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INTERVIEW: Writer/Director Roman Coppola on Charles Swan and Moonrise Kingdom

02/12/2013 11:51 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013

After making his entrée into feature directing with 2001's CQ, it took a while for writer/director Roman Coppola to choose a follow-up directorial effort: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.

The surrealist comedy starring Charlie Sheen, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray is now playing in select theaters as well as through video-on-demand, and its surrealist take on the internal struggles of a man (Sheen) dealing with the aftermath of a bad breakup is very much a personal passion project for the writer/director, who's also up for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar this year for his work co-writing Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.

I had a chance to chat with Coppola (son of legendary Godfather helmer Francis) last week for the MovieFilm Podcast, and here are some highlights from our conversation:

I just watched [the film] last night so it's very fresh in my mind. I was struck by how personal it is. It feels like a small movie and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. It feels very intimate. I was wondering if you could walk us through the origins. Where did this story come from?

It sort of just grew out of... Well, let me rewind for a second. Basically, after I made CQ I was ready for that next thing to hit me and what it was the story I wanted to tell. I knew I wanted to tell a story, and CQ had a very introspective character who lived inside his head and was not very outgoing. I thought I'm going to do something now that's the total opposite. I'm going to do something with a very outgoing character that's filled with pizazz and someone who's just over the top and sort of wild. Those were just the place I was ready to explore.

Then I fused that I had an experience in my life where I got dumped by a girlfriend and that was a very interesting experience and that suggested a little kernel of the idea and I realized that the state of mind that I was in when I went through this breakup was very fractured and you're recalling that person and you still want them back. Then you realize you hate them and then you talk to your friends about it and they give you advice and then you get tired of hearing the stories and you're in this chaotic state of mind.

Then I took a couple of years to piece it together and I knew that I wanted a movie that was very free to just have any adventure that it saw fit to have and I wanted a movie that I could have a western scene or have Jason wearing a Carmen Miranda outfit or whatever it was. I just wanted it free and wild and took a bunch of time to piece it all together so that the audience would be able to go along for this ride with me.

So, we're talking 12 years I believe almost from CQ to this; or 11 years. What was it about this story that made you say, "This is going to be the one. This is my follow up."

It's very mysterious but there's just something that I connected to and related to and I thought other people might relate to. I really value distinctive movies, movies that feel that they came from a person that was really something that they had conceived and they made and is a reflection of who they are. So this film aspires to be of that type; something that once people see it they say "Wow." It pleases me very much because I showed it to some friends and they said "Wow, this movie is so you."

I feel that's a wonderful compliment. If everyone...more movies of that type, those are the ones that I want to see.

Now, how early in the process did you realize that Charlie Sheen had to be Charles Swan?

It was rather late. I actually wrote the script without writing it...I didn't write it for him. It did occur to me as I was wrapping up the script I happened to be in touch with him because Charlie and I knew each other as kids and as I was just wrapping up the writing we happened to speak. A mutual friend put us on the phone together and Charlie said "Hey, one of these days we have to make a movie."

I realized that thing that had been on my mind could be so suited for him. That became a little bit of a goal and, "Wow, if I could finish this we could show it to Charlie, and that could be great." I felt like it gave me a purpose and a sense of there's a real chance that it could happen. Sure enough it did. I didn't write it for him but very happy that he came on to play the role because I'm very proud of his performance.

Given obviously the high profile he's had for various other stuff it feels like a character that is very much tailored to him. So it's interesting to say how he came on fairly late in the game.

Yeah, I think there are a lot of qualities that he shares in his real life with my character. He's the right age. He's a handsome guy. He has tons of charm and wit and his ability and this maybe tendency to use his charm to smooth over certain problems without really addressing them. I think that's something that may be something that comes from his real life.

But in many ways, in most ways, the character is quite different from the real Charlie Sheen. It's true, there's certain kind of ingredients like in my film there's a slightly crazy episode where the guy is really suffering and he's driving around and drinking a beer and doing whatever. You could go, "That seems like Charlie Sheen," but to me it's really just that character who was suffering and just...It just come so natural. It's just a human nature kind of thing.

My co-host, Brian Hall, actually asked me to pose a question to you about Moonrise Kingdom: Where did that idea germinate and how is that process like when you collaborate with Wes Anderson?

Well, it's a very distinctive process in that Wes, of course, is the director of the films that we've collaborated on. I worked on Darjeeling Limited and, of course, Moonrise Kingdom. We are two writers in service of Wes as the director. There is always that sense of him being the final authority. If we're making a choice between something even though I think it should be this way then mission accomplished. He's the director and he's kind of defining that.

Do you ever feel like, "I'd prefer to write and directing is just something that I have to do" or is it vice versa? Which is your preferred part of the process, or is there no real distinction between them for you?

It's sort of just different things but it shares a lot of similarities. I can't say I have a preference. I mean, of course, working on your own personal work is very gratifying because it's just very much what consumes you. At the same time my work with Wes has been so fun and so...brought me so much new understanding of writing and storytelling so I'm just...I'm just a curious person by nature and just up for anything and everything. I guess I feel a little guilty picking something.

The reality is it's very seldom that I might read a script or read something that I don't originate that gets me that excited because there aren't just that many distinctive...I like things that are playful, that are a little far out, that are imaginative, that don't have a lot of set rules but are kind of willing to get creative. Our movie culture at this moment doesn't particularly celebrate that except for when people just manage to do in their own scrappy way. There's not a...Hollywood films don't tend to go for far out things that haven't been done before. That's just generally how it doesn't work at this moment.

I hear echoes in what you're saying with a lot of the things that I heard your dad say in his commentary tracks for the Godfather movies in terms of the individual voice having to poke through the big Hollywood machine and how difficult that can be sometimes.

Yeah, it's a whole long conversation but right now in the movie business, the Hollywood system is such that there's not a lot of interest in unusual work that hasn't already been tested and proven. It's not really an exploration ground. That's kind of left to others. It's left to the high net worth individuals to do that lifting; which we've seen in recent years all the distinctive movies are paid not by Hollywood but by others...It just seems like it would be beneficial for a business to support that younger generation.

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Many thanks to Roman Coppola for taking the time to chat up his film. For the full interview, be sure to download or stream the next MovieFilm Podcast, due up this Monday morning!