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The horrors of the hot seat: Francis Ford Coppola’s many tragedies behind the camera


Filmmaking is a rare creative realm. In most artistic works it is generally considered that a state of ‘flow’ is essential to produce a coherent work of originality and quality. Neuroscientists and the likes have studied this cathartic phenomenon and many artists have basked in its enchanting quality. This free state of a seamless creative windfall is entirely foreign to Francis Ford Coppola whose successes have come at a staggering cost that would encourage most of us to simply give up the ghost and enquire about openings at the local dole office. 

Coppola’s contemporary, Werner Herzog, once said, “I would travel down to Hell and wrestle a film away from the devil if it was necessary.” It would seem that Coppola already had Satan’s address and was a regular in his wrestling ring. His troubled path began with his first film, an act of creative whoredom that Coppola embarked upon merely to get a leg-up in the industry. It was a softcore comedy film called Tonight for Sure in 1962. 

This beginning was a necessary evil at the time. In a reverse of the current climate, amid the artistic boom of the era, you had to graduate from commercially inclined small-budget independents if you wanted the chance to be an artistic auteur with a bottomless pit of cash making art. Roger Corman, the man dubbed ‘The Pope of Pop Cinema’, was a director and producer who doled out ultra-cheap flix that featured sex or violence every ten minutes as a golden rule.

He would frequently hire promising first-time directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme and allow them the chance to showcase their skills. He once told Ron Howard: “If you do a good job on this movie, you’ll never have to work for me again.” This was everything Coppola wanted, so he was happy to hang up his own creative beliefs for a payday and a start in the industry with a remake of the nudie film Wide Open Spaces.

As it happens, these artistically unrewarding early projects were a walk in the park. During the filming of Finnian’s Wake – his first relatively big-budget project – the only issue to arise was that he wanted to make it less fantastical with mixed results. Other than that, most of the cast and crew enjoyed the nine-acre plot in sunny Napa Valley and smoked pot between takes. “There was a lot of flower power going on,” Petula Clark told the BBC. All was rosy. 

The problems first came when he worked his way towards a comfortable position that afforded for dreaded ambition. He set his sights in his opus, The Godfather. The following quotes from Coppola pretty much sum up the experience: A). “You have to really be courageous about your instincts and your ideas. Otherwise, you’ll just knuckle under, and things that might have been memorable will be lost.” B). “You ought to love what you’re doing because – especially in a movie – over time you really will start to hate it.”

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Coming in off the back of a relative failure with The Rain People, Coppola agreed to take the film on for a low sum and a small budget. However, he soon knew he had to gun for more if his vision was to come to fruition. The first argument arose when Paramount wanted it to be shot in Kansas City to cut down on production costs. With the novel’s popularity rising as arguments continued, the studio finally acquiesced and agreed to shoot on location in New York City and Sicily. 

However, he may have won this argument because of the rising popularity of the novel, but that almost became a petard that hoisted him. The disagreement had not only disgruntled executives, but now that the budget was rising, they were unsure whether Coppola could handle it. The experienced Elia Kazan was tapped up as a replacement. As these rumours swirled, Coppola’s stress skyrocketed. After all, he had already argued with them over pretty much every single casting decision. 

He became convinced that the editor Aram Avakian and his AD, Steve Kestner, were conspiring to get him fired. It would seem that they were. Avakian had complained to producer Robert Evans the filming was so slow that there was nothing for him to edit. However, Evans was happy with the dailies, so he backed Coppola. Coppola fired both of them. Now Evans had made his bed and his stress was set to skyrocket too. 

“Like the godfather,” Coppola later explained, “I fired people as a pre-emptory strike. The people who were angling the most to have me fired, I had fired.” The key phrase here being “the most” – in most jobs you hope that nobody is gunning to get you sacked, but when it came to Coppola and The Godfather, he was having to snuff out threats who were most likely to push for him to be sacked with a studio that was thinking about sacking him. 

He escaped successfully, and the rest is ancient history. However, he wasn’t through with horrors behind the camera just yet. Things were about to get far worse when Apocalypse Now came around. Rather than bask in the bounty of his Godfather’s fortune both financially and spiritually, he chose to venture into the unforgiving depths of the Philippine jungle armed with a copy of Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel The Heart of Darkness with the glim hope of transposing Conrad’s prose onto the Vietnam war.

There may have been a moment when Coppola stood amidst the stinging vines feeling like they had the staunch aim of dragging him into down to perdition, clutching his paperback copy in the sweltering undergrowth, sweating, shirtless, and stressed to the eyeballs and saw in the line “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice” the presentiment of his own situation. “The Horror! The Horror!”.

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From the very inception of Apocalypse Now, Coppola was taking a risk. He staked the value of his Napa Valley wine ranch to raise funds for what would go on to be one of the most horrific movie productions imaginable—offering up $30 million of his own wealth as collateral to bolster the film’s budget, risking financial ruin if it tanked. However, as he puts it himself, “If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?”.

The result might be a beautiful masterpiece, but the odious 238-day shoot was anything but. The horrors started even before day one. The casting had been a nightmare. When they finally went ahead with Harvey Keitel in the mains role, his name was surrounded with question marks before scene one. He lasted ten days. 

By this time, stress and the tropical conditions had already begun to take their toll on Coppola. The director didn’t want to draw press attention to the early impediments that the film had suffered, so he set about sneaking himself back into the US to cast a lead unnoticed. However, he had already lost so much weight that no disguise was needed by this point, and he entered home soil to bestow a struggling Martin Sheen with the most challenging role imaginable unnoticed. 

Coppola was delighted with Sheen’s early scenes. The Sheen almost died three times on set. Everyone was also risking it with the reaper. Drug use on set was out of control and the deranged director had no way of keeping a handle on it. His old friend and favourite star Marlon Brando was no help either—he arrived to play the role of an ultra-fit Green Beret weighing well over 300lbs. He spent his first four days on set doing absolutely no filming, and any time Coppola entered his trailer to try and broach the subject of acting Brando would cajole him into talking about something completely unrelated like Baseball.

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War and a typhoon later cause a more literal and unavoidable glut of destruction. By this stage, Coppola was just about a broken man. He was openly suicidal and surrounded by military-grade weaponry. He suffered an epileptic seizure, where he told his wife he was “drifting into the darkness”. He threatened to commit suicide three times. And, unsurprisingly, at one point, had to check himself into a hospital. Yet somehow, despite the horrors that howled around him and the fire of hell scorching his feet, he kept his head – a frankly baffling feat considering that his descend into the depths of the underworlds darkened abyss had only just about broken ground at this stage. 

As Coppola puts it: “The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”

Never again, you would have thought, you’d be wrong. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was similarly plagued by problems. His two stars, Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder went from friends to foes and the set was “tired, tense, and not very happy.” As Coppola recalls, “They got along, and then one day they didn’t,” the director noted. “Absolutely didn’t get along. None of us were privy to what happened.”

Despite all the misfortune that has followed him, as he defiantly says, “You ought to love what you’re doing because, especially in a movie, over time you really will start to hate it.” That love certainly shines through in style. In some ways, that’s a magical Harry Houdini act, which is very fitting because it was also Coppola who said, “I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.”

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