Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering documentary filmmaker Eleanor Coppola


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Eleanor Coppola, who died last Friday at age 87, became a filmmaker by request. Her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, who had become a major Hollywood figure thanks to his mega-successful "Godfather" movies, asked her to chronicle the making of his new movie "Apocalypse Now," not because it was going so smoothly, but because it wasn't. The result was the 1991 Showtime documentary "Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," a hauntingly honest look at a film and filmmaker lost in the jungle, just like the story's protagonist. There were many times Francis Coppola was sure he could not make a movie out of his increasingly incoherent footage.


FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: What I have to admit is that I don't know what I'm doing.

ELEANOR COPPOLA: Well, how do you account for the discrepancy between what you feel about it and what everybody else who sees it will feel?

COPPOLA: Because they see the magic of what has happened before. I'm saying, hey, it's not going to happen. I don't have any performances. The script doesn't make sense. I have no ending. I'm like a voice crying out, saying, please, it's not working. Somebody get me off this. And nobody listens to me. Everyone says, yes, well, Francis works best in a crisis. I'm saying this is one crisis I'm not going to pull myself out of. I'm making a bad movie, so why should I go ahead? I'd rather - I'm going to be bankrupt anyway. Why can't I just have the courage to say it's no good?

BIANCULLI: Eleanor Coppola's later works include documentaries about two of her daughter Sofia Coppola's movies, "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette." She also created an art installation called "Circle of Memory," remembering her son Gian-Carlo Coppola, who died instantly in a tragic boating accident in 1986 at age 22. Eleanor Coppola was born Eleanor Jessie Neil in Los Angeles in 1936. She was an assistant art director on the film "Dementia 13" when she met, and soon married, its director, Francis Ford Coppola. Terry spoke with Eleanor Coppola in 1992 and asked her what it felt like to be in the middle of a phoney war.


FORD COPPOLA: Well, I found it really exhilarating. You know, it's like the most incredible Fourth-of-July kind of a light show with these, you know, enormous explosions. And the earth shook like an earthquake. They were huge. Particularly, the napalm attack and the scene with Colonel Kilgore, Robert Duvall, was just a powerful event. To be there was just - your whole body felt the concussion and this enormous, you know, whatever it was. Ten thousand gallons of fuel was lit and exploded in the jungle, and I really found it extraordinary. And I think sometimes that even annoyed Francis, if he was trying to get his work done and everybody else was kind of at a light show.

TERRY GROSS: One of the stories that the movie gets into, the documentary on the making of "Apocalypse Now," is how Francis Coppola used helicopters from the Philippine Army because the United States Army wouldn't cooperate with the making of a movie about Vietnam, but the government kept wanting the helicopters back to fight a civil war against communist insurgents. Tell us some of the ways that kept disrupting the shooting of "Apocalypse Now."

FORD COPPOLA: It was a very disruptive situation because the Army would send out their helicopters and whatever pilots they wanted to send out, and the pilots would be different every day. So they hadn't rehearsed. They didn't realize what it was like to fly in through filming situations. And they would - sometimes they'd fly too high, and they wouldn't be in the camera shot, or they just wouldn't realize what was involved in really, you know, performing for the camera, so to speak. So they would lose many, many, many shots because the pilots wouldn't be flying in the right place to be seen in the camera.

And then, you know, by the time they finally learned how to do it, the next day, they'd send different pilots. And then very frequently, they would call the planes away. They would be all set up for a shot. Everyone would be out there on the location, shooting, and they would get some radio communication that four of the helicopters had to leave for, you know, military reasons, or some days, all of the helicopters. Some days, they would be out there, ready to work and expecting eight helicopters to be provided, and, you know, only two would show up. So it was a very difficult part of the production. And it cost, you know, tens and tens of thousands of dollars in lost footage and waiting for the helicopters to come that never came.

GROSS: And there were guards at your house because Marcos was afraid that rebels would kidnap you and Francis Coppola for publicity.

FORD COPPOLA: Yes. They had some idea that if Francis would be kidnapped for some political reasons by the insurgents that it would create an international incident and bring attention to the Philippines, and unwanted attention, so that they provided us, right from the beginning, with guards, personal bodyguards. I actually felt more concerned, finally, that the guards might to cause some accident. They got very casual about their weapons. You know, our main bodyguard had - just would stick his pistol in his belt of his blue jeans. And he'd get it out and show the kids how it worked. And he had a trunk full of shotguns and - I don't know what - other guns and things in the trunk of the car, and it just seemed like I was really in more danger of some accident from the bodyguards than I really was in danger from insurgents.

GROSS: I could see how that would not be very reassuring.

