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.")

"It's almost like one of those romantic novels where you lose one son who was the prince, and now the next one comes to replace him," Francis would later say with no small amount of pride.

In recent years, Roman has become well-known as a director of commercials (for the Gap, among others) and music videos for such bands as Presidents of the United States of America, Daft Punk, Moby and Fatboy Slim (whose award-winning "Praise You" short he co-directed with brother-in-law Spike Jonze, married to Sofia). But Coppola knew he would be expected to make a movie, although he was in no rush despite the burden of anticipation. Sofia, five years younger, had already been to the debutante ball with The Virgin Suicides, on which Roman worked as second-unit director. (Roman often performed the same task for his old man.) It was his turn, but nothing struck him as necessary or inevitable. At one point, he was set to direct The Van Helsing Chronicles, a "sequel" to his father's 1992 Dracula in which Anthony Hopkins would reprise his role as a vampire hunter. He penned a spec script of On the Road--"just out of my own interest," he says--but it, too, did not happen. Roman also thought of adapting a comic book, having kept copies of Dr. Strange around the Dracula set.

"But it's very difficult to get a movie realized," he says. "It takes luck; it takes harmonic convergence, the right material. A lot of people asked me why didn't I do a movie sooner, as though I could just push a button. It shows a naíveté where they think I can do whatever I want at any time. The fact is, opportunities open up and close. I really kinda promised myself or felt in my heart that I'd really have to do something that really is my voice. To do something other than that would be a misstep."

Not that CQ hasn't been perceived as such: When it debuted at Cannes last May, it was greeted with critical disdain, most notably in the trades. Variety insisted that "Coppola's first film has sympathetic aims but is distressingly lacking in flair, style, wit or fun." The Hollywood Reporter claimed it was "a maddening mishmash of styles and genres with absolutely no dramatic resonance." Roman was a bit hurt by the reviews--"It was pretty bizarre," he says, "and I was kinda confused"--but, in the end, not entirely surprised. Likely, CQ was a victim of circumstance: It screened the day after his father made his triumphant return to France with his elongated Apocalypse Now Redux, and it's possible the press had a bit of schadenfreude fever going for the son of the legend.

"There were a few positive remarks, but it was odd because you feel like you did something really sincere and fresh," Roman says. "Maybe it's not great--it certainly isn't--but to dismiss it as having no value is a little harsh."

But Francis, who produced CQ, and Roman would agree that perhaps CQ needed more work. Last August, Francis asked Kit Carson to fly from Dallas to the family's estate in Napa to help reshape the movie, since it was a sort of spiritual sequel to David Holzman. They eventually recut the opening, trimmed some scenes, added others and polished the ending, and the result is a joyous piece of cinema--a celebration of all Roman's seen and done, without a hint of cynicism.

CQ, or "Seek you," is his story--and the story of dozens of other movies Roman has watched and absorbed over the years, among them David Holzman's Diary, Mario Bava's 1968 campy comic-book adaptation of Danger: Diabolik and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, about a director unable to do the job. The film is riddled with signifiers, from Paul's cameras (the ones Francis used to shoot The Rain People) to a scene of dripping water (lifted from sister Sofia's 1999 The Virgin Suicides) down to the opening shot of the original American Zoetrope logo, created for his father's production company in the late '60s. It appeared only one other time, at the beginning of Lucas' 1970 THX-1138.

"And the last shot of CQ is the American Zoetrope logo from 2002, so it made me happy. It's another little theme of the movie expressed through the logos--to have the old and the new and two generations bonded together. They say to write what you know, so you can stand on that," Coppola says. "I just felt how wonderful it would be to do just that--to make a first film about a first film and all those experiences and all those sensations and all the experience of living that would bear into that. I saw my dad do it on his films--live a bit of the experience of that movie as part of his process, Apocalypse being a sort of famous example of kind of submerging yourself in that world and emulating the story to a degree. So maybe that was a subconscious thing I drew upon."

His friend and mentor, Carson, would agree. "Roman had to go through all of this to get to the end of that journey of revealing himself, of being comfortable talking about himself, of showing more of his insides," Carson says. "It took him a long time to pick up the [family] spear, and I think that has to do with him wanting to make sure he was good enough to pick up the spear, and he did when it was an accidental combination of fate and life."

If CQ is a product of Coppola's experiences to this point, if it's a release of so many memories and expectations, then what follows? During his talk at the university, Coppola explained that it took so long for him to make his first movie because he never found something "genuine, from the heart." Later, he will insist that CQ, for all its allusions to fathers and sons and filmmaking, has but one function: It's a movie intended only "to make you smile," Coppola tells the auditorium, smiling.

"What turns me on is just having your imagination set free and to see things realized and spring out of your imagination," he says later, finishing his cigarette. "Just the pleasure of walking onto an empty soundstage and seeing the construction of a set and see it fill out, it's a total thrill. And I'm not at all cynical about that."

Roman Coppola and L.M. Kit Carson, filmmakers and friends and co-conspirators, sit in front of an audience of 30 on the University of Dallas campus. Their appearance together, in this wood-paneled auditorium on this verdant site, completes a circle, or perhaps a dozen of them, and the moment makes Carson anxious. He feels the vibe. He vibrates. It was here in the late 1960s, on this liberal-arts college campus, where he hatched the idea for his celebrated 1968 mockumentary David Holzman's Diary, a black-and-white parody of cinema verité in which Carson, as Holzman, turns the camera on himself in order to "get it all."

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