#242 Francis Ford Coppola A Filmmakers Life

Summary Notes


In the American Film Institute's celebration of a century of filmmaking, Francis Ford Coppola's influence on the industry was highlighted with five of his films making the list of the 100 greatest movies, all from the 1970s—a testament to his peak creative period. However, Michael Schumacher's biography "Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life" delves into the complexities of Coppola's career, exploring the contrast between his early successes and later struggles. The book examines Coppola's messy and very human experiences, including his financial woes, the tragic death of his son, and his eventual philosophical acceptance of both his failures and successes. Coppola's story is one of relentless resourcefulness and boldness, yet also a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive leverage and lack of financial discipline. Ultimately, despite the tumult, Coppola's legacy endures as one of cinema's most fascinating figures, whose life lessons continue to resonate.

Summary Notes

AFI's 100 Greatest Movies and Coppola's Influence

  • The American Film Institute announced a list of the 100 greatest movies ever made, celebrating a century of American filmmaking.
  • Francis Ford Coppola was involved in five of the films listed, all made in the 1970s.
  • This period was when Coppola was at the pinnacle of his abilities, exerting a significant influence on filmmaking.
  • Coppola himself admits that his later works in the 1980s and 1990s do not deserve to be on the list.

"Each of the movies had been made in the 1970s, at a time when, when Coppola was young and hungry and at the pinnacle of his abilities and powers." The quote emphasizes the peak of Coppola's career during the 1970s and his significant influence on the film industry during that time.

Coppola's Career Decline and Personal Challenges

  • The decline in Coppola's career raises questions about the reasons behind it.
  • Speculations include whether Coppola exhausted his artistic energy in the 70s, was overrated, or if personal and financial troubles influenced his shift towards safer projects.
  • Coppola's son's death and the rebuilding of his empire may have also led to changes in his priorities and complacency.

"Did he expend all of his artistic energy during the 70s? Was he overrated as a filmmaker?" The quote reflects the uncertainties and speculations regarding the reasons behind the changes in Coppola's career trajectory after the 1970s.

Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life by Michael Schumacher

  • The biography "Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's Life" by Michael Schumacher is an extensive, 500-page book.
  • It provides insights into Coppola's personal life and career, highlighting his human and messy journey.
  • The biography explores the complexities of Coppola's character and the lack of clear-cut answers to the questions about his career.

"This was an absolute fantastic book. It's a giant book, almost 500 pages." The quote indicates the comprehensive nature of Schumacher's biography on Coppola, which Speaker A found to be a fantastic read.

Coppola's Early Influences and Family Background

  • Coppola's father, Carmine, had ambivalent feelings about success, mirroring the challenges Francis would later face.
  • Carmine's struggle between financial security and artistic aspirations significantly impacted Francis's career choices.
  • The Coppola family's immigrant background and the American Dream played a role in shaping their values and ambitions.

"Carmine harbored ambivalent feelings about success, similar to the ones that his son would confront many years later as a filmmaker." The quote connects the father's struggles and perspectives on success with the challenges faced by Francis Ford Coppola in his filmmaking career.

The Impact of Coppola's Father on His Career

  • Francis Ford Coppola's approach to work and his intense work ethic may have been driven by a desire to succeed where his father could not.
  • Carmine's bitterness and resentment towards more successful peers had a profound effect on Francis.
  • Francis's decision to hire his father for movie scores, such as for "Godfather II", was a significant moment for both of them.

"This is Francis talking about this time after I'd spent a lifetime with a frustrated and often unemployed man who hated anybody who was successful, to see him get an Oscar, it added 20 years to his lifetime." The quote reflects on the transformative impact that Francis Ford Coppola's success had on his father Carmine's life, particularly when Carmine won an Oscar for his work on "Godfather II".

Coppola's Education and Early Ambitions

  • Coppola was bright, energetic, and ambitious during his college years at Hofstra.
  • He founded the Hofstra Cinema Workshop and was greatly influenced by the films of Sergey Eisenstein.
  • Coppola's assertiveness and love for movies were evident throughout his university years.

"On Monday I was in theater. On Tuesday, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker." This quote captures the decisive moment when Coppola realized his passion for filmmaking after discovering Eisenstein's work.

Coppola's Peer Relationships and Early Recognition

  • Coppola formed friendships with like-minded individuals in college, such as Joel Olansky.
  • His peers recognized his talent and pretentiousness, predicting his future success or potential burnout.
  • Coppola's drive and ambition were acknowledged with awards and recognition, even as some questioned his methods.

