Coppola not only lived for his films but also lived in and through them, in a constant process of inventing and reinventing himself both as an artist and as a human being through practicing his art. Wasson writes that Coppola’s career is “a colossal, lifelong project of experimental self-creation few filmmakers can afford – emotionally, financially – and none but he has undertaken”
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Sam Wasson is one of the most acclaimed contemporary film historians, labeled by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin as “one of the great chroniclers of Hollywood lore.” His books such as Fosse and Hollywood: An Oral History show his skill in crafting unconventional biographies and documenting the history of American cinema as seen from the perspective of the creators. In his latest work, The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story, Wasson explores certain pivotal points in the career of the renowned filmmaker, delivering his most mature and well-rounded treatise on the auteur who created some of the most iconic movies in the history of the medium. Coppola is a unique case as a director as the level of his engagement with his films remains unmatched by any of his peers. Coppola not only lived for his films but also lived in and through them, in a constant process of inventing and reinventing himself both as an artist and as a human being through practicing his art. Wasson writes that Coppola’s career is “a colossal, lifelong project of experimental self-creation few filmmakers can afford – emotionally, financially – and none but he has undertaken” (4). . . . “Creating the experience. The experience that re-creates the self. The re-created self that creates the work” (4). These were the main phases in Coppola’s filmmaking process, and they constituted the foundation on which the aspirational project of Zoetrope was established.
Zoetrope, a composite word of Greek etymology (ζωή+τρόπος) that translates as “way of life,” was the most apt name for the San Francisco-based film production company co-founded by Coppola in 1969. However, Zoetrope also produced films made by other eminent directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, Wim Wenders, and George Lucas – a close friend of Coppola’s who is frequently mentioned by Wasson as he always has something of interest to contribute to the book’s narrative. Coppola’s career ran in parallel course with Zoetrope’s ascent and decline, and it was there that the American director invested not only money but also his vision regarding the future of cinema and how films should be made. There were times when Zoetrope’s headquarters were bustling with energy and enthusiasm, assembling the young and aspiring filmmakers of San Francisco with each of them contributing their bit in the formation and expansion of the newfound venture; and other times of frustration and failure. The stories of Coppola and Zoetrope collide, and that is one of the unifying themes in Wasson’s book.
Coppola has mostly worked on his own terms, as far as possible from the mainstream American film industry, which to his way of thinking opted for profits at the expense of (his) creative ideas. The principal goal of Zoetrope was to provide Coppola and other more artistically ambitious filmmakers with an opportunity to “make personal films outside the system” (340). He wanted the company not only to exist but to thrive in order to bankroll independent projects. Coppola’s Zoetrope crusaded for a utopia, advocating for “a sort of communal filmmaking fantasia, with ideas and technical innovations (and ideas for technical innovations) flowing forth faster than anyone could register” (Vognar), Wasson’s book focuses on Zoetrope as a groundbreaking invention that would restore the power and resources to the hands of the artists, overcoming the pernicious influence exerted by the big studios.
To draw a fleshed-out portrait of Coppola’s larger-than-life personality, Wasson concentrates on a selected few of the director’s films, most prominently his magnum opus Apocalypse Now (1979), which Wasson describes as “the paragon of Zoetrope-style filmmaking”(4); the 1982 romantic musical One from the Heart, the costly flop that ruined Coppola financially and ended the Zoetrope enterprise; and his dream project that remained in the making for over 40 years, the majestic Megalopolis, which is at this writing in the post-production stage starring Adam Driver, Shia LaBeouf, and Nathalie Emmanuel. Wasson conveys Coppola’s life journey from the chaos and panic that reigned on set during the Apocalypse Now shootings to the serenity and sense of fulfilment experienced by Coppola at the age of 84 as he achieved the lifelong dream of directing Megalopolis. The trail proved to be rough, and there were times that Coppola found himself on the brink of despair, for either artistic or money-related issues that too often challenged his ability to finish his films in the way he desired. The whole experiment of Zoetrope possessed a kind of “infernal” quality, and it is not by chance that Wasson begins the book (and titles it, in part) with an epigram from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy: “The path to paradise begins in hell.” To breathe life into films of such magnitude as Coppola’s, the creator is obliged to pass through a series of dire obstacles and soul-tormenting predicaments that will eventually, and after much pain, lead to the path of glory. Wasson describes Coppola as a man for whom panic was the standard state of mind, always prone to unhealthy doses of debilitating self-criticism and doubt. “Coppola,” he writes, “was a regular in the whirlpool of loss and rediscovery, conviction and uncertainty, ecstasy and despair” (11). However, these mood fluctuations are indicative of the director’s brilliance, especially if we consider the wise words of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: “To think is to have doubts, and doubts are the antechamber of dissent.” Self-doubt is consistent with Coppola’s rebellious, critical stance toward the norms of the film industry, a sine qua non condition for all artistic innovators.
For its better part, The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story centers around the incidents that took place in the Philippines during the shooting of Apocalypse Now. Film critic Robbie Collin writes that “the Apocalypse Now shoot was a mad anecdote machine” (Collin, The Telegraph), and Wasson corroborates this with a multitude of facts. The author feeds the reader an immense quantity of minutiae and tall tales to the point of exhaustion. However, their function is to highlight the director’s adventurous spirit and volatile temperament that manifested itself in various ways while he galvanized the story that was meant to provide a commentary on the Vietnam War, one of the most traumatic events for America in the twentieth century. Coppola was conscious of the subject’s breadth, thus he never pretended to give definitive answers to open questions: “You can’t tell Vietnam, Vietnam has a trillion faces. No one face of Vietnam will resound to the true Vietnam, it’s not possible to do” (53). According to Coppola, the film’s message was that people should face themselves unflinchingly, even in the face of the atrocities of war: “We can’t be afraid of our true nature, because our true nature is all we’ve got” (52), the director declared.
