Some lucky people will be considered wunderkinds until the day they die. Francis Ford Coppola is one of them. Or three of them. He is riding the fast lane in a wind tunnel, he seems happiest with more than one tiger by more than one tail, and he is talking and complaining and moving and making motion pictures as quickly as he can. He's a misunderstood genius, but then, geniuses should expect to be misunderstood.

The roly-poly fuzzybear who made what may have been the two best movies of the '70s, "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II," always seems to be taking on the whole wide world, a world that may not be so whole or so wide but that is always looking for a fight. Coppola arrived here in an entourage radiating fuss yesterday to speak at the National Press Club; launch the Kennedy Center engagement of the historic 1927 silent film "Napoleon," which Coppola helped reconstruct, and promote his own latest movie, "One From the Heart," which has leaped out of the starting gate kicking up lots of noise.

"I feel that I'm an object of both faith and scorn," Coppola says. "I don't know to what extent, but I do feel I am not understood by my critics, that they can't believe that I could really be what I am. And so they choose to make me what they can accept, which is something of a charlatan." His least understood qualities? "My sincerity. And, maybe, my innocence."

Everywhere he goes, there is hurly-burly; it only figures that he would miss the 9 a.m. shuttle from New York and arrive in a blur, and that the notes to his speech would get all mixed up so that when it was over he would keep asking aides, "Did I talk too long? Did I make sense? Did I remember to mention Central America?"

Yes, Francis, you mentioned it. Yes, yes, yes.

"One From the Heart" is a fantasy musical set in Las Vegas, which is a 45-minute plane ride from L.A. but which Coppola chose to reconstruct in fervid artificiality on the sound stages of his Zoetrope Studios in a dingy gray corner of Los Angeles; through those gates may pass the best ideas in modern moviemaking. But the big industry news in Hollywood a few weeks ago was how Coppola had transplanted his own "Heart," surprising Paramount, the distributor, with a suddenly announced public screening of the film at Radio City Music Hall in New York even before it was shown to exhibitors or critics.

Naturally the showings were sell-out smashes, and new layers of lacquer were added to The Legend of Francis Ford Coppola.

"The real issue there is that Paramount and the major companies sometimes feel that when they invest money in something, they have this incredible proprietary control, and yet they don't appreciate that when another individual invests money, such as myself, why should I not have the same degree of control?" Coppola says he "fired" Paramount as the film's distributor before announcing the Music Hall showings.

No one at Paramount knew about the "public preview" until it was announced in print. "I didn't want to tell anybody," says Coppola. "It was my film, and I did it." Barry Diller, the president of Paramount, "got so embarrassed by this slap in the face" that all of Paramount's ties with the film were severed. "Immediately," claims Coppola, "five companies started bidding and we made a much better deal than we had with Paramount. The whole thing is of absolutely no importance to me because 'One From the Heart' will be looked at 30 years from now when no one even knows who Barry Diller is. I think he's a nice man sometimes, and a very intelligent man, but he played it wrong."

All this drama is nothing compared with the making of the $24 million film, a cliffhanger right out of early Griffith. Coppola kept running out of money and invoking images of the mustachioed landlord at the door with a foreclosure notice in his hand. Crew members worked three days without pay, two weeks at half salary, and it still looked like production might shut down last summer, until an oil millionaire sprang forward with another eight million smackers. The picture was known in Hollywood as "One From the Bank."

It's hard to imagine a shinier reputation than Coppola's, both artistically and in terms of returning profits. "Apocalypse Now," sometimes spoken of as a failure, grossed $120 million worldwide, Coppola says. Why is it so hard then for this dynamo to get financing for his films? Because, a crony says, Coppola refuses to relinquish control of his work. He could get loads of money by snapping his fingers if he also agreed to let what he calls "the Harvard Business School Boys" have final say over his movies.

Coppola had disparaging words to say at the Press Club about the movie industry (and with Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti sitting right there, too); he said it was like early television -- initially brave and riddled with risk-takers, then commandeered by crass mercantile interests. But Coppola also expressed faith that Hollywood, fueled by new generations of talent, will thrive. He said the movie business was like the Italian government; doom is perennially predicted for it, yet it keeps pulling itself back together.

