I went off to do this Warner Bros. scholarship just on a lark because I ended up winning it and I thought I'd go and see what feature filmmaking and this Hollywood thing was about. When I got there, Warner Bros. had been shut down because they had just been bought out by another corporation. Jack Warner was actually leaving the lot the day I arrived. They were making one film Finian's Rainbow, which was being directed by Francis Coppola. And they said, "Well, we'll stick you on this film because all the other departments are closed down." So, I got stuck watching this movie being made, which I wasn't that interested in. I think Francis was kind of offended that I didn't have a lot of interest in what he was doing, and I told him that I wasn't really interested in this kind of filmmaking. I was just trying to get over in the animation department because it was empty. I figured if I got some short ends of film, I could go over there while nobody was around, and I could start making animated films in their animation department. But Francis said he would give me a job to do. I could come around and be his assistant and give him one good idea every day, and I should go around picking out camera angles. That actually worked out very well. I was very prone to the cinematic side of things. I was more into film editing and into the photography, whereas Francis is very much into the writing and working with actors. So, he kind of took me under his wing and taught me all the parts I didn't like, which was the writing of scripts and the working with actors, and I helped him and became an assistant in the cinematic side of films.
When my scholarship at Warner Bros. was over, Francis decided that he didn't really like the experience of making Finians Rainbow He wanted to get back to doing street films and avant-garde kinds of movies. He decided we could do the Rain People, which was going to be shot all across the country with a small crew. I had the choice of going back to graduate school or going off on this little adventure, and I decided to go off on the adventure with Francis. He couldn't pay me, so he said he'd get me a deal to write a screenplay of THX, a short I'd made that had just won the National Student Film Festival Award. I was trying to see if I could get it off the ground as a movie. He said, "You can write the screenplay, and you can be the assistant everything on this movie, and we'll travel across the country." I thought that would be a great idea. So, we went to make this movie of his, and we started in New York and came back across the country.
We were shooting in Nebraska, and I came back to a conference in San Francisco and met John Korty, who had a little film studio there. I went back to Francis and said, "Why don't we continue on to San Francisco," and he thought that was a fantastic idea. He didn't like the idea of going back and working in Hollywood, and he really wanted to start a whole new idea up there in San Francisco. Easy Rider had just come out, you know. There seemed to be a possibility that avant-garde, youth-oriented films could make it in the world. So, we decided to make that kind of alternative studio in San Francisco, and called it American Zoetrope. That's how that whole thing started.
THX 1138 (1971)
Robert Duvall; Donald Pleasence; Don Pedro Colley; Maggie McOmie; Ian Wolfe; Marshall Efron; Sid Haig; John Pearce.
THX was the very first film that Zoetrope did, because I'd already written a script. Francis went down to Hollywood, and, again, Warner Bros. studio was being sold to another corporation. Francis went in and said, "You know, we already had this deal to make movies, and you have to give us the go-ahead." He really did a lot of fast talking, and he told them we had seven projects ready to go, and we wanted funding, and they said yes. They had no idea what they were saying yes to. Later on, the whole thing went sour when they finally saw THX, and they saw the seven scripts we'd written, and they basically closed the place down and forced Francis to pay all the money back.
That put Francis in about $350,000 worth of debt. We were going to have to shut down at that point. I was sort of thrown off on my own to do my own thing and Francis had to go off and do a gangster picture that had been offered to him. He had a lot of concern about whether to give up his freedom and do this work for hire or whether he would try to continue on doing his own thing. As it turned out, I went on and did my own thing with American Graffiti, and he went off and did The Godfather.
I've never actually described my relationship with Francis as being volatile. I think the media has, though. Francis and I were very good friends right from the moment we met. We're very different. Francis is very flamboyant and very Italian and very sort of "let's go out there and do things." I'm very sort of "Well, let's think about this first. Let's not just sort of jump into it." He's called me the eighty-five-year-old man, but together we were great, because I would kind of be the weight around his neck that slowed him down a little bit to keep him from getting his head chopped off. I think that allowed us to have a very active working relationship, and we actually had a great time working together. We've worked together on a lot of films over the years. But, you know, he helped me. He basically taught me everything about writing and directing. And then, at the same time, he got my first film off the ground. And then he helped me get my second film off the ground. Later on, I went and produced a film for him, and I worked on second-unit things like The Godfather. I developed, along with John Milius, the script for Apocalypse Now. So there was a lot of collaboration between us on all the movies we were doing at that time, and we still do collaborate. We still show each other our movies and communicate with each other about what we're doing. I read his scripts, and there's a lot of communication that goes on between us.
He exudes his wisdom and his creativity, and you want to match it. So, whatever he wants from you, you want to give it to him because you want to be part of that incredible magical creation that is him.
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