Coppola's Rebirth in "Youth Without Youth"
(from brinkzine.com 12/12/07)
- Francis Ford Coppola and Tim Roth
It's been ten years since Francis Ford Coppola directed a film, so if "Youth Without Youth" requires that he sit beside us while we watch it to help us unravel all the complexities, that's okay. It's great to have the one-time wunderkind back at work at sixty-five and obviously loving a project full of philosophical themes he has been mulling over for years. He even braved winter in Bucharest while making it. It is an ambitious, stunningly shot film with flashes of brilliance, and difficult, praise-worthy performances by Tim Roth (as Dominic, a dull linguist who is killed by a lightning bolt but comes back to life as a young man who is capable of love) and the lovely Romanian superstar-in-waiting Alexandra Maria Lara (as Laura and Veronica, the women Dominic loves in his two incarnations). I recently took part in roundtable interview with the director and his two leads. Below is a recent roundtable with Coppola, in which I make note of my questions, followed by my questions alone to Roth and Lara.
Roundtable with Francis Ford Coppola
Danny Peary: Would you have done this movie when you were young?
Francis Coppola: Believe it or not, nobody has asked me that question. I think I would have. The "Twilight Zone" aspect would have appealed to me—the metaphysical, Faustian parallel. "Youth Without Youth" would have intrigued me because of the hocus pocus. The real career I had in my mind was doing personal stories, like "The Rain People" and "The Conversation." I was a theater student of the days of Brando, Kazan, and Tennessee Williams being the gods, as they still are in my mind. I would have loved to have continued in that kind of career. This movie takes me back in a way. Also, one of the great things about making movies is that you learn a lot about your subject, whether it's the Vietnam War or Mircea Eliade, who wrote the novella. He was a philosopher who specialized in Oriental religions and he wrote these fables to entertain himself, playing things he was deriving in his work from early Buddhist or Hindu concepts and Sanskrit. I would have been interested in learning about him at all times in my life
Q: How did you come to adapt his work into a movie?
FC: When I got myself out of debt at around the time of "Dracula," I was in my late fifties and planned to do things differently because for about ten years I was making a film a year because I had an enormous back payment to make. I said I was going to use all I've learned and write a great screenplay. It would be a big and I knew people expected something operatic from me. So I cooked up a project called "Megalopolis." I had time so I thought it would be okay if it took years to write it. But maybe it's not best to have years to write a screenplay because it really took me years. In a nutshell, it was a film about Utopia and how maybe the human species is so talented and ingenious that it could build a life for the world that would exciting and great for everybody. I set the story in New York and had the lead character be a master builder who was like Robert Moses but enlightened. The second unit was actually shooting footage when the Twin Towers tragedy took place and though we shot two days later, things had changed and I couldn't figure out how to write my way out of it. So I didn't know what to do. The next thing I knew it was July and I wasn't any closer. Two or three years went by and I was frustrated. I said--and this was misunderstood--that I kind of wanted my place in the movie world. I wasn't talking about my place in movie history, but about the types of movies I could work on. I didn't want to do jobs anymore because I'd done that for ten years. I felt that the big movies being made had been made before. And it was even hard to find an exciting little independent film to make. I love cinema but couldn't figure out what to do.
I was only sixty-five and felt vigorous but I didn't know exactly how to function given what was changing in the movie business. So I continued working on the "Megalopolis" script. It dealt with time in a funny way because when you build a Utopia it doesn't happen in a weekend. A friend of mine from high school, Wendy Doniger, who is a professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, read my screenplay and gave me the Mircea Eliade story to read because it had quotes about Time. We as humans can think about the future as a concept but there are no such things as the future or the past because we're only in the present. I thought that was interesting and then just read the story. I said Wow, this is a helluva story, every two pages something happens. It's a trip, like an intellectual "Twilight Zone," where you can learn about such things as Indian mythology. I found it interesting and became enthusiastic about it. Since I had the money, I went off and made the movie for myself.
Q: Are you limited artistically by small budgets or does that force you to be more creative?
FC: Other than on "The Cotton Club," which was such a colossal experience in every way, I went over budget only on films that I was financing myself, with "Apocalypse, Now" being the biggie. I always was pretty savvy on production. I'm capable of making a movie modestly. In fact, it was my money on "Youth Without Youth." And it wasn't a little movie—we had period costumes, we had Nazis, we had characters from India, all kinds of stuff, and I did a pretty good job making the money count.
