The Coppola family’s love affair with the movies on screen and off screen…
Reading Ian Nathan’s comprehensive biography you’ll find the Italian-American Coppola family has brought all kinds of entertainment to our film world experience.
2010 Governors Awards — Roman Coppola on Francis Ford Coppola, Oscars
The Godfather II (1975), tells the origin story of Vito Corleone, an Italian who emigrates to America at the turn of the 20th Century. After settling in America, Vito marries and has children. Thus begins the American-Italian crime family business that transcends over three generations. Their story is told in this acclaimed film trilogy, and this second film was a sequel and a prequel. It expanded on the tale of Vito’s son Michael and told of Vito’s rise in the Mafia. All three films when pieced together in a linear fashion tell of the rise and career of this Mafia Don and his youngest child, Michael.
The name Corleone in these films is synonymous with one of the more famous names in Italian American movie history, Francis Ford Coppola. Francis also directed these movies and wrote the screenplays with Mario Puzo. Francis was chosen to direct by the then studio head, Robert Evans for his Italian-American connections, and so as you “could smell the spaghetti” and therefore tell the tale from an Italian-American’s view. Coppola worked on all three of these movies, working with his close family on and off-screen.
Ian Nathan’s The Coppolas, A Movie Dynasty (2021) like this film trilogy studies the Coppola family more fully in both their lives and the rise and fruition of their filmmaking careers to the present date. The fiction in the Corleones’ story could also relate to real-life facts relating to the Coppolas, as you read this book you discover the Coppola family also have their roots in Italy. Also as a family, they have left their mark on the same business – this time the American movie industry – for over five generations (so far).
The Coppolas links to Hollywood begin with two Italian emigrants. Nathan tells that both Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfathers, Francesco Pennino and Augustino Coppola came to America in the early 20th Century. Pennino, a musician worked at Paramount composing musical scores for silent movies and later ran a string of movie theatres. Augustino – an inventor – was at Warner Brothers and assisted with the creation of the Vitaphone and this was “the machine that could make movies talk”.
Francis’ father, Carmine Coppola studied at the Julliard school. He was a renowned orchestra flautist who arranged music for the Rockettes chorus line. In time, he became a film score composer. Carmine worked with both his middle son, Francis and for other film directors, with the latter including work in movies such as The Black Stallion (1979) and THX 1138 (1971).
He and his wife, Italia had three children, his first child, August, had a career in the Arts and his career has included working as an executive at his brother Francis’ film studio, Zoetrope Studios. August’s siblings were destined for Hollywood careers, are the director and screenwriter, Francis Ford Coppola and the actress, Carmine’s youngest child, Talia Shire.
Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor and their children all worked both behind the scenes as filmmakers and have also appeared on-screen in film. Nowadays, Francis’ daughter Sofia directs movies and Francis’ granddaughter – to his late son, Gian-Carlo – Gia has now also embarked on this career with such films as Palo Alto (2013). You could argue for nature or nurture for these family filmmaking career decisions for hours.
In his sterling extensively researched biography The Coppolas, A Movie Dynasty, Ian Nathan divides his book into two sections, these focus on Francis and Sofia. These parts of the book are then divided further into chapters for each section, with titles for Francis and Sofia such as Leave the Gun and Take the Cannoli and Tokyo Drift respectively. These titles come with subtitles that list their films which are discussed throughout those pages.
You’ll find these sections do not dwell exclusively on these two prolific names. Other filmmaking Coppola family members – as well as other on and off-screen Hollywood names – relevant in their life stories, are also given their time in the spotlight, when pertinent. In Nathan’s rich biography, he adds their shorter biographies and thus expands this filmmaking family tree and Hollywood history.
Francis’ wife Eleanor, is a film documentarian – for her husband and daughter’s work – and artist who also recently directed and wrote the screenplay for her first feature film, Paris Can Wait (2016). His sons, Roman and the late Gian-Carlo have both made contributions to American movie history, and all three have worked with and without close family members.
The extended Coppola family include his youngest sister, Talia and her son from her second marriage, Jason Schwartzman. In addition, Francis’ older brother, August was the father of Nicolas Cage. Cage has starred in many films including Moonstruck (1987) and The Rock (1996). The Coppolas and their extended family are referenced throughout this biography.
Nathan outlines Francis’ life and believes his desire to entertain others had its inception in 1949, in post-war America. At this time, Francis was diagnosed with polio as a child. This illness resulted in a paralysis of his back, left leg and arm. He was nine years old, contagious and alone with only his siblings, older brother August and younger sister Talia for company.
Francis then allowed “his imagination to roam where his body couldn’t”. He spent his time glued to the television. Nathan argues convincingly that Francis’ childhood fueled his love for entertaining others. Over this time, Francis was “reborn” after his father Carmine sought out a physiotherapist and over time he was taught to move these limbs again.
Many of Francis’ childhood experiences and television loves from this time, were later reflected on and added to his movies. It appears as a child, Francis told stories and made shows for his family. He dreamt about owning a film studio, was given a projector and refashioned family movies with his own scripts.
Nathan tells how these childhood experiences are all echoed in his later life’s true experiences with his creation of Zoetrope Studios and his work as Roger Corman’s assistant where Francis redubbed a Soviet movie with his own plot and screenplay. This proves as Nathan puts it so succinctly that “out of adversity comes art”.
