Francis Ford Coppola discusses the 'Golden Age of TV' in exclusive book excerpt
From 'I Love Lucy' and 'SNL' to 'The Wire' and 'Breaking Bad'
Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now!, is one of Hollywood’s greatest and most influential filmmakers.
In recent years, he’s turned to the subject of “live cinema” — the creation of an entirely new art form for the screen wherein movies and other projects are instantly streamed via satellite for viewing throughout the world. The idea is to capture a “look and feel” that’s cinematic, relative to more conventional forms of live entertainment.
Coppola is now preparing to introduce the masses to this new art form in his upcoming book Live Cinema and Its Techniques. Part technical manifesto, part riveting history of live movies and TV, and part freewheeling artistic reflection, Live Cinema compactly presents Coppola’s innovative ideas, depth of knowledge, and enduring passions in the live cinema space.
“So does the fact that we love these old films to the extent we do act as a barrier?” Coppola asks in the book’s afterword. “That sometimes we don’t even try to think beyond them, even when the means to manufacture them has entirely changed? It’s as if having the technology, we build an airplane, but insist on driving it around on the highway because the cars of our time are so wonderful and beloved.”
In an excerpt from Live Cinema obtained exclusively by EW, Coppola intermixes a fascinating history of live television, and particularly SNL; musings on the first “Golden Age of TV” he lived through and how it shaped both the big- and small-screen mediums for generations to come; and some brief auteur theory, and its uneasy historical placing between film and TV. Read on below.
Excerpt from Live Cinema and Its Techniques
THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION
Television in America began in earnest at the conclusion of World War II, just as many young GIs found themselves in New York, Chicago, and other major cities. Many who had participated in the artistic units in the army, touring theater efforts, and even the signal corps were anxious to find employment in the new industry. Those who came to New York found an especially fertile place to begin. The New York theater was also resplendent with fine actors who worked mostly in the evening, and so were available for rehearsal in the mornings and afternoons, and had Sundays free to shoot. A few studios were set up in the city, one famously at the top of Grand Central Station, another, DuMont’s, at Wanamaker’s department store at 9th Street and Broadway.
At first, good material was hard to come by. The powerful film industry, wary of this new form of entertainment, was resistant to any cooperation unless they were able to buy into or control the new art form. For forty or so years, the motion picture studios had been optioning and buying all the available literary materials — novels, histories, and plays, as well as all rights of their authors. Little was available to the talented young television producers, such as Fred Coe, who had come from the Yale School of Drama, to put into production. At first they tried classics, public domain material such as Shakespeare, but such programming suffered in comparison to the high-quality and exciting material accumulated over the years by the competing film industry.
But a change of thinking arrived with the influx of postwar talent. The new television directors, such as Arthur Penn, who had recently been discharged from the armed services, remembered that they knew young writers in the service with whom they had worked. Many in the new industry thought that they’d have nothing to lose by letting these recently discharged young playwrights try their hand, writing about anything they wanted to. The soon-to-be famous writers included the likes of Paddy Chayefsky, JP Miller, Gore Vidal, and Rod Serling, and their work, contemporary and intimate, was incendiary in this new medium. Thus began the Golden Age of Live Television. Sidney Lumet told me that when he was recruited from the theater to work on Danger for CBS, he encountered an exciting TV director, to whom he was assigned as an assistant, and his own assistant was an even younger man named John Frankenheimer. One day their boss, this first whiz director of television, told them, “Well boys, I’m going to audition for a new musical here on Broadway.” That man was Yul Brynner, who would then land the starring role in The King and I, enabling Lumet to be promoted to director, and Frankenheimer to be stage manager. The “live” period that ensued is duly memorialized as the Golden Age of Television. Extraordinary live productions such as Marty, Days of Wine and Roses, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns, and The Comedian will be forever treasured as classics.
Of the directors of live television, John Frankenheimer tended toward a more cinematic style, as he aspired to be a film director. His live productions were in my mind the beginning of what I’d call Live Cinema, as they told their stories not only with the finest of acting and writing, but with exciting cinematic shots and editing. Although Frankenheimer wasn’t chosen to direct the later film version of Days of Wine and Roses, his live television version with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie is to me far more moving and emotional, due to the immediacy and the heartbreaking reality that live performances gave the story, combined with Frankenheimer’s cinematic vision.
