Francis Ford Coppola, director of classics, blockbusters, oddities and misfires, has returned to the screen with a metaphysical mystery. Weary of the cumbersome machinery of American feature films, Coppola shot “Youth Without Youth” as if it were a student project.
He financed the project himself on a frugal budget, created a mobile “studio” in a Dodge van and shot the story on location in Romania. The story, concerning an elderly professor who returns to vigorous youth after a lightning strike, became for Coppola a return to the guerrilla filmmaking tactics of his early years.
Youth Without Youth
Tim Roth, Matt Damon, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, André Hennicke
(American Zoetrope; US theatrical: 14 Dec 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 14 Dec 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
In a recent interview the legendary filmmaker, 68, discussed his abandoned dream project, the sci-fi epic “Megalopolis,” the architecture of the brain, the importance of honoring one’s instincts and how a film about rejuvenation rejuvenated him.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, metaphorically speaking?
I think when I read the story, and it broke the lock I was in, feeling I couldn’t give up on “Megalopolis” (a film about utopia in which New York City is a major character). I was trying to make this big movie and I was having trouble, but I have a never-say-die attitude.
When I read (the novella “Youth Without Youth”) I was struck with the parallels of a man getting older and kind of being despondent about his lost love, getting this second chance. I thought, well, I could become a young filmmaker again. I could go make films like Bergman did, go to my island with my friends or be like Godard and go into the streets.
In other words, why do I have this unrelenting, uncompromising conviction that I have to make this $80 million “Megalopolis” film, when it’s not going well and the world is changing and New York is changing and studios don’t want to make unusual films anymore? I’ll just run off with this Romanian film. So it was like being hit by lightning. I was turned into this kind of student filmmaker.
What are you trying to achieve in this film?
I’m trying to make a story on film as fascinating as the story I read. That told a fable, that would be enjoyable and intriguing, touching and beautiful, but at the same time I want people, if they wish, to ruminate about some of the other philosophical layers and think about them as how they apply to their own life. What is reality? What is consciousness? What is the difference between dreams and reality, you know? What would you do if you had a chance to live your life over again?
It would be a rare movie that would attempt to grasp any one of those themes, and you’ve taken on a good half dozen.
Every time I came on something and thought, “Well, should I dumb it down or eliminate that?” I thought, “Oh, that’s such an interesting idea. Why not, not dumb it down, but make it so that later you could think about it.” I just was reluctant to lose what I thought were really interesting or beautiful things in the story.
The film touches on very deep and wide-ranging philosophical themes. What ideas would you hope viewers bear in mind as they watch it?
We think of things in terms of light and dark, male and female, spirit and matter, up and down. But other philosophies say that those things are not quite so. Existence is more marvelous and more miraculous than something so cut and dried. And even people who are doomed to get up in the morning and go to a job they’re not so nuts about could benefit from realizing there’s more to reality than it seems. Perhaps that might give them inspiration to make their lives more fulfilling.
We have some gifts that allow us to peer around corners as it were, like art and intuition. The inspiration of human beings painting paintings, writing books, making films is a little bit of a radar to let us go beyond that limitation of seeing things in such a practical way.
I imagine when a person is living a creative life successfully, he’s having a whole succession of little lightning strikes every day.
Yeah, once you open up your head to what all the possibilities might be. You don’t have to be a movie director; you could be a car salesman. You might get more out of life. That’s ultimately what art is trying to do.
We’re trying to illuminate contemporary life. We’re trying to open up people’s eyes. Advertising and commercial movies are telling you, “Close your eyes and spend your money.” But art wants you to open your eyes and lead a fulfilling life.
Your protagonist gets a second chance at life, re-entering his 40s with the wisdom of a 70-year-old man. If you could speak to the Coppola of 30 years ago, between “Godfather II” and “Apocalypse Now,” what would you want to tell him? What did he need to know that he didn’t know?
Trust your personal instincts, trust your feelings and don’t be afraid of risk because you’re going to die anyway. The one risk that you don’t want to take is that when you die you say, “Oh, I wish I had done this and I wish I had done that.” Do it all because that’s what life is for. The things you’re fired over when you’re young are the same things that they later give you lifetime achievement awards for. So trust your intuition.