"He is incredibly talented and incredibly pretentious. He doesn't know what he's doing half the time, and the other half of the time he's brilliant." The quote from Joel Olansky provides a dual perspective on Coppola's character, acknowledging both his talent and his pretentiousness.

The Emergence of a New Generation of Filmmakers

  • Coppola was part of a revolutionary group of young filmmakers who emerged from film schools in the mid-1960s.
  • This group, including George Lucas, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, and Steven Spielberg, was compared to the Paris writers of the 1920s.
  • Their collective dreams and enthusiasm in film school contributed to a significant change in the motion picture industry.

"By happy coincidence, a group of filmmakers emerged from film schools in the mid-1960s. That is the cinematic equivalent of the Paris writers groups of the 1920s." The quote draws a parallel between the influential groups of filmmakers and writers from different eras, emphasizing their impact on their respective industries.

Coppola's Resourcefulness and Breakthrough

  • Coppola displayed resourcefulness by seizing opportunities and learning on the job.
  • His first Oscar was for a screenplay, which he used as a stepping stone to directing.
  • Coppola worked with B-movie director Roger Corman, learning from his mentor and demonstrating a strong work ethic.

"Say yes first and learn later." This quote encapsulates Coppola's approach to seizing opportunities and learning through experience, a strategy that served him well in his early career.

Seizing Opportunities

  • Francis Ford Coppola was adept at seizing opportunities which set him apart from his peers.
  • He wrote an entire treatment overnight for his first feature film, "Dementia 13," showcasing his work ethic.
  • Coppola's proactive approach contrasted with others who were more passive in their career pursuits.
  • His philosophy was to take big chances with personal investments to create opportunities for himself.

"Opportunities are presented with opportunities. They dilly dally. They let them pass by. Francis did not do that." "The secret of all my getting things off the ground is that I've always taken big chances with personal investments." "Closed mouths don't get fed."

These quotes highlight Coppola's mindset of actively pursuing opportunities rather than waiting for them to come, and his belief in the importance of taking risks and speaking up to achieve success.

Strategic Approach to Filmmaking

  • Coppola's strategy involved writing scripts and directing films independently, which was a departure from the norm.
  • He gambled his personal wealth on projects he believed in, often facing financial instability.
  • His approach to gaining control in the film industry involved personal investment and risk-taking.
  • Coppola's willingness to take a bad deal initially allowed him to establish himself as a writer and director.

"I simply sat down and wrote the script." "It was all big bluff. Coppola approached the actors as if he had already had big studio financing behind him. And then he approached the studio as if he had already set up the production and was prepared to go forward with or without the studio's help."

Coppola's strategic approach to filmmaking involved presenting himself as having more resources and support than he actually did, allowing him to gain the trust of actors and studios and create momentum for his projects.

Innovation and Resourcefulness

  • Coppola reinvested profits to acquire better technology, enhancing his filmmaking capabilities.
  • He used resourcefulness and boldness to overcome budget constraints, such as incorporating an armed forces day parade into a film.
  • Coppola's crew, including George Lucas, demonstrated a startup-like mentality by being multi-skilled and taking initiative.
  • Lucas's documentary on the making of "The Rain People" exemplified the entrepreneurial spirit within Coppola's team.

"Coppola filmed and ingeniously worked that parade into the picture." "Much of the company's journey was captured on film by Lucas, who was shooting a documentary about the making of the rain people."

These quotes emphasize the innovative and resourceful methods Coppola used to create his films, often with limited resources, and the importance of having a team with a proactive and entrepreneurial mindset.

Seeking Independence and Autonomy

  • Coppola and Lucas were inspired by other independent filmmakers and sought to create a similar work environment.
  • They envisioned a studio that would allow for creative freedom and control over their projects.
  • Coppola's travels to Denmark and encounters with other independent studios influenced his vision for his own company.
  • Financial control was crucial for maintaining the desired work environment and creative independence.

"Coppola traveled to DENmark to check out LanterNA film, which was housed in a lovely mansion in a seaside town about 50 miles from Copenhagen."

This quote illustrates Coppola's exploration of other independent film studios as a model for creating his own studio, emphasizing the importance of independence and autonomy in the creative process.

Financial Management and Risk

  • Coppola's risk-taking sometimes led to financial losses, affecting his ability to create the work environment he desired.
  • He realized the importance of not risking everything and maintaining financial stability to support creative freedom.
  • Coppola's advice to George Lucas about writing to gain control over projects was pivotal in Lucas's career.
  • American Zoetrope, the company started by Coppola and Lucas, faced financial difficulties due to poor money management.

