Francis Ford Coppola may be semi-retired as a director, but he could always pursue a second career as a comedian.
On Tuesday night at the Nourse, Coppola was hysterical as he reflected back on a career that launched in earnest with 1960’s Rain People and led to the cinematic holy trinity of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now.
Promoting his new book, Live Cinema and Its Techniques, Coppola made sure to emphasize that his new work is more textbook than memoir. However the evening was still filled with plenty of autobiographical moments, coaxed out by Coppola’s on-stage companion, author Dave Eggers.
Here are seven of the most memorable moments from their conversation.
As a boy, Coppola was stricken with polio and spent a year watching television.
Coppola came down with the disease at age 9 in 1949. At the time, the preferred method of treatment for the ensuing paralysis many suffered was to pin the patient down into their bed to prevent further damage. This meant Coppola was left with only the television to entertain him — and this was before the invention of the remote control. He recalled being quite smitten with some of the young ladies on one of the children’s programs, and being inspired by live nature of the shows he watched, as pre-recorded television hadn’t been invented yet.
While working as a summer camp counselor, Coppola read the entirety of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to a group of 9-year-old boys.
He would read it to them every night before bed, confessing it was his hope to scare them. Coppola would go on to direct Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992, with Gary Oldman in the title role. Reading the original text at the summer camp served as an inspiration, he said.
Coppola worked for Western Union for a time, and created imaginary telegrams telling his father about dream jobs he had not been offered.
In the downtime when Coppola wasn’t cutting up yellow teletext paper, affixing it to cards, and delivering it to its intended recipients, he would create his own telegrams intended for his father, an accomplished flautist. One day, Coppola delivered the telegrams to his dad, who reacted with glee before being informed they were fake and subsequently giving his son a beating. Coppola says he doesn’t know why he did it, other than to momentarily see the joy on his father’s face before he learned the truth.
After being offered the chance to direct The Godfather, Coppola went to the Mill Valley Library to learn all he could about the Mafia.
Coppola joked that while fellow director Little Italy native Martin Scorcese “came from the heart of the beast on Elizabeth Street; I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Woodside, Queens.” Confessing he knew little about the Mafia, Coppola rented every book on the mob he could find at the Marin County library branch, and later spent extensive time working on the screenplay for The Godfather at Caffè Trieste in North Beach.
Coppola worked as a director for hire in part to pay his debts, and compared the experience of taking on projects for financial reasons to being a prostitute.
“You have to find something about the client you like,” he joked. In the case of 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married, he was able to find a connection to the story after taking in a performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
“Art without risk is like a baby without sex.”
Coppola offered this observation in discussing live cinema, the act of making a movie in real-time, where the edits are done as the camera rolls. He recently conducted two experiments with live cinema — one at Oklahoma City Community College and another at UCLA — involving dozens of students, subtitles, a baby, and even a goat. His book, Live Cinema and Its Techniques, is an account of what he learned from the process.
Coppola is open to the role virtual-reality may play in cinema’s future.
Answering a question from an audience member, Coppola said he was willing to see what the medium might bring to cinema, reflecting that film is only 100 years old and marked by countless efforts to experiment. However, he also noted that while wearing a headset and turning to your right to see a staircase was impressive, who comes down that staircase is still the most important element: “Writing and acting are the oxygen and hydrogen that makes the water of film.”