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Francis Ford Coppola Seeks Answers in 'Youth'

Eleanor Coppola (right) with husband Francis Ford Coppola watches work on the New York City set of <em>The Godfather: Part II</em>.
Gerald Israel
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Eleanor Coppola (right) with husband Francis Ford Coppola watches work on the New York City set of The Godfather: Part II.

By the time he was 40, Francis Ford Coppola had achieved enough for more than one lifetime.

In one decade, he wrote, directed or produced Patton, the first two Godfather films, The Conversation, American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now.

Five Oscars.

Recently, he's been more prolific as a vintner than as a director. But this month, for the first time in 10 years, he has a new film out. And it's about a man who gets to have more than one lifetime.

Youth Without Youth is Coppola's rendering of a novella by the Romanian emigre philosopher Mircea Eliade. Tim Roth plays an aged academic who becomes young again when he's struck by lightning. It's a movie of ideas, a mystery that doesn't ask whodunnit, but instead what is it? What is time? Memory? Reality? Knowledge? It's heavy going, and some of the less kind reviews have described it as muddled, or as a mishmash.

Coppola says the Eliade story intrigued him for years. He wrote the screenplay himself — and financed the movie, too. And he says he made precisely the kind of film he wants to make at this stage of his life.

Generally, he says, Hollywood movies are "like telling children the story of the Three Bears" — in that studios like to present familiar, comfortable stories to an audience that knows them, likes them and wants to hear them repeatedly.

At the average multiplex crowd-pleaser, he says, "after 10 minutes I look at my wife and say 'Haven't we seen this movie before?'"

Coppola's success allows him, at this stage, a certain freedom. He financed Youth Without Youth himself — "as I intend to do with all my films now, (in) this last part of my career."

That means, of course, that he's not required to shop his script around, taking edits from every producer and studio chief with a finger in the financial pot. And while every script can benefit from outside input, Coppola says he gets that from his own production team: actors, cameramen, editors and other colleagues.

"I think it's the market research aspect that's trying to eliminate risk in the movie that's partly what's wrong with films," he says.

Not that he's immune to public opinion.

"I make movies in the same way I would cook a dinner," he says. "I want people to come and enjoy it. I don't want the dinner to be over and (have) people saying, 'Well, that was interesting; I want to think about it."

And Coppola argues that, all things considered, Youth Without Youth isn't all that hard to follow.

"It moves in a straight chronology," he points out. "An old man, like Faust, is given a chance not only to be young, but to gain knowledge and ultimately to have a chance to love again."

"The difference is (that) it's a love story wrapped in a mystery. ... (And) the mystery has to do with the same kind of mysteries as when I was 9 years old at summer camp, looking up at the stars and wondering what stars really were. I think people think about these things, wonder about them."

So, from here on in, it's Francis Ford Coppola, independent filmmaker?

"I think in my heart I've always been an independent filmmaker," he says. "Oddly, and very strangely, I became wealthy in other businesses.

"In a sense, everyone who buys a bottle of Coppola wine is my executive producer and makes it possible for me to pursue other movies that I feel passionate about — that I love — and that I make irrespective of whether they'll be commercial or not."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MoviesMorning EditionAll Things Considered
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.