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Accomplishing Apocalypse: 70s Coppola in Retrospect

April 2019

There is a great divide between films that are personal and mechanically commercial. Few directors have rode the dividing line with such success as Francis Ford Coppola. His intention to overthrow Hollywood as a young filmmaker didn’t change with age, but he found himself continuously jumping through studio hoops. Exploding onto the scene with The Godfather (1972) and sending himself into bankruptcy with Apocalypse Now (1979), Coppola’s output in the 1970s is arguably the most accomplished decade in film history.

As an ambitious film-school grad inspired by the innovative films of the French New Wave, Coppola and his contemporaries dreamed of causing their own American New Wave. The film-student mentality developed with a fascination for scrappy, guerilla filmmaking that existed for a bigger reason than to entertain and conveyed a message. Their fantasy involved overturning the existing Hollywood system by making the studios come to them, not the other way around. To do this, they would make exceptional films while under contract—simple enough—and the wallets would develop faith in any future projects. After establishing themselves as talented names, with help from the popular auteur theory, studios and filmgoers alike would be drawn to their work, eventually separating filmmaker from studio head. The plan worked to an extent for Coppola, whose career can be summarized in four films: his desire to personalize, and his tendency to conform. “I was called a cop-out because I was willing to compromise,” said Coppola in a 1971 interview, “and I still am” (Lewis 15). Compromise has allowed him to make films big and small, with varying success. For a studio head, however, a personal film narrows down an audience.

The Godfather was supposed to be a cheap gangster flick. Numerous directors of great fame turned the film down until it fell into Coppola’s lap, a promising young director who was

considered evermore eligible because of his Italian heritage. Allegedly convinced by friend George Lucas to take on the project, Coppola delved into the adaptation with notable fervor. He painstakingly cut out each individual page from Mario Puzo’s novel, making notes on each that related to things like character, costume, even moods he wished to replicate on-screen. This effort would later be published in 2016 as The Godfather Notebook with an introduction from Coppola. “[M]uch of the book fell away in my mind, revealing a story that was a metaphor for American capitalism in the tale of a great king with three sons … Suddenly I saw the story as one of succession of power…” (Coppola 24). Needless to say pre-production was an extensive process and one he committed to fully. At the time, major decisions were fought tooth and nail for, such as casting choices and when the film would be set. Changing the story to fit a more modern setting would lessen production cost, but that was one aspect that Coppola fought against. Al Pacino and Marlon Brando would never have starred had it not been for his feverish demands, at one point collapsing onto the floor in front of a couple studio executives in plea. He feared being fired everyday and as the budget overstepped its limit, his career was riding on the success of the film. The Godfather was a hit on all accounts and carried him for the next ten years. As a direct result, Paramount allowed Coppola to move forward with a project he’d set on the backburner, The Conversation.

The first draft of The Conversation was completed in 1969 after being an on-and-off project throughout the mid-60s. “Between shooting the first two Godfather films … [Coppola] crafted The Conversation (1974), a weirdly internalized thriller that aspired to a European arthouse aesthetic” (Gilbey 15). Around the time the script began ruminating, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) released. Several connections can be made between the two, of which Coppola acknowledges, but he considers the two to be very different films. “What’s similar about them is obviously similar, and that’s where it ends,” Coppola said. “But it was my admiration for the moods and the way those things happened in [Blow-Up] which made me say, ‘I want to do something like that’” (De Palma 31). Although it was never intended, the film’s content and cultural context upon release made many viewers consider it a callback to the Watergate scandal just two years earlier. “[W]hen Watergate happened, I was really frightened that people would think it was about spies and tapes and then be very angry that it wasn’t. But right from the beginning I wanted it to be something personal, not political, because somehow that is even more terrible to me” (De Palma 30). The film was not so much about who was being wiretapped, but who was doing the tapping. Suspense is instead developed by keeping the viewer in-step with surveyor Harry Caul. Through an intelligent use of repetition, the viewer is provided new context piece by piece, solving the puzzle along with Caul. The titular conversation is repeated several times, but only when new information and understanding can be applied. At some points, Caul dismantles some of the jumbled audio himself, revealing new parts of the exchange. Uncovering this puts him in danger as he becomes the victim of a home-bugging. He tears through his apartment in search of the bug, but is unsuccessful, left with nothing but his saxophone and a lingering sense of paranoia. “The Conversation was not about Nixon at all, but what the age of Nixon had taken away” (Kirshner 150). Among the wreckage of that age was the public’s sense of security. No longer could those in power be trusted without question; loyalty had unraveled into naivete. Of Coppola’s 70s films, The Conversation has the greatest multiplicity of genres mixed into its DNA: elements of thriller, Hitchcockian horror and suspense, an unbloomed love story between spectator and spectated. As a much smaller film than

