Eleanor Coppola, ‘Hearts of Darkness’ director, dies at 87

Eleanor Coppola, who raised successful family of filmmakers, is best known for her film chronicling production of husband Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’

Jake Coyle,Lindsey Bahr
Monday 15 April 2024 17:27 BST
Eleanor Coppola has died

Eleanor Coppola, the Emmy award-winning director has died aged 87, her family announced in a statement.

Coppola documented the making of some of her husband Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic films, including the infamously tortured production of Apocalypse Now.

Her family said she died on Friday at home in Rutherford, California.

Eleanor, who grew in Orange County, California, met Francis while working as an assistant art director on his directorial debut, the Roger Corman-produced 1963 horror film Dementia 13. Within months of dating, Eleanor became pregnant and the couple wed in Las Vegas in February 1963.

Their first-born, Gian-Carlo, quickly became a regular presence in his father’s films, as did their subsequent children, Roman (born in 1965) and Sofia (born in 1971). After acting in their father’s films and growing up on sets, all would go on to work in the film industry, with Sofia becoming an acclaimed writer-director, best known for Lost in Translation and the 2023 release Priscilla. Sofia dedicated the latter film to her mother.

“I don’t know what the family has given except I hope they’ve set an example of a family encouraging each other in their creative process whatever it may be,” Eleanor told The Associated Press in 2017. “It happens in our family that everyone chose to sort of follow in the family business. We weren’t asking them to or expecting them to, but they did. At one point Sofia said, ‘The nut does not fall far from the tree.’”

Gian-Carlo, who’s seen in the background of many of his father’s films and had begun doing second-unit photography, died at the age of 22 in a 1986 boating accident. He was killed while riding in a boat piloted by Griffin O’Neal, son of Ryan O’Neal, who was found guilty of negligence.

Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor at the Oscars in 2004 (PA)

Roman directed several movies of his own and regularly collaborates with Wes Anderson. He’s president of his father’s San Francisco-based film company, American Zoetrope.

In joining the family business, the Coppola children weren’t just following in their father’s footsteps but their mother’s, too. Beginning on 1979’s Apocalypse Now, Eleanor frequently documented the behind-the-scenes life of Francis’ films. The Philippines-set shoot of Apocalypse Now lasted 238 days. A typhoon destroyed sets. Martin Sheen had a heart attack. A member of the construction crew died.

Eleanor documented much of the chaos in what would become one of the most famous making-of films about moviemaking, 1991’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola pictured in 2022 (Getty Images)

“I was just trying to keep myself occupied with something to do because we were out there for so long,” Eleanor told CNN in 1991. “They wanted five minutes for a TV promotional or something and I thought sooner of later I could get five minutes of film and then it went on to 15 minutes.”

“I just kept shooting but I had no idea ... the evolution of myself that I saw with my camera,” continued Eleanor, who ended up shooting 60 hours worth of footage. “So, it was a surprise for both of us and a life changing experience.”

Eleanor also published Notes: On the Making of ‘Apocalypse Now in 1979. While the film focused on the film set tumult, the book charted some of Eleanor’s inner turmoil, including the challenges of being married to a larger-than-life figure. She wrote of being a “woman isolated from my friends, my affairs and my projects” during their year in Manilla. She also frankly discusses Francis having an extramarital affair.

“There is part of me that has been waiting for Francis to leave me, or die, so that I can get my life the way I want it,” wrote Eleanor. “I wonder if I have the guts to get it the way I want it with him in it.”

Diane Lane and director Eleanor Coppola pictured together in 2017 (Getty Images)

They remained together, though, throughout her life. And Eleanor continued to seek out creative outlets for herself. She documented several more of her husband’s films, as well as Roman’s CQ and Sofia’s Marie Antoinette. She wrote a memoir in 2008, Notes on a Life.

In 2016, at the age of 80, Eleanor made her narrative debut in Paris Can Wait, a romantic comedy starring Diane Lane. She followed that up with Love Is Love Is Love in 2020. Eleanor had initially set out only to write the screenplay to Paris Can Wait.

“One morning at the breakfast table my husband said, ‘Well you should direct it.’ I was totally startled,” Eleanor told The AP. “But I said ‘Well, I never wrote a script before and I’ve never directed, why not?’ I was kind of saying ‘why not’ to everything.”

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