Art of Darkness

He has explored the heights and the depths of the human spirit, from the haunting closing notes of The Conversation to the defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory conclusion of The Rainmaker.


Francis Ford Coppola, 59, has always lived his life on the edge. “Give me three tests,” he offers, as if he has something to prove. “I’ll do anything for you.”


In fact, as a permanent outsider, Coppola still has to prove himself to the Hollywood studios that finance many of his movies – and that’s fine by him. He cares more about his vision than about his reputation, and he’s not afraid to challenge the powers that be: When he thought that Warner Bros. had stolen his screenplay for a feature-length Pinocchio film, he filed a lawsuit. (This past July, the suit was decided in his favor, and he was awarded $20 million in compensatory damages and $60 million in punitive damages.)

Coppola is always trying something new. He’s a technologist who tried to build a television-satellite hub in Belize – and failed. But in the course of that adventure, he found an abandoned lodge and turned it into a resort. He’s a publisher whose literary magazine, Zoetrope: All Story, emphasizes short stories – a money-losing proposition. But Coppola still believes that the best films begin as short stories.

Now he has major business plans: Within the next year, he intends to open a wine-bar-and-bistro in San Francisco under the name Rosso & Bianco. It will be a Starbucks-like spin-off of the cafe that he now operates at his Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery in Napa Valley. Why does Coppola take such gargantuan risks with his money and his ego? Because, he says, that’s the only game worth playing.

In an interview with Fast Company, Coppola outlined his essential principles of spontaneous recklessness.

The unlived life is not worth living.

It’s important to be interested in everything. You have your life – experience it to the fullest. You’re eventually going to lose it anyway. I am a very restless personality. If I take time off, I’m likely to do something like build a resort. I can’t help myself. That’s why I try to make businesses out of all of the things that I enjoy: food, wine, films. My company, FFC Brands, sells my taste. I want to set a precedent for my children. They won’t hear me say on my deathbed that I wish I had lived my life differently. I am one big yes.

It’s not a gamble unless you go all the way.

Get into situations in which failure isn’t an option. Be an adventurer. I based Apocalypse Now on the novel Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. That book defied even the great Orson Welles, who tried to film it but had to abort the project (he then went on to make Citizen Kane). My script, written with John Milius, told the story of an American soldier who travels into the jungles of Southeast Asia to bring to justice a man named Kurtz, who had stepped beyond the accepted limits of morality.


Filming that story was perhaps the biggest risk I’ve ever taken. To get United Artists to finance the movie, I offered to put up my wine estate and my home as collateral. I lived in the Philippine jungle for 238 days, through guerrilla uprisings and through typhoons in which the rain came down so hard that it hurt. We had too much money and too much film; little by little, we went insane. The stakes were so high that I simply had to succeed.

Your work is your life – give in to it.

My films make my life. If you are a serious artist, your work will be about you. There’s no other way. When I did The Godfather, people said, “Oh, you’re like Michael Corleone – determined to make things come out your way.” When I did Apocalypse Now, they said, “You’re just like Kurtz – out in the jungle, at the threshold of your sanity.” When I made Tucker: The Man and His Dream, a film based on the true story of a guy who tried to build his own car company, they said, “You’re like Preston Tucker – and the big guys won’t let you build your own studio.” There’s something to all of that. Those connections aren’t just coincidences. Those films grew out of my own passions and feelings. Passions are wired into the real world more directly than our workaday routines are. If you love something, you’ll bring so much of yourself to it that it will create your future.

I also made a film about a soldier who begins to care for a boy. Later in the film, the boy dies. On the first day of shooting, my son died. I asked myself, “Is this ‘The Twilight Zone’?” The film, Gardens of Stone, was about the loss of a boy: I was going to a funeral on the set every day. Then I had to go to a funeral off the set – and in my life. Last year, I made The Rainmaker, in which David-type people take on a Goliath-type corporation in a lawsuit – which is what happened when I took on Warner Bros. My next film, the one I’m writing the script for now, is about a man who tries to affect the way the future will evolve. The hero dies while the city of the future is being created. Now I’m saying, “I don’t want my life to turn out like the film that I’m making.” I want to be around to see the realm of the future. That’s why I’m writing this story. I know that film has the power to show the future, to make it seem real.

