San Francisco novelist and screenwriter Diane Johnson sums up Francis Ford Coppola's mercurial style with a single phrase: "He needs his downtime." It's no surprise, then, that the day after the Mann's Chinese Theater premiere of his latest film, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Coppola hid himself away in a tiny house in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. He was baby-sitting for his granddaughter, Gia. "It is not easy being me," he sighs, reflecting on the violent ups and downs his career has taken. "I have been fighting expectations all my life, and that's a game you can never win."
For Coppola, one of Hollywood's most gifted -- and controversial -- directors, the hardest part of life is business. Business is always getting in the way of art. More than 20 years ago, he turned up his nose at the Hollywood Establishment and retreated up the coast to San Francisco to launch an independent studio called Zoetrope Productions. Three bankruptcy filings later, he's only now recovering. Coppola has won five Academy Awards. His Godfather series and Apocalypse Now rank among America's finest films. But to those who finance movies, his legacy is much more prosaic: It's not easy being one of Francis Ford Coppola's lenders.
`HEART' FAILURE. Could Dracula prove Coppola's savior? With sales of $54 million in the first 10 days of its release, the blood-soaked vampire flick seems assured of becoming Coppola's first $100 million blockbuster since The Godfather collected $133.7 million in 1972 (tables). Better yet, Coppola's deal with Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc. unit pays him a $5 million director's fee and gives him roughly 10% of whatever the studio grosses on the film and related merchandising. For the 53-year-old Coppola, the windfall would not only help fix his finances. It would also help a reputation snowed under during the 1980s by a blizzard of overbudget films and box-office flops.
In truth, Coppola has been battling a storm ever since 1979, when his controversial film Apocalypse Now ran $15 million over its original $16 million budget. It was the beginning of the end for Zoetrope. Following his Godfather success, Coppola had started Zoetrope to fulfill a long-standing dream of creating another RKO Pictures Inc., which in the 1940s was a haven for young, avant-garde filmmakers such as Orson Welles. He wanted an environment where such independent-minded films as Apocalypse could be made. Coppola sunk $16 million of his own into the surrealistic Vietnam epic and it won much critical acclaim. But while it ultimately made money, it branded Coppola as difficult, obsessive, and unable to adhere to a budget.
His follow-up effort, One From the Heart, didn't help. The musical disaster ran millions over an already inflated budget (Coppola borrowed some $30 million to finance it), and in the end it pulled just $636,000 at the box office. Smaller-budget films such as Rumble Fish and The Outsiders were also flops. Then came The Cotton Club, a $50 million movie that Coppola didn't finance, but that lost lots of money. During the film, Coppola feuded with the producer and would communicate with him only through written notes.
The string of money-losers led Coppola to the brink of financial collapse in 1983. He owed some $35 million without any hope of paying it back. To his rescue came his friend and sometime co-producer Frederick R. Roos, who bought a $31 million Coppola note from Chase Manhattan Bank for $5 million. Roos was a friendlier creditor than Chase, but Coppola still had to abandon his dreams of independence. He was forced to sell at auction a 10-acre Hollywood lot that was to have been the new RKO.
`THE SILVER FISH.' Ironically, to pay off his debts, Coppola became something of a hired gun, making movies for the Hollywood studios he had so long tried to escape. He started churning out workmanlike films such as Gardens of Stone and Peggy Sue Got Married, and even directed a 17-minute 3-D film for Walt Disney Co. called Captain EO starring Michael Jackson. "It would have been easy to liquidate and start over," recalls Coppola of that period, "but I couldn't."
It was a humiliating time. Born in Detroit and raised in Great Neck, N.Y., Coppola was brought up valuing aesthetics, not dollar signs. His father was a flutist and composer, his mother an actress. Stricken with polio at age nine, Francis spent a year bedridden, developing a love for storytelling by playing with puppets and watching hours of TV. In 1957, he entered Hofstra University hoping to become a playwright, but after seeing Sergei Eisenstein's epic Ten Days That Shook The World, he fell for film and switched to the University of California at Los Angeles film school.