Coppola had to guide and instruct Marlon Brando to help him determine the essence of his character, the mentally unstable Colonel Kurtz, and did the same with Martin Sheen, who played the soldier Willard. Sheen was pushed to the edge by Coppola, who didn’t hesitate to provide the actor with narcotics to get him closer to the story’s mood. A member of the crew remarked: “Francis did a dangerous and terrible thing. He assumed the role of a psychiatrist and did a kind of brainwashing on a man who was much too sensitive” (41), while the actor’s brother, Joe, concluded: “Martin paid a lot of penance for this film” (42). There is also mention of the infamous mirror scene that was shot in a hotel room and during which Sheen really cut himself in the hand, eventually suffering a nervous breakdown.
The book describes in detail how Coppola threatened to destroy the whole set, the extreme weather conditions that made even cocaine melt (!), the tension between Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, the relationships with his collaborators, and more. He considered those closest to him on set to be his extended family. Dean Tavoularis, Fred Roos, Gray Frederickson, and Vittorio Storaro, all working with Coppola in more than one film, are frequently quoted by Wasson, shedding light on lesser-known aspects of Coppola’s character. It should be noted that, despite his dubious methods, Coppola was not tyrannical towards his crew, adopting a more paternal stance as Wasson emphasizes.
Wife Eleanor later created, along with George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr, the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which was based on her own behind-the-scenes footage shot in the Philippines. Previously, in 1979, she authored a memoir under the title Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now that provided a comprehensive account of the production’s hardships. Readers who are acquainted with the documentary or the memoir will experience a feeling of déjà vu reading Wasson’s chronicle, though he mentions several facts and stories that have never been published until now. The author dives deep into Coppola’s archives and conducted several interviews with his subject in order to expand the scope of his book that remains focused throughout on Coppola’s creative genius, his vision for Zoetrope, but also his fatal flaws that were responsible for some painful career choices.
Wasson also explores One from the Heart and its devastating financial fallout for Coppola, who saw his hopes of making Zoetrope a Paramount-like production studio turn to dust after the release of that movie. After a streak of masterpieces that he shot during the 1970s (The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part 2, Apocalypse Now), Coppola felt like doing something completely different and attempted to revive the American technicolor musicals of the 1940s and ’50s adding a modern spin. However, what he found most challenging story-wise was the question of “how to convey love visually, in cinematic terms?” (212), and that was the main reason why he agreed to direct One from the Heart, though his exorbitant fee of $3 million certainly played a critical role too. The film was not entirely devoid of artistic merit with the story focusing on two youngsters who realize their feelings toward one another after breaking up, in other words it was about “lovers drawn apart by their fantasies, reunited by deeper acceptance and love” (212). The simplistic moral lesson and the unrelatable characters were the main reasons that for the film’s poor reception and complete commercial failure. One from the Heart grossed $389,249 on its first weekend in 41 theaters, with a total gross of $636,796, against a $26 million budget. Coppola was forced to close the Los Angeles Zoetrope studios and sell several of his assets as a result.
The book concludes with Wasson visiting Coppola on the set of Megalopolis in Atlanta, to witness firsthand the filmmaker living his long-awaited dream. During the shooting, Coppola exuded an air not of authority but rather of genuine artistic fulfilment. He was giving instructions to Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel for a kissing scene. Wasson leaves the reader with the image of Coppola being serene and satisfied, thus providing the best denouement in a book that avoids the pitfall of glamorizing its subject, providing a vivacious and authentic portrait of a legendary visual artist. Talking about his approach to the book’s subject, Wasson said that it is “not always flattering, but it finally is admiring,” while adding, “The human errors are all of ours, but none of us, or very few of us, lay claim to this kind of talent or ambition” (Vognar, 2023). Coppola’s erratic disposition, the source of his monumental masterpieces, proved to be a double-edged sword as it led to controversial decisions that hurt both himself as a director and Zoetrope. His intensity benefitted him artistically but compromised the cool head needed on the business side of his films. The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story is a necessary addition to the bookshelves of all those interested in film and media studies; the volume of information in the book in no way diminishes its entertainment value over the course of 400 pages.
Collin, Robbie, “Melting Cocaine, Volcanic Lairs – The Real-Life Hell of Apocalypse Now.” The Telegraph, October 28, 2023. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/path-paradise-sam-wasson-review-francis-ford-coppola/
Kamp, David, “Francis Ford Coppola Talks a Big Game, and for Good Reason.” The New York Times, December 1, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/01/books/review/path-to-paradise-sam-wasson.html
Maslin, Janet, “It’s ‘Chinatown,’ Jake. On Second Thought, Don’t Forget It.” The New York Times, February 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/books/review-big-goodbye-chinatown-hollywood-sam-wasson.html
Vognar, Chris, “How a New Book Unearthed Francis Ford Coppola’s Failed Utopia.” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2023. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-11-28/utopia-with-an-asterisk-how-writer-sam-wasson-captured-francis-ford-coppola-dreams