Francis Ford Coppola: Young Again

Director Francis Ford Coppola on the set of "Youth Without Youth"
Director Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Sony Pictures Classics' Youth Without Youth - 2007
Sony Pictures Classics
Francis Ford Coppola believes that the most important lesson in life is a simple one: Say yes much more than you say no.

It's a philosophy that has served him well. He owns two wineries, three luxury resorts, restaurants, and a line of food products. At 68 years old, he's rich enough so he didn't have to direct another movie ever, but it's because he is rich enough, that he decided he would.

He put up the money to make "Youth Without Youth" himself - not more than $17 million is all he'll say.

"It made me feel very empowered that I didn't need to go to the new studio heads, whomever they may be, to ask their permission," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner.

They probably would have said no to the film, which stars British actor Tim Roth.

"Youth Without Youth" is based on a novella by a Romanian theologian about an elderly university professor who is struck by lightning. Instead of dying, he miraculously becomes young again.

Coppola, who is most famous for directing "The Godfather" trilogy, sees parallels with his own life.

"It was a story of a man, not different in age than I was, who got a new opportunity to live life, and to fall in love one last time," he said.

"I became at a very young age, in my 20's, really a kind of important Hollywood studio-type director, and ironically, I never got to do that first career that I had wanted to do as a teenager, which was the personal film maker."

So he;s doing it now. "You Without Youth" premiered at the Rome Film Festival, and opens in the U.S. Dec. 14. It's the first movie Coppola has directed in ten years.

So many wonder, what was Coppola doing all that time, other than making money?

"I still was working on writing big projects, because I had become known for big, operatic projects, and I thought, well, maybe this was the time to do a really big, ambitious film," he said.

Called "Megalopolis," it was set, lavishly, in New York. Coppola struggled to make the film work, but couldn't. Sept. 11 finished it off. Shattered, when he decided to make "Youth Without Youth," he kept it a secret.

"I really felt the need to protect that, may I say, vulnerable part of me, who had been bruised over ten years of not being able to make the film I had been trying to make and, you know, I was embarrassed by that failure," he said. "I was frustrated by that failure. And having just this little secret, just gave me a lot of courage and self-satisfaction."

As she has in the past, Francis Coppola's wife Eleanor documented the production and their lives on location in Romania.

"I became very, very enthusiastic and very much like a young man and ironically, that is something that the film dealt with. So in the best of all cases, when you make a film, the film is in fact something you're really going through personally at that time," he said. "When I made 'The Godfather,' people said, 'Oh, he's a guy like Michael Corleone,' or when I made 'Apocalypse Now,' they said, 'Well, he's totally a megalomaniac, like Kurtz.'"

Which means his life has been a wild ride.

Coppola is from a family of noted musicians. He had polio as a kid, moved around a lot, went to different schools - even a military academy. He says he was lonely, so he made little movies featuring his Italian-American relatives and knew by the time he was a teenager that he wanted to be a film maker for real.

He was in his mid-20s, just out of film school, when he wrote the screenplay for "Patton." It won him his first of five Oscars in 1971.

Coppola, along with George Lucas and other friends, moved to San Francisco and started a production company, which quickly found itself broke.

"And even my young associate George Lucas said, 'Francis, we have to make some money.' So when "The Godfather" project came along, although I was not so sure to do it or want to do it, I did do it and ultimately, it changed my life."

"The Godfather" was an offer he couldn't refuse, but Coppola battled non-stop with the film's producers to make the movie his way. One of the biggest box office hits of all time, its success made "The Conversation" possible.

"The Conversation" received Oscar nominations for best picture and best screenplay in 1975, but that same year, Coppola - competing against himself - won for "Godfather Part II," best picture, best screenplay, and best director.

And then came "Apocalypse Now." Throughout Coppola's career, money has either been the villain or, as it's turned out, the hero in every drama he's produced - on- or off-camera.

"'Apocalypse Now' has been budgeted at $13 million," his wife said in her documentary "Hearts of Darkness" which chronicled the making of the film. "In order to maintain creative control, Francis had to raise the money himself. If the film goes over budget, Francis is responsible. He has put up our personal assets as collateral."

Trying to pull off dramatic aerial scenes, plus star Martin Sheen's heart attack and a typhoon, meant delays and debt.

"It was $35 million I was on the hook for, basically," he said. "Very traumatic to the family and of course, I have to say that during 'Apocalypse Now,' I was terrified. I was scared, is the only word I can use."

But it got worse. When his romantic musical, "One from the Heart," bombed, Coppola actually began bankruptcy proceedings. He negotiated a payback plan, which meant for the next dozen years, he worked for the money directing other people's movies as well as his own.

Anybody else would have played it safe - not Coppola. In better times, he had bought the old Inglenook Winery in the Napa Valley as a summer home. He borrowed $40,000 from his mother and went into the wine business, which was about to take off.

"As it started to solidify, I mean, I could see that this was a billion dollar empire, and - $1 billion is, you know, 1,000 millions - I could see that that was the insurance policy to end all insurance policies as far as an aspiring young art film director."

But now Coppola has built a family business that is worth more than $1 billion.

"I didn't conceive of it when I was paying off the debts on 'One From The Heart,' he said.

The pain is still there and the bitterness, even now when Coppola films appear on just about everybody's top 100 lists.

"I feel, 'Where were you when I needed you,' basically," he said. "I remember once I threw all the Oscars out the window of the house, because it was so frustrating that I was getting all this negative press and negative reaction and I said, 'What do I have to do to get a little support?' Of course my mother picked up all the broken Oscars and went to the academy and said, oh, you know, my son's maid was dusting the Oscars and they fell off the shelf and they all were broken. She got me my Oscars back."

Coppola named food products after his mother and wine after his daughter, Sofia, an Oscar winner in her own right. Her relatively low-budget, self-financed movies like "Lost in Translation" and "Marie Antoinette," were what inspired him to return to personal filmmaking, to turn his back on big studio productions.

"Believe it or not, I have been offered those kinds of projects still, every once in a while, with fabulous, important actors of the day and big, ambitious subject matter," he said. "Well, because I say now, at this age, I just wanna do things I'm just personally obsessed to do. It's like being in love, you know, I wanna be in love with who I wanna be in love with."

But in movie making as in love, there's risk. No one knows that better than Francis Ford Coppola, but after all these years, he's still saying yes.

"Life is short and you don't wanna be an old guy counting his last heartbeat, thinking about all the things you wanted to do that you didn't do because you were scared, you know," Coppola said. "What's to be scared of in life? In the end it all ends the same way."