The Coppolas: Behind the scenes with America's great film-making clan

Eleanor Coppola has never revealed the personal cost of raising her remarkable film-making family – until now. In exclusive extracts from her memoirs, she recalls the envy she felt towards her daughter Sofia, the battles with her husband Francis and the grief caused by the violent death of her eldest son

Sunday 10 August 2008 00:00

May 15, 1998, Los Angeles

I am outside having brunch in the courtyard of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Francis and Sofia are seated across from me talking intently. Yesterday was Sofia's birthday. She turned 27. She is beautiful in an imperfect way. The bump on her nose is prominent in the light falling on her face. Her brows are pinched together as she concentrates on what Francis is telling her and writes notes in the red leather agenda he gave her for Christmas. She is going to direct her first feature film starting next month. It is a low-budget production with a script Sofia wrote from a book called The Virgin Suicides. I can hear Francis say, "Sit right next to the camera so the actors see you; see you're in control. Remember that the actors' hands are almost as important as their faces. Hands are very expressive. If you cut hands out of the frame you're losing 30 per cent of the performance."

I am very happy for Sofia, happy that Francis is being such a good father and mentoring her, but I also feel a hot, aching jealousy in my chest. I'm trying to just notice my emotions, the way I was instructed in Zen meditation, to neither wallow in them nor push them aside.

Francis and I married quickly in Las Vegas. I hadn't met Francis's parents. When I did I learnt he was from generations of Italian men who believed a woman's life work was caring for home and children and supporting her husband's career. Francis knew I had artistic aspirations but expected they could be pursued at home in my spare time. By the early 1970s we lived in a big house with our three young children.

In Roman's nursery-school car pool, I discovered another mother was artist Lynn Hershman. She thought my ideas were interesting. We had intoxicating conversations and created several conceptual art events together. One of our more infamous was held in 1975 in our 22-room Victorian house in San Francisco. Fifty board members from the Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Museums of Modern Art came.

When they arrived, Lynn and I were out of sight, downstairs in the screening-room with a closed-circuit television connection to the living-room. We spoke to our visitors over a large monitor. They could converse with us but only interact with our electronic images.

We invited them to take a self-guided tour of rooms in the house where we had placed exhibits. I knew the audience wasn't as interested in our art as they were in coming to Francis Ford Coppola's house, where it was known he kept his five Oscars. In those days when a man won an Oscar, a miniature Oscar was given to his wife to wear on a chain around her neck. I had a jeweller file off the little loop for the chain at the top of the head of my five tiny Oscars, then removed Francis's from the lighted glass case where they were always kept and displayed my miniature gold statues in their place. In the kitchen the guests were directed to peel a potato and then read a quote from the artist Joseph Beuys, which said, "Peeling a potato can be a work of art if it is a conscious act."

There were two large cooking pots labelled "Art" and "Not Art". Each guest had to decide whether his or her peeled potato was art or not and drop it in the appropriate pot. Francis was out of town when Lynn and I staged this event.

From what he heard about it, he saw neither the art in it nor the humour. His feelings were hurt. He thought I was making fun of him, his Oscars, our house. He worked long and hard on his films, and thought conceptual art was too easy. "So some guy shoots himself in the arm [Chris Burden] or pisses off a ladder in a gallery [Tom Marioni] and that's a big deal?" The only thing Francis finds OK about that period is a Joseph Beuys sculpture I bought him that he didn't like at the time but is now worth 30 times what I paid. I was not a good wife, by his definition or mine.

29 May 1986, Washington DC

My mind keeps jumping back to Memorial Day afternoon; I was at home in my little room on the third floor looking out into the branches of the giant old oak tree trying to understand why I felt ill for no reason. The telephone rang. Sofia answered it downstairs and I picked up the extension. We both heard the strange, strangled sound of Francis's voice, as if he were speaking without breathing: "Ellie, we've lost our beloved son. Gio is dead." My cries lifted me out of my chair. Sofia went to the other line and called Roman, then she came to my room in agony. I pulled her into my arms. She sobbed, "I never heard Roman cry before."

