Saturday, December 20, 2008

Francis Ford Coppola on Looking into the Ashes of Adversity

Richard A Smith shares this story after spending a memorable evening with legendary filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola:

Francis Ford Coppola started his career making low budget films, and his first notable project, Dimentia 13, gained him some regional notoriety. With his star rising, he began raising money and investing personally in his own films. But this turned out to be a losing strategy when a subsequent film, Finean's Rainbow (a broadway musical adaptation) flopped, leaving Coppola deeply in debt. By the time Coppola came to Hollywood to interview for the director role of The Godfather, he believed that he would soon be forced to file for personal bankruptcy.

His interview was a success (and a welcome distraction from his other issues), and Paramount Pictures offered him the job. But his shaggy haired, "hippie" appearance did not win him many friends within the company, and he quickly came to blows with studio executives over his casting choices (Coppola fought hard to cast Marlon Brando in the lead role, but some studio executives much preferred Danny Thomas in the role of a "family man").

As the film went into production, Coppola struggled with the eccentric personalities of his cast (Brando would often insist that his fellow actors wear his lines printed and taped to their foreheads!), and his disagreements with the studio escalated. A group of high ranking Paramount executives grew determined to have him removed.

"Studios typically will only fire directors on a Friday or Saturday." Coppola told me. "This way, they can quickly clean up the mess, bring in the new director, and resume production on Monday. Someone had tipped me off that at the end of the week, the studio planned to fire me. So there I was, on the verge of personal bankruptcy, and certain I was about to be very publicly canned from a high profile job."

"I really didn't know what to do. So that Wednesday, I fired almost my entire staff. I figured, this way they CAN'T fire me - I am the only one left who knows what's going on!"

His strategy worked, but he feared his refuge would be short-lived. Coppola rushed to complete the entire project in under 65 days, with Paramount' executives on his tail the entire way.

"Looking back, at first I wondered how we were even able to finish the film. But now I know that it was the chaotic environment that contributed to the success of the project. We could have never achieved something so great without all that adversity in the mix."

"And so goes life", Coppola explained to me. "People spend so much of their time trying to avoid adversity. They fret and worry over it until it consumes them. I see adversity as part of life, and know that some of the greatest ideas, inspirations and life changing events occur in adverse environments. I look for adversity in my work, and in an odd way, sometimes even cherish it."

Francis Ford Coppola put it succinctly when he said, “The seeds of great success are often right in front of you, hidden in the ashes of adversity.”

Source and More:

Richard A Smith, Francis Ford Coppola Unplugged: Finding Gifts in Adversity, The Huffington Post, 19 December 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: “But his shaggy haired, 'hippie' appearance did not win him many friends within the company…”