The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story

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Release Date: 
November 28, 2023
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“The path to paradise is a rocky road with lots of detours and dead ends along the way. Some of them may even end in an apocalypse. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola.”

Most film lovers know Francis Ford Coppola for his soaring successes and box office smashes. The list of blockbusters, though, is balanced by lesser, albeit solid films, and even a handful of losers. In The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story, author Sam Wasson examines Coppola’s career in a cautionary tale that resembles the erratic trajectory of a West Texas oil field: full of booms and busts.

It was a career that produced godfathers and apocalypses, Oscars and flops. It careened through jungles, manufactured movie sets, and descended into bankruptcy courts. And it was a career that almost didn’t even get up on its feet. Literally.

Growing up in New York, Coppola had been afflicted with polio, the scourge of the 1950s, leaving him bedridden and missing his sixth-grade year in school. His doctors were convinced he would never walk again. Experiences like that can be devastating for a child, destroying futures before they can even begin. But sometimes, they can provide inspiration. And so it was for the young Francis.

While homebound, Coppola entertained himself by watching television and listening to the radio, and he “learned that stories, like sounds and music, create worlds that live in your head.” He likened the experience to an “oyster growing this pearl of feelings out of which comes the basis of art.” That pearl, the author writes, is “the magic potion of fairy tales, a treasure of transformation.” So out of infirmity, a filmmaking giant was born.

The Road to Paradise is as much, or more, a psychological study of Coppola’s dual nature as it is a narrative of his filmmaking career. The duality of his nature is reflected in almost everything about him. The author writes, “Coppola was a regular in the whirlpool of loss and discovery, conviction and uncertainty, ecstasy and despair.”

With friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas, he founded American Zoetrope—named for a 19th century optical toy—as the vehicle through which to pursue his dream of being a filmmaker outside of the studio system. It must have sounded good in theory but, while unquestionably a creative genius, Coppola was also a financial dunce, who reveled in prosperity and wallowed in adversity.

Coppola’s vision often exceeded his bank account. He was a profligate spender in the high times, while the lows often sent him hat in hand to search for others—sometimes investors, sometimes the very studios he disdained, and sometimes financial institutions—to bankroll his next big hit, only to repeat the cycle again.

Debt, the bane of his existence, even transformed him from a dreamer and a creator into a serial bankruptcy filer. New Zoetrope iterations emerged, sans Lucas, who had followed his own creative path after his brief stint with Coppola. It might be likened to a phoenix rising from the ashes, but with charred wings weakened by the financial fires. And that often forced him to take on director-for-hire jobs.

The book is broken down into two parts, The Dream and The Apocalypse. Broadly speaking, it is pre and post Apocalypse Now. A considerable portion of the first half of the book is devoted to the making of that film, Coppola’s signature statement on the Vietnam War and a metaphor for its moral uncertainty. But, Wasson tells the reader, it “is not, as Coppola began it, a film about Vietnam. It isn’t even about war.”

Things change when making a film. And for Coppola, as much as anything, making Apocalypse Now “was a rite of passage.” A massive undertaking, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, production was complicated from the very start by the need for a proper screenplay, provided Coppola could find the essence of the story he wanted to tell in the first place.

Writing the script presented Coppola with the writer’s classic “chicken or the egg” dilemma: which comes first, the beginning or the end of the story? The author beautifully encapsulated it this way: “He couldn’t know the ending until he was certain he knew the beginning, but he couldn’t be sure about the beginning until he knew why and how it ended, and not knowing how it began or ended, he couldn’t be sure he knew what, in the most fundamental terms, the story was about. . . .”

The filmmaking process was, itself, an uncertainty, marred by constant rewriting, drugs on set, the remoteness of filming in the Philippines, a heart attack (Martin Sheen’s), and a typhoon, not to mention two of the biggest uncertainties in all of Hollywood at the time: Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper. But somehow the fates aligned, and the film was completed after years in development and production.

Released in 1979, it became a hit, earning multiple Oscar nominations, including producing, writing, and directing nominations for Coppola. And in some ways, the film’s metaphor for Vietnam was a metaphor for Coppola, himself, whom the author quotes as saying, “. . . When you start fooling around with metaphor . . . the metaphor fools around with you.’”

Flush with cash from the film’s success, Coppola had to figure out (a) his next project; and (b) how to spend the cash so as to put himself back in financial jeopardy. The two goals combined just a couple of years later with a love story musically scored by Tom Waits and set in Las Vegas, because “Love is a gamble.”

It well may be that Coppola’s real apocalypse—defined as catastrophic destruction or damage—was not the troubled production in the jungles of the Philippines starring Brando, Duvall, and Sheen, but rather One from the Heart, released in 1982. The film, more than $25 million over budget, was bloated by Coppola’s expensive whims, such as recreating Las Vegas rather than shooting on location. A financial and critical failure, he pulled it from distribution after less than six weeks in theaters and less than a million dollars in ticket sales.

In the wake of the disaster, and now more than $30 million in debt to Chase Manhattan, Coppola was forced to try to sell Zoetrope Studios, the latest, and “most ambitious incarnation” of Coppola’s Zoetrope. After multiple extensions on the bank loan from the bank, the studio went into bankruptcy—the third for Coppola—shortly before the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Boom and bust.

The path to paradise is a rocky road with lots of detours and dead ends along the way. Some of them may even end in an apocalypse. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola. His body of work as a writer, director, and/or producer is rivaled by few, including Oscar wins and nominations for Patton, The Godfather Parts I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. Even his non-Oscar-nominated films are viewed fondly—such as Lost in Translation, The Black Stallion, The Outsiders, The Rain People, and The Cotton Club.

Movie-goers have short memories, even for disasters like One from the Heart, so long as the next one is great. What his fans, and even his detractors, want to know is what’s next for Coppola, now at age 84. Wasson writes, “In victory and defeat, he was the map of history, the next idea. Heaven, he held the compass for those who dreamed the furthest. What wonders lay ahead, they would find together.”