And he does inspire such a rare order of sheer belief. When things looked bleakest during production of "Heart," fans from around the country started sending Coppola money (which he later returned); others held bake sales, and at the University of Southern California there were five showings of Coppola's "Apocalypse" that raised $5,000, which was contributed to Coppola and returned by him to the film school. The man has been doing cartwheels on the ice floes for so long that one suspects he loves it, that he feels most at home on The Brink.

"I enjoy living on the brink of ideas," he corrects. "And of the excitement of what we would like to do, and that often brings you to the brink financially because you're not covering your flanks. I only live on the brink because if I didn't live on the brink then I would just have to make 'Godfather III.' At one point, as you get older, you realize sort of that it brings you down; you say, 'Hey, why am I doing this?' For five years I haven't been able to lay my hands on a thousand dollars in cash and yet I'm probably worth $50 million."

Thus he was glad to do the Press Club gig because, he says, his parents were there, and this gave him a chance to make a good impression. "I had this idea of what the Press Club should be like: Your parents should see you with a tie on. Instead of . . . they think I'm always on the brink of bankruptcy. They don't understand that although I'm on the brink of bankruptcy, for a person like me, there is no such thing as bankruptcy, because the next day I would be in business again."

Coppola wowed the crowd at the Press Club with the socko impression of Marlon Brando he'd done the night before on David Letterman's TV show, and with lofty broadsides against that old devil cynicism and bold predictions about the future of movies and a few zingers directed at "some" critics, but when it was all over, he quietly (for him) revealed his endearing ingenuous streak when he said, "I really tried to be sort of grown-up and give, you know, an adult talk on things that I care about." And then asked, almost like a kid might ask (he loves kids and has three himself), "Washington -- I would be interested just to know what it's like. I can't imagine what these people are like.

"Is it like Hollywood?"

Whiz-Bang Technology

A visitor to Zoetrope Studios in the summer of 1981 would have found, in fact, did find, a worshipful community that had to bring to mind the colony of souls that surrounded the deranged Kurtz in Coppola's own "Apocalypse Now." Whomever you talked to, it was "Francis says this" and "Francis believes that." So, where is this Francis, this Wizard of Oz? He is sitting in a big silver Airstream trailer directing his movie on video monitors and tape equipment.

"He's fantastic; he's the hardest working person on the lot," says Tom Brown, the brilliant young technician who helped Coppola design the $1 million video system that both think will revolutionize the way movies are made (with much of the preliminary editing done on tape, not film).

On the sound stage, Nastassia Kinski is supposed to have just finished walking a tightwire and Frederic Forrest is waiting for her to slide down another wire into his arms. The Voice of Francis is heard from on high -- actually from the trailer, piped in by loudspeakers, and all of this watched by video cameras and the Panavision camera as well.

Upstairs, Brown is conducting a tour of the War Room, which was once Harold Lloyd's handball court, he says, but now is the chamber where Coppola organized the movie into electronic storyboards stored on video discs and all manner of new paraphernalia, much of it contributed by Sony so that Coppola can help perfect it. "What this electronic room up here is, is a scratch pad that Francis can write on," Brown studiously explains. "He writes in video, because you can save your tapes and erase them and, whatever."

Doesn't this mean a movie director is going to have to also be a scientist? Brown treats the suggestion as heresy, at least as it applies to St. Francis of the Silver Trailer. "He's not a scientist. He's just not intimidated by technology."

Much later, Coppola, sitting upstairs at the Press Club, says, "Technology always touches art," but declines to discuss specifics of the new video system because he doesn't think his listener knows enough to be able to understand him. "It's hard to talk to you about it when I don't know if you understand exactly what I'm trying to do. What I'm trying to do is very fundamental. It has to do with making a film in a kind of spatial way, where the electronics can conjure up the movie you're imagining, and then always working in a spatial way, working, working, like clay modeling almost, or 24-track, pulling up all these levels into finally holding the movie.

"It's the difference between a tapestry and a brick wall.

"Also, I won the geometry medal and I failed algebra in school, so my brain works that way. I'm inventing an instrument that I can play, 'cause my brain is very limited in that kind of linear way."

However, one film critic, in a review of "One From the Heart," has suggested that the monster has taken over Frankenstein rather than the other way around; Pauline Kael in The New Yorker said it looked as though Coppola had gone ga-ga over technology.

Funny we should mention Pauline Kael.

