Coppola savors breaking the moviemaking rules

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Hollywood is built on the great contradiction between art and commerce. Commerce holds most of the aces, though art peeps out often enough to make the game interesting.

Francis Coppola finds this stimulating. But it isn't complicated enough for him. So he started his own studio, Zoetrope, and set out to revolutionize the movie world -- a bearded Napoleon armed with ambition, a vast love for film, and the latest electronic doodads.

So far, his campaign has been inconclusive. Coppola and company have turned out a string of successful pictures, from ''Apocalypse Now'' to the ''The Black Stallion.'' They have also teetered on the brink of financial oblivion -- almost plunging over the edge when their latest project, ''One From the Heart,'' found itself millions of dollars in debt, and still far from finished.

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The money was found, the picture was completed, and it opened in 11 cities a week ago. But this hardly spells success for Zoetrope. Many critics found the film a dud, and $23 million is a hefty budget for a dud to recoup. If it fails, Coppola could lose the enterprise he has spent a dozen years building.

If it posts a profit, though, Hollywood had better look out. Coppola has dreams he hasn't even started to realize. If he has his way, and if his skills are equal to his aspirations, he could give us a radical new electronic cinema that's different from anything we've ever seen.

Like fabled Hollywood itself, Coppola is contradictory. Meeting last week with a handful of journalists in New York, he tossed out a multitude of ideas that careened off one another like billiard balls rushing in opposite directions. A few samples:

* On his own ability: ''I probably have genius but no talent. I was never a talented kid.''

* On his own success: ''I'm an extremely wealthy person who sometimes has trouble coming up with $500.''

* On his new movie: ''Someday people may measure films by whether they came before 'One From the Heart' or after it.'' Then, a few minutes later: ''It's just a dumbbell valentine I made, so girls and little children would like me.''

Coppola might not get too much argument on that last point. ''One From the Heart'' is yet another contradiction -- a great big beautiful bore. Made with the latest film technology, crammed with theatrical magic, it wastes these resources on a trite story with dreary characters. It's all style, without a shred of substance. Despite its R rating and occasional nudity, Coppola sees it as an ''innocent'' romance full of charm and optimism. But he's wrong. Happy endings don't mean a thing if there's nothing to build up to them. And pretty packages are disappointing if there's nothing inside.

Still, there is one very impressive thing about ''One From the Heart'' -- its refusal to follow the usual movie patterns. With his cinematic know-how, Coppola could have ground out a more conventional version of the same story (about a couple who break up and get together again) with a lot less risk. Instead, he surrounded his simple plot with all kinds of visual innovations. The lighting design, for example, is more expressive than the performances. This says little for the actors, but it demonstrates Coppola's expertise in technical matters.

How does Coppola feel about all this? He disagrees with the critics of ''One From the Heart,'' insisting the film will be a financial success. But he also looks beyond the moment -- this is just one movie, after all -- and glows with enthusiasm about the future.

''I believe in a cinema of many possibilities,'' he said last week, settling on a sofa in his New York hotel suite. ''I want to work in different styles and be unpredictable, just to get interested again. I don't like going to the movies anymore. Years ago, you could choose from 20 kinds of films to see: swashbucklers, musicals, comedy, social drama, romance, Abbott and Costello. Now there's just three or four things you're allowed to make: screwball comedy, psychosocial stuff, and space opera.

''You don't have diversity anymore,'' he continued. ''It's like a 55-m.p.h. speed limit. But what if you want to go 2,000 m.p.h.? There are plenty of areas in life where you have to stick by the rules. In this field, it shouldn't be that way.''

Significantly, the visionary Coppola isn't interested in small experiments -- inexpensive projects designed to reach a limited number of people. Rather, he wants to work on a large scale, using all the resources of cinema and hitting as wide an audience as possible. That's why he feels so proud over ''Apocalypse Now ,'' his epic about the Vietnam war. ''That was an off-the-wall picture,'' he says, ''a UCLA surrealistic film. Yet it was seen by the world, and made around

''That's just what I want to do -- make movies in a free way, yet do major works with all the elements of the medium. And I want to end up with a crazy film like 'Apocalypse,' not just another 'King Kong' genre picture.''

Coppola is bursting with projects right now, and some of them sound promising. This season Zoetrope will release several films, including ''Hammett'' -- about mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, directed by Wim Wenders - and ''The Escape Artist,'' directed by Caleb Deschanel, who made his debut with ''The Black Stallion'' not long ago. The famous horse will also be back, in ''The Black Stallion Returns.'' And the Zoetrope revival of ''Napoleon,'' the 1927 classic by Abel Gance, is still traveling to special engagements around the United States.

For next season and beyond, Coppola plans four films in a row aimed at young people. The first, already in production, is ''The Outsiders,'' about four teen-age boys who try to make it on their own after losing their parents. The story comes from a novel (by a teen-age author) that was recommended to Coppola in a letter from students at a California high school. He says it's about youth, ''and that special moment when you look at something beautiful and realize that it will change. It's about how teen-agers talk about life and death. And it's very idealistic, because youth is idealistic.''

