The Prince

At long last, the Godfather's son makes his first film, and it was not easy

Thirty-four years later, Carson has returned to the school to deliver a series of lectures on the power of fable and film as metaphor, and he asked Coppola, whose film was partially inspired by David Holzman, to join him. Carson--who appears in Coppola's feature debut, CQ, and who helped Roman reshape the film after its disastrous reception at the Cannes Film Festival last year--welcomes Coppola as "a man of imagination and magic." The words make Coppola grin sheepishly.

Roman and Carson have known each other since the early '90s, when they worked on a few ill-fated projects, including an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. But theirs is less a business relationship than it is almost paternal; Carson cares as much about CQ's reception as Coppola. And Carson speaks of him the way a father might of a son. "He has seen so much," Carson recently said of Roman, his voice full of familial warmth, "but is open to so much more."

That Roman has seen so much is obvious from his last name: He is the son of cinematic royalty, the would-be heir to the throne of a visionary. Through his old man's eyes, the son, and the audience, have seen the ascent of a reluctant mobster and the madness induced by war, for starters. He has witnessed the making of mythic masterpieces and, on occasion, the undoing of a mythic director who stumbled a little in the '80s and '90s. He has worked for his father and worked alongside him as a business partner while still in his early 20s. He has borne the curse and blessing of his last name. Roman even looks much like his father, before Francis Ford Coppola grew the bearish beard behind which he's hidden his grin for decades.

The mirror, reflections: Roman Coppola, like the main character in CQ, directs Dragonfly (Angela Lindvall) in her lair.
Jean-Paul Kieffer
The mirror, reflections: Roman Coppola, like the main character in CQ, directs Dragonfly (Angela Lindvall) in her lair.

For these reasons and more, only now is the 36-year-old Roman Coppola debuting his first film, CQ, in which Jeremy Davies plays Paul Ballard, a would-be director living in Paris in 1969 stuck editing a Technicolor grade-Z sci-fi thriller, Codename: Dragonfly, while at the same time documenting his own drab life in grainy black and white. Paul envisions himself a wannabe auteur stuck making someone else's crummy picture. He's searching for his own voice but forced to spit out someone else's, and the circumstances render him almost mute.

In his introduction of Coppola, the 60-year-old Carson said, "Everybody's got a story to tell, and that story is their life"--and you don't have to be a mathematician to add it up: Paul Ballard + CQ = Roman. So Coppola waited some five years to make his move, to make his movie. He did his research, collected photos and images, kept a scrapbook and a diary, stood his ground and waited his turn. If he was going to put his famous last name up there, put himself up there on the big screen, he didn't want to screw it up.

"I knew people would be looking to me, just because of my family heritage and name and stuff," he says after the lecture. Sitting outside beneath a gray sky illuminated by flashes of lightning, Roman lights a cigarette. "They would really cast a real sharp eye, and I felt precious about it."

Still, because of that heritage, Roman Coppola's life does not--cannot--exist on a single roll of film. It unspools in snippets as an editing-room collage consisting of jump cuts and freeze frames and flashbacks. His childhood playgrounds were movie sets; his childhood playmates were flamboyant storytellers. He grew up around film and, on occasion, in film: He appears in Hearts of Darkness, his mother's documentary about his father's on-set collapse during the making of Apocalypse Now, and in The Godfather, Part II as the young Sonny Corleone. George Lucas would later cast Roman and his sister Sofia in Star Wars: Episode I.

It's not easy to decipher where Roman's story begins, because it started decades ago and yet is only now beginning to take shape. Finally, some might shrug. Others have said worse.

Perhaps it begins with his very first memory: on a movie set in 1969, where a 4-year-old boy is surrounded by baby chicks frolicking in a bathtub and strapping men bearing exotic machines over their shoulders and around their waists. Francis was shooting The Rain People, about a woman who abandons her husband and hits the road. Lucas was there, too, filming a documentary, called Filmmaker, about Francis' movie.

It's also possible his story starts in 1986, when that little boy's older brother is killed in a boating accident, and he chooses to take his place on the throne. In May of that year, Griffin O'Neal, Ryan's son, and Gian-Carlo Coppola took a speedboat out on a river near Annapolis, where Francis was shooting Gardens of Stone, about the needless deaths of young men sent to war. O'Neal crashed the speedboat into a towline connecting two other vessels, and Gio suffered fatal head wounds. He was 22 when he died. A few years later, when Roman was 21, he quit New York University film school to work with his father at Zoetrope. There, he headed up Commercial Pictures, which released such small-budget films as The Spirit of '76, which Roman co-wrote. (One hears the echoes of Michael Corleone: "That's the way Pop wanted it.")

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