"I went ga-ga with technology when I was 9," huffs Coppola. "I had an electric train and you could do something over here and something over there would happen. Now it's, you do something in Washington and something in Leningrad can happen." Huh? "What I'm doing will continue to be clear and make sense as the years go by."

Now on to Ms. Kael. "Pauline is one of those critics who, when they give you a really wonderful review, they almost feel that they've made you, and then when they request to see your unfinished film and you say, 'We are not showing it,' or do not invite her in an intimate way into your life, she chooses to unmake you. And Pauline Kael cannot unmake me!" Wait, wait -- did Kael actually call up and ask to see the unfinished "Heart" and then get miffed? "Uh, I can't say in those terms . . . this is kind of personal stuff," Coppola says, and then he goes on, "There's a reason why Pauline liked 'The Godfather' so much. 'Cause she's into power."

Dance of Death

Carmine Coppola, father of Francis and the composer-conductor of the new score for Abel Gance's "Napoleon," said in an L.A. interview that his son only made "The Godfather" because dad insisted. Francis Coppola says no, it was George "Star Wars" Lucas who talked him into it. "He kept saying, 'Francis, we can't pay the bills! We can't get the film stock out of the lab! Go do the movie, make some money so we can keep going!' " Lucas is a pragmatist, Coppola says, whereas, "I am too romantic."

Early this year, Paramount Home Video released yet another version of "The Godfather," this one on three tapes (total running time: more than six hours) dubbed "The Godfather Saga." Essentially it is the chronological rearrangement that Coppola did for NBC TV, with the violence and sex put back in. It can be watched in one sitting, like a great opera, and it holds up; it is unflaggingly compelling. Coppola the Tightwire Walker, the Brinksman extraordinaire, is, we may sometimes forget, one of the great filmmakers of his generation.

But with all these versions of "The Godfather" around, it's hard to say which is the definitive one. "There is no definitive version!" Coppola exclaims. "Why do people wish for there to be a definitive version?"

One would think that if a man made just "The Godfather," not to mention "Part II," then that would be his ticket for life, that he would be able to do anything he wanted, and get all the financial backing he wanted, for the rest of his life, but Coppola says this is not the case, and that is why he is always in financial peril. He says Federico Fellini is having trouble getting backing for his movies, too.

"If someone goes into a museum, and takes a knife and slashes some dumbbell 18th-century picture," says the blunt Coppola, "everyone has a fit. Yet a master, alive, can't get financing, and nobody cares! So that's a curious mentality.

"The wrong people are running the world, is the only conclusion I can come to."

At Zoetrope last summer, Coppola was surrounded not with sycophants but with children, kids who came over, 30 a day, from the nearby Bancroft Junior High School to be apprentices in moviemaking. For Coppola this was one from his own great big meatball of a heart.

"When I bought the studio, and one day came out of the studio, I saw this junior high school, Bancroft, nearby," he explains. "Well, I went there for about four months when I was 13 or 14 and living with my dad. I was one of those kind of lonely, tacky kids because I didn't have the social graces to make friends, and I was never in any place longer than a few months.

"So I used to walk up to Santa Monica Boulevard and peek in the gates of this movie studio, because I wanted to go in. And when I learned that that was the studio I had just bought -- and not only that, but that was the studio where 'The Thief of Bagdad,' which is my favorite movie, was made -- it was kind of like this, you know, this realization, and I said, 'Let's go to Bancroft and talk to students about it.' "

Although "Bagdad" was a British film (the fabulous color Korda version, with Sabu), filming was interrupted in England by the war, Coppola says, and that is why the picture was completed at Hollywood General, now Zoetrope. The prince of the modern American movie dynasty is asked if there are any artifacts from the film still lying around. He says he hasn't found any yet and then, with the wistfulness of an awe-struck kid, he says, "Imagine finding the All-Seeing Eye!"

In Hollywood, Brown talked about the wonder and mystery of Francis Ford Coppola and his dance of death at the brink of disaster. "If you put a little historical perspective on it, you'll see that every time Francis has done a project, that he's run into the same thing. It's not part of his personality as much as it is the lack of insight by the people that are outside of him.

"When he was making 'The Godfather,' he was constantly in danger of being fired. He was bringing in Dean Tavoularis to be the art director and Gordon Willis to do the photography, and this was supposed to be a cheap exploitation movie. He was constantly in danger of being fired all through the production and then, he finally completes the film, and he hands them the finished movie and -- it's a masterpiece."