‘Has this guy ever made a movie before?’ Francis Ford Coppola’s 40-year battle to film Megalopolis

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Published: 5/16/2024 5:28:03 AM

The director has spent half his life and $120m of his own money to make his sci-fi epic. Just days ahead of its debut in Cannes, some of his crew members are questioning his methods

‘My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it,” Francis Ford Coppola said in 1978. “I will tell you right straight from the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.” The film was Apocalypse Now, and it was good, and the rest is history.

Part of that history has been Coppola’s reputation as an intrepid adventurer who was prepared to risk everything, to defy the studio suits, to go to the brink of ruin and madness, all for the sake of art. The making of Apocalypse Now cemented that legend – the epic scale, the jungle insanity, the heart attacks, the unbiddable weather and even less biddable actors – all of which was captured by his wife, Eleanor, in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness. Coppola’s anti-establishment approach has produced some of cinema’s greatest triumphs (The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, Dracula) but also some of its worst failures (One From the Heart, The Cotton Club).

Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now with Martin Sheen.Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now with Martin Sheen. Photograph: Caterine Milinaire/Sygma/Getty Images

Now, it seems, the 85-year-old is putting all his chips on the table one last time, with his long-awaited sci-fi epic Megalopolis, which debuts at the Cannes film festival this Friday. Nobody can quite believe it has happened: Coppola has been trying to make this movie for more than 40 years, during which the project has gone through innumerable rewrites, delays and false starts. It exists now only because he sold part of his successful winery estate to finance the movie when no one else would. So, will Megalopolis be one final masterpiece from the New Hollywood titan, or will it turn out to be a “really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject”?

Cast members including Adam Driver have spoken positively of their experience on the film, but, according to other sources, its making was almost as fraught and chaotic as that of Apocalypse Now. Much time and effort was allegedly wasted, crucial crew members quit halfway through and Coppola made things even more complicated by embarking on a property redevelopment at the same time. As one crew member put it: “It was like watching a train wreck unfold day after day, week after week, and knowing that everybody there had tried their hardest to help the train wreck be avoided.”

Coppola has described Megalopolis as his “dream script”. He first had the idea while making Apocalypse Now, fueled by the same concerns about US imperialism. He has framed it as “a Roman epic set in modern America”, transposing the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the rulers of the Roman republic in 63BC to a sci-fi future. The plot hinges on an idealistic architect (played by Driver) trying to build a utopian city on the ruins of New York, against the wishes of the mayor (Giancarlo Esposito), with the mayor’s socialite daughter (Nathalie Emmanuel) caught in the middle. The cast is star-studded: Shia LaBeouf, Aubrey Plaza, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Laurence Fishburne. And, according to reports, it takes in big themes such as politics, race, architecture, philosophy, sex, love and loyalty.

Coppola directing Jack in 1996.

Coppola directing Jack in 1996. Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy

The project first came on to the front burner after the failure of Coppola’s 1982 musical One From the Heart, which he self-financed, then opted to direct remotely from a custom-built trailer known as the “Silverfish” in order to test out new video production technology (as one industry figure put it, “He took an $8m project and used the latest advances in video to bring it in for $23m”).

“In the early 80s he talked about it a lot,” says the sound designer and longtime Coppola collaborator Richard Beggs. And he was already thinking big. “At one point it was going to be staged, sort of like [Wagner’s] Ring cycle in Bayreuth: the film was going to be screened over four nights. And audiences would come and they would book themselves into a hotel and see this thing in a gigantic outdoor purpose-built theatre,” says Beggs. He was thinking of something like the Red Rocks amphitheatre in Colorado.

Various personnel came and went over the years. In 1989, production was rumoured to be starting at Rome’s Cinecittà studios, with Coppola’s trusted production designer Dean Tavoularis and the comic book artist Jim Steranko (who had worked with Coppola on Dracula) designing sets. Coppola regularly held table readings of his latest draft of the script with actors including Paul Newman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan, Edie Falco and Uma Thurman. The cinematographer Ron Fricke (whose documentary Koyaanisqatsi Coppola produced) reportedly shot more than 30 hours of second-unit footage around New York for the film. They were in the city shooting when 9/11 happened, which, says Coppola, prompted a major rethink: “How do you make a movie about the centre of the world without it dealing with the fact that … it was attacked and thousands of people were killed?”

