Study Guide

Apocalypse Now Director

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Francis Ford Coppola

Proving Murphy's Law

Was the Force with Francis Ford Coppola when he made Apocalypse Now?

At first, it didn't seem like it. Coppola had been nurturing John Milius, the screenwriter, paying him an initial fifteen thousand dollars to write the script, but he didn't plan to direct it himself. George Lucas, the real creator of "The Force" from Star Wars, planned to direct instead.

Until the Force led him to direct, well, Star Wars.

Film School Guy

Coppola was a graduate of the prestigious UCLA Film School, where he met the prolific king of B movies, Roger Corman (Attack of the Giant Leeches, Slumber Party Massacre II, you get the idea), who saw something in the young Coppola. In 1963, he asked him to direct Dementia 13, which Coppola also wrote. Needless to say, it didn't exactly attract attention, but Coppola did better in 1968, when he directed the movie version of the musical Finian's Rainbow (source). Film critic legend Roger Ebert thought that Finian's Rainbow was the best-directed musical since West Side Story.

That's saying something.

In 1969, disillusioned by the traditional Hollywood studio system, Coppola founded his own studio in San Francisco with George Lucas. They called it Zoetrope Studios, after the zoetrope, an animation toy that moved a bunch of still pictures very quickly to give the illusion of motion. Lucas and Coppola were some of the first directors to experiment with digital film production. They wanted their studio to be an avant-garde haven for artists who wanted to do things differently, independent of the Hollywood movie machine.

That '70s Show

The 1970s started out pretty well for Coppola and Zoetrope, when the world got a look at his screenplay for Patton (1970). It earned the young filmmaker a screenwriting Oscar.

And then there was The Godfather.

With the release of The Godfather in 1972 (Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay) and the equally acclaimed 1974 The Godfather Part II (Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay), Coppola earned his place in the directing pantheon, totally transforming the gangster genre and making people all around the world look for opportunities to say "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" and "Leave the gun; take the cannoli."

In between filming the Godfathers, Coppola found time to write, produce, and direct The Conversation, a psychological thriller that won him his first Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for Best Picture but had some stiff competition: The Godfather Part II, which took home the top prize.

Along with his buddies George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese (the then-young directing geniuses known as the "Film School Generation"), Coppola owned the 1970s.

Apocalypse When?

George Lucas and John Milius had planned to shoot Apocalypse Now in Vietnam in the early 1970s while the war was actually still going on. Not too many people thought this was a good idea. Then Lucas got sidetracked by his whole Star Wars deal, and Coppola took over the project. Given his massive success with epics like The Godfather Parts I and II, he seemed to be just the man to complete such a large-scale project.

How hard could it be?

It would be three years before he finished (source). Check out our "Production Design" section for more about how Coppola's experience making Apocalypse Now proved Murphy's law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

It did, big time.

Despite all the obstacles, Coppola persisted. The dude had a vision. Of course, crazy people have visions too…. Would Coppola's work out?

The answer was a resounding yes.

After debuting the movie at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival in a somewhat unfinished version, Apocalypse Now received a standing ovation and won the film festival's highest honor, the Palme d'Or, sharing it with The Tin Drum. Unfortunately, Apocalypse Now was going to mark the end of the rock star phase of Coppola's career.

Broken Heart

After his wild critical and commercial successes of the 1970s, Coppola's next project was a musical romance called One from the Heart, which he financed himself. Like most Coppola films, the budget was ambitious: $26 million, including building a replica of an airport. Unlike most Coppola films, it was an epic financial flop, grossing about $650,000 at the box office. Let's see, give us a sec…$26 million minus $650,000…that's a problem. His Zoetrope Studios, which financed the production, was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Coppola spent much of the 1980s trying to get out of debt with films like 1983's The Outsiders and Rumblefish (both based on the YA books by S.E. Hinton), and The Cotton Club (1984). They didn't help. It wasn't until 1990's The Godfather Part III (with his daughter Sofia as a Corleone daughter) that Zoetrope had a box office hit. Coppola went on to direct and produce throughout the '90s and onward, but never regained his star-power of the '70s.

In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award for his entire body of work—a kind of lifetime achievement award that the Academy only gives out when there's someone around who deserves it.

We'd say Coppola is one of those someones.

Films aren't the only art form that the director's pursued. Winemaking had been a family business since the 1920s, and Coppola had used some of the proceeds from the Godfather films to buy some wineries in California's wine country. He now owns several prestigious wineries in Napa and Sonoma Valley. If you visit the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, California, you can see a few of his Oscars along with props from some of his films. He's also opened high-end restaurants in California, Belize, and Italy.

All in the Family

We won't hold it against him that Coppola probably had artistic DNA on his side to give a boost to his own success. His grandfather was a composer and his father was a professional musician. His sister, Talia Shire, had a great film career, including portraying the battered Connie Corleone in The Godfather and Rocky Balboa's sweetie Adrian. (Yo, Adrian!) Nicolas Cage, born Nicolas Coppola, is his nephew. Cage wanted to make it on his own without being associated with his famous uncle. Honestly, if we were born a Coppola and planned on having a film career, we'd probably keep the name.

Coppola's daughter, Sofia, inherited the family talent, directing The Virgin Suicides at the age of 28 and becoming, at 32, only the third woman to be nominated for Best Director, for Lost in Translation.

The kids seemed to have enjoyed the winemaking biz, too.

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