Francis Ford Coppola - It's all about the family business

Francis Ford Coppola has often focused on personal issues. His latest film after a long hiatus is no different, he tells Kaleem Aftab

A small bistro hugging the River Seine is where Francis Ford Coppola has chosen to meet to talk about his new film, Tetro. He settles in and orders a coffee, going through a number of options before being prompted by the waiter that the drink he wants is a café crème and not a cappuccino. It's a reminder, if he needed it, that he's not in his San Francisco vineyard anymore.

Coppola made the film that I've seen more times than any other. It's the first thing that I blurt out, in uncontrollable playground fashion, and a black cloud seems to come over his face. He has probably heard it said a thousand of times before: Godfather Parts 1 and 2, and Apocalypse Now regularly top lists of people's favourite films, but he seems genuinely elated when I say that it's The Outsiders.

Immediately he asks, "have you seen the newer version of it?" This is kind of a trick question. The so-called new version was released stateside on DVD in a commemorative version in 2005, but is in fact the first cut of the film. It is the version shown at the American premiere of the film in 1983. Coppola agreed to cut the opening 20-minute sequence to appease distributors when the film received a mixed reaction.

The Outsiders was made during the first low point of his stellar career. His romance One From the Heart had just flopped and bankrupted him. Until 1982, everything, no matter how difficult the production process, had always seemed to come up smelling like roses. His career had been one monumental up, from working for the legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman on Dementia 13 in 1963, to The Rain People in 1969, starring James Caan and Robert Duvall, and his 1970s classics The Conversation, Godfather Parts 1 and 2 and Apocalypse Now.

Peter Biskind described him in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as the leader of the New Hollywood directors. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg et al wanted to make the type of films that Coppola was making. The Detroit-born director wanted complete autonomy from the studios to make the type of films seen in the French New Wave. For One From the Heart he created huge sets of Las Vegas, but what should have been a crowning glory, a small personal film after the excess of Apocalypse Now, became a financial calamity.

So he wasn't in much of a position to argue with the studio when they wanted a new edit of The Outsiders. Coppola states: "The longer version that I originally wanted is the better version. When the film came out there was lots of, 'oh, it's too long'. But the kids know that book so well and would always ask, 'whatever happened to that scene when...?" So because of my granddaughter I put them all back and, fortunately, Warner Brothers went along with making the new version. I think it's nicer."

The year 1983 was productive for the director, as he made The Outsiders back-to-back with Rumble Fish. The two films are a who's who of American male actors of the past 20 years, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Mickey Rourke, and Nicolas Cage all make appearances. Rumble Fish, also based on an SE Hinton novel, is similar in many ways to Tetro. There are several links between the two films: a dreamy kid idolises a mysterious older brother, the two reunited after a period of absence, and both films shot in black and white.

"Well, maybe Tetro is kind of the sibling to Rumble Fish," says the 70-year-old. "I made Rumble Fish because it reminded me of my own brother. In fact the film is dedicated to him. I knew what my own memories were and kind of for a while we lived on the outsides of New York, that kind of place. And then when I came to Tetro I had Matt Dillon in mind to play the older brother. I liked working with Matt, but it's tricky, the schedules, especially if you need an actor for a few months, are very hard. These days I'm making these films more as a personal enterprise, I don't make films for money and I don't expect to make money, so I don't have a lot to give to actors."

Vincent Gallo takes on the role once earmarked for Matt Dillon. He plays Tetro, a once-promising writer residing in Buenos Aires. He seems annoyed when his younger brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) suddenly appears, asking questions about an unfinished play that Tetro was working on when he suddenly left America, and bringing up the past. They both share a mutual hatred of their composer father and, through the course of the movie, family secrets are revealed. The parallels between the story and Coppola's own life are also great: he has a brother, August, (dad of Nicolas Cage) and dad is the composer Carmine, who worked on a number of his films.

It's the character Tetro with whom the director most associates: "That was my youth. I started out doing theatre when I was 18 and I wanted to be a writer, but I had no natural ability in that." This does seem strange, as Coppola, in addition to working on the script to many of his own films, also adapted the war classic Patton. But Coppola's suggestion that he's not comfortable with writing is probably more about the desire to come up with fresh ideas; Tetro is the first time since The Conversation in 1974 that the director has penned from scratch.

He continues: "I was very good at technical things, so I could do sets and lighting and so I became more of a techie. I would watch the director on the ladder when I was hanging the lights, and I thought, 'well maybe I could do that'. I was writing all the time, and anyone who knows the effort of writing knows you're always hating your own stuff, and I was just so forlorn that I didn't have the gift that I wanted."

The 1980s was a period of struggle for the film-maker. Unable to finance the personal films that he wanted to make, he directed several under-rated movies, such as his adaptation of William Kennedy's The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married and Tucker: The Man and His Dream. His attempt to recapture former glory by completing the Godfather trilogy in 1992 was doomed from the moment that Robert Duvall refused to reprise the role of Tom Hagen.

The 1990s also saw desperate attempts at making big films aimed at the box office: a misconceived Dracula, a poorly received adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker, and then the travesty that was the Robin Williams drama Jack. Aged 60, the director went into a self-imposed retirement, seemingly content to watch his extended family take the plaudits that were once his. Daughter Sofia would make Lost in Translation, while nephews Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman forged fantastic acting careers. However, that urge to be an auteur making personal films would not leave him. In 2007 he returned to the director's chair with the confusing Youth Without Youth. It was the comeback that everyone was afraid of – incomprehensible and indulgent.

Yet Coppola is far happier now than he would be churning out run-of-the-mill studio movies. He explains: "There's what everyone thinks of as films, which are basically commercial films, and they are part of a market and what's happened is that they've become very limited in what you can make. I mean, if it's anything like a drama then it has to be a suspense thriller, it can't just be a story. Television, I guess HBO, does have a little more latitude in that, but the film business is tough as they compete for audiences, and the people that invest in films want to make their money back, so they're not interested in independent films.

"You have to be really willing to subsidise them in some other way, but that was always the case, I mean I had a very difficult time with The Conversation, nobody wanted to do it. It was only after The Godfather that I got to make it, but it wasn't as tough as now, I don't think."

A theme in Tetro, as it is in most of his films, is the strength and central position of the family unit: not even the most heinous of sins can break blood ties. Now in his favourite territory, he posits: "Well that's a big theme for everyone. We're all part of our families and our earliest ideas of love and betrayal and all those wonderfully human emotions pretty much happen when we're young and, even if you don't have a family, you have these family attachments around you."

Indeed, it's family that has driven Coppola to give up making studio films: "Even more as an older person, there are lots of times when everyone is always saying, 'oh why don't you make a movie about so and so,' or, 'why don't you make great World War One story?!' and that's probably why I stopped being a commercial director, because, ultimately, those good directors, people on the level of Ridley Scott, they have a few projects and a few scripts being written for them and then when one of them seems to gel or attract the cast that they need they go and do that.

"But I feel more personally involved, that I want to make films about things from my personal life that I don't understand, and most of them have to do with my family, with my brother and my father."

There is an air of contentment in Coppola's voice as he says this. It's as if, after all the years of trying to find happiness through the acknowledgement of others, the director has discovered that there is nothing better than pleasing himself.

'Tetro' is out on 25 June

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