Francis Ford Coppola with Chloe Fineman, Nathalie Emmanuel on the set of Megalopolis.Coppola with Chloe Fineman and Nathalie Emmanuel on the set of Megalopolis. Photograph: Mega/GC Images

In recent years, Coppola’s career appears to have been tailing off – he has directed just three features since 1997 – but it seems he never let Megalopolis go. About 300 rewrites, 40 years of preparation and one winery sale later, he finally had the means to make his dream script come true: in autumn 2022, shooting commenced over several sound stages at Atlanta’s Trilith studios.

“I have no idea where Francis gets his energy from,” says the British director Mike Figgis, who has known Coppola for 30 years. About 18 months ago, Figgis jokingly suggested making a fly-on-the-wall documentary on the making of Megalopolis. A few months later, Coppola contacted him out of the blue, “Saying: ‘When can you be here? Can you come now?’ That’s very Francis.”

Arriving in Atlanta, Figgis was impressed, he says. “Watching an 84-year-old guy hold together that massive team, and to have enough brains to be able to direct the actors, the camera and everything … He was up every morning making notes on his way on to the set, or he’s discussing his ideas with Roman, his son. And at the end of the day, he’s also the producer, so he’s thinking about his interest rate.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Coppola made life even harder for himself: “When he arrived in Atlanta, he was looking for accommodation for his extended family and he wasn’t finding anything he particularly liked. So he bought a drive-in motel which had just closed, and decided to renovate it. So all the way through the shoot, he lived there. The construction noise started at six in the morning.” When Figgis (who opted to stay in a different hotel) asked Coppola how he handled it all, “He said, ‘Look, it’s all the same thing. Movie business, construction business: it’s telling people what you want, and making sure they do it.’”

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel on the set of Megalopolis.Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel on the set of Megalopolis. Photograph: MEGA/GC Images

The actors seem to have been obliging at least; no heart attacks this time, although there was some tussling with Shia LaBeouf. “He and Shia had this wonderful combative relationship, which was very productive,” says Figgis. “Shia had a lot of questions, and sometimes Francis would be stressed by a bunch of other things and he would respond in a certain way. There was also a lot of humour involved, so it was very entertaining … But sometimes [Francis] was just like, ‘Ugh, I can’t deal with this,’ and he’d just go into the Silverfish and direct from there.”

By the sound of things, the shoot became a clash between Coppola’s old-school approach, privileging spontaneity and “finding magic in the moment”, and newer digital film-making methods, such as filming actors in front of virtual CGI landscapes in a “volume” – effectively a giant wall of LED screens. Today’s technology enables directors to realise anything they can dream up – including utopian cities of the future – but working this way demands preparation and collaboration. “I think Coppola still lives in this world where, as an auteur, you’re the only one who knows what’s happening, and everybody else is there just to do what he asks them to do,” suggested one former crew member, who did not wish to be named.

Aubrey Plaza, Adam Driver and Coppola on the set of Megalopolis.Aubrey Plaza, Adam Driver and Coppola on the set of Megalopolis. Photograph: MEGA/GC Images

The crew member sometimes found Coppola’s approach exasperating: “We had these beautiful designs that kept evolving but he would never settle on one. And every time we would have a new meeting, it was a different idea.” When the crew member insisted they needed to do more work to determine how the film was going to look, they say, Coppola replied: “How can you figure out what Megalopolis looks like when I don’t even know what Megalopolis looks like?”

A lot of time was, apparently, wasted. A second crew member recalls: “He would often show up in the mornings before these big sequences and because no plan had been put in place, and because he wouldn’t allow his collaborators to put a plan in place, he would often just sit in his trailer for hours on end, wouldn’t talk to anybody, was often smoking marijuana … And hours and hours would go by without anything being filmed. And the crew and the cast would all stand around and wait. And then he’d come out and whip up something that didn’t make sense, and that didn’t follow anything anybody had spoken about or anything that was on the page, and we’d all just go along with it, trying to make the best out of it. But pretty much every day, we’d just walk away shaking our heads wondering what we’d just spent the last 12 hours doing.” As a third crew member puts it: “This sounds crazy to say, but there were times when we were all standing around going: ‘Has this guy ever made a movie before?’”

Adam Driver’s first day on set was particularly memorable, a source suggests. One aspect of the story involves Driver’s character’s body fusing with some futuristic organic material. Rather than using digital techniques, Coppola wanted to achieve the effect through old-school methods, using projectors and mirrors, much as he had done on Dracula, 30 years earlier. “That’s great, except nobody can move,” says the crew member. “So they basically strapped Adam Driver into a chair for six hours, and they literally took a $100 projector and projected an image on the side of his head. I’m all for experimentation, but this is really what you want to do the first day with your $10m actor?” The effect would have been quick and easy to create digitally, they say. “So he [Coppola] spends literally half of a day on what could have been done in 10 minutes.”