The Godfather, it was budgeted modestly, scheduled to be shot in forty days. It ended up lasting fifty-six days and going over budget. Techniques called back to student-minded scrappiness despite its decent studio backing. “Essentially I was caught between two worlds in that I wanted to make the film small and intimate and with friends … I found it very difficult to get anyone from the unions on down to allow me to do it. It just got fatter and fatter” (De Palma 32). The film dissatisfied Paramount as a commercial venture, but won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Fortunately, the continued success of The Godfather franchise with Part II salvaged Coppola’s name and reputation as a viable auteur.

Part II’s script by Puzo and Coppola was a mixture of existing leftover material from the book about Vito Corleone and a continuation of Michael’s story as the newly-seated godfather. The cross-cutting between past and present establishes a duality between the similarly-aged father and son. The aforementioned tale of the king described by Coppola continues: “the oldest [son] was given his passion and aggressiveness, the second his sweet nature and childlike qualities, and the third [Michael] his intelligence, cunning, and coldness” (Coppola 24). As king, Vito possessed all of these qualities, but Michael’s resemblance bubbles to the surface in his rise to power, also behaving as an ugly mascot of the times. “Michael, like Nixon, becomes ever more alone, estranged from his wife and obsessed with his enemies, whom he needs not simply to defeat but to destroy … The real Nixon would have been presiding over the Senate when the fictional gangster testified before it in in 1958 … Michael had his brother killed; Nixon only tapped his brother’s phone” (Kirshner 135). Film critic Ryan Gilbey notes John Cazale’s resemblance to “Nixon reborn as a ventriloquist’s dummy” (Gilbey 15), who is present in The Conversation as Stan and both Godfather films as Fredo, “assistant” to the leads. “Everything the Mafia believed in and was setup to handle—absolute control, the carving out of territories, the rigging of prices and the elimination of competition—everything was [in America previously]. The corporate philosophy that built some of our biggest industries and great personal fortunes was a Mafia philosophy” (Murray N.P.). Part II’s Oscar winnings and financial domination continued to propel Coppola as one of the hottest directors of the moment, and Paramount was well aware.

A studio executive named Frank Yablans oversaw the release of both Godfather films and controlled a Paramount branch called the Directors Company, which included people like Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, and Coppola. Those involved were contracted to make three films within a six-year period. Although harmless at face-value, “[w]hat [Yablans] and Paramount had in mind was a recontextualization of auteurism within the studio superstructure … [the Company] conceded a modicum of autonomy and power over the product … but it did so in exchange for what amounted to the directors’ capitulation, their seeming unwillingness to make mainstream movies” (Lewis 16). While Coppola maintained his film-student desire of overthrowing the existing studio system, it seemed the studios had inverse plans in mind to exploit young talent. “[A]fter the success of The Godfather Part II, [Yablans] realized that he could no longer effectively control any films Coppola might make in the future … [his] worst fears were realized when … The Conversation was screened for executives at Paramount. Within a year of [its release], Yablans announced Paramount’s decision to withdraw from the Directors Company deal” (Lewis 18). At the time Coppola had purchased a distribution company called Cinema 5 and, due to Paramount’s dislike of The Conversation, had attempted but failed to acquire film rights to distribute himself. “Perhaps the wisest thing to do is to use all my energies to make a film that grosses some stupendous amount,” said Coppola in a 1975 interview with Playboy, “then go out and buy a major company and change it from the top.” In the years following this turmoil with Paramount, he built toward his own studio called Zoetrope and undertook development of Apocalypse Now from George Lucas who was involved in the script’s early stages. It would be a film that would require all of Coppola’s “energies.”

