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It’s been 10 years since the great Francis Ford Coppola made a movie, 10 years since we’ve read stories about him battling the elements, the studios, the banks, his actors and himself as he finished another project, almost always against long odds.

But don’t think that the director of “The Godfather” movies and “Apocalypse Now” was out of practice, just because he was running his acclaimed winery, his literary magazine or opening luxury resorts in Belize and Guatemala.

cover art

Youth Without Youth

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: 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)

Review [4.Jun.2008]
Review [18.Dec.2007]

“It’s all show business,” he says. “Whether it’s building a resort, launching a new wine or winery or making a movie. A wine is much more than a beverage and a bottle with a label on it. It’s a story, a history, a myth ... At a resort, you’re serving an audience. You’re conscious of their pleasure, how they react to your show.

“So was I out of practice putting on a show, making a thousand decisions a day, which is what a director does? No.”

But if there’s a message to his “comeback” film, the intimate and self-financed drama “Youth Without Youth,” he was somewhat “over” the whole Hollywood style of filmmaking, the big-budget “event” movies that made him rich and famous. Coppola, 68, has been making “retirement” noises since at least the late 1980s, according to Michael Schumacher, his biographer.

Documentary filmmaker Stephen Earnhart (“Mule Skinner Blues”) recalled crashing a 2001 party for some Coppola family business just to be near the legendary director, only to hear him regale one and all, “I’m finished,” over and over again.

“I’d made movies, back to back to back, just to pay down my debts,” Coppla says of a 1990s run that included the underrated John Grisham adaptation “The Rainmaker,” but also the critically derided “Jack” and a splashy version of “Dracula.”

“I lost a lot of my swagger doing that,” he says.

That swagger once made Coppola legendary, especially among aspiring filmmakers. Here was a creative force, a perpetual rebel, fighting the Hollywood system, risking everything including his own health and fortune, to get his movies made.

Today, film students see him as “a classic filmmaker, not someone particularly relevant now,” says Barry Sandler, who teaches screen writing at the University of Central Florida.

Sandler’s UCF Film School colleague Rich Grula agrees, noting that students today “don’t really understand the maverick part of Coppola. To most of them, he’s as much a part of the establishment as Michael Bay.”

Younger and aspiring filmmakers today grew up in the years of Coppola’s work-for-hire, get-out-of-debt films. He escaped that debt. And something about his last film (“The Rainmaker”) reminded him of why he became a “maverick” in the first place. He wanted to cast an actor he considers “one of the three greatest actors of his generation” for the lead. He couldn’t.

“They said, `No, you can’t use Johnny Depp in it. He’s not a big enough star,’” Coppola recalls of that 1997 film. “I’ll never forget the expression on Johnny’s face when I had to tell him that. A great actor, and now he’s a huge star. But when I said, `Listen, they absolutely forbid me to cast you in this,’ he said, `But we thought you were a god!’”

Coppola lets out a rueful laugh.

“A lot of people think that being a name director, you do absolutely what you want to do and only what you want to do. Maybe Steven Spielberg’s earned that right with his extraordinary career. But he would be the only one who has that type of power.”

Hollywood, Coppola could see, wanted “name” directors to do “sure-fire projects that you can’t lose money on,” he says. “That rules out drama, which is what I do. Sequels, superhero comic book, outrageous comedies. I’m not known for that.”

He had spent years trying to wrestle a science fiction film about a Utopian New York of the future, “Megalopolis,” “but I said, `Even if I lick this, who’s going to finance it? Am I going to have to go back to begging actors again?’”

The filmmaker who attached “Francis Ford Coppola Presents” to everything from films to wines and vacations decided instead to become “a personal film director, making the sorts of movies I wanted to make when I was 18, seeing all those great personal films coming from Italy, Japan and Sweden. When I read this (Mircea Eliade) story I enjoyed it so much, it was so full of ideas and yet a very simple fable about an old man who becomes young again, that I said `I’m going to do what the character does. I’m going off and starting over. I’m going to become a student film director again.’

“Went off to Romania, used my own money to film it. Why not?”

“Youth Without Youth” is an allegorical tale of an old man of letters (Tim Roth) in 1938 Bucharest who is struck by lightning, which causes him to become young again. He recaptures the great love of his youth but finds that he must make the same hard choices, between love and his life’s work (the origins of human language). Even with the wisdom of age, those choices are not any easier.

“Youth” is a film Coppola has spent the past few months finessing in the press, lowering expectations, because “not everything about it you’ll understand in one sitting.” Early reviews have been deferential to his legend, if not to the modestly-budgeted film, with most reviews echoing Glenn Whipp of the L.A. Daily News: “Too passionately well-crafted in places to dismiss outright.”

It’s still “a renaissance, for me,” Coppola says. He has his next modest-budget production lined up, a drama called “Tetro” that he’ll shoot in Argentina later this year. And the reputation won’t suffer, even with the occasional ambitious late-career misstep. He’s still “putting on a show,” something very much evident in the documentary about making “Youth Without Youth,” a special feature on the new DVD release of the 1980s documentary “Hearts of Darkness,” about his epic struggles making “Apocalypse Now.”

“I looked at my wife’s final cut (Eleanor Coppola films him on the sets of his movies) of that new documentary, and I say, `It’s too boring. Here we are, going through hell in the Philippines making `Apocalypse,’ and you follow that with a film with us sitting on the set in Romania, talking about the meaning of life, singing.’”

The eternal showman knew how to fix that.

“They went back and stuck in this bit about me having a tantrum about wasting money on all these extra Romanian trucks on the set that we didn’t need and I’m paying rent on. Not totally on the level, but after all the drama it took to make my other movies, well, they needed something ...”

He laughs. His reputation for excess, for “bigness,” precedes him, even if he’s not the same Francis Ford Coppola he once was.

“I go to places like Romania, and I have to apologize to the crew people there, because they think I’m making something much bigger than the film we’re shooting, simply because of what I’ve done in the past,” he says. “I love that people love `The Godfather.’ But do I need permission to do these smaller, more personal things? I don’t think so.

“It’s all part of the show, really. From now on, if this movie or that one doesn’t entertain enough people, isn’t a hit, I’m the one solely responsible. It’s my money. But look at it this way. Every time you buy a ticket, or you’re staying at one of my resorts, buying a bottle of my wine, you’re signing on as my producer. I like that.”

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