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SFIFF52: Founder’s Directing Award: An Evening with Francis Ford Coppola & Friends
by Mel Valentin

As part of the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival, San Francisco’s Castro Theatre hosted the Founder’s Directing Award. Every year, the San Francisco Film Festival awards this award to a director for his (so far only men have received the award) contributions to world cinema. Past winners include Akira Kurosawa, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, and Mike Leigh. This year, the San Francisco Film Festival gave the award to Bay Area native Francis Ford Coppola ("Dracula," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Rumblefish," "The Outsiders," "One From the Heart," "Apocalypse Now," "Godfather I-III," "The Conversation"). Festival director Graham Leggett’s introduction segued into the trailer for Coppola’s latest film, "Tetro." Coppola self-financed "Tetro," a character drama centered on two Argentinean brothers. Coppola shot "Tetro" in black-and-white (with the occasional splash of brilliant color, echoing a technique he used on "Rumblefish" twenty-six years ago.

Walter Murch, Matthew Robbins (Mimic, batteries not included, Dragonslayer, Corvette Summer), Carroll Ballard (Duma, Fly Away Home, Wind, The Black Stallion), and George Lucas (the Star Wars franchise, American Graffiti, THX-1138) were on hand to help Coppola celebrate his award. David Darcy, Screen International film critic and the former host of a radio program on NPR moderated the conversation.

Darcy’s opened the discussion with a question about Coppola’s earlier career as a screenwriter (he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Patton in 1970). Coppola’s famous opening of Patton addressing the troops in front of an enormous American flag was lost on Patton’s producers. He was relieved of screenwriting duties and moved on to other projects. Several years later, Coppola’s screenplay was film unchanged. The Patton story, the first of many, highlighted the difficulties screenwriters have often had in Hollywood.

Coppola’s dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s filmmaking environment led him to start up American Zoetrope in San Francisco with, among others, George Lucas. Coppola mentored the younger Lucas, constantly pushing him to write. The road to directing for Coppola led through screenwriting, something Lucas admitted he didn’t have an affinity for. Lucas eventually expanded his student thesis project, THX-1138 into a feature film with Walter Murch, best known as a visual editor and sound designer, as his screenwriting partner.

With American Zoetrope foundering (both Coppola’s The Rain People and Lucas’ THX-1138 were commercially unsuccessful), it was Lucas who pushed Coppola to write and direct The Godfather, the first of what Coppola considers a non-personal film. Hired before Mario Puzo’s novel became an international bestseller, Coppola threw himself into adapting The Godfather. Coppola’s difficulty in hiring Al Pacino (a relatively unknown New York and “too short” by producer Robert Evans’ estimation) and Marlon Brando (then considered box office poison, almost always considered a difficult actor).

If there was any thread or theme to the discussion, it’s in the considerable financial and artistic risks Coppola took as a filmmaker. Whether it was fighting studio executives to retain his intro to the Patton screenplay, fighting Robert Evans to hire Pacino and Brando (he went over Evans’ head and presented the CEO of Gulf & Western with a videotape of Brando’s screen test, a fireable offense in most circumstances), starting up his production company in Northern California rather than in Los Angeles, or filming Apocalypse Now in the Philippines without a finished script, a recalcitrant star (Brando again), and shooting millions of feet of film, Coppola has taken sizable professional and personal risks. But with risks come rewards, sometimes critically, sometimes commercially, occasionally both.

The evening closed with a screening of The Rain People, the post-[Finian’s Rainbow, pre-Godfather film Coppola considers one of his most personal and, thus, one of his favorites (the “Search” function will take you to the full review).

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originally posted: 05/03/09 09:17:27
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