DP: Is this film autobiographical at all?
FC: Only to the extent that I said, "Here I am, and I want to have a career like an eighteen-year-old and make experimental movies, and if I get hit by lightning, maybe I can go do that." It's more that I saw the parallel and said that's a good sign telling me that I have to go make that movie because it says something to do with me personally.
Q: How was it filming your story of a bygone era in Bucharest?
FC: Ceausescu didn't destroy the entire city, although he came darn close. And that's unforgivable because it always was a beautiful city and intellectually it was vital, with many great composers, poets, and theater. So I went with the attitude of a Roger Corman-trained filmmaker. I knew that the most expensive thing on a movie, when you get down to it, are plane tickets, hotel room, transportation, and meals. So I decided to go to Romania alone and pick everyone from Romania so I wouldn't have to fly anyone in. If I would have brought along a cameraman with me, he'd want to bring along his camera operator, who'd want his gaffer, and the gaffer would want someone, and pretty soon the budget would balloon into big bills. I looked for young people because in Romania anyone under thirty-five speaks English. I was very happy because I picked a twenty-nine-year-old cinematographer who was just fabulous to work with. A sweet young man, who was very serious and gave me beautiful images.
Q: You have said that you thought of Ozu when you used a static camera.
FC: During my career I would experiment with the style because I wanted to learn about it and use it when it was appropriate. "The Godfather" had a lot of static camerawork. I'd also experiment with the moving camera, as on "Apocalypse, Now." I'm at an age now where I want to harvest what I experimented with all those years, and I have to say that I prefer the cinematic style without the moving camera because when the frame is static all the movement, including when people arrive or leave, is accentuated. Also, every shot you cut to brings more information. And it's easier to cut than when your camera is following a character from one place to another.
Q: Talk about casting Tim Roth.
FC: I cast Tim Roth because I wanted a great actor who would go with me to Romania and freeze with me for six months for not a ton of money. Also, I wanted to cast someone who I'd always liked in films but who I felt hadn't gotten his day in the sun. We've seen him play villains and he's clearly a bright, talented, savvy guy. But he'd never gotten the chance to be the star above the title and do romance, and to play old and young, which is even harder. He had lots of challenges. It was good of him to give me his time to make this movie. I remember that my nephew Nicolas Cage had made so many movies and had been wonderful in a dozen films, but it took "Leaving Las Vegas" before people started looking at him as a star. Obviously, you hope that the actor you can afford to have with you would get the chance at being celebrated.
DP: In the production notes it says, the film "is at once at once a poignant love story, a political thriller, and a lively philosophical quest." You mention "The Twilight Zone" and I see horror and science fiction elements dealing with immortality and age regression, possession, and going back to the dawn of time. It's an elegant movie, but were you thinking in those terms?
FC: We should add that to the list! Of course, I have great affection for horror films. The horror movie always has been the friend of the young filmmaker. People would give you money to make horror films because they'd get it back. And horror films allow you to have style. You can do something that's far out. It's a very forgiving genre and it's also what you can do when you're young. That's why so many of us started with Roger Corman. Certainly this film has those elements. I think Eliade was having fun with it. Indian myth is really where all our traditions came from. They're all little exercises that show how perception isn't what you think and Time isn't what you think.
DP: I think a major theme of the movie is "Love is in conflict with knowledge and work. Do you believe that?
FC: At the end of the film, Dominic has the opportunity to go back to the origins of language, which is what he always had wanted, even as a young man. He wants to go back to that moment when human beings first spoke because he thinks that was the beginning of consciousness. The woman he loves is taking him back with her, but he realizes she is losing her health and beauty. If he's not willing to lose the woman he loves for a second time, he must sacrifice himself and not get back to the origins of language. Love is stronger than knowledge. That's a very interesting statement. For human beings, knowledge is intoxicating, but love seems to be the thing that we get our definition from. I can understand his definition. I love the irony in the story that he's old and getting younger and she's young and getting older.
DP: That is a horror movie element.
FC: It is full of science fiction, you're quite right. For me, it was a Faustian story. He was always a bookish man and here he was getting to speak languages he hadn't spoken before. But when you're able to love for a second time, that's got to be the ultimate dream. Why would anyone want to be young again for another reason?
DP: When we were both younger, iIn about 1973 or 1974, I met you for the only other time at a Director's Guild Tribute in L.A., to Dorothy Arzner, one of your teachers at UCLA.