Beyond these projects, the future looks hazy but exciting - if Coppola and Zoetrope manage to prosper. Even in ''One From the Heart,'' he has been using a whole new system for conceiving and developing movies, involving computer technology that allows the entire film to be ''composed'' on tape before the first set is built or the first actor is chosen. In coming years, he envisions a time when the filmmaker will be able to conjure up any conceivable image or sound, work with it and manipulate it, and perfect the whole movie before going near the camera. If this vision comes true, filmmaking could become a more intuitive, less linear process, which is exactly what Coppola would like.

''When I do experiments while making a film,'' he says, ''it's because I'm trying to learn and master what I'll need for my later work. For example, I'm very interested in combining music and film, but I don't know enough about it. I'm like the Madison Avenue guy who dreams not just about writing a novel, but being qualified to write it.''

What lurks in Coppola's mind as he frets and experiments and learns? ''I'd like to make the opera of the future in film,'' he says. ''It would be long -- in four parts -- like a tapestry with many threads of character, theme, setting, lights, music, poetry. It would be about life and love and energy, as in physics. It would involve history, with Japan and America coming together like lovers. And I want the last 15 minutes to be the first electronic hologram. The whole theater would become -- something I can't describe, but you'd be right there in it.''

Is this all idle fantasy? Maybe not. Coppola sounds serious about his ultimate movie. In fact, he has pinpointed the three stumbling blocks to realizing it. ''First, I have to be good enough to do it. Second, I'd need a company of people who had been with me a long time. And third, I need to figure out where I'll get the money.''

Ideally, he says, Zoetrope will provide the financing for his most ambitious plans. But that depends on the success of ''One From the Heart'' this year, ''The Outsiders'' next year, and other movies after that. Can the Coppola company build such a string of successes? The auguries are good, if past performance is any indication. Zoetrope hasn't made a flop yet, and Coppola's pre-Zoetrope career includes the ''Godfather'' pictures, which also did all right.

But success comes hard in the movie business. ''For a dinky little company with no financing,'' says Coppola about Zoetrope, ''we have had tremendous influence. We've had a string of hits and started a string of new styles. We've introduced new directors, new technical programs, international trends, unorthodox methods of release. And yet we're still struggling to be alive!''

Why? Largely because Zoetrope is still a new kid on the block, an ''American Motors of the movie world'' that just isn't as big as its competitors.

And then there's the Coppola penchant for personal projects. ''I do a lot of things out of enthusiasm,'' he says, ''and I will say yes to pretty much of anything if it feels good to me. I could end all my financing troubles if I just decided to make movies for other people, for a fee of a million dollars or so. But I want to own the rights to what I do. And I want to build my base for the future.''

Looking at the movie world as a whole, Coppola puts the blame for many of its current troubles -- poor films, money worries, et al. -- on the major studios. ''The corporations and the exhibitors, and even the critical press, want films to be more and more uniform, more of a product,'' he says. ''How could film fare have shrunk so much in its possibilities, if everyone weren't in agreement on that?

''But it isn't me who posts the 55-m.p.h. limit. It's a system of overlapping, vested interests which protect the way things are -- because the way things are, they're on top. How can we compete with that?''Though faith in the future is a big part of Coppola's outlook, it can be hard to maintain. ''Optimistically,'' he says, ''I believe in the tremendous potential of worldwide cinema, and uses for cinema in education and other fields. But the companies and conglomerates feel this is too big for the show-business people to be in charge of, so they replace them. They organize it and make it into a product, and erode its traditions.

''The enormous Hollywood machine is all but gone. The craftsmen and artisans are replaced by a kind of cynical professional who goes from job to job. Each film is packaged. Everyone is in business for himself, and the ensemble tradition of the old studios has vanished. And with that erosion of our capabilities is an erosion of the kinds of film we can make.''

Coppola feels this is not only a tragedy for the movies, but an ominous sign of our time. ''I'm not just interested in film,'' he says. ''I care about what's going to happen to all of us in the future. And the best people are not in the driver's seat. We need people who use not just analysis, but intuition. They're our best headlights to go forward.''

In sum, Coppola says, we are downgrading our way of life along with our films. ''It's obvious that movies are nothing more than technology and talent put together,'' he insists. ''If we have an antique technology and no effort to develop talent, what's the future?''

He tries to combat this by developing all sorts of new electronic technology at Zoetrope, while including as many bright young talents as he can find room for. He even has an apprentice program, involving an ''adopted'' junior high school across the street from his studio. ''Zoetrope is doing the research and development for the whole industry,'' he says, ''and yet we're in a tenuous financial position because we're supposed to be reckless.''

''But in my opinion,'' he continues, referring to the other studios, ''they're the reckless ones. It's risky to not take risks, especially at this point in history. This is not a time to hold back. Although things are deteriorating, we have the resources to make the world a pretty nice place.''

And that's the bottom line for this self-described ''genius with no talent.'' Quoting Aldous Huxley, he maintains that ''any society should use its energies for encouraging people to develop their desirable human potentialities.''

What are those potentialities? ''Intelligence, creativity, and friendliness, '' says Coppola. ''Let's do all we can to encourage those three things. . . .''

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