It’s the birthday of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, born in Detroit (1939) and raised in New York City. He contracted polio when he was nine years old, and he was bedridden for long periods of time throughout his childhood. He entertained himself by writing and staging puppet shows and, later, 8-millimeter home movies. His first job in the movie business was working for horror director Roger Corman. Coppola worked as a cameraman and director on the second unit, which filmed supplementary footage. Corman put up the money so Coppola could make his first movie, a low-budget horror film called Dementia 13 (1963). He won his first Academy Award for the screenplay for Patton (1970), which he co-wrote with Edmund H. North.
Coppola was about 29 years old when he started working on The Godfather (1972). He was broke, and he had a growing family to support. Paramount had invited him to direct the movie, so he began by reading the novel by Mario Puzo. As it turned out, he didn’t really like the book at all. He expected it to be more intellectual, more of an examination of power. He also didn’t like some of the studio’s ideas. “I had no power,” he remembered, “and yet I had real opinions on how it should be done. And I was always just trying to bluff the studio to let me, you know, do it my way. And it was just the most frightening and depressing experience I think I’ve ever had.” Paramount wanted to set the movie in the 1970s, so they wouldn’t have to pay for cars and clothes from the 1940s. They also disagreed with Coppola’s casting of Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. But Coppola prevailed.
Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, when Coppola was at the height of his Hollywood power. Coppola was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness,” but set the story during the Vietnam War. It was a difficult production; while the crew was filming in the Philippines, they weathered a typhoon and an earthquake, and co-star Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack. The film ran way over budget. But it was a box office success and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
Coppola and his family are also in the wine business. He bought his first vineyard in 1975, using the money he had made for The Godfather. His father, wife, and children stomped the grapes for the label’s first vintage in 1977. His latest venture, which opened in 2010, combines a winery with a theme park and resort; he modeled the property after the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. He writes in his mission statement: “I remember the beautiful theater pavilions with the curtains painted with peacock feathers that had little ballet performances. At Tivoli, there were rides, but more important than the rides were the cafés and the refreshments, and just the sense of being in a children’s garden, a ‘pleasure garden’ for all people to enjoy … I’ve often felt that modern life tends to separate all the ages too much. In the old days, the children lived with the parents and the grandparents, and the family unit each gave one another something very valuable.”
Last year, Coppola published the notebook he kept during the making of The Godfather, titled — appropriately — The Godfather Notebook (2016).