If Hollywood can make a movie showing the Titanic sink or spaceships battling giant bugs, then I can make a movie showing what the world of the future could be like – not just an artist’s sketch, but a precise social and architectural rendering. Then, if people like what they see, maybe they will build it.

Think like a child.

Children think that they can jump from here to the moon. That’s a useful point of view. I’ve never been a superconfident person. I don’t court danger – if it comes, fine. But I am childlike. I try to see things in a very open way. The childlike point of view has great power. Business is a natural outgrowth of play. My greatest gift is my enthusiasm. I get excited about whatever I’m interested in. I’m like a six-year-old.

You have to define success and failure for yourself.

People are shocked to hear that I think of The Godfather series with sadness. I see those films almost as a personal failure. They changed my life detrimentally, even though the world treated them as big artistic and commercial successes. Their success led me to make big commercial films – when what I really wanted was to do original films, like those that Woody Allen is able to focus on.


Don’t ask, What does the customer want? Ask, What does the future want?

My company is based on the belief that business should be conducted as if it were an art. The wine business is our most successful operation. We have what is probably the most-visited winery in Napa Valley. Visitors feel like part of my family. We’ve turned the camera on ourselves. That’s what artists always do. Everything I love has in one way or another become a business for me.

I’m expanding the company right now: I’m taking what I’ve learned from our wine business and applying that knowledge to the entertainment portions of the company. Once you start thinking about brands, you realize that there is no film company that really counts as a brand. A Fox film, a Warner Bros. film, and a Paramount film are all interchangeable. Branding films is not done today – unlike in the past, when each studio had its own individual personality.

I want our film brand to give people a certain promise of quality, and I want to keep that promise by emphasizing the two most important aspects of the cinema: writing and directing. We’re going to focus on making films at a certain budgetary level – films costing $12 million or less. Such films can have all of the production quality, all of the finesse, of the $40 million films that open every Friday.

Being spartan not only greatly reduces overhead but also destroys the hierarchy that affects a company when its people care only about their bonuses. In that kind of company, people start to play the game safe: “Let’s make another Mission: Impossible.” I don’t hire people who play it safe, and I destroy systems that encourage the instinct for security.

Success means living the life of your heart.

People ask me, What would you do if you had Bill Gates’s fortune? What if you had $50 billion dollars? My answer is, I would use it to borrow $500 billion, and I would build the city of the future. That city would be a beautiful place for people to live. It would support creativity, education, ritual, and athletic perfection. In the future, what will occupy people won’t be work; it’ll be study, art, sport, and festival. We ought to start gearing people toward those priorities. If people can see something attractive, then they’ll want it. And if they can see it and want it, then they can have it.

Always work on an epic scale.

Henry Ford wasn’t just designing cars; in effect, he was designing cities as well. Early in my career, I discovered the art of treating money outrageously. If you spend $1,000 recklessly, it will feel like $10,000. Everything will seem bigger and more exciting. In that spirit, I don’t deny myself anything. And I don’t say no to anything.


Whenever you get into trouble, keep going.

Anything you build on a large scale or with intense passion invites chaos: You go over budget; you wear people out. In the middle of filming Apocalypse Now, Marty Sheen had a heart attack. For the first time during the making of that picture, I became scared. But we improvised: We used a double and shot a lot of the material from behind. When I couldn’t build a satellite network in Belize, I built a resort instead – another double, so to speak. To keep going in a crisis, do a 180-degree turn. Turn the situation halfway around. Don’t look for the secure solution. Don’t pull back from the passion. Turn it on full force.

While making Apocalypse Now, we had banished screenwriter John Milius from the set. Then we invited him back – to the great relief of the cast and crew, who thought I had gone mad – and he came to see me. About that visit, Milius later said, “I felt like a general going to see Hitler in 1944 to tell him that there was no gasoline.” But I turned the situation around. I said to Milius, “This will be the first film to win the Nobel Prize.” I got him all excited. When he left that meeting, he was saying, “We’re going to win the war! We don’t need gasoline!” He would have done anything.

To learn more about Francis Ford Coppola’s projects, visit the Web