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Director Series-Francis Ford Coppola-Youth Without Youth

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By Leonard Klady
Perhaps the most apt introduction for Francis Ford Coppola is to say that he is someone who needs no introduction. The first of the film school brats, he exemplified the bold, brash and innovative of an era with such movies as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation. He would go on to an equally Faustian endeavor when he acquired a film studio, but best efforts turned catastrophic and led to years of work for hire to get out of debt.
Coppola hasn’t directed a feature in close to a decade. Popular lore has ascribed it to his new found vocation as a vintner, but it’s a notion he dismisses. A long cherished project, Megalopolis, was scrapped following 9/11 when eerie resonances to that event emerged, and subsequent projects had equally ignoble ends.
However, out of the ashes another film emerged. Youth Without Youth, based upon a book by Romanian writer Mercea Eliade, tells the story of life renewed in unusual ways. Coppola had given Wendy Doniger – a childhood friend who is now a senior professor in South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago – a draft of Megalopolis and she included passages from Eliade’s book in her response that tweaked the filmmaker’s interest to read it.
The story involves an aging professor driven to suicide when he realizes he’s too old and infirme to complete his life work. However, things change radically when he’s struck by lightning and begins to regress to a younger age. Beginning in the 1930s, his case perks the interest of Nazi geneticists who seek out his secret. He eludes his pursuers and as time progresses he confronts lost love, political turmoil and personal enlightenment.
Coppola sat down to talk to Below the Line about the movie.

Below the Line: Is there any truth that you started out not knowing what film you were going to make?
Francis Coppola: I think it’s confusing because there was a point in time after Megalopolis when I just wanted to move on. I’d bought six or seven Zeiss lenses to shoot tests and was really excited about the results I was getting. They’re prime lenses and the definition you get from them is quite extraordinary. What I started thinking about was how I wanted to make a movie, and in the process tricked myself in a way into making one. You know, you set the wheels in motion and at some point you’ve created the structure and brought people into the process in a way that demands you go forward.
BTL: You’re not saying that the subject was secondary?
FC: The subject is never secondary, especially as you get older and realize you only have so many opportunities and films left. Eliade’s book addressed a lot of things that hit nerves—the chance to start over with precognition and a lot of spiritual and emotional themes. It’s kind of a science-fiction thriller but also a romance and a political and religious journey.
BTL: Would it be fair to say that you created an infrastructure that allowed you to move quickly once you found the material?
FC: Well, I knew how I wanted to make the film and it wasn’t going to be traditional. The idea was to make it fast and economical without having undue impact on the quality. I tend to catch myself calling it a “small” picture. But it’s not a small picture, we simply got around the baggage of excessive costs; waste that goes into pockets and doesn’t go on the screen. Back at the start of my career I made a film called The Rain People. It was mostly shot on the road and we had a truck with all the equipment that allowed us to be fast and versatile. So I built a van that would essentially be a mobile studio knowing how it would function regardless of what movie I would wind up making.
BTL: Did you wind up striking a deal with Romanian companies that gave you benefits?
FC: That’s the last thing you want to do because once you partner with a foreign company you’re paying into their overhead. The traditional way of making movies is to involve a bank and get a completion bond. Now if you make it economically all the money you cut out you can save probably 20 percent of your costs. We did make it EU-compliant and that gave us some financial breaks.
BTL: How did you go about assembling a Romanian crew?
FC: That’s an interesting story. Anytime you come into a community someone is going to want to exploit you. So I had to figure out a way of flying under the radar and I got lucky by accident. I met a Romanian man in San Francisco whose brother had a pharmaceutical company and we wound up using a back room as our production office. I went to see a lot of theater and I’d do tests with actors I liked. At the same time I’d use different cameraman to do the tests and they were all good, but two were exceptional.
BTL: The cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., had never shot a digital film.
FC: Well he’d never shot a digital feature; he’d done shorts and commercials. It didn’t really matter because he’s a technical wizard. Mihai can take apart the camera and tweak the pin settings to get whatever subtleties you need. I really wanted someone who was very open because things have evolved in a way where the DP has too much control. When I was starting out I got very good advice to hire experienced grips because they would establish the speed and they would work for you. But I started to see a change. I’d ask a grip something and he’d look over to the DP for confirmation. It’s become very political and I think HD will change that because you see what you’re getting right away.
BTL: You used a Sony F900?
FC: Yes, but really the lenses were the most important aspect. I wanted to be sure I could mount the Zeiss lens on the camera. They’re flat lenses and basically I didn’t want to move the camera except in a couple of organic instances. I want something that was beautiful but not self-conscious.
BTL: You did, however, hire British makeup and hair people.
FC: (Laughs) That was an expensive decision. (Hair and makeup designers) Peter (King) and Jeremy (Woodhead) got more money than the rest of the cast and crew, but because Tim (Roth) and Alexandra (Maria Lara) have to age believably, I had to confront something that’s just very basic: If it wasn’t done well, I wouldn’t be able to fix it later. I really did a lot of research and everyone told me to hire Brits. Jo Allen, who did The Sea Inside, was another person that came highly recommended but she wasn’t available. Anyway, it was well worth it. They both have this quiet, rigid professionalism and you can’t really see their process but you see immediately that what they create photographs perfectly.
BTL: You once again worked with Walter Murch on the editing.
FC: Walter’s collaboration and friendship has been invaluable. It’s really impossible to imagine working with anyone else. He’s like a sounding board and he does a lot of other things that are difficult to explain. But they’re important. He kind of babysat (composer) Osvaldo (Golijov), who really isn’t a film person.
BTL: Most of your keys were relatively young with limited experience.
FC: I’m not sure that’s true. I know that on any crew it’s helpful to have a balance of experience as well as a fresh perspective. Being around young people makes you young—it relates back to themes in the picture. When you’re young you don’t know what you can’t do and that often leads to very exciting things. Knowledge can be your enemy; it can make you stop trying or provide the easy answer and that’s the way exciting ideas become banal.
BTL: When you use someone like Osvaldo, who has a lot of experience but who hadn’t worked on a film score, are you getting both?
FC: Ideally, yes. I was looking for someone fresh and asked Robert Hurwitz at Nonsuch Records for recommendations when I was preparing Megalopolis. This goes back I think more than a decade and he suggested Robert Glass and Osvaldo. Glass wasn’t available at the time but Osvaldo prepared some themes that were exceptional, and I really cherished the collaboration. I knew once Youth Without Youth was go
ing to be made that I’d finally get to use him, and was just a little surprised that no one else had approached him to do a film in between.
BTL: Elmer Bernstein once told me that you were one of the few filmmakers he’d worked with that was musically knowledgeable. He didn’t go into any detail about how he worked with you, but I wondered just how you worked with a composer.
FC: Well you try not to push. I prefer not to hear the music, but that’s often difficult. I really want someone to give me themes that expand the way I look at the images. This picture, because of its themes, is probably the most musically complex of anything I’ve done. We talked about establishing leitmotifs. So, there was the romantic and the Nazis and the Indian passage. They had to be distinct and they had to be complementary and I needed someone with Osvaldo’s range who could appreciate the challenge as well as achieve the complexity of the story.
BTL: Your next film, Tetro, will be made in Argentina. Are there things you learned in Romania that you can apply to it?
FC: Lots of things, but that’s to be expected. We’ve already made changes to the van and I’ve got ideas about lighting. Really it’s all about having the freedom to do something as you see it and maybe sometimes you fail. That’s the risk, but without it you’re never going to make anything that’s worthwhile.

Written by Len Klady

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