I’ll never forget one day in the mid-1950s when my mother came to my room to say that my father was on television. I ran down to the television in his studio two floors below, and there he was — playing the flute on our TV. But I turned around, and there he also was, sitting at his piano watching the broadcast. It was astounding. He explained that the program had been recorded on the new Ampex video recorder (with young Ray Dolby on the team) and it was absolutely impossible to know it wasn’t live. The Ampex video recorder came out in 1956 (the year before Frankenheimer’s The Comedian was broadcast), and was followed by Toshiba’s video helical scan tape recorder in 1959, which solved the problem of tremendous bandwidth required by video by means of a rotating pickup head. For me, The Comedian is the masterpiece of Live Cinema because it was shot in a cinematic style, and everything it did, it did in a great live performance. The shows possessed a life and reality in their performances that made them memorable. Frankenheimer went on to do more major productions, both live and pre-recorded, some for Playhouse 90, such as The Turn of the Screw, starring Ingrid Bergman, and a two-part For Whom the Bell Tolls. But with the new video recorder, Hollywood finally caught up with television and economics prevailed as the Golden Age succumbed to edited film production and comedies such as I Love Lucy followed by decades of filmed entertainment.
A NEW ERA OF POSSIBILITIES
More than half a century has elapsed since the end of that exceptional creative period, and television has gone on into any number of areas. Today, sports remain the most popular programming available, and are “live” by necessity. The many awards shows that have slavishly come upon the heels of the Academy Awards are also live. Aside from the phenomenon of all-news stations, following Ted Turner’s brilliant concept of using satellites to create the superstation CNN in Atlanta, and a few live spectacles such as musicals and plays, television entertainment is largely a canned medium.
Interestingly, from the technology that has emerged from sports — satellite feeds and instant replay servers, as well as from a variety of other technologies, which are being introduced monthly — there is a rich array of equipment that could, if desired, be turned to storytelling. The days when television represented a console in the home and film was seen in a movie theater seem to be over. Television and movies are now pretty much the same thing, as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have shown. Cinema can now be from one minute long to one hundred hours, seen anywhere, in the home, the theater, the church or community center, and anywhere around the world, thanks to satellites and digital electronics.
The period of filmmaking in the 1970s and early 1980s is thought of as a breakthrough in personal expression, and in later years became an inspiration to the next generation of filmmakers who were weaned on Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Manhattan, and some of my films. However, these new auteurs realized at the same time that Hollywood had latched the gate on such a permissive period, and the opportunity to make films in this tradition was over. So they turned to long-form cable television, resolved to make that kind of personal cinema. This led to a second Golden Age of Television, with such productions as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, and Deadwood, to list just a few. In addition, throughout this entire period, starting in 1975, there was live TV bordering on Live Cinema in the form of Saturday Night Live (SNL).
SNL has managed to be both popular and relevant — no doubt popular because it is relevant. It is performed live, and it comes close to being Live Cinema because it often tells a story in a sequence of shots rather than in the simple coverage of a stage event. This is not new; Ernie Kovacs often did this, as did Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Jackie Gleason. The original Honeymooners comedy show often parodied current events. Certainly these shows are as enjoyable as recorded shows as they are live ones, attested to by the valuable archival versions. (Some of SNL has always made use of recorded portions, even filmed parts, and EVS replay servers.) What, then, is the difference between those two ways of seeing the show? SNL is “live” in essence, because that fact enables it to be immediately relevant to current and topical events. SNL’s parody of breaking news is able to incorporate facets of politics that have just occurred. This is the essence of live events: simply put, you don’t know what will happen until it happens.
So SNL is by its very definition a Live Cinema show, just as any sporting event or coverage of a news event must be, whether it’s seen and enjoyed later or not. The popular comedy show is a parody of current affairs and thus must wait for those affairs to show themselves before it can make fun of them. It’s better to view them in the freshness of the moment, but there’s also a second mode, when you see them later. It’s a little like a family photograph, which is enjoyed immediately on the first look, but also sometimes even more so later on when the passage of time has made it “vintage.”
Recently, I saw Woody Harrelson’s Lost in London, shot with a single camera in one night, and broadcast live to 500 theaters. It was, in my opinion, a total success — funny, full of energy, and an amazing display of imaginative technology. It of course got through the “live” issue by being a one-shot film, like Russian Ark, Birdman, and Victoria. I believe it may have been the first Live Cinema event sent directly to theaters, but perhaps that distinction belongs to the magnificent Andrea Andermann production of La Traviata. Harrelson’s “one camera” decision covered imaginative staging without switching cameras, following the impressive acting tour de force of Harrelson and his cast by dragging the audience along on the romp. It proved that if a project is well-rehearsed, the actors are up to the challenge, as this cast certainly was. Lost in London is certainly a milestone in the history of Live Cinema.