Francis Ford Coppola on YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH “A Tapestry of Illusion”

Director Francis Coppola stopped by the beautifully remodeled Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco December 22 to answer questions from the audience after a screening of his lyrical new movie, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH.  It is based on an allegorical novel by the Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade,  and Coppola shot it (quite gorgeously) on locations throughout Romania. 

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Coppola’s remarks offered much insight about the picture, and what he was trying to accomplish, and since I had an initial negative reaction to the movie, I found myself  revising my opinion somewhat after hearing Coppola talk about the film for nearly an hour. I also have a feeling that YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH will gain tremendously after a second viewing, so for the moment, I will simply say it’s quite a thought provoking movie, re-calling to mind some of the more esoteric films of Alain Resnais about time and memory,  such as JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME  and LAST YEAR  AT MARIENBAD.

It’s also clearly a labor of love for Coppola, who financed the film himself, and thanked everyone who’s ever brought a bottle of Coppola Wine. “You were all executive producer’s on this movie,” he joked.  It’s also a very demanding movie, involving as it does such concepts as human consciousness, dreams, old age and the origin of language. The story also draws on many typical elements from horror films, including the transmigration of souls (THE MUMMY) and FRANKENSTEIN-like Nazi scientists who attempt to extend life with electricity.  

In telling the story, Coppola said he thought of it like an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  He also correctly noted, that “I may have exhausted the audience with the movie, as we start with the main character, Dominic Matei (played by Tim Roth), getting struck by lightning in Romania. Then we go to his running away from the Nazi, and then go to the love story.  My idea was each story would grow out of the last one like a flower, or like those Russian dolls.  Even when I read the book, when  I got to the part where Dominic first meets the girl in the Volkswagen in the mountains, I thought some pages were missing. I thought, ‘What is this? Is this a new story?’ I was so intrigued that I could do that, because it’s so unusual.  Now, I wonder. I think the movie would be more commercial, although that’s not the point, or be more satisfying to an audience if it hadn’t had the three separate stories, because by the time we got to the last one, which I think is the most touching, I may have exhausted the audience.”   

I will post more of Coppola’s fascinating Q & A with the audience in the future, but in the meantime, here is Coppola’s “Director’s Statement” on YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH from the film’s press notes, along with a Q & A Coppola said he did for a documentary on YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH that is included on the new DVD of HEART OF DARKNESS (the movie about the making of Coppola’s Viet Nam war epic, APOCALYPSE NOW). 

Coppola said he began the following interview by looking upwards and thinking ”how would you explain human consciousness to a Martian?”     

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: How do you comprehend human consciousness—really understand its essential nature? One day a martian might come down to Earth and say, “You humans have this thing you call consciousness. We don’t think we have it. Can you explain what it is, what it feels like?” And what would you say? You’d say, “Well, it’s a kind of knowing that involves self-knowing, so that the process of my knowing has with it a personality that I can feel is in fact myself—so that I am aware of my thinking.”

Q: So does this mean that while you’re thinking, you’re also thinking that you’re thinking?

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA:  Yes, it’s sort of like that; it’s that I’m thinking with an identity—an emotional identity—so I’m aware that I’m thinking. I’m self-aware.

Q: I really appreciate your telling me what consciousness is because we, being from another planet, have intelligence, which is to say, we can think, we can figure out problems, but we feel that human beings have a much more mysterious sense of inner-self that we don’t think we have. Can you describe it to us? 

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Well, I can try to describe it. It’s as I’ve said—if you are a person with only one eye, you see only length and width, with no sense of depth. Now add a second eye, and that difference—that new perception of depth—is a kind of consciousness. However, human consciousness is not just a third dimension, it’s multiple dimensions, and it exists in thought, in reasoning, in emotion, in imagery, because it draws upon memory.

Q: That’s very interesting. I do understand what you mean about three dimensions, but a person with only one eye, who’d never perceived three dimensions, could not understand this concept. So perhaps that’s why I can’t understand consciousness.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA:  That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. It’s a—it’s a wholeness that’s multifaceted, but not multifaceted in separate little categories: multifaceted in the potential for three dimensions to illuminate a larger picture, a larger sense of self. That’s what I think consciousness is.

Q: Oh. Very interesting. I don’t understand at all.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA:  Well, that’s why I decided to make this movie, Youth Without Youth, to better understand these ideas for myself.

Q: Has that been the case—do you understand these ideas and yourself better now, having made the movie?

