Hollywood’s Best Film Directors


Francis Ford Coppola

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: March 23, 2020 | 0:26:49

Man: Action!


-Got it. -Cut!

Narrator: This great Hollywood director

began his film career scaring people

with the legendary Roger Corman,

the king of low-budget horror movies.

His big breakthrough came when his script for "Patton"

starring George C. Scott won the Oscar.

He went on to win four more Academy Awards

and direct films of every genre, including "The Conversation,"

"The Outsiders," "Rumble Fish," and "The Cotton Club."

But he definitely will be remembered forever

in the history of motion pictures

for the legendary "Godfather" trilogy,

containing stellar performances by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino,

and the groundbreaking and disturbing Vietnam War epic

"Apocalypse Now."

Hello, I'm Francis Coppola, and I'm welcoming you to

"Hollywood's Best Film Director."

And I did not think of that title.

We are here in the Napa Valley, in Rutherford, California,

and we're in one of the rooms

of the American Zoetrope Research Library

where all the research materials are kept.

And in the other rooms are, of course,

volumes of literature, philosophy.

I think, all in all, in this building,

there are maybe 80,000 volumes.

I was the second child. I had an older brother,

a wonderful older brother about five years older than me,

and my father was the solo flute, first flute

for the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini.

I recall going to the rehearsal of the NBC Symphony

and, in fact, I had an interesting experience

in the control room of the NBC Studio 8H,

which is where the orchestra rehearsed.

There was a room we were allowed to go to,

and it had a big window, and you could see the orchestra.

And I could see Toscanini -- striking, wearing black,

with his gray hair and white hair.

And there was a big wheel, I recall.

It probably was just a knob, but to me, it was a big wheel.

And if you turned it to one side, you could hear

the orchestra and the sound coming from the studio.

And if you turned it to the other side, you couldn't hear.

And that was when I first realized that picture and sound

are not necessarily connected --

very important principle in the cinema.

And my mother was a very beautiful woman,

When she would come to school, the other students would say,

"Oh, your mother is so beautiful.

She looks like a movie star."

She was a dark-haired woman, very striking.

And so I guess you could say

that that was the first image I saw, was her face.

So, her face and the sound of the flute

was the first movie I think I recall.

I'm an engineer. I'm the best engineer there is.


As a kid, I always had a place with a workbench

and where I could build devices and be like an inventor.

And I used to make little electrical magnetic

photovoltaic cells and devices that did things,

and I remember once building a mechanical television.

And when I was older, I actually built a television set

from a kit.

And I also remember having a little,

like, a movie theater in our basement

where we would show cartoons

and, you know, invite kids for 25 cents to see the movie shows,

and we would have a concession where we would sell lemonade.

I'd like to save the in-depth stuff for the second reading.

Of course, I wanted very much to be a playwright.

And then my last year of school,

I remember seeing a film that was being shown

in one of the buildings that was a silent film called

"Ten Days That Shook the World" by Sergei Eisenstein.

And I was so impressed with this production,

that even though it was a silent film,

it seemed to have sound, even though it was all

through the magic of editing,

that I decided not to go to the Yale Drama School

where I thought I was gonna go.

And instead, I went to the UCLA film school

and moved to California and became a film student.


I answered an ad that was put put up on the student board

about Roger Corman was looking for a student

to work as an assistant on a project.

It was interesting because at that time,

I hadn't paid my phone bill,

because I didn't have much money,

and I was very worried that -- I called, and they said,

"Well, give us your number. We'll call you back."

And I was sitting by the phone

hoping that my phone wouldn't get turned off

before they called me back, but they called me back.

A very nice woman, I remember, named Kinta interviewed me,

and she asked me, "Well, can you speak Russian?"

I said, "Well, no."

Or, "Sort of, you know. What do you mean?"

And he had bought a Russian film,

and he wanted someone to sort of not exactly translate it

into English, but to make up dialogue for it

to fit into the mouth to dub it into a different --

to make it more of a horror film than it was.

But ultimately, I got that job, and I did that.

One of my first films was called "The Rain People,"

and it was a story I had written,

with Shirley Knight and James Caan.

And this represented the direction I wanted to go into --

original stories of my own that I would adapt

or that I would write for film

and then shoot in a very personal way, you know,

which is obviously more of an independent-style film.

And I made that film,

and then, really, the film I wanted to make after that

was "The Conversation," of course,

which was another more personal film,

another story I had written myself

and ultimately was to star Gene Hackman.

But, you know, it was hard to make

that kind of personal film, to finance it.

