SEATTLE — Francis Ford Coppola, at 70, is back where he started.
The legendary filmmaker has watched his career rise and fall over the past four decades, from the awards and acclaim for “The Godfather” to the disappointment of “One from the Heart,” to the long eight years following his troubled last studio project, 1997’s “The Rainmaker.” So, during that fallow period, he looked back to his early years.
“As a younger person, I wanted to make films that I would write from original stories, subject matters that I was interested in or that I thought I could learn from,” he said, in town last week to present a new film at the Seattle International Film Festival. “In that eight years that I wasn’t making films, I was trying to write and develop projects but didn’t quite know who to go to for sponsorship. I just didn’t know where I could fit in. It was only after those eight years, I said, well, I seem to be making a lot of money in other businesses, why don’t I just finance my own films, take advantage of the wonderful things I learned as a Roger Corman (low-budget indie filmmaker) assistant, just use that method of filmmaking but for more ambitious personal screenplays.”
And so began what Coppola calls his second career, with the fantasy “Youth Without Youth” in 2007, and now “Tetro,” which screened at SIFF with Coppola and his young star Alden Ehrenreich present. Written, directed and produced by Coppola (and distributed by his company American Zoetrope), it’s the story of two brothers in an Italian-American family who struggle to reconcile their troubled past and present. He describes it as a personal film, yet not autobiographical.
“I’m really pleased because ‘Tetro’ is being received as I intended it, an emotional film,” he said. “In order to write something that can be emotional and heart-wrenching, I had to think, what makes me emotional? To do that, I had to go back to my own memories of my family, because that’s where all emotion begins — you learn how to love, you learn how to have your feelings hurt, all in those early years.”
He said much of what’s in the film is true to his life, but not literally. “My father wasn’t like that character, my brother isn’t like that character. But you take a framework of a story that serves your purpose, and then the flesh on it comes from your memories and it’s true. I think all writers do that.”
Cheerfully dabbing away stains on his shirt from a “very good” lunch, Coppola was relaxed and friendly during the interview, frequently offering advice to Ehrenreich, to whom the rush of a day of press interviews is still new. The young actor, who makes his screen debut with “Tetro,” is — to Coppola’s approval — taking his time choosing a follow-up role, and is currently a student at New York University.
Making his first film with Coppola, Ehrenreich said, was “a dream.” He told stories of the improvisations Coppola would lead the actors through before filming, including a masquerade ball that Ehrenreich’s character attended as Ernest Hemingway and Vincent Gallo (who plays the other brother) attended as his character’s mother and father, simultaneously.
Coppola’s eager to get on with making more films; he’s got another screenplay under way (he won’t describe it other than saying that it’s another personal film, one “unlike I’ve had the chance to do before”) and looks forward to diving into it once the rush of publicity for “Tetro” is through.
“My whole thing is that films are meant to be diverse,” he said. “They can entertain you, they can teach you, they can break your heart, they can put your heart back together. They’re just a magical medium.”