FC: She was such a nice woman. I did something in this movie that was a tribute to Dorothy Arzner. Before she became a director, she was an editor. And we used to argue about editing. We'd ask her how she'd edit before the Movieola. She'd do it by hand, pulling the film high into the air with one hand. And they knew by how much film they held out, where to cut. She'd tell me that, "In the old days, if you had two arms of film, that was a really, sexy kiss, but if you had three that was really much more." So in my film, when they kiss in the cab I gave them three arms of film.
My Questions to Tim Roth
Danny Peary: You were asking somebody outside the door for a drink. Who was it?
Tim Roth: Anybody.
DP: I was seeing Dominic at times almost like Woody's Allen's Zelig, a background figure. Did you relate at all because of his passivity?
TR: Yeah, yeah, slotting into history in a way, though it's hard to be as funny as Woody. I like that movie a lot actually. I was terrified playing Dominic because playing an ordinary, gentle person is hard. Tearing up the furniture is easy. They give you Oscars for it, but it's no big deal. Playing passivity is difficult. There are only a few actors who are very good at that and they tend to be invisible and don't get plaudits for it. Stellan Skarsgard is one who can do it well. It's a hard to do but I liked the invisibility of the character and the challenge of playing that. I tried to make him as invisible as possible and played around with that.
DP: Do you think Dominic was struck by lightning randomly or was it a Devine act?
TR: I don't believe in God, so I don't know.
DP: Within the context of the movie…
TR: Yes, he was struck by choice because he was the man who could find the original language. I think it was him specifically who was picked out.
DP: Do you consider yourself a risky actor?
TR: I don't think of myself as a risky actor in any sense. I've been very fortunate. I try to take things that intrigue me and sometimes I fail.
DP: From Tarantino to Coppola, do you need a director who will take risks?
TR: Yes. I think they should be like that. It's a big enough risk to make a film in the first place. I think they have to have a spirit of adventure or they won't make anything interesting. You just hope that the movies you make with them will live up to their pasts. That's all you can hope for.
My Questions to Alexandra Maria Lara
Danny Peary: Have you been to New York before?
Alexandra Maria Lara: No, this was the first time, and it's not like Berlin! Yesterday it was snowing and I thought it was fantastic to be in New York and snowing before Christmas.
DP: In the notes, you're quoted as saying about Coppola, "He always gave me the feeling that I was allowed to make mistakes."
AML: Yes. I was terrified of the scenes where Veronica has strange ecstasies, when she becomes someone else and speaks in languages from long ago. I learned in twelve years of acting with various directors that it's very important to have the feeling that a conversation is always welcome. If I had doubts or questions I knew I could bring everything to Francis. Before we shot the scenes I was afraid of, I went to him and said, "Francis, I don't know. I want to do the best for you, but I'm terrified of failing." He said, "Please, please don't worry. We shoot today and if it's not good, we'll shoot it another day." When the director gives you that feeling of freedom it truly allows you to do your best. When it came to having Veronica in those animal states, I realized that the border to being ridiculous was very thin, so it was difficult. But to do it right you have to try without fear of being ridiculous.
DP: Of course, the theme of rebirth is essential to "Youth Without Youth," in which you play more than one woman. The Dominic who was killed by lightning loved Laura and the Dominic who comes back to life as a young man falls for Veronica. Will the two of them, as different people perhaps, fall in love in some future life?
AML: Yes. I think so. I can't say that I really believe in reincarnation but I do believe in all the strong feelings they have and the sense that they knew each other in some past life. I myself have found myself in situations where I say, "It's weird but I know this feeling."
DP: Déjà vu?
DP: So are Laura and Veronica are the same person?
DP: Do you play them exactly the same?
AML: More happens to Veronica than Laura, who is in only two scenes. I had different things to do in their scenes but I made no attempt to play them differently because we wanted to get across the idea of there being a transmigration of the soul.
DP: There are many things in this film that are about difficult to understand, but the one thing I'd like to ask you is: Why is Veronica able to see Dominic's double in that scene where they descend the stairs outside. Before only Dominic believed the double was there.
AML: I never looked at it from that perspective, to be honest. I thought it was her craziness at that moment and her doubting her own mind. I thought that maybe her brain is playing a trick on her. But I had never really thought about it. The next time I'm asked about that I'll be better prepared!