So it wasn't until after I made "The Godfather"

that I was able to say,

"Oh, I want to make 'The Conversation.'"

And in a funny way, after "The Conversation,"

had I not had the big accident

of "The Godfather" becoming so successful

and taking my life in another direction,

I would have made "Youth Without Youth"

as a more personal film, and now, after that, "Tetro."

I would have made that next,

or maybe I would have made a film like "Rumble Fish."

But my career would have been more the career

of a young director trying to find his voice

in original writing and style

and, you know, experimental enough

to try to find my own way of expressing things.

Man: Action!


-Got it. -Cut!


When you sit down really to write a movie,

it's probably not unlike an actor doing an improvisation,

but you engage in an imaginary movie

that you pretend that you're seeing

and seeing how it's shown and what the people are doing

and what they're saying, and you sort of...

You set out on a little excursion of imagination.

And then, of course, you write down what you're seeing,

and what you're hearing, what they're saying.

And all of a sudden, the door will open

and someone will walk in that you didn't expect,

and you're sort of following a thread

that isn't really yet there,

but it seems to be weaving itself

through this act of visualization and improvisation.

And ultimately, then, you know,

I've learned to just put that down on paper

and not even when I'm done for the morning, even to read it.

Because I'm enjoying the impression I had,

and if I were to read it, I might be disappointed

or suddenly turn against it or think it wasn't very good.

And then the next day, I just pick up where I was,

and again, I engage in that little improvisation.

And, you know, after two days, I'll have maybe 10 pages,

and so then I feel, "Wow, I have something."

But I still won't read it. And I'll do that like that...

Sometimes I'll stop and I'll do a little step outline

and say, "Well, hm, let me see. Okay. One, he meets her.

Two, she tells him such-and-such."

And I'll maybe do -- but I'll only do six or seven steps.

I won't do all the steps, and then I'll just use that

as a guide, and I'll continue this little act

of sort of promiscuous imagination.

It's just like daydreaming, really.

The whole idea behind "One From the Heart"

was just pure and simply that it was gonna be live cinema,

just as there had been live television

in the early decade after World War II.

There were many really great...

This was before videotape was invented,

so the only kind of television was live television.

And the director would sit,

and he could see what each camera was getting,

and the actors, if there were actors, would be proceeding.

And they would say, "Camera three, camera two."

And some of them were really masterful.

And in particular, the live television of John Frankenheimer

was far and above the most impressive live television

being done, and he would do dramas that --

or pieces that would be like cinema.

And it was just done once, and they would just literally

make an entire -- show you an entire movie in one day.

I thought, "Well, why couldn't we make a film that way?"

And that was my plan with "One From the Heart."

I didn't get to do it in the very end,

with no one to blame but myself,

because, of course, whenever you do something innovative

or that's not just what everyone does all the time,

there's lots of resistance of like,

"Oh, well, do we really have to do it this way?

Can't we shoot it with one camera?

Because if I light for one camera,

I can make it more beautiful than if you have 20 cameras,

and how do you light for 20 cameras?"

Well, the answer is, you can. You do your best.

And I've always -- one of the few regrets in my life,

of which I don't know if I even have another one,

is that in those last weeks

before we went with "One From the Heart,"

I was weak enough to be prevailed upon

to not go full live, which is what I wanted and I regret.

So we did end up shooting it one camera,

one shot at the time, and so all that money we had spent

to prepare to go into a live cinema situation

ultimately was wasted

because we ended up shooting it one shot at a time,

which means we had that postproduction,

whereas the original concept of "One From the Heart"

was that it was gonna be a finished film

after this first week that we shot it, you know.

Probably, directing is tougher than writing

because writing, you are working

only with extremely cooperative people

who are people of your own imagination,

whereas when you're actually directing,

you're constantly trying to sell these other people

a bill of goods as to why they should

just maybe forgo their own ideas for a minute

and just do what you're asking them to do.

-Cut! Good! -Okay.

As a director, I would more make sure

there were interesting props there

or kind of, you know, invite the actor in, so to speak --

have their own ideas as to how they might do something.

Okay. Action!

You sort of have to do a little sales job...

You want to do something really difficult?

Man: Of course.

'Cause what we could do is,

we could make a low camera and a high camera.

...which is added wear and tear on the director

just to really say, you know, "Hey, come along

and see what I have in mind here and then, perhaps,

if that's not good or if you could make a suggestion

that's better, we'll also explore that."

It was interesting.

[ Laughs ]

Hey, it's good, ah? It's good.

Directing is harder because you're constantly trying

to convince people who are petrified

to do it the way you're asking them to do it.