Coppola cut his teeth in Hollywood working with Roger Corman, the king of B-movies. After turning out such forgettable films as The Bellboy and the Playgirls and You're a Big Boy Now, he hit the big time by winning an Academy Award for his screenplay of Patton in 1970. Two years later, he directed The Godfather, which like The Godfather, Part II in 1974, won a Best Picture Oscar. Together, the two films earned a staggering $800 million worldwide.
On the set, however, Coppola became known as eccentric and obsessed with perfection. For One From The Heart, he ordered built a $6 million re-creation of the Las Vegas strip that required 125,000 light bulbs, 10 miles of neon, and a paved intersection. Fascinated with electronic editing, Coppola would spend most of his time in a 20-foot trailer, dubbed "the Silver Fish," which was crammed with high-tech editing equipment. Always the temperamental artist, he bristled when Paramount Pictures Corp. ordered him to rush delivery of 1990's The Godfather, Part III. "They had problems with their stock price, or earnings, or something," sniffs Coppola. "You can't make a movie like you make an episode of I Love Lucy."
That same year, Zoetrope's finances finally fell apart. Between 1990 and 1992, the company filed three separate Chapter 11 petitions to restructure debts stretching back to One From the Heart. When the dust had cleared, Coppola had paid $8 million to a Canadian land developer named Jack Singer. He paid claims to others worth $9.5 million. And he'd given 15% of Zoetrope (which has the rights to Apocalypse) to his friend Roos, whose Chase note had swollen to a claim of $71 million including the interest. The money to pay the debts came largely from his Godfather, Part III earnings and his directing fee from Dracula.
Whether Coppola has learned to tone himself down is an open question. Dracula certainly had its Coppola-esque moments. Six weeks before shooting, the director fired his set designer. Negative reaction from test audiences this summer forced him to make major editing changes before the film could be released. Worse yet, early reviews were lukewarm, and Hollywood insiders were whispering that the film would be a megadud. Only two weeks before releasing Dracula, Coppola was still tinkering in the editing room, giving everybody involved heartburn.
But Columbia executives were ultimately happy. They expected some excess and tried to control the damage by insisting that he shoot the entire movie on the same soundstage that houses the swimming pool where Esther Williams did many of her swim scenes. He filled in Williams' pool with dirt and imported thousands of bushes to create an ornate English garden. By Coppola's standards, the production was cheap. But the film still went $6 million over its original budget, as the director spent lavishly on costumes and effects. "He's a great, great artist," says longtime friend and Columbia Marketing President Sid Ganis. "But he can drive you crazy."
TUCKER'D OUT. Dracula's success means Coppola can relax for a while. His bankruptcy restructuring has allowed him to keep many of his assets, which include a 1,500-acre winery in Napa Valley, several apartment buildings in Los Angeles, and a resort in Belize. These days, however, he has installed professionals to run his properties for him. That leaves him free to tool around in one of his two 1940s-era Tucker automobiles, to indulge his love of cooking, or to hang out in San Francisco's nightclubs and theaters.
Down the road, Coppola still wants to run his own studio. But for now, he seems content to play the Hollywood game. His deal with Columbia means that American Zoetrope, a new entity started by Coppola, is essentially a contractor. The Sony unit gets first refusal on all of Coppola's films and provides the filmmaker with office space and staff. American Zoetrope has more than a dozen projects in development, and Coppola has hired superagent Michael Ovitz to sniff out new deals for him. This spring, Warner Brothers Inc. will release The Secret Garden, a screen adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel. And Coppola is producing an updated version of Frankenstein for Columbia's sister company Tri-Star Pictures Inc. Also in the works is a film about the race among doctors to find a cure for AIDs.
A few more successes and Coppola says he'll consider taking another crack at his RKO dream. But this time he'll take on partners. "The first time around, I didn't think I needed businessmen, that I knew all there was to know about my business," he says. "What I didn't realize is that you need a cushion of some money when you go through the lean times. And there are always some lean times." Nobody knows that better than Coppola -- and his lenders.