Francis Ford Coppola, whose Zoetrope studio lost $35 million last year, most of it as the result of his $23-million Las Vegas fantasy "One From the Heart," says he is relatively free of money problems for the moment.
"I've lost the opportunity to go further into debt. I'm so broke nobody will loan me any more money."
The ebullient Coppola has been under the gun before, and as usual he has no intention of stopping shooting. He has just finished "The Outsiders," a story about midwestern class warfare in the 1960s set in Tulsa, Okla. In a few weeks he will begin filming a second project there, "Rumblefish," which he describes as "an art film for kids, shot in black and white."
With Zoetrope, his 8.6-acre Los Angeles studio, put up for sale at an asking price of $20 million, Coppola says "the Hollywood era is for me temporarily over. If the show can't go on there, it'll just move someplace else." The Coppola show has already given us "The Godfather" diptych, "The Conversation," "Apocalypse Now" and "The Black Stallion," among others.
As an artist known for pursuing his vision through a blur of debts, missed deadlines and close critical attention, he seems delightfully unfazed by the current rigors of financing.
"Sure, you get a little squeezed sometimes," he explained, pressing his thumbs down on a can of root beer in demonstration. "I owe the Chase Manhattan Bank a lot of money, but of course it's all under the name of this company and that company, because you never make yourself personally liable.
"I went to Chase and I said, 'look, I'll take on the debts personally if you'll just stop the interest for the next year and a half. Let me get back on my feet, let me catch up.' And they went for that."
So the bottom line is not too bad?
"All it means is that I've gotta make $40 million next year," Coppola replied.
"Look, my history has always been one of expansion and contraction. One of the things I learned was that it's possible to get to be too big. So now, for a couple of years, we'll be smaller." Pause. "Then we'll probably get bigger again."
Many of the expenses for "One From the Heart," Coppola said, resulted from his new technique in filmmaking, which uses computer technology to help him visualize various treatments of the same story.
As the star attraction Thursday night at the American Film Institute's National Video Festival, he showed a film illustrating his method. He has designed a computer capable of storing various elements of film composition--such as artists' sketches of scenes, Polaroid snapshots of scenes, dialogue, videotaped rehearsal footage, location background, thematic music--so that the director, after dreaming up a story sequence on paper, can "see" a rough form of his conception within hours.
"The whole idea is to be able to make movies cheaper, and in a shorter amount of time," Coppola said. He then ordered his demonstration film turned off, complaining that "it goes on forever."
Like many artists, Coppola seems to contradict himself from time to time. For example, "One From the Heart," a testing vehicle for his new method, came out far over budget. And although critics admired its technology, they found its story--a musical fantasy about a junkyard owner--to be unsatisfying.
"Whatever was wrong with 'One From the Heart' you can't blame on the method," Coppola said. "That's a whole different story."
Meanwhile, he pulled the movie from theaters himself. "If people don't like it now, maybe they'll like it in a couple of years," he said. "I would rather let it come into its own, later on."
Coppola, who describes himself as "a kid who was always trying to make an electric motor out of a tuna fish can," says the impetus for a new technology of moviemaking derives from a belief that movie "content" is currently moribund.
"There are no new stories to tell without a whole new vision of content," he said. "We have to plunge into a new definition of what film is, and can be. That's what I mean when I say technology is more interesting to me right now than story.
"The range of the current movies is very narrow. You've got a space opera, a horror exploitation movie, maybe a screwball comedy out there. In the old days, there were nine or 10 different kinds of stories. But because of marketing strategies, and because films are so expensive to make, we're stuck with only a tiny spectrum of the possible."
With his new, cheaper, streamlined, candy-colored moviemaking machine, Coppola ultimately hopes to "discover a new content."
Meanwhile, he is reading Plato's "Republic" and making "Rumblefish" in Tulsa.
"It's not the individual film that matters," he says, "it's the flow of films--the 10 or 20 films that I can make. I don't understand why people get so upset over just one. After all, you always learn something."