I didn't mean to tell you on that level.

No, no, I understand.

The way I work has a built-in acceptance of

that you're trying to create something that has life.

So when something has life, it goes maybe differently

than you might have preordained, you know.

And I think having life in a film is what we're after,

or in any work of art -- the flame of life.

I mean, we're trying to be, in a way, like God

in that we want to create something that lives.

And to do that, you can't be too tight and controlling

'cause that will stifle life,

yet you can't be too widely permitting,

as that will put it out of control.

So you have to do both.

Just like in raising a child or managing a husband

or a boyfriend or a girlfriend,

you have to try to feel sympathetic enough

with the vital urges of this thing or person or work

that you're both permissive

and somewhat restraining at the same time.

So, it's the trick of how to do that.

To me, Caan was extremely funny, and, you know,

he had come from a neighborhood not far from where I lived,

near Woodside and Sunnyside in Queens in New York.

And, you know, he had a swagger, and he was...

Fuck you in your asshole!

...always laughing and cracking jokes.

And, you know, he was on all the time, as we say.

And also, he had all the insecurities

that actors often have,

especially the ones who are on all the time and joking,

that they are hiding a greater insecurity.

I remember when we had the cut of "The Godfather,"

he was very disturbed that, you know --

how some parts of his performance were left in

and other parts, which is always the case, were taken out.

And he thought I was making a mistake

the way I was doing it, and so he was gonna bring

a friend of his who was an expert,

an actor who was on television on a show called "Get Smart" --

think his name was Don Adams --

to come in to check whether or not

the way Sonny was cut in "The Godfather" was okay.

I always thought that was funny.

The other thing you learn is, with actors,

is something I learned a long time in the theater,

is if you're working on a play

and all the actors think you're wonderful

and they love working with you

and they just think you're the most wonderful director

and the play is a flop,

then they're gonna say it was awful working with them.

And by the other hand, if you work with actors

and you're mean and you're yelling at them

and you're not nice at all and you're awful,

if the show is a success, they're gonna say,

"Oh, he was the most wonderful director."

So it really all depends on what the success of the project is.

This is a conspiracy.

Marlon Brando did not just appear with everything

looking like the Godfather.

When I saw him that morning, I'd been...

I went to his house.

I was invited to go to his house.

And early in the morning, he came out of his bedroom

with a long, long, long, blond ponytail and a Japanese robe.

He was about 47 years old,

so he didn't look anything like an aging mafia figure.

But with few words...

I had brought plates of Italian cold cuts

and boxes of little Italian cigars and just props,

which often is the way I like to work with actors,

where I don't really tell the actor much,

but I just put around things that he might choose to select,

which would help him arrive at a character.

And Brando just kind of came out, as I said, looking --

with his long, blond hair and, you know -- quite young.

And ultimately, he took his hair and he rolled it up,

and he knew how to put it in a bun.

And he got some shoe polish, and he made the hair dark

and took off the robe and put on this white shirt

that I think I had brought.

I remember him talking about the collar,

says how those Italian guys, the collar is always, like, bent,

and it's like a...and started doing that, you know.

And he was working on the little details,

and he started talking without talking

and [imitating Brando mumbling]

and taking a little bit of the cheese,

and he'd take the cigar and...

And then it was really funny because at one moment,

the phone rang, his phone, and he went [mumbling].

And I always wondered what the person who called thought,

to just get [mumbling], you know.

And he was clearly... Then he took some Kleenex,

rolled it up in little balls, and he said,

"I think he should have the face of a bulldog."

And he stuffed this in like that, going like that,

and I was shooting it all with the little video camera.

It was like a transformation in front of my eyes.

Then he said [guttural grunting].

You know, he's shot in the throat in the story,

or he's shot, and he says,

[raspily] "Maybe he ought to talk, like, with a rasp, yeah."

Marlon Brando was a playful person.

He was a childlike person.

If he was sometimes irresponsible

or showed up without losing the weight he said he would do,

or if he was maybe stalling,

you know, talking about things --

which, whatever he talked about was always interesting --

maybe it was just because he was a little,

like anybody, reluctant to jump in and start acting.

You know, just because he was Marlon Brando

doesn't mean he wasn't frightened to start.

Coppola: This film is a $20 million disaster.

Why won't anyone believe me? I'm thinking of shooting myself.

'Course, I had my problems with "Apocalypse Now."

I mean, I was running out of money,

and I had to get Marlon Brando

to ultimately arrive at some idea with me

that we could actually film, because he didn't look like,

you know, an army colonel or anything.

