One of the giants of cinema makes a triumphant return with his new film

Having made a piece of cinema that many feel is the cornerstone for the great American gangster film, The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola went on to virtually redevelop the language of movies with such films as The Godfather: Part II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now just to name a few.

However, as he has often stated, the success of The Godfather not only changed him, it changed the course of his career. The director who had started off making personal films like Finian's Rainbow and The Rain People, suddenly found his work veering off on a different course. Even though this filmmaker would be met with unmitigated success, he always seemed to want to return to making those movies that emanated from deep with himself.

Now, with the film Youth Without Youth, 8 years removed from his last work as a filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola has come full circle returning to the personal films that he feels he got away from. Youth Without Youth stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, a professor whose life changes after a cataclysmic incident during the dark years prior to World War II. Becoming a fugitive, he is pursued through far-flung locations including Romania, Switzerland, Malta and India. The screenplay adapted from a novella by legendary Romanian author Mircea Eliade.

What was it about Youth Without Youth that made you want to end your hiatus?

Francis Ford Coppola: Well, I don't think of it as a hiatus because most directors... they do a project, they can't get the money, they do another project. It also depends on the director's need to earn money. You'll find that they wait three years or so, plus, I was older and I wanted to rediscover my strengths, my instincts. I didn't want to be a studio director... it might be my age but they want to make big movies and be number one. I didn't particularly feel that so much as make more personal films. I wanted to make the kinds of films that I wished I could've made when I was 20. When I was 29 I made The Godfather and my life changed and I had a big career when I was younger. I wanted to make more... I'm not allowed to say art films, I wanted to make more personal films. Real movies that are about feelings and things not just take a lot of money to make the same movie over and over everytime.

Cinema itself can change...

Francis Ford Coppola: Who said that all the ideas of how you tell a story were all learned in the silent era? In those days nobody knew what a movie was so if somebody wanted to invent a closeup there wouldn't be anybody to argue with them. Today no matter what you're doing you want to make money. I wanted to explore consciousness How do you express that in a film? You can use wonderful actors or metaphors like poetry. I wanted subject matter that would enable me to learn about consciousness and the differences between so-called reality, dreams and imagination and Mircea Eliade's story was... I felt if I got into it I would learn a lot about these things.

Can you talk at all about how that effects your visual style and some of the themes that Youth Without Youth explores?

Francis Ford Coppola: I thought that because it goes from nearly 1938 into 1960 something and has occasional references to 1800 something when he was 25 and in love with this girl, I wanted a very classical style so I wasn't taking interesting ideas but putting it in a jumble of weirdness. It was more like The Godfather but more extreme. More like Ozu where the camera never moves. When the camera doesn't move then movement is more accentuated... if you're going to see a movie... everything is accomplished in a classical shot to another shot which then gives you more. Which is one way to make a movie but I felt that that was appropriate for this because by giving it a classical style then you could relax about that, and not be, "Oh my God, where am I? I can't see anything and it's cutting so fast."

Then you might be more comfortable to follow the story but then you might be, "That's interesting, it's a dream." So I made the style very deliberately classical. I also got to do what I always wanted to do which was make a movie without any movement. Just to see what happens.

When I walked out of the theater there were some people that were like, "I don't understand this movie..."

Francis Ford Coppola: They didn't understand...

They were just like, "I don't know how to explain this...

Francis Ford Coppola: Well, that's good!

I got the movie when I was watching it but I didn't really know how to answer their questions.

Francis Ford Coppola: I think the problem is that the story itself is sort of simple to understand. This guy gets hit by lightning, he gets young, blah, blah, blah... all of that is interesting. The problem is that you know it all means something and what it means... my life is very mundane, I wake up, I have a banana and coffee... our lives are mundane but at the same time something happens and you think, "What does that really mean? Where do I come from?" All these big questions which are dealt with in Oriental myth, or Sanskrit, the Orientals understood that life isn't quite as up and down as we think it is. So when you make a movie that's not quite as up and down as movies are supposed to be, which you have to realize have been incredibly influenced by 60 years of television, so the audience is like little kids that go, "That's Goldilocks and the Three Bears. What are you you telling me here?" Movies are at a big disadvantage now because everyone sort of wants them to be the same as the last movie they saw. They want entertainment, or they've got enough problems at work... I tried to make a movie that you don't have to think about. You could enjoy it as a work but later on if you want to see it again and you want to think about it you'll get more.

Isn't that what happened with Apocalypse in a way? Everyone said this is weird... but that's good I think. I don't like to go to movies and go, "I already saw this movie."

