If you watch movies, it's hard to avoid Francis Ford Coppola. Films by the legendary director, producer and screenwriter have won five academy awards. He has produced some of the highest-grossing films of all time, such as "The Godfather," but also has won critical acclaim for the Vietnam War epic "Apocalypse Now," and the mystery thriller "The Conversation."
These days, however, Coppola seems little interested in praise or past glories. He is 68 years old, decades removed from his glory years when he towered over Hollywood as a brilliant, tempestuous and driven man. But he's not looking back.
"They were miserable days. They were horrible days of a lot of pressure," said Coppola. "It is one thing to have made a film and have it turn out to be successful, but during the time it is nothing but pressure and a million other people's impressions. To say that I miss it, I don't."
He was under enormous pressure for his signature film the "Godfather" and said he was threatened with being fired every week. Paramount had actually hired another director to follow Coppola around the set, just to remind him that he could be replaced at any moment.
"It was no fun at all," Coppola said of making "The Godfather." "Is it fun to get fired and told you're going to get fired every week that you don't like the actors? You don't like the music? No."
Now, after 10 years of silence, 10 years since his last movie, Francis Ford Coppola has made a new film and it's like nothing else he's ever done. It's called "Youth Without Youth," the story of an old man who gets struck by lightning, becomes young again and discovers love, reincarnation and the mystery of life. Coppola is clearly delighted with this experimental film, the kind of movie he said he'd always wanted to make.
"I said, 'Wow, this would be a really fun move to work," Coppola remembered. "And also it has something about me because I really would like to become a student filmmaker again."
Coppola is not only transforming himself from America's greatest living director to student filmmaker, he's also left Hollywood far behind, living on a vineyard in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.
He is now a wine mogul -- the 12th largest winemaker in the United States -- with vineyards in Napa and here that generate up to half a billion dollars in annual revenues and pay for his new pictures.
"I like to think that anyone out there who's ever brought a bottle of Francis Coppola wine enjoyed it," Coppola said. "But who bought it are really executive producers of these films. And I have made the film for them because they are making it possible for me to pursue this second career of more personal filmmaking."
Losing it All
Those wine drinkers saved his career after he had made, gambled and lost a huge fortune. In the early 1980s, Coppola lost his studio, American Zoetrope, after investing almost $30 million on the lavish musical "One from the Heart," which flopped at the box office.
He spent the next years digging out from under as a director for hire, making mainstream movies to pay off his debts. The work included "Bram Stoker's Dracula," a horror romance film based on Bram Stoker's novel, and "The Rainmaker," a drama based of John Grisham's novel. While both movies were box-office successes, the Hollywood system was not for Coppola. He was particularly irritated with having to work with so many different producers and competing egos for one film.
"Imagine not only does each one have an opinion that they want to tell you because they're the producer," Coppola said. "But they also want a trip to the locations. So think of how many plane tickets that is for absolutely no help to the movie whatsoever. And how many hotel rooms."
Making Movies His Way
But now, Coppola in "Youth Without Youth" is back making movies his way again. Every frame of the movie emanates his sense of adventure, and like all Coppola films it's gorgeous to look at and takes a lot of risks. Coppola is passionate about the subject matter, something he says is a necessary pretext when making a film.
"Making a film is a tremendous effort," Coppola said. "You wake up at four in the morning. You work five, six, seven days a week. You're cold, you're hot, you're under pressure, you're over budget. It's really an ordeal in a way. And if that's the case, I like to choose a subject matter that I'm either in love with or that I'm desperate to learn a lot about."
Like his latest movie, his remarkable career has been all about passion and no regrets. Because life, Coppola explained, is too short to be lived any other way.
"My attitude is how can people be afraid of risk because you know, we all know the end of the story of our life. We're going to die," Coppola said. "And the only major risk that we run into is that on the moment of our death we look back and say, 'Oh, I wish I had done this. And I wish I had done that.' And I never did that. I did everything I wanted to do. So at any moment that I pass on, my death will be a happy death because it's the conclusion of a very happy life."