"You just have to control the money or you don't have control." "He's not going to get the decade back or the ten or 20 years back."

These quotes reflect on the lessons learned from financial mismanagement and the significance of maintaining control over finances to ensure the sustainability of creative endeavors.

The Godfather Opportunity

  • Coppola's reputation as a screenwriter led to the offer to direct "The Godfather," a turning point in his career.
  • Despite initially disliking the novel, Coppola accepted the project due to financial need.
  • "The Godfather" became a critical and commercial success, influencing Coppola's future projects.
  • The film's financial success contrasted with subsequent projects that did not perform as well, underscoring the variability in the film industry.

"Just when things seem bleakest, Coppola received a call from Paramount." "Coppola read a portion of the book and hated it."

These quotes depict the serendipitous nature of Coppola's opportunity to direct "The Godfather" and his initial reluctance to take on the project, which ultimately became one of his greatest successes.

Importance of Temperament and Self-Control

  • Vito Corleone's oldest son, Sonny, is intelligent and fearless but lacks self-control.
  • Sonny's inability to control his anger makes him predictable and leads to his downfall.
  • The film illustrates that if you can't control your emotions, others will control you.
  • Michael Corleone, in contrast, possesses the necessary discipline and intelligence.

"So it says Vito's oldest son, Santino. Sonny is an intelligent, generous, and fearless, but his hothead disposition will prohibit him from ever taking over the reins of the family business, and it's what gets him killed."

This quote highlights the consequences of lacking self-control, as seen in Sonny's character, who is ultimately killed due to his predictable reactions driven by anger.

Coppola's Decision to Direct The Godfather

  • Coppola initially resisted directing The Godfather due to financial struggles.
  • George Lucas advised Coppola to take the job because they were broke.
  • Coppola's meticulous work habits and his struggle with stress and self-doubt during filming.

"Coppola heeded the advice. He got $150,000 salary, plus 6% of the picture's net profits."

Coppola's decision to direct The Godfather was influenced by financial necessity, and despite the stress, it led to a pivotal point in his career.

Vito's Retirement and Michael's Rise

  • Vito Corleone retires and counsels Michael, knowing his decisions will change the family's dynamics.
  • Michael's character embodies the traits necessary to lead the family business.
  • Vito's teachings are crucial for Michael's success.

"Vito Corleone, which is the don at the time, formally retires as the head of the family. He counsels his son at every turn, knowing full well that Michael's plans will destroy the truths that he so carefully established a couple years earlier."

Vito's retirement and his guidance to Michael are central to the plot, showing the transfer of wisdom and power within the Corleone family.

The Power of Autobiographies and Biographies

  • Studying the lives of great individuals allows us to learn from their decisions and avoid their mistakes.
  • These stories provide counsel and inspiration, even posthumously.
  • They offer a blueprint for future generations.

"When you study the life stories of people, especially great people that came before you, you constantly are able to see, okay, they made this decision here. That was a good decision. I want to copy that."

This quote emphasizes the value of learning from the past, using the experiences of others to inform our own decisions and paths in life.

Coppola's Financial Decisions Post-Godfather

  • Coppola made both poor and wise financial decisions after The Godfather's success.
  • His investment in a Napa Valley estate proved to be his best financial decision.
  • Coppola's support for Lucas during the screening of American Graffiti demonstrates his loyalty.

"Francis said, I just read an interview with him in GQ, that he made way more money off of wine than he ever did off the movie business."

Coppola's venture into the wine industry turned out to be more profitable than his film career, showcasing the unpredictability of investments.

The Struggle of Creating Apocalypse Now

  • Coppola faced numerous challenges during the filming of Apocalypse Now.
  • The process took a toll on his mental health and personal relationships.
  • Despite difficulties, the film was a critical and financial success.

"One evening, he climbed on a lighting scaffold and lay on the platform in the rain, unable and unwilling to go on."

This quote illustrates the profound emotional and physical toll that the creation of Apocalypse Now had on Coppola, which was juxtaposed with the film's eventual success.

Coppola's Career High Watermark and Subsequent Challenges

  • Apocalypse Now marked the peak of Coppola's career in terms of acclaim and financial success.
  • The intensity of creating the film led to a near breakdown for Coppola.
  • His behavior during this period can be partially explained by his later-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

"The film had taken 238 days to shoot at a cost of about $27 million, leaving the cast and crew totally blown out from the ordeal."

This quote captures the extreme challenges faced by Coppola and his team during the production of Apocalypse Now, which despite being arduous, resulted in a masterpiece.