When you're on the set are you dwelling on these existential or philosophical underpinnings of the scene? Or are you dealing with the practicality of who Tim Roth is playing at that moment?

Francis Ford Coppola: I was trying to tell this story of what happened to this Dominic Matei who was a great scholar as Mircea Eliade was... they don't believe that there's good and evil, up and down, we believe that because it's useful to survive. The world of our brain is very much hardwired for humans. The world as it really is we don't even see. I felt that the Orientals are like that. The Buddhists are like, "What I just said is so but it's also not so." Or, "It's so and not so combined." That's a perception understanding so many little fables from India. If you can try and look at life, certainly in a practical sense because we all don't want to get hit by a car when we're driving, but at the same time realize that it's much more interesting than that; much more beautiful in a way. That's all the film has underneath it.

How did you write this screenplay?

Francis Ford Coppola: I very much adapted the story. I was walking behind Mircea Eliade's footsteps.

Can you reduce it to sentence for yourself?

Francis Ford Coppola: I viewed it to understanding my own consciousness. I thought it was a love story, wrapped in a mystery like Vertigo, except in Vertigo the mystery is that some guy is trying to kill his wife. My movie, the mystery is the real mystery that we're really all in.

The movie seems to merge all these ideas from all these cultures and puts them in a suspense story.

Francis Ford Coppola: I wanted it to be a banquet. When you make a movie it's like when you cook a meal. If I were to cook for you I certainly want you to enjoy the meal, I don't want you to say, "Tell me what this weird meal is?" Later on I wanted you to savor other things, other flavors that were there and I wanted you to want to go see it again. There are certain movies I love to see to again. There's other movies I don't care if I ever see again.

Can you talk about the casting?

Francis Ford Coppola: I wanted it to be a European Co-Production because it helped me be able to do this because I financed it all myself. It's not a little picture. People say, "Oh, it's a small picture. It cost $5 million dollars." That's not true. $5 million dollars is what the guarantee was between Italy, France and the UK. That was the guarantee, after I made it but Variety said it cost that and it didn't cost that. It bugs me because it was my dough. They want to make it sound like it's a little picture. It's not like, and I admire John Sayles very much, it's not like a John Sayles movie. This is like an epic production as if I was making The Godfather. It has costumes and sets, big shots and lighting and beautiful, I think, photography.

I very much wanted to work within the Euro Treaty Rules. Alexandra is a German citizen, Bruno Ganz is a German citizen, Tim is UK, and it helped me be able to organize all that. I thought that Alexandra was an actress who had a wonderful ability to know what she's feeling by looking at her face. That's a big thing in a movie. Tim, the demands on him, to give me the time; to stay with me, to learn all those languages, to work with these makeup guys to convincingly try and be some guy who's 80 and a guy who's 25. It's not so hard to be old but to be young is hard.

If you could go back, what age would you like to go back to?

Francis Ford Coppola: I've been a 6 year old all my life. At 6, I just thought everything was so beautiful and so wonderful. As a kid I went to many schools. I won't say I was a lonely kid but I was a lonely kid, so I sort of never lost how I felt about things being 5 or 6. I've always looked at the world with that kind of mentality, I think, and I think I still do because I'm enthusiastic which is why I get in so much trouble. I don't do what I do to make money, although I've made tons of money. I've never tried to make money, I've never tried to be a success. I've always tried to do some films of some things that I've loved. When I got in trouble, when I owed all that money from One From the Heart, I ended up having to make a movie every year to get the check so I could give it to the bank.

I've been in those kind of pickles but I always think my enthusiasm, I think I have a good imagination, a lively imagination and I have a lot of energy and that's all I have.

With what happened in South America, how has that effected your next project?

Francis Ford Coppola: The robbery? Anyone who's ever gotten robbed, it's always depressing and I did lose some data but I didn't lose the script. They said, "Oh it was the script," yeah, but I have other copies. Obviously I had to send it to actors... I was astonished at the news coverage.

Can you talk about the next project?

Francis Ford Coppola: The next project is exciting to me because I used Youth Without Youth as a crutch to get into a world of personal filmmaking where I'm not subject to the notes of studios. I get the notes from my colleagues... Walter Murch. It's not that I don't want notes, I do want notes but I don't want so many notes that they start contradicting themselves. Or, that they start turning them into the typical movies that come out every friday. Basically, part of my work now is that I can create the money I use to finance the movie.

In this case the film is called Tetro and it's the name of a character. It's very personal, kind of my Tennessee Williams period. I want to make a passionate story about brothers and fathers and all that tumult that I've seen at times in my life. A little bit of stuff I've seen in my family but it's totally fiction.