FORD COPPOLA: No. And I'm there with, you know, three children.

GROSS: Yeah.

FORD COPPOLA: And the casualness of the weapons that the guards had was really a concern to me.

BIANCULLI: Eleanor Coppola speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


RHYTHM DEVILS: (Inaudible).

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1992 interview with filmmaker and author Eleanor Coppola. She died last Friday at age 87. Her first documentary was an acclaimed, unvarnished look at the making of "Apocalypse Now," a movie by her husband, Francis Ford Coppola.


GROSS: When Marlon Brando arrived on the set to play Kurtz, Francis Coppola didn't realize that Brando was going to be as heavy as he was. How did that affect the way the role was conceived?

FORD COPPOLA: Well, when Francis realized that he was not slimmed down and able to play the Green Beret that he was originally, you know, committed to the part for that - Francis had to decide what to do in this situation. And his first, idea was to play Marlon as an indulging, mango-eating over - just over-indulging himself here in the jungle in this situation and just play him sort of overweight and his - you know, his uniform not really fitting properly and just go with that whole kind of look. And Marlon did not want to do that. He just was unwilling to do that.

So then Francis was really at a loss. What could he do then if he wouldn't do that? So the two of them sat down for days talking about what part he could play and how they could resolve this - the ending of this movie. And they at one point came up with this very theatrical, larger-than-life personage that, you see, you know, just emerging from the darkness and the light, and you never really fully see him as a reality. He's much more of a sort of an archetypical, you know, mythical figure. And that was sort of a new approach for Brando because he was known for his great, you know, reality, the grittiness of his realness and his performances so that he struggled with that, too. And the two of them had a real head to head - go there trying to resolve this - the ending of the film.

GROSS: A lot of Marlon Brando's part was improvised. There's some really interesting footage in "Hearts Of Darkness" of Brando improvising. Would you describe a little bit of the process that he and Francis Coppola used to improvise the part?

FORD COPPOLA: Well, they would come up with some actual lines and some of the dialogue that Marlon was to say, but the way Marlon works is he has to find a reality. So he would then put those lines into kind of a - just a sort of free-form, you know, improvising and talking as he went along through the part. So they had definite points that he was supposed to make. And he then kind of created around those points and kind of gives it that reality. Because one of the things he does, he, for instance, would, like, write a line on his hand or put it on a piece of tape on one of the props nearby so that he sort of has to look for that line and sort of give it that little edge of struggle that just like we have in our own conversation, I don't know exactly what line I'm going to say next, and it gives my, you know, voice a kind of edgy reality because I'm sort of fishing for what the next line is going to be. And he does that. It's part of his technique to not learn his lines and just spit them out slickly, but to really just have to have that little edge of reaching for them.

GROSS: It sounds from the footage you shot that one of the techniques that they used to improvise was that Francis Coppola would ask Marlon Brando questions off camera, and then Brando would have to respond to the questions and the camera would be rolling as he responded.

FORD COPPOLA: Yes. That's right.


COPPOLA: Why are we in Vietnam?

MARLON BRANDO: It's our time to grab this moment in history. It's our time to teach. Huh? I can't think of any more dialogue today.

GROSS: Dennis Hopper played the part of a really drugged-out American journalist in Vietnam. When he was cast in this role, he already had the reputation for being genuinely drugged out and burned out. And there's some terrific footage in the documentary of him and Francis Coppola talking together and trying to, like, work out what the part's going to be. And Coppola wants to know how come he doesn't know his lines yet. Why did Coppola even bring on Dennis Hopper? And I'm a really big fan of Hopper's, asking this question, but he was in such bad shape. Then, you know, you wonder why would you ask for this kind of trouble?

FORD COPPOLA: Well, I don't think Francis actually realized he was in that kind of shape. He thought he was a really good actor, and he had a lot of admiration for him. And he was cast in a role, a Green Beret role. And when he really got out there, Francis realized there's no way that he could play this - the Green Beret. And he had to then sort of invent a part for him because he thought he was very talented and there must be some way to use his gifts.

And so Francis has the great ability to make the part fit the actor rather than the other way around. He's - if the actor comes and can't play the part as written, he rewrites the part. And he certainly did that in Dennis' case and tried to somehow utilize the character that he was, because that was one of the issues in the Vietnam War is the use of drugs and the availability of drugs. And in fact, there in the Philippines, because of where we were there in Asia, the - there were drugs available and - cheaply and things that aren't available just here in - while everybody's home in Los Angeles, so that there was experimentation on the - among the people who were out there. And Dennis, of course, was just really far out at that moment. And in fact, he looks back at that period and is pretty astounded himself, I think.


