by Anthony Frajman

Oscar-nominated director and producer Roman Coppola got one of his first tastes of filmmaking on the set of his father Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“I grew up around the world of second unit directing, which is very much about serving the director. When I did my first directing work, on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I had a lot of responsibility, and we shot a lot of material that was fundamentally part of the movie, but it was all in service of what my dad wished to do and in service of the film as he had defined it,” Coppola recalls.

Since then, Coppola has built an acclaimed body of work of his own, working frequently with his younger sister Sofia Coppola on films including On the Rocks, Somewhere, Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation, Somewhere; and Wes Anderson on projects including The French Dispatch, Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox; as well as directing his own films, CQ and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.

Coppola has also directed music videos for the likes of Paul McCartney, Daft Punk and Air, worked extensively in commercials, and co-created the Emmy-nominated Prime Video series Mozart in the Jungle, starring Gael Garcia Bernal.

And, he is also president of Francis Ford Coppola’s storied production company, American Zoetrope.

In the years since he first began in the biz, Coppola has worked in several roles and on a myriad of projects, including producer (The Bling Ring) and second unit director (The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette). Taking on such varied responsibilities has helped him with his own filmmaking.

“My diverse experiences have been informative and something I can draw on as I go about things. I’m basically just a curious person who’s interested in learning things. There’s always something to learn on a film set in all the different realms. Nowadays, for example, there’s a lot of innovation in lighting with LEDs and all sorts of different protocols of how to manage lighting, which has just unfolded recently. So, there’s always (something new).”

For over two decades, Coppola has been a close collaborator and friend of revered American filmmaker Wes Anderson. What’s his favourite film that they’ve made so far? He answers, The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson and Coppola’s beloved, India-set story of three brothers, played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.

“We’ve had many adventures and it continues, which is always fun. It’s just an ongoing life of activity and creative stuff. I think Darjeeling was the first thing we did in a deep, meaningful way. I helped a bit on Life Aquatic, which was fun, but for Darjeeling, that was very much an adventure, going to India and trying to uncover things that related to the story that we were interested in. So that stands out. I’m very close with my cousin Jason (Schwartzman), and he was (a key) part of that. So, that was meaningful. But all the things we’ve done together have had something enjoyable or stimulating about them,” Coppola says.

Having worked with Anderson eight times now, and teamed up with sister Sofia on nine projects, Coppola says forging close relationships with collaborators is one of the most integral parts of the filmmaking process.

“Filmmaking is a collaborative art form, so it’s just normal to work with people. I work in a lot of different modes. I made a TV show, Mozart in the Jungle, that was very collaborative. There are a lot of writers and directors, it was a little bit like a collective. And so that’s one experience. And then I’ve done features of my own where I was the sole leader, such as my film A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. I shot it, I cut it, I produced it, I wrote it. I was very involved in every step. But having said that, you’re always collaborating with performers or with your team. So, it’s never just in a bubble, but there’s a lot of different ways it goes. Collaboration is when you like each other and you’re on the same path of trying to uncover something. It’s a fun journey to take with another person. It’s an enjoyable mutual experience. Much like travel can be fun just to travel on your own, but to be with a companion and trying to find things together can be really enjoyable.”

That track record of meaningful partnerships will be continued next year, when Francis Ford Coppola’s next film Megalopolis, and Sofia Coppola’s upcoming Priscilla are released, which Coppola was second-unit director and executive producer on, respectively.

“I enjoy (working with) someone like Sofia, and I’ve had a long history of helping her do things and make things. And to support someone and help realise something that they care about is very enjoyable.”

“I’ve done many, many things and so there’s always something about this or that. I directed some episodes for Mozart in the Jungle that I was quite proud of. We did one on Rikers Island (in New York), which (has a huge) jail complex, and we had a classical music performance there. That was exciting. Not only what we made, but the experience we had sharing that music. I’ve only made two films, which have a special place in my heart because those (were) things that were personal to me that have a special meaning. I’ve done music videos for bands. My brother-in-law (Thomas Mars) is in the band Phoenix, and I’ve made several videos for them. And that’s always a gratifying experience to do something for someone you care about.”

While he has largely remained within independent film, and stayed outside the studio system, would Coppola ever consider making a big-budget studio film? He says he would be open to taking on such an endeavour.

“I have been involved in some bigger types of (projects). Dracula for example, was a big studio production. But I’ve never really been invited (to do a studio type film), to be honest. I’ve never declined it. I swim in a different water. But I wouldn’t be opposed to doing a more commercial type of film if there was that invitation that piqued my interest.”

Not content with just filmmaking, Coppola is also looking for ways to support the next generation. One of his projects is a blockchain-funded initiative called Decentralized Pictures. Its aim, Coppola explains, is to help unearth the next generation of directors by allowing them to upload works to a website, where viewers can watch their films and vote on them. Coppola says that it is designed to bring attention to filmmakers and to break down the traditional walls, opening up access to mentorship and support from established directors.

“Basically, it’s an online community. It’s founded on the blockchain for the reason that it’s very equitable and democratic and decentralised. We’re trying to make something that is very open and creates an invitation for people to participate because they know that they’re part of this community that’s not controlled by some other power. And the goal ultimately is to be a conduit to bring attention to work and to filmmakers who the community feels has merit. People participate, they gain certain attention and awards to make work, and then that work can flow into the orbit of the powers that be in Hollywood and so on. So, in essence, we put forth a sort of a prize recently we did a short film award for about $40,000. It was sponsored by Kevin Smith. And so, the community basically upvotes which project they feel has the most merit, and then that’s granted the award. And then when the film is made, and in this case they just shot it a few weeks ago, there’s a conduit to bring it out to the world and share it with managers and studios and so on.

“And the other component that’s rather important is that there’s an apprentice-master relationship where someone like Kevin Smith has a lot to offer a younger person to give advice and guidance and mentorship. And so that’s part of it, to basically make a democratic merit-based crowd to get your work noticed and find opportunity. You can be anywhere in the world; you just need to engage. It has a token aspect in which every time you review something or comment or give feedback, if it’s of good quality, then you earn these tokens. And then if you wish to have an opportunity to win an award or a grant, you use those tokens to submit. It’s a system in which anyone anywhere can participate,” Coppola adds.

While it is currently an extremely challenging time for independent films, the filmmaker says he is ultimately optimistic about the future for smaller-budgeted features.

“It’s always hard, but it’s particularly hard (now) it seems. I was involved with the film as a producer, and it was shown at Sundance and very nicely appreciated. It’s called Fairyland. It’s a good movie that will find its audience, but there aren’t buyers lining up to buy that film and to put it out there, just because there’s sort of a chill around what is getting people going to theatres and what the values are for film. I think that the real good news is that the tools to make work are so available.”

Photo by Daniel Jackson