For Coppola, remaining in the limelight meant increased attention on whatever he was working on. He guest spotted on talk shows, accepted countless interviews, anything to keep the focus on his auteurist struggle with the studio system. Unintentionally, but in his favor, news about his latest productions would end up in the headlines. This was especially the case with Apocalypse Now, rumored to be a financial extravaganza straight from Coppola’s pocket—he had put it all on the line. Coppola’s wife Eleanor kept a production diary and published it in conjunction with the film, titled Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now (1979). Video footage captured by Eleanor would later be packaged into Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), a documentary that details extensively the trials and tribulations of the film’s process. It includes several contemporary interviews with actors and Coppola himself reflecting on the experience. One event finds Coppola struggling to write the ending to the film, proclaiming its impossibility. On a couple of occasions, he dreams and awakes the following morning with an idea or solution. The famously improvised mirror scene with Martin Sheen, for instance, originated from such a dream. Not only had it put the director in an incredible financial bind, his mental state evidently took a severe blow under the circumstances, talk of suicide arising at particularly intense moments of panic. He allegedly disliked his portrayal in the documentary, and for a short while forbid a DVD release. He’s featured on the commentary track of subsequent home video editions. With his studio on its last legs, Coppola decided to follow up with a lighter project: a high-budget musical titled One from the Heart (1982). David Letterman posed to Coppola in 1982, “If [One from the Heart] doesn’t work out, there goes the house, there goes the speedboat, there goes the vacation, there goes the studio—” “The speedboat went on Apocalypse Now,” Coppola interjected.

“Since when are you here to be entertained?” asks Harry Caul to his assistant in The Conversation, “sounding more like a warning to anyone in the audience who has the temerity to expect a good time” (Gilbey 15). The context differs within the film, but it’s a valid question toward the contemporary film audience. Another question of equal validity: when did film become a viable form of expression, and does it have the right to be? Is it selfish for an auteur to use filmic means to unwield their greatest hopes and fears? The answer lies in the purest form of subjectivity. Nowadays, the most successful film is undeniably the most impersonal; the masses seem disinterested in the remnants of a once-thriving auteur-driven cinemascape. A closing thought from Coppola in Hearts of Darkness harks back to his familiar film-school mentality. “The great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out … people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form.” This has been Coppola’s hope for more than half a century, and although the medium may still not be an art form in totality, the means of production are more accessible than ever.

Works Cited

Coppola, Francis Ford, and Mario Puzo. The Godfather. Paramount Pictures, 1972.

Coppola, Francis Ford. The Conversation. Paramount Pictures, 1974.

Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather Part II. Paramount Pictures, 1974.

Coppola, Francis Ford. Apocalypse Now. Omni Zoetrope, 1979.

Coppola, Eleanor, and Fax Bahr, and George Hickenlooper. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s

Apocalypse. American Zoetrope, 1991.

Coppola, Francis Ford, and Mario Puzo. The Godfather Notebook. Regan Arts, 2016.

De Palma, Brian. The Making of THE CONVERSATION: An Interview with Francis Ford

Coppola. Filmmakers Newsletter, Volume 7, Issue 7, 1974.

Gilbey, Ryan. It Don’t Worry Me: The Revolutionary American Films of the Seventies. New

York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2003.

Letterman, David. Francis Ford Coppola Interview on Late Night (1982). YouTube,

12 Aug. 2010,

Lewis, Jon. Whom God Wishes to Destroy...: Francis Coppola and the New Hollywood.

Duke University Press, 1997.

Kirshner, Jonathan. Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in

America. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Murray, William. Francis Ford Coppola Interview. Playboy. 1975.

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