In the Name of the Father
For the children of Francis Ford Coppola, filmmaking is a family affair.
May 19, 2002
By Frank Bruni
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Above, from left: Sofia, Francis, Eleanor and Roman.

Six summers ago, they got together for a few weeks in the country. Activities were needed; a family can only talk and eat for so many hours of the day. But instead of golf, tennis or the other pastimes of privileged people, they chose what they knew best. Francis Ford Coppola and his relatives acted, wrote and, of course, directed, mounting a series of plays in a converted barn. His daughter, Sofia Coppola, was so impressed with one cousin's performance that she recommended him to a friend who was casting a project titled "Rushmore." And thus she helped to launch the screen career of Jason Schwartzman, and the Coppola movie dynasty grew larger still.

There is Francis, of course, the benevolent godfather of these intricately entwined careers. There is Talia Shire, who is Schwartzman's mother, Francis's sister and a star of "The Godfather" trilogy, which also provided work for her and Francis's father, Carmine Coppola, the composer. Nicolas Cage, who started life with more syllables and vowels in his surname, dangles from one branch of the unwieldy family tree. So, by dint of marriage, does Spike Jonze, the director of "Being John Malkovich" and the husband of Sofia, who is the director of "The Virgin Suicides." Pop quiz to follow.

Francis and Roman at the Coppola estate and vineyard in Rutherford, Calif.

But first, the latest credits: "CQ," which was written and directed by Francis's son, Roman Coppola, opens in a few cities, including New York, on Friday, and it demonstrates anew how a Coppola movie ‑ indeed, any Coppola's movie ‑ is something of a family works project. Francis and his production company, American Zoetrope, secured the financing for it. Schwartzman has a plum role. Sofia has a cameo and was an informal consultant, returning the favor of Roman's work as a second‑unit director on "Suicides," which American Zoetrope also sired. And Eleanor Coppola, their mother, put together a documentary about the making of "CQ," just as she did for "Suicides" and, more memorably, her husband's "Apocalypse Now."

The Coppolas take professional symbiosis to a level that the Bushes can only dream about. Francis says it would be that way no matter what the profession: it's about blood, not celluloid. "I don't know that I help my family out any more than if we were in the cable business," he says. "Anyone in a family tends to learn a lot from the family, and there are certain threads that run through a family."

Especially one this tightly knit. Francis and Eleanor Coppola never wanted to be apart from their children, so they reared Roman, Sofia and Gio, their eldest, who died in a boating accident in 1986, on and around movie sets, even when that meant putting them in school in the Philippines during the shooting of "Apocalypse."

Francis's highlight reel and the family photo album are one and the same: Gio as a boy in a church in "The Conversation," Sofia as the infant being baptized at the end of the first "Godfather," Roman as the young Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather, Part II."

Roman recalls the Lake Tahoe location of that movie very well. At his insistence, his mother woke him up at 4 o'clock one morning so he could watch the shooting of a scene in which bullets shatter the windows of Michael and Kay Corleone's bedroom. "I also remember the prop guy letting me fire a gun with blanks," Roman says. By the time "Rumble Fish" came along and Roman was a teenager, his father listed him as an associate producer, "a versatile title," Roman explains, that allowed him to fiddle with the editing equipment in his father's long silver trailer.

Sofia, six years younger than Roman, made her own precocious contributions. When she was in her teens, she designed the costumes for her father's segment of the movie triptych "New York Stories." She also wrote the screenplay with him. That meant adhering to one of his creative rituals: holing up in a suite in Las Vegas to pound out the words with the assistance of room service. "I think Mario Puzo got him into that," she says.

It wasn't all bliss. Critics savaged Sofia's performance in "The Godfather, Part III," an acting assignment she took only after Winona Ryder backed out at the last minute because "she didn't feel well, she was having a nervous breakdown whatever," Francis says.

The tortured process of giving birth to a motion picture is, in fact, the subject of "CQ." "If you're going to make a movie, especially a first‑time movie, you make it about a world you're familiar with," Roman says. For him and his relatives, that is the world of lights, cameras and action, an affinity for which is in their genes.