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Roman Coppola

What's inside the mind of Roman Coppola? The music video director for Phoenix and The Strokes, Wes Anderson collaborator, and filmmaker behind stylish and beguiling features CQ and Charles Swan tells us how working on Rumblefish and seeing Fellini films changed his life forever.

Interview By Laura Barcella, April 25, 2013

Photos by Sylvia Krzysztofek

Roman Coppola’s family legacy floats through the door alongside him as the filmmaker strides into Cafe Zoetrope, a European-style cafe on the ground floor of the Sentinel Building in San Francisco's North Beach, home to the headquarters of American Zoetrope, the movie studio he owns with sister Sofia. Though admirably non-Hollywood in appearance (or perhaps Hollywood of another era), Roman, 47, has an air of cool confidence.

Though photos, reviews, and film-set mementos bedeck nearly every inch of wall space at Cafe Zoetrope, the family doesn't have a reputation for flaunting its fame. Roman, Sofia, and older brother Gian-Carlo (who died in a boating accident in 1986) grew up in decidedly crunchy San Francisco and have generally eschewed the Tinseltown fast life. Instead Roman, who’s currently promoting the 2012 feature he wrote and directed, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, recalls tagging along with his dad (Francis Ford) on movie sets, helping out where he could. Eventually those here-and-there gigs blossomed into a career, and he began shooting music videos for artists like The Strokes, Phoenix, and Daft Punk. In 2001, Roman wrote and directed his first feature, the super-stylish CQ, a buzzy tribute to campy ‘60s sci-fi and spy flicks that focused on a film crew in 1969 Paris making a low-budget, Barbarella-style feature. Coppola later co-wrote Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom with family friend Wes Anderson, and last year Moonrise came away with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Coppola's most recent film, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, is a dark comedy starring notorious bad-boy Charlie Sheen as an L.A.-based graphic designer whose life and sanity begin to veer out of control after an unexpected breakup. It's a playful, freewheeling version of filmmaking overflowing with style and sound that contrasts sharply with today's tech-heavy blockbusters and cookie cutter romcoms. The polite, professional Coppola sat down to discuss his work, his passions, and his film business family with us over coffee and cookies.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Lionsgate Publicity)

How would you describe A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III for people who haven't seen it?
It’s a character study about a guy who is dealing with a breakup. This particular guy happens to be a bit outrageous, someone who has a very big imagination and someone who is kind of immature and impulsive, but highly creative. The breakup really throws him for a loop, so he has to come to terms with that. I was trying to portray the sensation of going through a breakup with the way the film was composed—kind of chaotic, kaleidoscopic; there’s a fractured quality. Like how sometimes you’re feeling very warm toward the person and then you’re feeling very angry at that person—that’s the sensation one has when you’re not wanting or expecting a breakup.  

How'd you decide to cast Charlie Sheen for the title role? Did you have him in mind from the start?
No, I did not think of him when I was writing the script. After I finished it, I needed someone who was the right age, that middle 40s age that’s just prior to middle age; you’re still kind of young, but not quite. I needed someone who was very handsome and had charisma. Someone witty, charming, with a good sense of humor, and I needed someone who was a really fine actor. So it seemed kind of obvious to choose him. 

Another factor... I’d known Charlie as a boy; we were kids together during Apocalypse Now. I hadn’t seen him in many many years, but we had a connection when we were 12 years old and that’s a meaningful thing. He was someone I had a rapport with. [The film’s stars] Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, these were all people who were in my life to some degree. Those are the people in your life that you gravitate towards, that you want to spend time with, that you trust, that trust you, and that rapport and connection is very meaningful. I wanted to make this movie—I was compelled to make this movie—with the help of friends.

Also, there was a little bit of naysaying; people were saying, “Oh, Charlie Sheen is crazy,” whatever, and I like to zig when people zag. Someone else making this movie would probably have cast someone else. But I think he’s great in it. He deserves to shine as a movie actor. 

I really liked him in it; it made sense.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Lionsgate Publicity)

Liam Hayes and Plush do most of the music for Charles Swan. How did you hear about Plush and how’d you end up working with Liam? Why does his music work in the film?
You know, I had a very deep obsession with Liam Hayes. He’s a friend and he’s a brilliant songwriter and artist. When I was making my movie—it’s not a joke—I was exclusively listening to his music. It represented the movie and it just spoke to me; I had a deep deep connection with him as a person, and with his music, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.

What else do you listen to in terms of music?
Phoenix has a new record and I heard them perform—I think they’re great. I heard the new Daft Punk record and it’s far out and exciting. The Strokes I always admire. I’m not so in touch with new new stuff; I just don’t seek it out.