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We learnt that Gio and a friend were in a speedboat crossing the South River [in Maryland] late on Memorial Day afternoon with the sun in their eyes. The friend drove between two boats without seeing that they were joined by a long tow rope submerged in the water. The rope snapped out of the water, broke through a railing and knocked Gio with such force against the back of the boat that he died instantly.

The other young man was unscathed.

That night Sofia and I flew to Washington DC. The next days are memory fragments. I can see Sofia and Roman crying on the rented sofa in the apartment, Francis doubled over on the floor, the pain of seeing the family devastated layered on my own grief, the meeting I had with the priest to arrange a memorial service.

For him it was just another appointment to schedule: "Yes, it can be in the late afternoon but not later than five. I have a dinner engagement at seven". The first evening in the apartment, friends trying to comfort us, the phone ringing... looking in the mirror, seeing my face so changed, no longer looking vibrant and excited, younger than 50, now seeing an unrecognisable old woman, drawn, red-eyed and frail... suddenly sinking to the sidewalk in front of the Hyatt, sobbing hysterically, having to be supported by two of Francis's cousins... standing in the small side-room at Arlington Chapel reserved for family... seeing Francis standing in his grey suit next to a bouquet of miniature white roses with a card from Bobby De Niro... sitting in the first pew of the chapel filled with family, friends, cast and crew, banks of flowers and afternoon sunlight beautiful enough for a wedding... friends speaking about Gio... Francis's father's music playing on the organ... the priest reading from Khalil Gibran... a personal celebration of Gio's life rather than the packaged service I had feared.

25 December 1989, Rome [Francis Coppola is filming The Godfather: Part III at the Cinecittà studios, staying with his family in a run-down apartment]

It is cold. There is a fire in the fireplace. The Christmas tree is shedding needles on the grey carpet.

Francis is in bed listening to news in English on his short-wave radio. Roman and Sofia are asleep on the scruffy leather sofa. I am so completely happy they are here. Around noon, Tally [Francis's sister, Talia Shire] and her family arrived. We were 20 people spending Christmas Day together in our two-bedroom apartment.

At 1pm, I put the 12kg [25lb] turkey in the oven. There was no baking pan. Our friend Paula told me to set the turkey on the indented floor of the oven. Her advice has been so helpful to me, I decided to cook the turkey in the Italian way. After several hours of roasting, the grease overflowed and caught fire. When Francis lifted the turkey from the flaming oven it slipped out of his hands and slid in a pool of grease across the kitchen floor. I wiped up the grease with paper towels but the floor was still dangerously slippery so I mopped it by hand with a cloth and hot soapy water.

With a bottle of our wine from California under my arm, I went out to a local restaurant and asked the owner to lend me a lasagna pan in exchange for the wine. Finally, I got the turkey back in the oven. By four in the afternoon all the sodas had been drunk and the carpet was a sea of nut shells, Christmas candy and wrappings.

Members of the family pitched in to clean up a bit now and then, but there was a continuous messy chaos to the day. Somehow everything got done, more guests arrived and 25 of us sat down to Christmas dinner.

28 December 1989

I woke up with little fingers in my hair and the faint acrid smell of wet diapers. [Gian-Carla Coppola was born seven months after the death of her father, Gian-Carlo] Gia was standing next to my bed. She had stayed overnight.

Francis left for work early. He seemed relieved to have Christmas over, with all the relatives and guests, and go back to work. I played with Gia for a long time in the bathtub, making desserts with foamy bubbles in her plastic dishes.

Sofia got up late. Around noon the phone rang. She answered it and said it was for me. I took the phone in the kitchen, standing in a patch of sunlight on the tile floor. I was surprised to hear the voice of the assistant director [AD] calling in the middle of a shooting day. He said very quickly that the production doctor had just returned from seeing Winona Ryder: "She is too sick to work and is being sent home. Francis has decided to cast Sofia in her part." Winona was cast as Mary, the daughter of Michael Corleone [played by Al Pacino]. Francis had read Sofia for the part of Mary. He thought she did well and looked like a real Italian daughter rather than an actress, but the studio pushed for a box-office name.

