Happy Birthday, Francis Ford Coppola

In observance of The Great One’s birthday, an excerpt from Francis Ford Coppola, by Jeff Menne, a recent book in UIP’s Contemporary Film Director’s Series. Here Menne describes how Coppola’s early film The Rain People affected his working method and the structure of his film production company, American Zoetrope.


Coppola and the small crew traveled in a motorcade of station wagons and microbuses; the most innovative vehicle—dubbed “Silverfish,” though the editor Barry Malkin taped a sign on it reading, “The Magical Mystery Tour”—was a fully rigged production facility on wheels (with mixing boards installed within). “Radio communication between the vans was essential,” Peter Cowie writes, “as usually the next night’s destination was not fixed.”

Their nomadism let them slip Hollywood unions, but it added the diplomatic task of getting shooting permission in the random municipalities. Hence, once they left New York, George Lucas relates, “[E]verybody had to get a haircut and shave their beards off” so that, as incognito hippies, they could “get the cooperation of the various cities and towns that [they’d] go through in order to be able to shoot.”

In part this caravan lifestyle placed them at a remove—“We were isolated and on our own,” Robert Duvall recalls—so that they would be allowed to create a business culture of their own that they could then transplant to San Francisco, the final destination not for the movie alone but for American Zoetrope, the firm being germinated by the movie. That was the final term, after all, and the movie was but a means for it. Making The Rain People, by every account, was fun for all involved. “Those of us who went along,” Coppola notes, “including Jimmy Caan and Bobby Duvall, still talk about the cookouts in the back of the sound trailer.”

The pleasure, though, was professional pleasure. The cinematographer, Bill Butler, impressive as his credits are (Jaws, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Grease), still counts The Rain People as one of his best jobs. The challenge of having only a “minimum number of lights” was considerable, he recalls, but Coppola “gives you a lot of freedom. He lets your creativity work for him.” Like Preston Tucker, one might say. Coppola would call this his “creative management.” It forced one to be inventive, Butler says, and Coppola “loves that particular kind of inventiveness anyway.” Butler continues, “I don’t believe I’ve pulled off more special things for anyone than I have for him.”