt it. Look at Orion; they did terribly for years and years. How do they stay alive? They have the alliances, the business and banking affiliations-it's like a safety net.

In the end, when I was ready to collapse, the contrary was true. One of our banks presented us with an ultimatum to pay a loan that we contested, but since we had no strength I either had to pay it or lose it, so we lost it. Three years later our accountants proved that amount was wrong, so they returned that money to us. But by then the studio was sold.

To do what I was trying to do you really have to have some sponsorship from the alter kockers, as they call them, the old guys. If they like you -and they do like me- they can save you. But they liked me as a screenwriter and a picture maker. They don't like me to fool around in the other areas. They don't like the idea that a person who writes screenplays and directs films could also want to control the companies. They know that if that precedent were able to work it would be very potent and hard to oppose. Their advice was: "Be in your place. Be a writer, be a director, be a creative person. Don't try to own the whole shop." My feeling was, I can't really set it up the way I think it ought to be set up. I know what it is, and it doesn't exist. I might be very content to have someone else run it, as long as I can be a part of it. But right now it doesn't exist.

K: What kind of place are you envisioning?

C: A company like Zoetrope, that loved movies. I always felt cinema was one of the most expansive and varied things, and it always bugs me that they're always trying to tell you that it can only be a certain thing. I mean, when they talk about acting, what they're really saying is that you can have any style of acting in a movie as long as it's naturalism. I like naturalistic movies. I just feel that some of us can better express ourselves in a different way.

Coppola at work on Apocalypse Now. He now claims: “I am no longer a professional director.”

K: What do you make of the audience reaction to your films? Do you accept their verdict? You've had such extreme experiences.

C: I haven't had such extreme experiences. The audience always reacts to my movies in the same way. They always find that there's some beauty or something interesting and at the same time something that doesn't quite sit right. I tend to sort of do what I like stylistically, and that makes it at first a little hard to digest. Then later on, those things are what are considered really strong about it. Like in the case of Patton, it was [Patton's speech in front of the flag] that I ultimately got fired over, because in those days it was considered weird.

It you look at the criticism of my films, they always say, "It fails to reach me or fulfill me because it doesn't do this, this, this, or this," and my feeling is that this, this, this, or this is precisely what I avoid. It's a well-known fact that if you string all the chestnuts together, then everyone will like it. But making a film isn't just stringing all that obligatory stuff together; it's trying to take a little of your own way of seeing the world and putting it out so they can see that too. The things that I really like are not successful, and I don't particularly expect them to be anymore.

K: Why do you think that is?

C: Well, I can see an Abbott and Costello movie and a Roger Corman movie and an Antonioni movie, and I like them all; but it seems to me that the public's tolerance for movies is narrower and narrower, and it's being done to it by the commercial interests that control the industry and the press.

K: Why do this short film, Life Without Zoe?

C: Well, it was an opportunity to work for my daughter and to get to know her in a creative way and show her that when you thrust real responsibility on young people they inevitably rise to it. I very much believe in the apprenticeship system in which you let the apprentice see it being done, and at one point you just say, "Go do one," sort of like when you learn to walk or fly. But you know, the truth of it is, I have no business doing this film; I just don't want to be doing this anymore.

K: Why is that?

C: I just don't want to do it anymore. There are other things I'm dying to do, and I just don't want to have anything to do with this whole established thing. The only way to shake it is to just go on your own.

K: I've heard that you want to retire from filmmaking.

C: Well, I not only want to, I have. I'm no longer a professional director. I'm working in a new way in which it's possible to do a whole lot of work on a project and never have it be made and still feel fulfilled, because the planning and writing of it is tantamount to writing a symphony. The fact that no orchestra ever plays it doesn't mean you didn't write it. I basically don't want to be involved with a lot of people because then you become involved in the cost, and before you know it you're losing your freedom, when in fact you can go right to the heart of satisfying work and have ten people on your team.

K: Which you did in the beginning when you made The Rain People. [Shot guerrilla-style by a small crew, Coppola's 1969 film was a pioneer of the road-movie genre.]

