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At the same time, the director's side businesses were turning out to be a lot more profitable than his filmmaking. By 2001 his Napa Valley winery (he now has another in Sonoma) and his resort company were earning enough for him to start production on Megalopolis with his own money. But Sept. 11 forced him to reevaluate his fictional future New York City. Banging away on the project year after year was "like being in love with a beautiful, wonderful woman who doesn't want you," he says. "You don't get her, of course, because she doesn't want you, but you don't get anyone else because you can't see anyone because of her."
One friend who sent Coppola encouraging notes on his Megalopolis script was Wendy Doniger, the first girl he had ever kissed and the one who gave him On the Road when they were students at Great Neck High School in Long Island, New York, in the '50s. (Coppola has optioned the book.) He flew his private plane to Chicago to pick up Doniger, now a University of Chicago professor of Hinduism and comparative mythology, and bring her back to Napa to discuss her ideas with him and his wife Eleanor. Over the house wine and Coppola's cooking, they talked about his career. "He was stuck," says Doniger. "For the first time in his life, he could finance a movie, and therefore he didn't have to do what anybody else said, and that paralyzed him. He had no excuse this time if the film was no good. What froze him was having the power to do exactly what he wanted so that his soul was on the line."
Hoping to help him with some of the themes he was struggling with on Megalopolis, Doniger gave Coppola some of Eliade's works, including Youth Without Youth. The book, meant to be inspirational, became Coppola's lightning bolt. "I realized, well, I can just go to Romania and make this movie and not tell anyone. I optioned the script on the sly, didn't tell my wife. I was so wounded for those five, six years that it felt good to have a secret project. It's like if you had $1 million cash in your purse that no one knew about, you'd feel empowered."
Within his family's company, Francis Ford Coppola Presents Ltd., Coppola can make any movie he wants if he spends less than $17 million. Youth, thanks to financial incentives for movies made in Europe and some scrappy filmmaking, fits into that category. Coppola set up a production office at a friend's Bucharest pharmaceutical company, auditioning actors and cinematographers amid stores of cough syrup and vitamins. He hired a 28-year-old director of photography who had just gotten out of film school to shoot in less expensive high-definition digital video. With the help of old friend George Lucas, Coppola equipped a Dodge Sprinter cargo van with all the camera gear he would need, a technique he had employed on The Rain People, the 1969 movie they worked on together. For the first time since Rumble Fish in 1983, Coppola says, he felt creatively fulfilled while making a movie. "Youth Without Youth got me across the gap," he says. "You lose your confidence. People in the arts they've got that, maybe, imbalance. Now I know I can make a movie without having to ask anyone's permission."
The film got its first airing at the Rome Film Festival, where the reaction suggested that Coppola is going to have a tough time making young men's pictures again. Rookie directors can experiment quietly; every movie Coppola makes is an international event. "I'm not supposed to call this a small movie or an experimental movie," he says, because he knows it might turn off fans. It probably didn't help that he was quoted in the November GQ as saying he felt Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson have lost the passion for good roles. Coppola told reporters in Rome that the comments were taken out of context, saying, "I was astonished because it wasn't true, and I have nothing but respect and admiration" for the actors. "These are the three greatest actors in the world today, and they are my friends." In whatever context the original comments were made and Coppola declined to clarify them for TIME he's not alone in his opinion. While Coppola was searching for creative purpose, after all, De Niro was making Meet the Fockers and Analyze That.
Now that Coppola has shaken the blahs, he'll get back behind the camera again and start shooting a script of his own still not Megalopolis in Argentina in February. Tetro, starring Matt Dillon and Javier Bardem, is "about fathers and brothers and creative competition, a little Greek." In September thieves broke into Coppola's home studio in Buenos Aires. "Five guys tied up the people, stabbed the photographer in the shoulder when he resisted and stole our electronics," including Coppola's computer with the Tetro script on it and his backup drives. "The script was finished. It made Hamlet look like garbage, but it's gone," he says, deadpan. Nevertheless, the production is moving ahead. He'll shoot the film in the same guerrilla style as Youth. As Coppola starts describing the Dodge Sprinter, already on its way to Argentina, a pretty, sixtysomething woman approaches his table and tells the director she knew him from Long Island's Point Lookout Beach in the '50s. "Did we know each other then?" he asks, trying to remember. "You were beautiful, and I was the schlumpy kid. You didn't pay attention to me. How are we gonna go back and recapture those moments?"