Legends often disappear — it’s how they protect their legacy against the fading of inspiration and popular demand. But nobody expected it from Francis Ford Coppola, who survived both exaltation (Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now) and a fall from grace (Godfather III, Jack). In 1997 — after releasing the John Grisham thriller The Rainmaker — the five-time Oscar winner abandoned filmmaking for his Napa Valley vineyard, which he quickly built into a hugely profitable empire.
Now, just as unexpectedly, he’s roaring back, with a pair of movies he’s writing, directing, and financing himself. He just finished editing Youth Without Youth, a philosophical time-travel romance starring Tim Roth and, in an uncredited cameo, Matt Damon. He hopes to shoot his next film, an immigrant saga called Tetro, this fall. In a revealing chat, the 67-year-old discusses his burst of creativity, a desire to go amateur, and the misunderstood work of his new mentor: Sofia Coppola.
What can you tell us about Tetro?
It goes back to what I was doing on The Conversation and The Rain People: writing out of my heart. It’s an original screenplay set in Buenos Aires, which has an enormous Italian immigrant population. It has to do with a younger brother going out to find an older brother [played by Matt Dillon] who had left his family 15 years before.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten your groove back?
I’m announcing a new phase where I make more personal films. [That’s] what I started out doing. Then I had this fabulous accident that was The Godfather, which changed my life. I found myself shifting from my original intention, which was more akin to Woody Allen. Every year he’d write a screenplay and make a pretty good personal film. I always admired him.
Your last movie was The Rainmaker. Did that play a role in your decision to quit making Hollywood movies?
I knew it before. I was going to use the money I had earned to sponsor a big personal film [Megalopolis, an urban fantasy script that he’s been working on for two decades] because I thought, ”I’m known for big productions like Apocalypse Now…” I did work quite hard on this screenplay and I was never able to lick it. I finally took a cue from my daughter, who went off and made [Lost in Translation] quickly and successfully. I thought I could do another project the same way. And when I read Youth Without Youth [a novella by Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade], I said, ”I could afford to just jump in and make this movie.” It takes place throughout the ’30s and ’40s in Berlin, and it’s a love story about life and how we see time and consciousness.
How did it feel to get back in the director’s chair?
Whether you’re introducing a new line of wines or directing a film, you’re in a similar position: You’re putting on a show. I approached it like a 17-year-old, which was to not be intimidated by my own experience.
Has Sofia seen Youth?
We’re going to have the baptism of her new baby in a month, so I’ll show it to them all then.
Do you and Sofia trade advice on your works in progress?
I’m totally proud of Sofia because she makes films so uncompromisingly. I personally feel that Marie Antoinette was one of the most original films of the year. But to watch it come out and see it attacked… She’s very copacetic about it, and I, as her father, am very annoyed…. It’s the third film in a very impressive young career. Fortunately, she’s made of steel.