C: Except on Rain People we actually made the movie. I now basically have come to the conclusion that if I could get it all worked out, if I could just design it -that would be the good part. I could afford to work six hours a day with my favorite team and never have it come to where you actually have to do it, much less publish it and have people say what they think of it.

K: So you're thinking of making the blueprints for films, instead of actually making the films?

C: Yeah, and since they're blueprints, they can be incredibly ambitious. If it doesn't fall together, then I won't make it. But I will still have been involved in this very satisfying creative experiment.

K: Are you talking about creating a new medium?

C: Well, I'm not going to talk about this because one of the things I've learned is that when you talk about your ideas then somehow there's always some guy who'll try to figure out how you're not going to do it. But basically, in the last few years the tools of audio-visual fiction have totally changed. Most people don't know anything about it, and even what they do know about it is either immediately, "Oh, you mean like computer-generated images," when really it's nothing to do with that. I know what I want to make my work out of and it's very much something human. I want to work with actors, I want to work with composers and artists, but I don't want to work with all the other parts that cost so much money and enable other people to tell you whether you can do it. The ultimate thing is to sit down with a blank piece of paper and just make it up and daydream about it. But we'll even have a time when we can go that one better if we want to. When you can sit down with a piece of paper and have it actually be the film.

K: Is Goethe's Elective Affinities one of these projects?

C: I have really only two projects in front of me. I will do Elective Affinities after the thing I'm writing now, which is a long film-maybe 3 hours and 45 minutes. I've been writing it for four years. At the end of Zoe I'm not going to do any publicity, any film festivals, I'm just going to be free to implement this idea. It's not just writing-it involves actors, and music, and art, and all the other things, except the production level. I have a lot of new theories about composing film that represents a different way of working that's only possible now because of the computer and video revolutions. You couldn't make an airplane until you had aluminum and the internal combustion engine, so the idea of flight had to wait. There are whole art forms that are going to be born now. In 10 or 20 years cinema is going to be as different from the way we make movies now as the infantry is from a squadron of planes. Sound cinema is only 60 or 70 years old. A lot of people figure that innovation is when you get a car that goes 20 miles an hour to go 60. But maybe an innovation is a car that flies, or a car that doesn't even move, but gets you there anyway. Innovation doesn't mean you can just do more of the same. Sometimes it's a different way to skin the cat.

K: Any more thoughts on, say, the meaning of life?

C: Well, yeah. The meaning of life seems to be easier to come to when you're sitting in the country. Looking out at what seems to be the world around me, the evidence of incredible creativity is so abundant, so alive in the creation that created us that it must be right for us to be creative, too. That's what we should be doing. The important thing is not so much the facts of the world around us. I am a person who puts a lot of stock in intuition and love and feelings. I know for sure that's really me; whereas the fact that I'm sitting in this place with you and talking, and there's a couch over here -well, that's just a lot of molecules. I don't take as so important the actual physical life, much less who's the president or whether Roger Ebert didn't like my film. Those things seem like little details compared to what I do know, which is that there is such a thing as passionate feeling. You take on that point of view a little more when you're in the country by yourself, especially when you've had a couple of years like I've had. And, you know, losing my kid was just…he was sort of like a Telemachus to me. I romanticized him that way. I remember I was reading Homer, and after Ulysses came back and got his wife back from the suitors and they shot them with bows and arrows, his son Telemachus gets killed. I remember reading that, before Gio died, and saying, Oh, not Telemachus!

There's got to be something to that tale-that in order to hang on to him a little bit more, I have to be a little less interested in the real world because he's not in it anymore. But I do believe he's still out there, and somehow I'll find him again, because he's still one of the qualities of my existence. Anybody you love is like that. When they go through that type of thing you either step more into the nitty-gritty of your life and start buying and selling stocks or you go the other way, and you don't want to have anything to do with it. You want to go somewhere else where you have a better chance of finding what you want.

Jill Kearney is the West Coast editor of Premiere magazine.