The assistant director asked if Sofia could come to the studio immediately because a scene with her character was scheduled to shoot in a few hours and there would be a costume-fitting right away. I told Sofia as evenly as I could, but tears of emotion welled in my eyes. She was very excited at first; then as it sank in, she became anxious. I said, "I know Dad would never cast you if he didn't believe you could do the part really well." I could see how worried she was; she didn't want to let him down.

While Sofia got dressed, I tried to feed Gia and find her shoes. The AD had asked us to come the fastest way. The traffic was so bad I thought it would be too slow in a taxi. We took a bus to the subway. Gia's stroller got caught in the bus door. Sofia held Gia while I struggled to get it out. The subway took us to the station in front of Cinecittà and we fast-walked to the costume shop.

10 January 1990

The last few days have been exhausting. Francis and Sofia are under enormous pressure, which I feel acutely. A number of people on the production think Sofia is too young and inexperienced for her part in the film. They have been very vocal about their opinions. Francis has been shooting a difficult scene with Sofia. Every moment she isn't on the stage she is taken to costume fittings, the hairdresser, or to a diction teacher.

Several times she has burst into tears. Well-meaning people tell me I am permitting a form of child abuse, that she is not ready, not trained for what is being asked of her and that in the end she will be fodder for critics' bad reviews that could scar her for years. I am told that Francis can't afford to take a chance on a choice that could weaken his work at this point in his career.

The night before last, Francis went to sleep in a cold sweat and got up at five in the morning to go to the studio. By the time his new production manager arrived at eight, he had made a plan to hire an editor immediately and put a scene with Sofia together and made a final decision based on what was actually on the screen. During the day his lawyer called to tell him that in his contract, he has final artistic control.

I took very seriously the accusation that I was being a negligent parent. I could see that at times Sofia felt courageous and excited and wanted to do it and at other times she was tired and utterly miserable. But she wasn't asking me to help her get out of it and I wasn't ignoring her or pushing her on.

17 November 1992, Guatemala [Francis's first film since completing the Godfather trilogy, Bram Stoker's Dracula, was released in the US on 13 November]

Francis didn't want to be at home caught up in tension, waiting for news about what the film grossed on its opening weekend. To get far away we travelled to Antigua in Guatemala and stayed with John Heaton, an expat friend who has an extraordinary house decorated with fine antiques and textiles from the region. Francis thought we would have relaxed days out of touch with US news but he discovered John had CNN and of course a telephone. So we drove further to the town of Panajachel and stayed in a little cottage overlooking Lake Atitlá*with no phone and no television. On the Monday after Dracula's opening weekend Francis couldn't contain his excitement and curiosity any longer and sent me down to the little town to call his producer Fred Fuchs.

On my way back I decided to tease Francis. I wrote down a series of numbers on little scraps of paper. When I got to the cottage Francis was anxious; he was excited and scared and said, "OK, tell me." I gave him a little folded piece of paper with the number 17 written on it. He opened it. "It made 17?"

I could see him reconciling himself to the news. It was OK but not really great. I gave him another paper. He opened it. "Four. What does that mean?" I said, "Add it up." "You mean it made 21?" He looked brighter. I gave him another scrap of paper and another until the last one and he said in excitement, "It made 34 million?" "It did!" We both knew this meant the film would pay off all our debts and earn even more.

The opening weekend was huge. Bram Stoker's Dracula became the ninth-biggest box-office-grossing film in history at that time. When the profits were distributed we paid all our debts, which had been hanging over our heads since 1981; then Francis said, "Ellie, I'm putting any additional money in very conservative investments so we won't ever have to worry about our finances again." In 1995 the property adjacent to ours, which had originally been joined with our estate, came on the market. It had a beautiful historic château built in 1880 that was the home of award-winning Inglenook wines plus 90 acres of fine vineyards. Francis said, "I know what I told you, Ellie, but we can't pass this up." The property was purchased with our savings and our winery began its growth from a small endeavour in an old coach house next to our home to a major Napa Valley wine estate.

10 July 2004, Napa

Marlon Brando died last week. Random memories of him have been coming to mind.