But, you know, I didn't cajole him.

You know, I basically engaged with him,

and in the end, you know, he was just a very interesting man --

a little bit... You know, you have to realize,

he had been Marlon Brando ever since he was 24,

so he had lived in a fairy land, you know,

as those people who are celebrities

when they're very young must be.

People making a fuss over him, people trying to manipulate him.

That's why Marlon liked best, like, children or animals

or people who weren't coming at him with an agenda, I think.

But, you know, he was a nice person.

The Oscar that meant the most to me was...

And it's hard now because I have several relatives --

three, in fact -- who have won them.

But the biggest thrill was to see my father win the Oscar.

And to actually get to see him win an Oscar

was like the payoff a wonderful -- of my childhood,

to see the father that I hoped so much would be successful,

be successful.

With my daughter, of course, it was equally a thrill.

But in a sense, she was so young and beautiful that, you know,

she'll win other Oscars, even.

But there'll be other people in our family...

Jason Schwartzman is -- my nephew is

a tremendous talent, I think, and his brothers.

And also Nicolas Coppola -- Nicolas Cage has won an Oscar.

So I'm sure some of these other young people

will definitely win that and hopefully other awards.

Man: Action!


-Got it. -Cut!


Because of my brother's influence, I was very impressed

with the films of Alexander Korda

and the films made in that great period of British films,

not only "The Thief of Baghdad,"

but "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" with Roland Young.

"The Shape of Things to Come" -- I loved that film.

And "Four Feathers."

So, I mean, I think the British productions

of Korda and of the arrows,

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger,

and, you know, "The Red Shoes" and "Tales of Hoffmann."

I would say I had a special fascination.

And, of course, all the American films that were --

the Universal "Dracula" and "Frankenstein"

and "The Wolf Man"

and "Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula" and Frankenstein

and the Wolf Man.

So, I think the films I want to make,

especially now in this new situation,

are films that are like questions.

And the answer is the finished film.

[ Roaring ]

Man: Okay. Next case!

-Take three! -Action!

I think I was very wise in understanding when I did

that the motion picture and entertainment business

was not really a business.

It was not a real business,

because it ultimately was the business for the distributor

because ultimately the proceeds of the movies

all go to the distributor, into the hopper,

and then trickles down and finally gets to the people

who made the film at the end.

And the motion picture business, even for the distributor,

was not what we call a real business,

because, you know, it could be great one year,

and then it was nothing the next.

Whereas there are businesses --

the wine business, the resort business,

and other businesses like that --

that every year, ultimately, you get paid.

I mean, and if you do a good job,

you could actually grow it, to double it,

and the next year double it,

and the next year double it and double it

so that it really is a reliable business.

And that if I had a foundation in more real business,

then that would help me subsidize, maybe, my interest

in the not-real businesses like the film business,

which has come true.

So one of the wisest things I did was to take my emphasis

out of making a living from the movies

and move it into, you know, having my own company.

Hey, have a lot of fun!

I think my best advice is really contained

in the story of what happened to me

when I wrote the screenplay of the film "Patton."

One of the reasons, they explained,

that they didn't like it was the opening.

In the opening, I had this unusual opening

where the character Patton comes right up

on front of a big flag and makes a speech.

And he's a four-star general,

and he has medals and awards and pistols,

and he's making this speech.

And they said to me, "It's very confusing, this speech.

First of all, to start a movie

not only with a speech like that,

but then in the scene right after it,

he only has two stars, and he doesn't have the medals.

It will be very confusing, and we don't like the beginning."

Well, eventually, they did find

an actor who liked it, George Scott,

and a director who that opening appealed to

and who shot it wonderfully, and that is considered

one of the most effective openings in the movie canon.

Which means, young people, that the things you get fired for

when you're young are the same things

you win awards for when you're old.

So you have to be very courageous about your ideas

because it's not their fault.

It's just that when you come up with really something good,

it means it's different

and it's different from what they expect,

and they're likely to fire you or discredit you.

But, you know, years later, if you survive,

they'll bring it out as one of the great things you did, so...

If George Lucas and Martin Scorsese

and Steven Spielberg and myself were in a room,

What would be talked about?

And it would be possible that we'd be talking about movies,

that one of them would have seen something really wonderful,

and they'd start to describe it,

because I think the cinema is something that is really...

You never lose interest in it,

and you're always in awe over how amazingly flexible

and magical and ever-changing it is.

So I think, easily, that directors of that level

could talk about those things.

Or they might be talking about their kids or their families

or, you know, but it wouldn't surprise me

if they were talking about films.





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