I know you've directed a bunch of music videos for some fun bands. Do you still do video work? What's your favorite music video you've worked on?
I haven’t done a video in a while. It’s not like I don’t do it for any formal [reason], it just hasn’t happened. I’m a little less in touch with music now, as you get older... My musical interests are less on the cutting edge, as it were. Although there are certain bands like Phoenix, the Strokes, and Daft Punk that are perennially interesting that I admire. But I’m open to doing a video if something were to strike my fancy. My favorite video is probably “Funky Squaredance” by Phoenix because it’s the most far out and adventurous, but I’m proud of a lot of the videos I’ve done.

You've set at least two films, CQ and Charles Swan, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What appeals to you about that era?
I think it relates to my childhood. I was born in ‘65, and the very earliest memories I have are from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and those are really evocative. The world of CQ—people making movies, the imagery, the music, and the sexual aspect of that—is all from those early memories. CQ is very specifically from ‘69-’70, that transition. [Charles Swan] is not literally set in the ‘70s. It feels like it’s in the ‘70s, but ... there’s no dates, no mention of that.  

It really has to do with visual imagery I saw as a kid—movies and poster art and Tower Records and album covers. I grew up here in San Francisco; we would go to L.A. and it would be very exciting, going down the Sunset Strip and [seeing] all that stuff,  the culture of the time... I remember going to parties, seeing some celebrities, bands, whatever. The whole feeling and aesthetic of that time and place meant  a lot to me. All in all, it has to do with being impressionable, eight or nine years old. Even something like Playboy magazine—for a kid, it’s the ultimate. 

Some of the sequences in Charles Swan, the outrageous fantasy scenes like with the sexy Indian, could have been a Playboy cartoon from that era.


If you had to pick one director who had the greatest impact on your filmmaking, who would it be?
I’d probably say [Federico] Fellini, because many of the movies that I love most, refer to, and am inspired by are by him. [His] films that I particularly respond to are  and La Dolce Vita.

inspired Bob Fosse to make All That Jazz and Stardust Memories, the Woody Allen picture, has a relationship with the Fellini pictures. I think that’s the single most distinctive filmmaker that inspired me and showed me that movies can be so original, inventive, and full of imagination. I’m particularly a fan of movies that take adventures; he’s one of the greats in that regard.

Is there one defining moment in your life that stands out in terms of its impact on your vision or career?
I recall seeing for the first time; I saw it in a car many years ago. I was driving across the country with a friend of mine, and we were transporting the Citroën that belongs to my dad. In the back, there was a little video system—it was antiquated, it was many years ago—and I saw [the movie] there. It’s hard to describe, but it was really an epiphany; this feeling it drew out of me was just really exulting.

What's your favorite of all the films you've worked on? Why?
People sometimes ask me what my favorite film is that my dad made, and I always think of Rumblefish. I was around 16 when it was made, and I was able to drive for the first time, and [my brother and I] were associate producers. We were all together in Tulsa working on the film, and I contributed some things, like suggesting Stewart Copeland, who got involved in the soundtrack. Being a young person and being involved with this very adventurous, expressionistic art movie for young people made a big impression. It’s one of my favorite movies and it’s one of my favorite experiences, which also had to do with the age I was, and being on location in a kind of exotic place like Tulsa—to me it was exotic. Being that age with all these young cast members was really thrilling.


I think I've seen it.
It’s a very good movie, so you should check it out if you’re not sure. It’s very original. 

You've written or co-written a bunch of scripts. As far as writers go, are there any you particularly love or admire? It doesn't have to be a screenwriter.  
The first person that comes to mind is Preston Sturges, who wrote and directed wonderful movies. Are you familiar with him?

I don’t think so.
You’d like it. Sullivan’s Travels is one of the greats, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. They’re comedies from the ‘40s and ‘50s and his dialogue is very witty and funny. Also, I read that he would dictate—he would write a script in a weekend, so it has a very playful, fun, wacky quality that I really admire. 

You’ve worked on so many different aspects of films, from writing to producing to directing. If you had to pick only one thing to do for rest of your life, which would you choose?
Directing is the ultimate endeavor because you’re managing all aspects of the movie. So that’s probably the primo work, you know? But I’m a curious person, and if someone said, “Hey, you want to go to Russia tomorrow?” I’d say, “For sure.” That’s how a lot of things have happened in my life. Wes [Anderson] invited me to be part of Darjeeling, and I said, “Yeah, of course.” Sofia has invited me to be involved with her work, and if there’s a way I can be helpful to her, I enjoy that. So I don’t see it as anything other than [being] interested in something and [doing] it.

