Francis Ford Coppola attributes his success to “thinking like a 6-year-old boy” all his life. He has produced 72 movies and directed 33, including “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” regarded as two of the best in history. He is currently at work on a small, personal film. He also owns an eponymous Napa Valley wine business where, he says, his job is to focus on the big picture – “like a movie director.”
Q: You’ve directed big-budget blockbusters and cheap, small films. Are they different disciplines?
A: The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas; the bigger the budget, the smaller the ideas, the adventure. All my life I was trying to do big things to make money so we could do little movies on our own. I slid into the wine business 16 years ago, and with what I’ve earned I can now be my own patron. But recently I realized, Why don’t I take advice from my daughter, Sofia? Why don’t I pretend I’m 21 and starting out? I could put together a small budget and go off to Romania with none of my expensive colleagues. And that’s what I did.
Q: When you did work with Hollywood bosses, how did you persuade them to buck convention?
A: If your instinct tells you to do something different from the tried-and-true, you’ve got to take a shot. Famously, with the casting of “The Godfather,” the studio was against Marlon Brando. So I went to Brando’s house and brought little Italian sausages and cigars and laid them out, and he oiled up his hair and started to improvise, and I videotaped it. I took that tape to the head of the movie company – right to the top. He started out saying, “No. Not a chance.” But then he saw Brando’s transformation, and I won him over, and all the people lower on the chain of authority fell into place. The things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you win lifetime achievement awards for when you’re older.
Q: You’re known for having a tight-knit family. How did you balance that with work?
A: I see these 45-year-old guys who tell me, “When I’m successful, I’ll have kids.” And I say, “If you have kids, you will be successful.” The fact that I was married when I was 22 and had a kid right away made me get serious about figuring out how to provide for this little family. I’ve learned every bit as much from my wife and kids as I’ve taught them.
Q: If you’re stuck creatively, how do you get unstuck?
A: If my intuition doesn’t give me the answer, I have a little exercise: What is the theme in a word or two? In “The Conversation,” it was privacy. In “The Godfather,” it was succession. I encourage my children to do the same, to break it all down. If you have that word, then when you reach an impasse, you just say, “Well, what does the theme tell me?” And usually that will suggest to you which way to go and break the roadblock.
Q: You once described your father as successful but unfulfilled. Would you describe yourself differently?
A: No, because what I really want is to write a beautiful, beautiful piece of work and make it into a film that’s beautiful, beautiful. And I mean write it all, not adapt it from a book. But the tricky thing is I’m 72, and my fame is because of movies I made 30 years ago. The truth is people really don’t know how good movies are until that time goes by. In those days, I was unfulfilled because there was so much criticism of those films. Since then, I’ve made a couple of little films, one I think is beautiful, and people are treating them much as they did the films we just spoke of. Who knows what they’ll say in 30 years? I won’t get to know.