THE BLOG
01/06/2011 08:01 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration

Over the course of 45 years in the film business, Francis Ford Coppola has refined a singular code of ethics that govern his filmmaking. There are three rules: 1) Write and direct original screenplays,  2) make them with the most modern technology available,  and 3) self-finance them.

But Coppola didn't develop this formula overnight. Though he found Hollywood success at the young age of 30, he admits that the early "Godfather" fame pulled him off course from his dream of writing and directing personal stories. Like Bergman, Coppola wanted to wake up and make movies based on his dreams and nightmares.

Thanks in no small part to his booming wine business, Coppola now does just that. He recently wrapped his latest picture,  "Twixt Now and Sunrise," based on an alcohol-induced dream he had in Turkey. The film even features the latest 3-D technology - but as a brief dramatic segment that serves the story, rather than the typical two-hour, multiplex gimmick.

I sat down with Mr. Coppola at La Mamounia, the legendary Moroccan palace-turned-hotel, during the Marrakech International Film Festival, where he shared insights on the filmmaking craft with local students. Rejecting the popular "master class" format, Coppola preferred a simple "conversation," where he spoke candidly with students and shared his advice generously. What follows are excerpts from both conversations. 

Why did you choose not to teach a master class?
For me in cinema there are few masters. I have met some masters - Kurosawa, Polanski - but I am a student.

I just finished a film a few days ago, and I came home and said I learned so much today. So if I can come home from working on a little film after doing it for 45 years and say, "I learned so much today," that shows something about the cinema. Because the cinema is very young. It's only 100 years old.

Even in the early days of the movies, they didn't know how to make movies. They had an image and it moved and the audience loved it. You saw a train coming into the station, and just to see motion was beautiful.

The cinema language happened by experimentation - by people not knowing what to do. But unfortunately, after 15-20 years, it became a commercial industry. People made money in the cinema, and then they began to say to the pioneers, "Don't experiment. We want to make money. We don't want to take chances."
 
An essential element of any art is risk. If you don't take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn't been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.

You try to go to a producer today and say you want to make a film that hasn't been made before; they will throw you out because they want the same film that works, that makes money. That tells me that although the cinema in the next 100 years is going to change a lot, it will slow down because they don't want you to risk anymore. They don't want you to take chances. So I feel like [I'm] part of the cinema as it was 100 years ago, when you didn't know how to make it. You have to discover how to make it.

Do you feel like you're more of a risk-taker now?
I was always a good adventurer. I was never afraid of risks. I always had a good philosophy about risks. The only risk is to waste your life, so that when you die, you say, "Oh, I wish I had done this." I did everything I wanted to do, and I continue to.

What's the most useful piece of advice you'd give a student?
The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

How does an aspiring artist bridge the gap between distribution and commerce?
We have to be very clever about those things. You have to remember that it's only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.

This idea of Metallica or some rock n' roll singer being rich, that's not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I'm going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?

In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you'd be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, "Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money." Because there are ways around it.

Read the full interview at the99percent.