Francis Ford Coppola Wants To Bring The Live Experience To Movies

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"Live Cinema and Its Techniques," by Francis Ford Coppola. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Live Cinema and Its Techniques," by Francis Ford Coppola. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola is exploring a new way of making movies. In what he calls "live cinema," the audience watches as the actors perform and sound effects and music are added live.

Coppola writes about his work in "Live Cinema and Its Techniques," and joins Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson to talk about the book.

Interview Highlights

On what live cinema is

"Live cinema is essentially a cinematic piece of work — we'll call it a film or a motion picture — with its unique way of telling a story, and yet is not shot conventionally, and then months and months gone by in editing, but is actually made while it's happening, and you're seeing it as it's being acted and being edited and being presented, music is being added. It's all a live experience."

On the difference between live cinema and conventional cinema

"Since it really isn't being practiced quite today, it's hard to say because there are few examples. It certainly wouldn't look like what we'd now call live television. There's been a number of live television productions with 'The Sound of Music,' 'Peter Pan' and 'Grease.' But anyone who turns on a television, and suddenly you're watching a movie, knows instantly the difference between what is a movie and what is television or live television. So you could say that live cinema, if you suddenly just got it and looked at it, it would look like a movie. And whether or not you would notice that it was being performed live would depend somewhat on the power of the performance of the show, and because basically live cinema is going back to the old tradition of performance, which is not present in modern cinema. Modern cinema is canned, as is most of our entertainment."

"Performance is the thrill of knowing that what's being done is being done while you're watching it, and could go wrong."

Francis Ford Coppola

On the excitement of live performance

"I think back to the days of the 19th century when there were the equivalent of a movie director, except it was the director of the Dresden opera or some opera company in Europe, and this person had tremendous power and resources to put on a production. And the difference is that when they had worked and were ready to present it to the public, he or the conductor — which was very often the same person — got up before the audience and they did it. And that audience was electrified at seeing 'Aida' for the first time, or 'La Traviata' or 'The Flying Dutchman' or whatever it was, so that there was the element of performance. Performance is the thrill of knowing that what's being done is being done while you're watching it, and could go wrong."

On whether viewers today can find more entertainment on TV than at the movies

"I think there's a lot of truth to that. I mean, what happened was that 10, 15 years ago, a lot of the young filmmakers who had been so inspired by the movies that people of my generation made in the '70s wanted to do that kind of cinema, but it was as always very hard to get to do it. So what was offered to them as an option was to do television, and in fact series television, and they grasped that opportunity. And work like 'The Sopranos' or 'Breaking Bad' was done, very much inspired by cinema of the '70s, but they applied it to the form of modern television. So modern television today is extremely rich and ambitious, and has greatness to it."

On the origins of using three names

"I had a wonderfully brilliant and five-year-older brother who wanted to be a novelist, so I immediately said, 'Well I'll be a playwright,' and it was always my dream that we would be two famous brothers like Aldous Huxley and his brother, William James and Henry James or Heinrich and Thomas Mann. He wrote under the name August Floyd Coppola, so I just imitated him, and I became Francis Ford Coppola. I was named for it after the Henry Ford Hospital where I was born. So yes, that's true that I was imitating his use of the three names. I thought that was so cool."

Book Excerpt: 'Live Cinema And Its Techniques'

By Francis Ford Coppola

Born in 1939 and being as a child of a scientific leaning, I was drawn to and fascinated by the new wonder of my time, television. My father, who was a classical musician and first-chair flutist in the Toscanini NBC Symphony Orchestra, was also fascinated by innovation. He was the son of a master tool and die maker who had engineered and built the Vitaphone, the machine that made movies talk. In my earliest memories, my father was always bringing home the latest devices from the shops along New York City’s “Radio Row”: the Presto home acetate recorder, the wire and tape recorder, and then the first television set. I was seven, the perfect age to operate these things, so when our small-screen Motorola TV showed up in our Long Island home, I was in heaven.

True, in 1946 there was hardly any programming, so I spent hours watching the geometric test patterns, waiting for something to begin. I can remember the early shows. Howdy Doody looked nothing like the famous puppet in later years; he was then a lanky hayseed with blond hair whose face became wrapped in bandages because he was running for President, we were told, and had gone through plastic surgery. Of course, we kids knew nothing of the copyright suit going on, when the creator of the puppet refused to cede the rights to his character, and a new puppet design, this one with rights intact, had to be introduced to the audience. There were a few Allied Artists cowboy movies coming over on Channel 13 from New Jersey, and the DuMont Television Network offered shows on Channel 5, including Captain Video and His Video Rangers. When I was nine years old, I was paralyzed from polio. I became a prisoner in my room with the television my focus, along with some puppets, a tape recorder, and a toy 16mm movie projector. For a year I saw no children other than my brother and sister. With pleasure and longing, I watched the Horn and Hardart’s Children’s Hour, where talented children performed, and the most gorgeous little girls in the world sang and danced.

Later, as I grew and regained the ability to walk, I persisted in watching. By the age of 15, beguiled by the beautiful Golden Age of Television, I began to think I could write plays. This was a period known for its live, televised dramas: shows like the Philco Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90, featuring original dramas by young writers like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, and young directors like Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, and John Frankenheimer. Stunning and ambitious works like Marty, Days of Wine and Roses, and Requiem for a Heavyweight were performed live in those years before video tape recording, with stars like Ernest Borgnine, Jack Palance, Piper Laurie, and Cloris Leachman. (Many of these plays for television would soon be made into films.) Even as a teenager, I could see that some of these impressive productions seemed like movies in their style and their use of strong shots and cinematic expression; and without exception, the best of those were the work of John Frankenheimer, who later became a successful film director with many great films under his belt. I’d say that my notion of Live Cinema was hatched while watching Frankenheimer’s work in live television, and something of that work remains with me to this day.

What I hope to accomplish in this book is to lay out the idea of Live Cinema and explore its techniques, as well as its possible benefits and apparent limitations. My perspective is that of a director who grew up on live television; who had early training in the theater; and who has spent a lifetime working as a screenwriter, producer, and director of movies. I have long dreamt of working in all these ways at once: in some form of Live Cinema. The technology continues to change, providing new answers to the questions “What for?” and “Why give up control?” How does Live Cinema differ from theater, television, and conventional cinema? Much of what I will discuss here was learned through intense personal reflection, and during two experimental workshops which involved using sections of my work in progress, a long (screen) play entitled Dark Electric Vision.

Excerpted from Live Cinema and Its Techniques by Francis Ford Coppola. Copyright © 2017 by Giostyle LLC. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on October 03, 2017.

This segment aired on October 3, 2017.



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