“We were all aware that we were participating in what might be a really sad finish to his career,” says a crew member. But some of them felt “he was just so unpleasant toward a lot of the people who were trying to help facilitate the process and help make the movie better”.

Several sources also felt that Coppola could be “old school” in his behaviour around women. He allegedly pulled women to sit on his lap, for example. And during one bacchanalian nightclub scene being shot for the film, witnesses say, Coppola came on to the set and tried to kiss some of the topless and scantily clad female extras. He apparently claimed he was “trying to get them in the mood”.

Things came to a head in December 2022, roughly halfway through the 16-week shoot, when most of the visual effects and art teams were either fired or quit. “I think he had to work quite hard to then figure out how to replace them,” says Figgis. “I think he just wanted to liberate himself while he was shooting. So he didn’t have to wait for stuff, and then he’d say ‘Oh, I’ll fix it later. I’ll fix it in post – which I guess he’s done.”

The virtual “volume” was abandoned in favour of more traditional “green screen” technology”, according to one source: “His dig at us was always, ‘I don’t want to make a Marvel movie,’ but at the end of the day, that’s what he ended up shooting.”

In response to comments about Coppola’s on-set behaviour, the executive co-producer Darren Demetre stated: “I have known and worked with Francis and his family for over 35 years. As one of the first assistant directors and an executive producer on his new epic, Megalopolis, I helped oversee and advise the production and ran the second unit. Francis successfully produced and directed an enormous independent film, making all the difficult decisions to ensure it was delivered on time and on budget, while remaining true to his creative vision. There were two days when we shot a celebratory Studio 54-esque club scene where Francis walked around the set to establish the spirit of the scene by giving kind hugs and kisses on the cheek to the cast and background players. It was his way to help inspire and establish the club atmosphere, which was so important to the film. I was never aware of any complaints of harassment or ill behaviour during the course of the project.”

Coppola on the set of Megalopolis in November 2022.Coppola on the set of Megalopolis in November 2022. Photograph: MEGA/GC Images

During the time he was shooting Megalopolis, Coppola was also contending with the fact that his wife, Eleanor, had become ill. She was on set and location during the making of the film “until her illness prevented her from being there”, a spokesperson says. She died last month.

Early reactions to Megalopolis have been mixed. After a private screening in Los Angeles last month, one executive described it as “batshit crazy”. Another told reporters: “There is just no way to position this movie.” A third said: “It’s so not good, and it was so sad watching it … This is not how Coppola should end his directing career.” Shortly before its Cannes premiere, the film was acquired by distributors in the major European markets.

Others, however, were fulsome in their praise. “I feel I was a part of history. Megalopolis is a brilliant, visionary masterpiece,” said the director Gregory Nava after the screening. “I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day.” An anonymous viewer at a London screening went even further: “This film is like Einstein and relativity in 1905, Picasso and Guernica in 1937 – it’s a date in the history of cinema.”

None of this will be new to Coppola: despite reports of on-set chaos and predictions of doom, Apocalypse Now won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979, though it would not be regarded as a classic until a decade later. “Francis has always had this reputation for being ahead of his time,” says Beggs. “He’s laughed at and tolerated with good humour, and then, 10 or 15 years later, people are saying: ‘The guy knew what was going to happen.’”

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in Megalopolis.Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in Megalopolis. Photograph: Courtesy of American Zoetrope/Megalopolis/Mihai Malaimare Jr

Despite its long and difficult gestation, Megalopolis’s themes could still resonate. “It takes the premise that the future … is being determined today, by the interests that are vying for control,” Coppola told an interviewer in 1999. “We already know what happened to Rome. Rome became a fascist empire. Is that what we’re going to become?”

Whatever the outcome, Coppola can at least take personal satisfaction in having achieved his lifelong goal, against all expectations and obstacles. Perhaps the thought of making a shitty, embarrassing, pompous film is less frightening than that of never making it at all. When I interviewed him in 2010, he told me: “I don’t think things through; I feel them through. And I know that half the time I might not land right, and maybe there’s a pleasure in that, but in my life I have to say, that’s served me well. When you’re this old guy dying, you don’t wanna say: ‘I wish I had done that and that.’ In my case, I did it. I did all the things other people would just regret that they didn’t try. Because, in the end, you die. You don’t get any award for just being conservative.”

This article was amended on 14 May 2024 to correctly refer to the “Roman republic”, rather than the “Roman empire”, in relation to events of 63BC.

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