Personal Struggles and Artistic Challenges of Francis Ford Coppola

  • Francis Ford Coppola experienced a tumultuous period during the making of his movies.
  • His wife, Ellie, wrote a diary that evolved into a book and potentially a documentary, capturing the behind-the-scenes struggles.
  • Ellie's diary revealed her mixed feelings about her husband's success, including a desire for a simpler life.
  • Coppola had an affair during this time, which he confessed to Ellie, causing further personal turmoil.
  • The stress of filmmaking and the pursuit of blockbusters led to Coppola's manic-depressive diagnosis and financial strain.

"He broke down and told his wife about the affair. He was crying as he spoke." This quote signifies the emotional breakdown Coppola experienced when confessing his infidelity to his wife, highlighting the personal cost of his professional life.

"He had been recently diagnosed as manic depressive and given a prescription for lithium, which Francis and his wife hoped would stabilize his fluctuating moods." This quote indicates the mental health challenges Coppola faced, exacerbated by the pressures of his career.

"He's been saying this for years. They just do sequels. They do all this comic book stuff." Coppola's criticism of the film industry's focus on sequels and comic book adaptations reflects his dissatisfaction with the direction of Hollywood and his own role in creating the blockbuster culture.

The Financial and Creative Gamble of Filmmaking

  • Coppola faced financial ruin due to the high costs of his ambitious projects.
  • The release of his wife's book, "Notes," coincided with the release of "Apocalypse Now," providing an insider's perspective on the filmmaking process and its impact on their marriage.
  • Coppola's financial desperation led to a series of risky decisions, including betting his entire fortune on a new movie, "Metropolis."
  • The struggle to balance artistic vision with financial viability is a recurring theme in Coppola's career.

"He needs to get it out, because if he doesn't get out, he could be financially ruined." This quote highlights the high stakes of filmmaking for Coppola, where failure to release a movie could lead to financial disaster.

"He formally announced that he was placing the studio up for sale." The sale of Coppola's studio signifies the financial losses he incurred and the end of his dream to create an independent filmmaking empire.

"He winds up going bankrupt three times in nine years." This quote underscores the volatile nature of Coppola's financial situation, even following significant successes in his career.

Resilience and Recovery

  • Despite his financial and personal setbacks, Coppola remained determined to continue his career.
  • He took on work as a director for hire to recover financially, directing films like "The Outsiders" and "Peggy Sue Got Married."
  • Coppola's ability to bounce back from adversity is exemplified by his refusal to give up and his willingness to adapt to new circumstances.
  • The contrast between Coppola's risk-taking approach and George Lucas's conservative strategy is highlighted, demonstrating different paths to success in the film industry.

"He had to take this movie that he didn't really want to do, but winds up being a huge commercial success." Coppola's pragmatic decision to direct a film he was not passionate about due to financial necessity showcases his resilience and adaptability.

"I have to push the limits." This quote from Coppola reflects his self-awareness and acceptance of his nature as a risk-taker, even if it leads to failures.

Personal Tragedy and Its Impact

  • The death of Coppola's son, Gio, in a boating accident had a profound effect on him, leading to a reevaluation of his priorities.
  • Coppola's grief and the long-lasting impact of the tragedy are evident in his reflections on life and his work.
  • The incident underscores the human aspect of Coppola's story, beyond his professional achievements and failures.

"I realized that no matter what happened, I had lost." This quote expresses Coppola's sense of irrevocable loss following his son's death, overshadowing all other successes and failures in his life.

"It went on like that for over seven years until I could wake up." Coppola's account of his prolonged mourning period reveals the depth of his grief and its lasting effects on his well-being.

Reflections on Success and Failure

  • Coppola eventually achieved financial stability and was able to reflect on his career with a degree of philosophical acceptance.
  • He recognized the value in his failures and continued to dream of making art films and living a simpler life.
  • The journey from financial ruin to recovery and artistic freedom highlights the cyclical nature of Coppola's career and life.

"I would say in my career that my failures are among anyone's most interesting failures." Coppola's ability to find worth in his failures demonstrates his capacity for self-reflection and growth.

"It's time to rejuvenate myself." This quote signifies Coppola's readiness to step back from the industry and focus on personal rejuvenation after years of relentless work and stress.


  • The podcast concludes by encouraging listeners to read the full story in the book for a comprehensive understanding of Coppola's life and career.
  • The story of Francis Ford Coppola serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive ambition and the importance of aligning one's work with personal values and financial discipline.

"And that is where I'll leave it." The host ends the podcast with an invitation to explore Coppola's story further through the recommended book, emphasizing the depth and complexity of the filmmaker's experiences.

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