"I had an impressive career as a younger person," says Francis Ford Coppola, "but it was like an older director's." Perhaps that's why people have been wondering if he'd gone into early retirement. The director of such indelible movies as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now hasn't put out a film in 10 years and has been, by his own admission, in a creative slump for 25. So now he's changing tactics: since he couldn't scramble out of the ditch going forward, he's trying reverse. For his next film, the aptly titled Youth Without Youth, Coppola, 68, returned to a stage of his career he feels ended prematurely: the beginning. "At 29 I was making an older man's picture [Finian's Rainbow]," he says. "The younger director never had his moment. Now I'm making a younger man's picture."
Youth Without Youth might also be described as a wistful man's picture. An adaptation by Coppola of a novella by the Romanian-born philosopher Mircea Eliade, the unashamedly arty film stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, an aging linguistics professor whose youth is restored after he survives a lightning strike. Because of his rejuvenation, Matei is able to work on his unfinished magnum opus and pursue a lost love. With a dense, multilayered plot spanning multiple continents, decades and languages, and heady themes like consciousness and the nature of time, Youth seems a lot more than a decade removed from Coppola's last film, the decidedly commercial Matt Damon courtroom drama The Rainmaker.
Garrulous and avuncular, sipping a Bloody Mary at 4 p.m. in a Beverly Hills hotel, Coppola explains the crisis of confidence that immobilized him, and his career pivot from John Grisham to a Romanian mythologist. In 2004 the director was much like Matei before the lightning struck; he was frustrated and grappling with a consuming project he couldn't complete. He'd spent most of the '80s and '90s making forgettable films like The Cotton Club and Jack to pay off the enormous debts he had incurred on such experiments as his 1982 musical, One from the Heart. Though there were bright spots, like The Outsiders and Peggy Sue Got Married, most of Coppola's studio pictures during this time left the director and his fans unfulfilled. In 1986 Coppola's 22-year-old son Gian-Carlo died in a boating accident. "When you lose your kid, it's the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning for about seven or eight years. Then there's the first morning when that's not the first thing you think of. You get brave," he says. His other two children, Sofia and Roman, are in the business, although the Oscar-winning Sofia is currently focused mainly on being a mom. Roman, an assistant director on Youth, co-wrote Wes Anderson's new film, The Darjeeling Limited.
By the late '90s, Coppola says, "I just wanted to find a place for myself. I didn't want to be a director who was hired: 'Here's a script, we've got Robin Williams.'" After he lost a lengthy rights battle with Warner Bros. over a Pinocchio project, Coppola says he realized, "I don't have that much time. The time has come to do the dream project, the ultimate one that I write myself that's about something really ambitious, that contributes new ideas to the language of cinema." While the Godfather movies are fan favorites, he prefers the films it took critics longer to embrace, like Apocalypse Now, or audiences to discover, like The Rain People (see box). "The easiest way to make sure a movie is successful is to make a traditional movie very well," he says. "If you make a slightly unusual movie or [don't] exactly follow the rules as everyone sees them, then you get in trouble or, like with Apocalypse, wait 20 years to hear that was really good." Coppola's career capstone was to be a utopian story set in Manhattan called Megalopolis, an original script he had been tinkering with since 1984. "You know those advertising-agency guys that were gonna quit and write a great novel? It was like that," he says.