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA:  I think so. I used to say I was interested in consciousness and time because film is so adept at working in those areas; but now I think I’m most captivated by consciousness, because time is an invention of consciousness. That’s what this story is all about. The reality in which we live is beyond our immediate perceptions. Even as a kid, I knew the stars were not little balls of fire in the sky.

Q: Then what is the true nature of reality?

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA:  It’s a kind of changing tapestry of illusion, and that’s also this movie: a tapestry of illusion.

Q: Are people interested in movies like that?

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA:  Well, the movie’s also a beautiful love story and a mystery of a kind. I’ve tried to build the story so that people don’t have to immediately occupy themselves with this examination of consciousness. But then later, seeing the film again, if they want to consider it from that perspective, they can and they’ll discover additional dimensions to the story. That’s the kind of movie I like to make: one that gives more as people give more of themselves to it.

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FRANCIS COPPOLA’S DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT

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I was first made aware of Youth Without Youth by a friend from high school,Wendy Doniger. She did me the favor of reading a screenplay I’d been working on for many years, Megalopolis, without being able to complete. I had a hunch that Wendy, now an eminent professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, could shed light on some of the difficult concepts in the story—and she did. We discussed the two areas of film language which have always intrigued me, time and interior consciousness.

Her reaction to the screenplay was encouraging. More significantly, she also enclosed some intriguing lines from Youth Without Youth, a novella written by her mentor, Mircea Eliade. I decided to read the story itself. Soon after starting, I suddenly thought: ‘I can make this into a movie. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll just start doing it.’

The story touched my life. Like its leading character, Dominic, I was tortured and stumped by my inability to complete an important work. At 66, I was frustrated. I hadn’t made a film in eight years. My businesses were thriving, but my creative life was unfulfilled.

Youth Without Youth was, in a way, like The Twilight Zone—an old man, a professor, becomes young again. He seizes that extra time to continue his research on the origins of language. I wanted to return to personal filmmaking. That meant low budgets. This story was set in Romania. Romania! I’ve always liked getting out of the center of things; moving from L.A. to San Francisco was the same. So very much on the sly, I began negotiating to buy rights to the novella. I started thinking about how I would make the movie even though I didn’t—yet—have a movie to make. I got a notebook and started to break down the story. Suddenly there was hope.

I already had the camera and had recently bought a set of jewel-like lenses, yet I had no movie to make. I began to theorize on a style. Like the great Japanese director, Ozu, I wouldn’t move the camera. That’s hardly original, and only a beginning style, but perhaps my explorations of time and inner consciousness could contribute a few new words to the vocabulary of cinema. This was something I had long yearned to do.

My spirits soared. When I went out with my family or my friends, I felt better because I had a secret no one knew about—a movie brewing. When the script was finished, I went to Romania with my granddaughter, Gia. We stayed at the home of an American friend who’d bought control of a clunky old pharmaceutical company which he was turning into a European Union-compatible business.

This gave me cover: I was anxious not to get ensnared as a famous film director with a big budget. Gia and I traveled around Romania, going to all the real addresses in the story. It was fun and adventure. Little by little, I was cooking up a scheme to make a movie which I could finance myself. It was a relief not to have to go hat-in-hand to money men or studio bosses.

I kept everything simple. When I knew this could work, I brought over two trusted colleagues, Anahid Nazarian and Masa Tsuyuki—and the camera. I began testing actors in a backroom of my host’s pharmaceutical company. There are over 50 roles in Youth Without Youth; how many could I cast right there?

But I had an even more elaborate scheme: each time I shot a test with an actor, I’d use a different photographer. They were all fine but I chose Mihai Malaimare, Jr. The movie was about becoming young again. I liked the fact that Mihai was so young, had a gentle personality, and was tremendously talented. When I told him the camera would remain stationary throughout, he said, “That’s great!”

Step by step, I figured things out. Anahid had produced a couple of low budget films and done a great job. I wanted to keep the crew small. We’d double up. Anahid would be both producer and script supervisor. Equipment-wise, I’d use only what was absolutely necessary. Masa went back to Napa and bought a Dodge Sprinter which he turned into a studio-on-wheels—a van which would carry all the equipment. We shipped it to Romania. Now I’m about to jump off the cliff—create a fait accomplis.

We began filming in October of 2005 and shot for 85 days with a predominantly Romanian cast and crew. I learned a lot from Mircea Eliade, just by walking in his footsteps. I’ve always felt that if you’re working on a film whose themes interest you, the sheer act of making it ensures that you learn. When I read the story, I knew that if I made the movie I’d learn how to express time and dreams cinematically. Making a movie is like asking a question, and when you finish, the movie itself is the answer.
 

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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