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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Edge of Outside: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation

As part of the Edge of Outside series, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is airing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation Wednesday, July 26 at 7:00 p.m.

It’s hard to think of Coppola as an independent filmmaker with so many large commercial titles to his name such as The Godfather films, Apocalypse Now (actually an independent production from Omni Zoetrope), Peggy Sue Got Married, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But in truth, regardless of whomever he’s working for (himself or a studio) he has always had a definitive way of making movies: his way. Allowing no definitions to restrain him, he pursues projects of many types as he wishes, independent or otherwise.

This independent mindset of Coppola’s was likely a product of many factors, including creative parents who had careers requiring imagination and original thinking (composer and actress), as well as the era in which Coppola came of age as a filmmaker. In the late 60’s, studios were looking for product that would appeal to the growing younger generation, and with the success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, the independent voice of youth was a much sought after and well-capitalized commodity. Many a young artist with an individual voice and artistic vision was given the opportunity to prove his ability. Most wannabe filmmakers, however, failed in their attempts to exploit the sudden freedom of expression and glutted the studios with a lot of drug-induced experimentation. But Coppola made the most of this opportunity and excelled in a big way.

Coppola’s non-conformist sensibility was formed early in his career while working for perhaps the most prolific and influential independent filmmaker of all time: Roger Corman. He (like many other famous directors to come, including Ron Howard) served what might be considered an apprenticeship in various capacities at Corman’s company, American International. Eventually, Coppola earned his shot at directing with the horror/thriller Dementia 13 in 1963, before he even graduated from film school. There’s nothing like no-budget filmmaking to help you learn the tricks of the trade. It’s only when forced to think creatively with no money that one is capable of remaining creative when cash is eventually available.

Coppola, of course, was never a stranger to the ways of the established Hollywood system. He readily paid his dues, honing his skills as a writer while collaborating on a variety of studio scripts, including an adaptation of This Property is Condemned, by Tennesee Williams, and the screenplays for Is Paris Burning?, and Patton. For his efforts on the WWII hero biopic, Coppola received his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (sharing the honor with co-writer Edmund H. North).

True to his maverick spirit, Coppola then left Hollywood for San Francisco and, with George Lucas, established the film production company American Zoetrope. However, works from the independent film production company have varied over the years (THX 1138 – big bomb, Apocalypse Now – big hit) making it financially necessary for Coppola to return frequently to making films in collaboration with the Hollywood powerhouses. Much like one of the forefathers of independent filmmakers, Orson Welles, Coppola has taken assignments from the studios in order to gain the capital that allows him the financial freedom to pursue his own projects. When it comes to obtaining the ever-elusive funding needed for an independent production, Coppola is well known for his crusading fervor for projects he strongly believes in, regardless of the time or obstacles involved. Though, unlike Welles, Coppola has yet to go to the extreme of completely selling out his integrity. Rather, he has, on rare occasion, given up total authority over a project. But giving up even partial control is a true compromise for an individualist to make, and this is a main reason Coppola continues to strive for absolute independence whenever possible.

Coppola’s collaboration with Paramount Studios in 1971 resulted in his first taste of lavish success when the studio approached him to adapt Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. The mainstream production became one of the highest-grossing movies in history and brought Coppola an Oscar for writing the screenplay, along with Mario Puzo. The film also garnered a Best Picture Academy Award, and a Best Director Oscar nomination. With a commercial success firmly under his belt, Coppola gained the well-earned respect of the Hollywood community, as well as a certain amount of trust and freedom. This artistic triumph allowed him the security to produce a gem of a film and one that most studio producers would have refused to previously green light, The Conversation.

Honored with the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974, The Conversation brought Coppola both a Best Picture and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. The bad news was that the nominations did not result in any awards. The good news was that he lost to himself. Released the same year, The Godfather: Part II rivaled the success of its predecessor, and won six Academy Awards, bringing Coppola Oscars as a producer, director and writer. This rare occurrence placed Coppola among an elite group of just five directors who have won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for the same film. The directors on this exclusive list are Leo McCarey, for Going My Way in 1945, Billy Wilder, for The Apartment in 1960, James L. Brooks, for Terms of Endearment in 1983, and Peter Jackson, for the last installment of his fantasy trilogy The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King.

At first glance one might consider The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II to be at opposite ends of the production realm. Actually, both films were intimate stories encapsulated in a specific and isolated world that required the focus of a singular vision to bring them to satisfying fruition. One can easily see how studio interference would have compromised the purity of either film. The Godfather: Part II would probably have become too sentimental, with heavy-handed stereotypes, and The Conversation would have been in danger of becoming more commercial, with the possible addition of a love interest or some other physical representation of what Gene Hackman’s character was in fear of losing; namely, his intangible soul. Had it not been for the overwhelming notoriety the Oscar-winning mafia sequel received, The Conversation would likely be regarded today with greater public prestige. The many other prominent films produced by Coppola easily overshadow this small, well-crafted, and praise-worthy film.

Interestingly enough, The Conversation’s illustrates the difficulties that a non-conformist (such as an artist) must contend with when choosing to live a life outside average societal parameters. Hackman plays Harry Caul, a professional invader of privacy with an ear for perfection. Known to be the best in the business he can record any conversation, anywhere. A perfectionist at his craft, Harry lives by a self-imposed set of standards, professionally and personally. He pursues his life his way with little interference from the world at large. It is not until his rules are imposed upon and lives have been lost that he is forced to betray his nature and engage the world in a more interactive and (as he deems) unpleasant manner.

The disarmingly simple plot is virtually a blue print for a low-budget feature; financial restrictions often require the action to revolve around a couple of talking heads. What’s ingenious is the way Coppola made what would otherwise be a difficult sell to the studios into an exciting, suspense film full of mystery and intrigue with twists and revelations, similar to the great noir films of the 1940’s. The obvious influence of that dark genre abounds with the secrets, lies, misdirection and misunderstandings that pile up after a simple beginning of what appears to be a love triangle gathers speed and runs out of Harry’s control. The more he chases for answers the more questions pop up. The more he investigates the more he is encouraged to quit.

And this is where Harry Caul and Coppola are very much the same, because neither one will give up until they find a satisfying conclusion, whether the results be good or bad. The satisfaction is in the pursuit and a job completed by their choice, ill fated or otherwise. Lauded as one of the most gifted directors to come across the Hollywood horizon since Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola is widely considered one of America’s most erratic and energetic filmmakers and is undoubtedly one of the industries most independent thinkers – good or bad.

Also screening Wednesday night are Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde at 5:00 p.m., Robert Altman’s Nashville at 9:00 p.m., and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull at 11:45 p.m.

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