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Francis Ford Coppola on One from the Heart

Director Francis Ford Coppola with Gene Kelly
Director Francis Ford Coppola with Gene Kelly

Francis Coppola really needs no introduction, with or without the "Ford". Odds are that you have at least one of his movies in your DVD collection. And if you don't, a lot of people would argue that you don't have much of a DVD collection yet.

Coppola has been a visionary throughout his career and in the early 1980's, he embarked on what would turn out to be his most ambitious project. Armed with high hopes and an audacious vision of the future of filmmaking, Coppola embarked on nothing less than the complete reinvention of the Hollywood studio system. For awhile, Zoetrope Studios was the envy of Hollywood. Legendary elders like Gene Kelly and director Michael Powell advised the new generation, while high school-age apprentices learned every facet of the business. Zoetrope commanded unprecedented employee loyalty, virtually unheard of in any age of Hollywood. It was, by most estimations, too good to last. Zoetrope's rise and fall is documented on the new DVD of Coppola's one and only movie for the studio, the 1982 musical fantasia One from the Heart.

In honor of its release, I was given the opportunity to pepper Coppola with a brief Q&A. Our timing could not have been worse. Within days of my sending the questions off, not only did his daughter Sofia follow in his Oscar-nominated footsteps with her film Lost in Translation, but his mother, Italia Coppola, passed away at the age of 91. Nevertheless, even with all this activity, Coppola found the time to respond to our little dog-and-pony show. Our sincere thanks go out to Mr. Coppola, Ian Hendrie at Fantoma, and Kim Aubry at American Zoetrope for making this possible. Also, congratulations and best of luck to Sofia Coppola. Finally, our condolences to the Coppola family. Mrs. Coppola appears briefly in One from the Heart, along with her husband Carmine Coppola, trapped in an elevator as Teri Garr dithers about whether or not to go with Raul Julia. It is to her memory that this interview is respectfully dedicated.

Adam Jahnke (The Digital Bits): Coming as it did after the extremely grueling Apocalypse Now shoot, is it fair to say that it was almost physically necessary for you to next make something as intimate and contained as One from the Heart?

Francis Ford Coppola: After spending 16 months in the jungle, I thought there had to be another way to make movies. Apocalypse Now was such a grueling shoot, that I wanted something completely different, so One from the Heart was really the antidote to Apocalypse. I realized that, although my colleagues and I had been champions of shooting on real locations during the prior decades when the studios were trying to save money by shooting on the backlot, now I wanted to go in a new direction where I could really control the elements of the shoot, without having to deal with concerns of weather, sunlight, and historical accuracy.

Jahnke: One from the Heart is so uniquely its own type of film, it's difficult to pinpoint your specific influences. Perhaps the closest in style is the BBC films of Dennis Potter, such as Pennies from Heaven. Were they an influence? What was?

Coppola: I liked the film Pennies from Heaven a great deal, but actually I didn't see it until after I had made One from the Heart. The influences were really more the filmed musicals of the 1940s and 50s, and even the stage musicals I directed in college and the Broadway shows I saw growing up. Also very influential were the live television dramas of the 50s and 60s, especially those directed by John Frankenheimer.

Jahnke: Although his songs are used in films frequently, Tom Waits has written very little original music for movies. How did you come to collaborate with him?

Coppola: My son Gian-Carlo brought me a Tom Waits record, I think it was Foreign Affairs and it had this beautiful duet called I Never Talk to Strangers with Bette Midler singing the female part, and I immediately thought this could be relevant to One from the Heart! I can have the two voices involved in a dialog, working out issues in song, sort of paralleling the male and female protagonists in the story.

Jahnke: In the rehearsal footage of you, Waits, and Crystal Gayle, you seem to be directing them in exactly the same way you'd direct actors. As musicians, I imagine they wouldn't be used to such an approach. Were they receptive to this way of working?
Tom Waits

Coppola: Tom Waits was already interested in theater and acting and he is a truly renaissance man. I wouldn't say that I was directing him as such, it was more trying to get my conceptual ideas across in a way that he could use when he composed and performed the song score. Crystal Gayle was a bit nervous at first, she had come from working in the Nashville country music recording studios although she had formal training and was a huge fan of Hoagy Carmichael. We were asking her to stretch a bit, into the more full voice you hear in musicals. She was wonderful to work with.

Jahnke: Why do you feel the film's reception was so disproportionately harsh?