Do you see this more as a typical narrative?

Francis Ford Coppola: I think Youth Without Youth is a narrative. I believe that cinema is more like poetry than the narrative. It works on metaphor and stuff. Whereas I see this, you'd call it a more traditional narrative like Rocco and His Brothers or something. I hope it will have poetry and metaphor in it as well.

There seems to be a theme in Youth Without Youth of Dominic being attached to panic...

Francis Ford Coppola: Dominic, I'm imagining, is like a bookish professor... he didn't want the neighbors to know. Even when he was forlorn and was going to commit suicide, he got on a train and went, maybe, to go to a park in Bucharest and take his things, he didn't want to make a scandal with the housekeeper. I would say that when this started to happen my and Tim's interpretation was that he was this gentle, little Jimmy Stewart, older kind of professor who had never even had the courage to take the woman he loved. So when suddenly the girl has swastika lingerie and they're trying to capture him, he's realizing he's a science fiction man. He has powers, he panicked. He wasn't like, "Hah! I'll take over the world" Although he may have fleetingly thought he could.

Could you discuss some of the metaphors in the film?

Francis Ford Coppola: I don't know, I mean the rose is a classic Buddhist metaphor. It certainly is a metaphor for the unfolding of time. For me I used the rose as a metaphor, also, for grace. I remember when I shot the movie in the snow and he's playing an old man, some Romanian said, "Oh, he dies like a homeless person." I thought about it and I went, "Gee, we all die homeless... we all die alone." You're surrounded by people but you die alone. What's the difference? The difference I think is if you've loved in your life, or you've been loved or both. I wanted to express that although he dies as an old man in the snow, he has loved that woman for so long and in the end even gave up that very thing that lost her in the first place. That the third rose could be in his hand even as an old man. That's a metaphor.

I think filmically the film has a lot of beautiful photography and imagery and there's lots metaphors, I can't think of them. I gotta see the movie again.

Tim Roth said there's a 5 hour version of the film...

Francis Ford Coppola: They always say that. There isn't a 5 hour version of Apocalypse Now. Usually there's a 3 hour cut that you squeeze into 2 hours but there wasn't a 5 hour version.

Are there any elements that aren't in this film that you'd like to incorporate into it?

Francis Ford Coppola: No, because, since I made this movie as the boss, as the financier which is the boss, it was my dough. In other words I got to make it as I wanted it to be. In Apocalypse Now I pulled out some of the French sequences because I had sort of promised the distributors that it was going to be a big war film. The poor Japanese distributors came and they looked at it and I felt guilty that it had gotten so surreal. So I said, "We better make it shorter and a little less weird." In this film, maybe I'm getting weird, but I don't think this film is so weird or that the narrative is so strange. I think that the narrative is very clear but the implications are very inviting of thought.

Does it bother you that you're still having to explain your films to people?

Francis Ford Coppola: It's a little sad because I realize that so many people not only in the audience, but people who write about film, think of movies as a certain thing that has to be. If you want to make a really successful film, make a movie like a classic story in a way everyone expects it to be but do it very well, and that will be a wonderful success. If you want the film itself to be alive and to be followed, the story and the themes, and the kind of movie I like... when I go to the movies I hate when I'm in there 20 minutes and I say, "I saw this movie already," but that's most of them. I think that's because of 50 years of television, that's what's happening to our cinema. Sure it's great to do a beautifully done, entertaining film, by the book and by the rules... Marie Antoinette is a good example. She made a totally, non-verbal poetic film. She made it about the first part of Marie Antoinette's life, it didn't get into the French Revolution and the guillotine. Sofia made Marie Antoinette without dialogue. It was all, if you look you can see what she's saying, but because she didn't follow those rules she was appreciated by many people and she was lambasted by others.

That's the danger in the cinema today there's like this whole group but that's the danger in any kind of political movement... movies have to be this! Well movies don't have to be anything except beautiful and that in some way illuminate life and get you thinking.

How do you think the studios have shaped things so we have fewer new experiences?

Francis Ford Coppola: The studio system are all owned by big corporations that only want one thing and they want more profits than they made last year. That's all it's about. That's great, that's fine, I think movie companies should make money but they should use their profits to produce some movies that are surefire entertainment that people enjoy, and a little bit they should make films like The Best Years of Our Lives, or films like William Wyler used to make that are also very rich. There's no variation in movies today, they just want to make money and that's all.

Youth Without Youth comes to theaters December 14 in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics.

Evan Jacobs