Francis Ford Coppola doesn't just absorb the identities of his movies; he carries pieces of them with him as he goes on.
He still resembles the Godfather of American moviemaking that he was after The Godfather (1972), except now he's executive-producing for his daughter Sofia or his son Roman, rather than George Lucas or Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion). He has modulated the madness that he showed during the making of his runaway Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979) into a fascination with extremes of consciousness and feeling. And he has seen the technological obsessiveness that he explored in The Conversation (1974) come to influence future generations to a degree that even he could never have predicted.
He's never lost his youthful idealism or, even more important for a moviemaker, his capacity to be excited.
"When I read Youth Without Youth, every three pages, something happened that, for me, was totally unexpected," he says over the phone from New York. "Not only does the hero get struck by lightning and live, but he has his intellect enlarged and he's able to read books just by going to bed with them. And then this double appears!"
The character that Coppola hooked onto was not the double but the man himself, Dominic Matei, an aging intellectual who gets a second chance at life. And through his identification with this poignant, complicated character, Coppola has made one of his most humanistic and personal movies.
Youth Without Youth, opening Friday in Baltimore, is an almost psychedelic narrative done in a form that mixes classical and expressionistic imagery. It's based on an elusive novella about time, human consciousness, the transmigration of souls and, most of all, love, by Romania-born writer Mircea Eliade.
As Coppola explains in the introduction to the paperback, as soon as he picked up the book, the project became inevitable. There he was, "a sixty-six-year-old man who had spent years on a screenplay that I was never able to complete to my satisfaction, reading about a man who had become seventy with the fear that he had begun to lose his powers and would never be able to complete his life's work, and who, quite amazingly, finds himself made young again."
Eliade's hero, Matei (played by Tim Roth in the film), is a professor of linguistics and religion who becomes a super-intellect after he's struck by lightning. Just as Matei lives in a universe where past and present fall into each other with a dreamlike logic and real-life density, Coppola found he was drawing on every element of his past career and life -- including fatherhood -- while reinventing himself as a youthful filmmaker.
He was following Roman and Sofia's generation into committing an act of guerrilla cinema -- just as they had followed the example he had set with films such as You're a Big Boy Now (1966) and The Rain People (1969). Roman, the second-unit director on Youth Without Youth, even made a film about his dad's generation of moviemakers -- the underrated CQ. (Sofia, of course, made The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette.) And Coppola was making it happen with digital technology and on his own dime, using money he'd made from a business empire that includes a thriving Napa Valley wine company.
In the decade since he made the adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker, Coppola had been struggling to mount an ambitious spectacle called Megalopolis, depicting the effort to build a perfected city in New York. But he ran into budgetary and creative roadblocks, as well as the existential dilemmas of shooting a movie about New York after Sept. 11. Seemingly always able to anticipate the vectors of his generation -- decades after The Godfather, Wall Street tycoons were using lines from the movie as words to live by -- Coppola did the unexpected, but inevitable. He downsized.
Coppola sees his first Zoetrope production, the cross-country woman-on-the-road picture The Rain People, as the precedent for Youth Without Youth. "It was on that film that we built this single truck -- George Lucas and I designed it -- and put every bit of equipment that you could possibly need on it. And that's exactly what we did on Youth Without Youth. And Youth Without Youth isn't a little film."
But Walter Murch, who did sound design for The Rain People and the editing and re-recording for Youth Without Youth, thinks the roots of this movie go back further, to Coppola's novice days making cheap horror films like Dementia 13 (1963) for producer Roger Corman.
"He flew into Romania, which was a complete blank slate for him," Murch said, "and did a version of the way he started out in movies. Except now he was playing both the director and the Roger Corman role of the ingenious impresario, roping in young Romanian talent in front of and behind the camera and putting together a movie for very little money."
Murch sees Coppola rooting the movie's lofty concerns in Corman-style genre moviemaking: "It mixes sci-fi and the mummy films and Nazi-conspiracy movies with that kind of feet-off-the-ground mysticism of second lives and regression and a lot of Mercia Eliade. Even the central image is from Frankenstein, of the lightning hit that energizes you."
Rapport with actors
Coppola drew on new collaborators, too. As Laura and Veronica, the two versions of Matei's true love, Romania-born Alexandra Maria Lara (Downfall, Control) becomes Coppola's latest budding international star. In her view, Coppola's return to personal moviemaking also meant a reaffirmation of the constant qualities in his art.
He communicated with her partly in the way old Hollywood directors did, through jokes and metaphor. When embodying the ancient Indian woman, Lara had to seek a cave where she was copying mystical texts. Coppola advised her to approach it "like a little girl seeing a great big beautiful chocolate mountain."
Lara said he was a rock of support for his actors throughout filming in Bucharest in 2005 and 2006. She had seen Hearts of Darkness, the documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now filmed by Coppola's wife, Eleanor Coppola, and she knew that during the shooting, Martin Sheen had suffered a heart attack on his birthday.
So Lara was worried when she celebrated her own birthday during Youth Without Youth, and then had to perform the difficult scenes in which Veronica becomes the reincarnation of a seventh-century Indian woman.
Lara approached Francis and Eleanor at breakfast shortly after her birthday and confessed her concern about whether she could show that transformation without becoming ridiculous.
Coppola told her, "Please don't worry. If we try and we both feel good, it's good; if not, we shoot another day." Lara felt freed, able to make mistakes and, from then till the end of shooting, "had the feeling he was always behind me."
Intimacy with actors was something Coppola-watchers feared he'd lose after Apocalypse, Now. When he presented the best director award at the 1979 Academy Awards, he went off-script and riffed on "a communications revolution that's about movies and art and digital electronics and satellites but, above all, human talent. It's going to make the masters of the cinema, from whom we've inherited the business, believe things they would have thought impossible."
He was way ahead of his time, heralding the digital revolution that no other major director of the day (not even George Lucas) was looking forward to. And it was so shocking to hear that few listeners noticed the crucial phrase, "above all, human talent."
Coppola now says his plan for "electronic filmmaking" was always to give the director "more direct, on-the-floor flexibility. The director should be right next to the camera, looking at the actor." And the proof is in Youth Without Youth.