Forty years ago Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Carroll Ballard, and Walter Murch moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles, and founded the film company American Zoetrope. Three years later Coppola made ‘The Godfather.’
Accompanied by their wives, last night the men sat around on stage at the world-renowned Castro Theatre, telling the story of how it all began.
Zoetrope was $30,000 in dept before Coppola did ‘The Godfather.’ Worried about the debt and knowing that Coppola was “the only one of us who knew how to get a job” Lucas pressured Coppola to take the offer he had to direct ‘The Godfather’. Coppola said, “George was telling me to do the Godfather. ‘Do it however they want you to,’ he said,” to a chuckle from the sold-out audience.
“So thanks, George, for telling me to do the film,” Coppola said.
It turns out the studio had huge objections with how Coppola wanted to make it (Little did they know). They were opposed to Al Pacino and especially to Marlon Brando. In order for Brando to be cast the studio required that he do a screen test, that he do the part for free, and that there would be a million dollar bond for him in case he damaged anything. When shown the screen test of Brando, who Coppola described as “a brilliant man,” the studio was astounded.
Coppola, who made the1988 feature ‘Tucker’ about a maverick car designer and his ill-fated challenge to the auto industry, had a few words to say about the fall of the auto industry. “It’s heart breaking. America has spent decades making beautiful cars.” And on a broader note about the fate of the economic crisis, “Hard times will bring us closer together personally.”
Moderator David D’Arcy asked the group if there was any hesitancy to the idea of moving from the booming movie industry in Los Angeles to much smaller San Francisco. Overall the men said there was no hesitancy and that one of the reasons to leave Los Angeles was to leave all the legal and industry. “Why should the person who edits the sound not mix the sound?...Being in San Francisco was more like being in school…We wanted to be film makers.”
Coppola’s wife Eleanor spoke up. “This [San Francisco] is really about people who want to make films…In Los Angeles there are so many parties that revolve around things that really are peripheral to film.”
Lucas said, “We were all desperate to make movies.”
The four couples seemed truly pleasured to be on stage reminiscing about their lives and projects together, and the San Francisco audience, who lined up around two corners for hours in advance to see the event, were just as thrilled. “Can we bring the house lights up to see the beautiful faces of the audience?” Coppola jollily requested at one point.
Often the group teased one another. Murch said, “Lucas used to say- ‘Why am I the only one with a vision around here?’”
And Coppola and Lucas joked about Lucas’ writing skills back in the day. Lucas said he was more of a visual guy, didn’t think you needed anything else besides the vision.
“Like a script,” Coppola joked.
Coppola didn’t believe Lucas couldn’t write, and made Lucas write a screenplay for a job.
“But then you read it and said no, you’re not a writer,” Lucas said to Coppola. They all laughed along with the audience.
Ballard piped up about how these days more often than not the director has nothing to do with the writing of the script, rather the director comes in without any prior knowledge of the script and then takes over. “We were under the notion that if you were going to make a film you’d write it,” he said.
Coppola talked about his latest project, ‘Tetro’ (premiering later this month in Cannes) which is in black and white. “With black and white it’s different because it’s the light that’s used to separate, since there’s no color. No one will buy black and white movies. It’s hard…. For awhile if you wanna do it [make movies] you have to have a day job.”
“It’s fiction but it’s filled with personal memories,” he said about the film.
Coppola said there are really only about four films he made that are the ones he really wanted to make, from his own personal ideas. He noted Rain People, Conversation, Rumble Fish, and Youth Without Youth. "Film should be personal. Each person here, we're all unique and that unique perspective is reflected in what we create... which makes it all the more beautiful."
“The curse is that people just don’t go and see them,” he said.
“If you don’t have that kind of violence, or thrills and spills, the audience just won’t come.”
This review is also published on filmfestivals.com