This phrase could also be seen to apply to the Hollywood career of Francis’ daughter, Sofia. Sofia began her filmmaking career in a number of small on-screen parts as a bourgeoning actress. But after she was given many negative reviews for her acting in larger roles, she then found her calling as a film director after reading the novel, The Virgin Suicides.
Sofia had written a strong vividly written screenplay after she was inspired by this book and then the making of this film fell into her capable hands purely by chance. Her visionary storytelling in this her debut feature film then led to a flourishing career off-screen career. In her work, she often tells or retells stories from a woman’s point of view. Like her father, she is now a prolific screenplay writer and director.
In reading their biographies, you’ll note both these Coppolas add subtle and direct references to their lives to their film characters and screenplays. Nathan’s book also eclectically demonstrates a deep understanding and appreciation of their movies. These movies are written about in a linear style and analysed in his extensively researched 388 pages. He recently perfectly described his film journey through their works on his Twitter page HERE,
“To tell the story of Francis Ford Coppola is like riding a thunderstorm, and then the hypnotic, elusive calm of Sofia Coppola.”
Nathan writes about both filmmakers’ quite different filmmaking experiences with an unbridled passion for both approaches. It is clear he understands the Coppolas as two different people, as he chronicles the contrasts in their motivations, nuances and movie styles. In reviewing their different film approaches he finds a balance when explaining their unique storytelling roles with a deep analysis of their plots, casts and those happenings behind the scenes.
As his Twitter quote suggests, the making of these films was often a tempestuous undertaking for Francis. This was seen in the making of The Godfather films – which he was initially reluctant to helm – but more particularly as an auteur director on the set for his self-funded opus Apocalypse Now (1979). Nathan gives a full picture of the off-screen events in the making of this movie. He gives a rounded off-screen story and tells of both the difficult and turbulent times and also moments of calm on this movie set.
The latter is beautifully encaptured in Nathan’s short prologue, which tells of Francis in his element, cooking for fourteen people, as a stormy rainy night led to flooding which made it impossible to travel anywhere. Inside Francis cooked pasta and entertained those working on the movie in his on-location residence. His wife, Eleanor documented the story in her diaries as his young children amused themselves happily both in and outside. This vividly described story was a welcome touch to this well-documented film production. As many of those off-screen tales concentrate on the intense strain that this film production had on the Coppola family and the cast.
Yet just seeing the final film, you’ll hear echoes of his past resurface once more, and that out of difficult times come film masterpieces. This film story also adds that lead Harvey Keitel was later replaced by Martin Sheen simply because of his acting style. And this change in events led to Francis’ son Roman and Sheen’s son Charlie becoming good friends as their fathers worked together on this film. Nathan advocates it is a further testament to a stormy off-screen story bearing unexpected fruits, as he tells that Charlie and Roman later worked on a movie together, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2013).
In those chapters on Francis, there are wee mentions of his children as are born, grow up and then Nathan outlines their parts in the making of his films. His children took roles both on and off-screen in a number of their father’s projects. This however was tinged with sadness, as I learnt his eldest son Gian-Carlo, had died in a boating accident offset with a cast member, while Coppola made Gardens of Stone (1987).
However, Nathan tells of happier collaborations between the Coppola family. Nathan tells how those Coppola family team-ups began with the cutest meet-cute. As a first-time director, Francis met his wife, Eleanor as she worked in the Art Department of his film, Dementia 13 (1964). Eleanor met her future husband typing away the screenplay wearing only pyjama bottoms.
Over the rest of this book, you’ll learn these family team-ups often have Sofia or Francis directing or working alongside family members on and off-screen. Examples include his father Carmine who becomes an Oscar-winning composer for his work on this son’s film, The Godfather Part II. Francis’ sister, Talia also works with him on this movie trilogy. Francis directs Sofia and his nephew, Nicolas, in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).
Sofia directs their cousin Jason Schwartzman in a role in Marie Antoniette (2006) and her brother Roman co-produces a Wes Anderson film with Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited (2007). More recently his granddaughter Gia directed Schwartzman in Mainstream (2020). These familial themes are reflected in their films such as The Godfather and more recently in Sofia’s father-daughter themed movie, On the Rocks (2020).
Reading on these film’s casting, the Coppolas could often be accused of nepotism. But for me, this takes a different turn after reading this biography. When reading more of these on-screen off-screen family team-ups in this book, I believe this tells more about the Coppola family and their ingrained strong family loyalty.
So I suggest when reading this book, put Francis at the hub of the movie reel that is the Coppolas’ movie-making experience. This makes Eleanor’s and his meet-cute just the start of an extended family biopic or family movie which has continued over the decades to the present day.
You will find that when this never-ending reel of films is read about in Nathan’s book and this linear approach, these films show each member evolve and grow over the years. This is in a succession of works for the family, by the family. Their contributions to each other works as filmmakers or performances could be seen as a Coppola family movie universe or an ongoing family movie on and off the screen.
Family members working together perhaps are more natural in their filmmaker roles, possibly because they are more relaxed with the on set presence of these solid familial ties. Where these words from Francis Ford Coppola himself, as a patriarch, son, brother and uncle resound true;
“We support each other in the Coppola family. We love the idea of everyone getting his place in the sun.”
And this results in a shining performance, as Coppola and Puzo’s The Godfather I (1972) script argues;
“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
A disclaimer and personal thank you to Palazzo Editions books for asking me to write this post. Financial compensation was not received for this post. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you are involved in the entertainment industry and would like to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.