When Francis started shooting Godfather in the spring of 1971, I didn't meet the film's fabled star right away. There were major production difficulties, with rumours that Francis would be fired or Marlon would be. I was occupied with our two young boys Roman [five] and Gio [seven] and very pregnant with Sofia. We were living in a small, cramped apartment in New York City. It belonged to a relative and we were there rather than leasing a place in case Francis lost his job and we suddenly returned to California.

When she was about three weeks old I took Sofia to the Godfather set. The production was shooting in the garden of a big house on Staten Island. It was the wedding party scene. Marlon was waiting in an upstairs bedroom. His make-up man and hairstylist were with him. Francis introduced me. It was the first time I really understood what charisma was. Marlon took my hand and looked at me with such charm. He spoke with "that" voice. I felt as if I were standing in a special beam of light and he found me utterly fascinating. It was a fleeting moment, as I imagine a hit of heroin to be: stunning, short-lived and dangerously seductive. Then Marlon turned to Sofia. He lifted her out of my arms so tenderly, holding her with an ease that comes from experience. He looked at her with intense interest, examining her long fingers and tiny toes.

A few days later a little gold bracelet arrived. The card said, "Dear Sofia, Welcome to the world. Love, Marlon." Somewhere over the years the card and bracelet have been lost but I still write "Welcome to the world" on baby gifts I give.

I am thinking of a time in the Philippines during Apocalypse Now when I asked Marlon to do an interview for the documentary film I was shooting. I waited for a moment when he was not working, and relaxed. We were at the production designer's house together for Sunday lunch, Marlon was sitting by the window. He had been talking intently about the life and habits of ants, as he could do in a spellbinding way. When there was a lull in the conversation I hesitantly asked him for an interview. He said, "What do you want to make a documentary for?" I felt as if a giant school principal were grilling tiny me. Whatever my answer was, it seemed insufficient. As the documentary film-maker, I felt as if I was a nuisance, in the way of the main production, asking for favours.

Marlon reluctantly agreed to let me film an interview with him after he completed shooting his part in the movie. As soon as he finished I arranged a time to do the interview. He didn't show up. When I called to set a new date I discovered he'd already left the Philippines.

Extracts taken from the book 'Notes on a Life' by Eleanor Coppola, © 2008, published by Nan A Talese, an imprint of The Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Additional research by Marina Bradbury and Rhiannon Harries

Eleanor Coppola

Born Eleanor Jessie Neil in California in 1936, she married Francis Ford Coppola a year after working as assistant art director on his directorial debut, Dementia 13, in 1962. She won an Emmy for Hearts of Darkness, her 1991 documentary charting the fraught making of Apocalypse Now. Her other artistic projects include installation artwork, photography, sculpture and costume design. She also helps run the family winery

Sofia Coppola

Born in New York in 1971, Sofia made her first screen appearance as a boy in the christening scene of The Godfather (1972). Aged 18 she co-wrote the short film Life Without Zoe with her father, who a year later controversially cast her as Mary Corleone in The Godfather III. Now a writer-director, she won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation (2003). Her other films include The Virgin Suicides (1999) and Marie Antoinette (2006)

Gian-Carlo Coppola

Also known as Gio, Eleanor and Francis's first child was born in 1963. He had childhood appearances in his father's movies, including The Godfather (1972), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Rumble Fish (1983). Gio's sudden death in 1986 occurred as he was beginning a career in film production

Roman Coppola

Born in 1965, he made his cinematic debut aged eight with an uncredited role in The Godfather: Part II and began his film-making career on Bram Stoker's Dracula. An award-winning music-video maker for artists including Arctic Monkeys and Fatboy Slim, he has also worked on movies such as his sister's The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, as well as The Darjeeling Limited (2007). He shares his parents' passion for viticulture

Francis Ford Coppola

Born in Detroit in 1939, the film director is best known for his Oscar-winning Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now (1979). A series of critical and commercial flops followed in the 1980s, and it wasn't until the box-office success of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) that he was able to pay off his debts and develop a winery in Napa Valley, northern California, several restaurants and three luxury hotels in Central America

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