Coppola: The film was shown to exhibitors -- what they call a blind bidding screening -- and it was still a mess, months before completion. I even recorded an intro explaining that it was really a work in progress. However, it got reviewed anyway -- badly -- and the downward spiral began. No one really wanted a filmmaker who controlled a studio, so there were a lot of forces looking for us to fail. Plus, I had this string of incredible successes -- The Godfather, The Godfather II, The Conversation and Apocalypse. Some people felt it was time they cut me down a notch. By the time I showed the film at Radio City Music Hall, most people had already written it off. I thought the screening was a success, but at the press conference, I was asked what I was going to do now that it was clear the film was a failure. It was clear that it wasn't going to get a fair shot, so a few weeks after it was in theaters, I pulled in and thought, 'Oh, I'll re-release it in a few years, when it will get a fair shot.'

Jahnke: How do you feel about the film today?

Coppola: Obviously, the movie was important to me because it was the dawn of a new studio. That studio was capable of a movie a month. So I was very interested in all the technology and the ability to have such a facility and to have complete creative control. I still regret that I didn't shoot it the way I wanted -- as a continuous live television show. The film itself is unusual, and charming, and seeing it again after all these years, with all the effort that was put into the restoration, it looks and sounds breath-taking.

Jahnke: Did you personally believe One from the Heart was ahead of its time? Is it still or are do you think audiences will be more receptive toward it today?

Coppola: One from the Heart was an experiment. I think it influenced the music video, and some of the innovations we introduced in its making are still used today. I think or hope that audiences today will look at it much differently as they are more open.
One from the Heart
Jahnke: Why did you choose to produce and release the One from the Heart DVD yourself?

Coppola: There was never really a final version of this film. There were three versions out there (foreign version, early US version, and final version) -- one a very poor VHS put out for home video of the day, and I thought since we have our DVD lab and all this archival footage that no one had ever seen, it was time to make the definitive cut. The DVD also has given me the wonderful opportunity to go back and straighten out some misconceptions, since there were so many rumors floating around about One from the Heart -- yet so few people had actually ever seen it. The film has been digitally restored and digitally enhanced and is in its original Academy aspect ratio -- very few people have seen it shown that way. We were really able to tell the whole story of the Zoetrope Studio in the documentaries on disc two and seeing young Tom Wait's creative process in writing and recording the score is a real revelation for people who are fans of his work.

Jahnke: The amount of rehearsal and behind-the-scenes footage on the disc is impressive by any standard, all the more so considering it was done long before the advent of Laserdisc or DVD. What compelled you to have all this archive footage shot?

Coppola: A young couple approached me at the beginning of the shoot, actually shortly after we acquired the studio and they had this brand new state of the art portable 3/4" video equipment and it seemed obvious to be that this was the way to go. George Lucas had shot a 16mm film chronicling the making of my road film The Rain People in 1969 following us everywhere, and of course my wife Eleanor had shot a great deal of 16mm footage in the Philippines during Apocalypse. But the advent of portable video equipment meant that the costs were much less than film, and these videographers [Tony St. John and Ann Humphery] could leave the camera running even when it seemed like nothing of import was happening.

Jahnke: Can we expect to see any of your other films released on DVD through American Zoetrope/Fantoma?

Coppola: Well, the little DVD Lab we built at Zoetrope has become, in its relatively short 5-year career, kind of the "tiffany" of DVD facilities. They have already done DVDs of most of our films, although these are distributed by the major studios. Most notably the Godfather DVD Collection, The Conversation, The Cotton Club and Apocalypse Now Redux. I am proud of the DVD they made of a somewhat lesser known film, Tucker, the Man and his Dream, and they did my son Roman's film CQ and my daughter Sofia's two films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. They are working on a new edition of the film I made right after One from the Heart, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

Jahnke: Back in the late 70's and early 80's, you made a number of predictions about the future of filmmaking, virtually all of which have come to pass. Are there any current films or filmmakers that you can point to as examples of people who exemplify your vision of digital filmmaking?

Coppola: Robert Rodriguez comes to mind, in that he has mastered all the technical aspects of the new cinema, and I am impressed by so many experimental young filmmakers, like Baz Luhrmann, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Gus Van Sant and David O. Russell to name just a few -- and then again, mostly I look forward to the new work of Roman Coppola and Sofia Coppola.

Jahnke: Where do you see filmmaking going in the next twenty or so years and what part, if any, does DVD play in it?

Coppola: Big question: off the top of my head I'd say that there will be a fusion of what we think of the documentary film and the fiction film; plot will become confining -- the cinema language dealing with time and the expression of inner consciousness will become ever more sophisticated.

Jahnke: With Finian's Rainbow and One from the Heart, have you done everything you'd like to do in the musical genre or do you feel another musical in you?

Coppola: Not really -- I would love to do a true musical for film.


Our thanks once again to Mr. Coppola for the generosity of his time and attention. If you enjoyed the interview, you also be interested in reading my review of Zoetrope and Fantoma's new release of One from the Heart on DVD. Best!

Adam Jahnke
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