With Highway 29’s lumbering procession of dilapidated tractors and the distracting vistas of lush Napa Valley grapevines, it’s all too easy to miss the turn completely. After all, it’s not like there are any flashing neon road signs that announce: ”The Good Life — Next Left.” But here, 10 hours north of Hollywood’s heart of darkness, Francis Ford Coppola seems to have found la dolce vita.
Turning a cigar in gentle rotations over the flame from a flashy gold lighter, the 58-year-old director of The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now relaxes on the enormous wraparound porch of his Victorian home, exhaling smoke and inhaling the sprawling expanse of his 1,600-acre Niebaum-Coppola winery. Ostensibly, the topic is his latest film, John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, which opens Nov. 21. But it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the broader landscape of Hollywood’s past and future, as well as to why one of the most self-assured maverick directors in the business chose, for his 20th film, to adapt a best-selling legal potboiler.
As to this last question, remember before you cry ”sellout” that before Marlon Brando stuffed his mouth with cotton balls, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was a page-turning beach read too. Two years ago, Coppola, then a Grisham virgin, picked up the book and read it during a flight to France. ”I had heard that it was this runaway hit,” says the director. ”So I thought it would be fun to read a best-selling book…maybe I could learn something about what the public wants.” Needless to say, the public wants Grisham. In addition to worldwide sales of 60 million copies, the author has seen five previous adaptations of his thrillers rack up $475 million at the U.S. box office.
Presold audience aside, Coppola also saw a kindred spirit in the novel’s crusading young legal novice, Rudy Baylor (played by Matt Damon). More than 25 years ago, Coppola spearheaded a feisty movement of young visionary auteurs (including George Lucas and John Milius) who wanted to remake Hollywood on their own terms. ”Ultimately, we didn’t succeed,” he says, referring to various incarnations of his boutique production company American Zoetrope, ”but we made a dent. We wanted to transform the system by showing a love for writers and directors. We’re proud of what we did, but it would have been nice if we changed the system a little.”
Nowadays, though, Coppola says his goal is to get back to creating his own self-financed stories from scratch. ”I decided when I was about 56 that if I really wanted to have one last decade doing the work I want to do, I should do a few studio pictures in a row as well as I knew how…so I would live to come back another day.” In other words, like Michael Corleone, just when he thinks he’s out…
It’s not a compromise that’s unique to Coppola. Fellow trailblazer Robert Altman is coming out with a film based on a Grisham screenplay (The Gingerbread Man) early next year. ”It really says more about the industry today than [about] Francis or Robert Altman,” says Rainmaker producer Fred Fuchs. ”It’s sort of sad. I mean, why does Francis have to keep proving himself to the studios?” Adds Coppola: ”All of the directors in the Bob Altman category — if I allow myself to be in that category — Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, all of these directors are in a state of anxiety that they’re not going to be able to make the kinds of movies they’re capable of unless their Friday-night grosses are big. We’re all on borrowed time, hoping we can be viable in this new set-up so that we can go on in the time we have left to make a few personal films.”