Prada Candy short by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

What are some of your non-movie-related passions? What might you be doing, career-wise, if you weren’t making movies?
I have a lot of interests. I have a company called the Photo Bubble that started out as an invention for a movie I made, that we turned into a business. I have a magic trick I invented. I’m a bit of a tinkerer-adventurer type. I love graphic design. The logo of our company is something I designed. I’m interested in painting; that’s something I’d like to do at some point, because it’s very private. Though I love collaboration, the movie business is a business, and you need patronage. I like the idea of being my own self-patron. Also, I have a company called the Director’s Bureau, a production company for commercials and videos. On my website, if you click on "Special Projects," I have a division there that is in the business of wacky ideas, promotional ideas—concepting. We do a lot of commercials, but we also advise and we made some short films for Vice and Intel.

You're obviously part of an esteemed movie family and you collaborate with relatives often. How do you think your filmmaking style differs from your dad’s and your sister’s?
It’s not really anything I think about. The goal, of course, is to make work that comes from your creative instincts and to have a good relationship with that. The things that I’ve made have been according to what I value and what’s interesting to me, the kinds of movies I’d like to see. I think Sofia is similar, she just has a certain instinct and she’s followed it. My dad has had a highly varied career, with different chapters and different things that interested him; one of his hallmarks is a sense of variety, and I also understand that sense of curiosity, trying this and trying that.  

But Wes, for example, has a very individual style of his work. We were doing some interviews and people kept asking him, “Why’s it look like this, why’s it look like that?” But it’s just, like, his handwriting. It’s not something you think about or control. I think it’s something to be celebrated—and there are people like the Coen Brothers, Fellini, Bergman, Woody Allen, whoever—there’s a real stamp there, a [way] their movies are distinctive. 

There’s a tendency toward the rock tumbler effect; you stick a bunch of rocks in a tumbler for a couple hours, then they’re all going to look the same. There’s a tendency toward that in most commercially-minded movies, there’s not any real voice. 

Do you think being part of such a legendary lineage has hindered you in any way, or had any kind of negative impact on your career?
I don't really think about it. People are curious and ask me what it was like [being a Coppola], and I don’t know what to say. I can say that people are going to have extra scrutiny [of my work], and it’s important for me to do work that I can really stand behind and say I did my best, I did it from my heart, and I tried to make it distinctive and as original as possible. If I do those things, then I’m home free. In the past, I’d be offered things like Horror Movie Part 3 or a car chase movie, and my nature is very curious, like, “Sure, I’ll do a car chase movie; I don’t care.” But I realized that other people will say something pejorative about it, and if I’m going to be under the magnifying glass I’d rather make something really unique.

I do a ton of commercials, and no one really knows that, but it’s fun and I don’t really care [what people think]. But I do feel like for film work I’m less casual and I’ve chosen to take my time. 

Do you have any upcoming projects you want to tell us about? I know you produced Sofia Coppola’s new [June 2013] movie The Bling Ring.
I’m one of the producers, along with some other people. Yeah, Sofia’s movie is getting ready to roll out, and I’m proud of it. It’s her privilege to talk about it, but it’s a very interesting movie and I’m sure it will be attention-getting, and I’m very proud of her, of course.

I’m also helping out on Wes’ new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is a lot of fun. I wasn’t a writer or anything, but I attended the shoots and lent a hand. That’s something I’m excited to see. Beyond that... The Charles Swan picture took a long time, and there are many steps [involved with that], this included, and I’m kind of ready to be done with it fully and move on to the next thing.

I know you made an appearance in The Godfather and The Godfather 2 when you were young. What do you remember about those experiences? Did you ever consider trying acting after that? 
I’ve been in my dad’s things here and there, more as an extra, not really as a performer. It’s always a fun souvenir; you can look back and have that memory. I have a little daughter and I’ve put her in my movies, and that’s a nice tradition to keep. But I don’t really see that as acting, it’s more like a walk-on extra. But acting is very exciting; there’s a lot of pressure. The few occasions that I’ve performed it was thrilling, but I don’t think I’m particularly good at it, so I don’t think I’d pursue it. But it’s good as a director to understand what it’s like to be under the gaze of the camera, that pressure and insecurity that bubbles up ... In Die Again Undead One, this short I made [in November 2012], I appear in it. And I did it as a kind of reminder or a challenge, like, what does it take to remember lines and stand where [you’re told] to stand, how to be comfortable in front of the camera? I was reminded of how daunting it can be! 

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is available on DVD/Blu-ray May 14.