COPPOLA: Why didn't you say that to him in the scene?


COPPOLA: Something clever like that. When...

HOPPER: You want to know why?

COPPOLA: ...He says, who are you? Why don't you say, who are you?

HOPPER: Because I haven't learned my lines yet, that's why.

COPPOLA: I know you've had them for five days.

HOPPER: (Laughter) The other thing I'd like to say is that...

COPPOLA: Those glasses...

HOPPER: ...These glasses, I can't see anything through them, but, like, you know, every crack represents a life I've saved (laughter) you know what I mean? They represent a life I've saved.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Say all that in the scene.

HOPPER: I do. But you see, the director, you know, the director says you don't know your lines. And then, like...

COPPOLA: Well, if you know your lines, then you can forget them because you know more or less what...

HOPPER: Oh, I see. Well, that's what I'm trying to do, (laughter) forget those lines.

COPPOLA: No. But it's not fair to forget them if you never knew them.

GROSS: My guest is Eleanor Coppola, and we're talking about the making of "Apocalypse Now."

Are you still on the set now when your husband makes a movie, or do you prefer to be off of it?

FORD COPPOLA: Well, up until - up through "Godfather III," the whole family went to the locations with Francis on all of his films. We lived there. We put our kids in school there. We lived our life in the - you know, like a circus family going with the productions wherever they went. And it's just been in the last year that my daughter has left home. And she's 20 now. And our lives have changed to a certain extent so that I don't have to be there with the children making a family home on a location and Francis is shooting out in Los Angeles. It's the first time that I haven't really been there on quite a regular basis. I've had the freedom to come and go and maintain some of the threads of my own life.

GROSS: How does it feel?

FORD COPPOLA: Well, it's a new experience. It's a new freedom. And after 28 years of living your life one way, it's quite an adjustment to shift. And I'm excited. You know, I'm very excited about the future. And I'm also - there's probably part of me grieving for the unity of the family and the structure and sort of being told where we're going to be next rather than having to have the freedom to make those choices myself. So it's mixed, but I'm excited about my freedom, so to speak.

GROSS: There's an entry in your journals where you say that people - you know, when you write a check or give a credit card, people always want to know, oh, are you related to Francis Coppola? And when they find out that you're married, they're always, you know, a little bit flustered. And you say you sometimes wonder, like, what did they expect to see? Do they expect Francis Coppola's wife to be a Playboy Bunny, you know?


GROSS: Do you feel that way, a lot of people have this expectation that any, like, famous director is going to have this young, sexpot-type wife, fashion model?

FORD COPPOLA: Yes. You know, it does seem to sort of be the cliche of, you know, what the film director's wife or partner is going to look like and be like. And somehow, though, over the years, I've sort of gotten the impression that people have sort of come to the realization that Francis has the same wife. Oftentimes he introduces me as his first wife, you know...


FORD COPPOLA: ...That, you know, we have been together all these years. It's actually going to be 29 years next week. And yet recently I've done some interviews, and I realize that the person interviewing me says, oh, I didn't realize you were still married. And so I guess that my kind of lowkey, laid back, willing to be kind of invisible, in the shadow of things has really, in a certain sense, not fully given a picture of what our life is like. But we are very much a family and a married couple.

And it's - I guess it does come as a surprise to some people who see the typical Hollywood family as one of many marriages and kids that are mixed up. I'm really very satisfied and pleased that our kids are solid and centered and creative and haven't really taken any blows from the way our life has been lived. And they've been able to actually gain from all the travel and the experiences, and it's enriched them, I think. And I really feel that it was all worth everything to have my kids turn out in a solid, centered way.

GROSS: I have one question that I realize might be too personal, so let me ask it and feel free to tell me it's too personal or that it's whatever, OK? You have a son who was killed in an accident. And I was wondering if his death, in a way, made it even more important for the family to stay together.

FORD COPPOLA: Well, when there is a death in the family, it creates a complete crisis within the family. And actually, the statistics are that 92% of marriages break up when there's a death of a child. So it is a time of perhaps the most extreme crisis. And knowing that, I sought help, and the family really went through their crisis, you know, all together. And I think that we've come out the other side with, yes, even a deeper closeness.

GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for talking with us.

FORD COPPOLA: Well, thank you. It's really a pleasure to have an opportunity to talk to you.

BIANCULLI: Eleanor Coppola, speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. The filmmaker and author died last Friday at age 87. Coming up, I review HBO's "The Jinx: Part Two," Andrew Jarecki's new sequel to his documentary about the then-suspected, and now-convicted multiple murderer Robert Durst. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD'S "PUSHERMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.