Why Francis Ford Coppola is Cursed
Francis Ford Coppola is an icon of American cinema and a trailblazer of the New Hollywood movement. Together with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, and George Lucas, Coppola ushered in a new era of cinema that prioritized the auteur’s vision over mass appeal. He has an impressive catalog of over 20 films that reflect his push and pull between the studio, culture, and his own artistic vision.
Despite his decades-long career, Coppola has faced his fair share of struggles. One of the most famous examples of this was the cursed production of Apocalypse Now, which was captured in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. However, this was just one film in a long and storied career filled with both successes and failures.
Coppola’s desire to work outside the Hollywood system began early in his career. After the success of his MA thesis film, You’re a Big Boy Now, he was hired to direct a film adaptation of the musical Finian’s Rainbow. Although the reviews were modest, the film is still looked back on with some fondness, but it remains one of Coppola’s weaker works. It was on the set of Finian’s Rainbow that he met George Lucas, with whom he would go on to form American Zoetrope.
Zoetrope’s first film was The Rain People, which Coppola directed. However, it was Lucas’s directorial debut, THX 1138, that left the company in debt to Warner Bros. It was thanks to this debt and Lucas’s prodding that Coppola begrudgingly accepted Paramount’s offer to direct The Godfather, which became a seminal masterpiece.
The production of Apocalypse Now was famously plagued by disaster, from the ballooning budget to issues with actors like Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen. The film was shot in the Philippines during a civil war, which put everyone involved in danger. The helicopters rented for the film were from the government and often left without notice, costing the production thousands each time. Typhoon Olga also destroyed most of the sets, and the Filipino workers were poorly paid to rebuild.
Coppola’s career has been filled with both successes and failures. His romantic comedy One From the Heart was a box-office disaster, grossing less than $650 thousand against a $26 million budget. He went into massive debt and had to pay it off with films like The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, and Tucker: The Man and His Dream, which all failed to break even. However, he came out ahead with The Godfather: Part III, which was a box-office smash.
Coppola’s connection to Victor Salva, who sexually assaulted a 12-year-old actor during the production of Clownhouse, has also had repercussions on his career. Coppola produced the film and gave Salva $5000 after his release from prison. Coppola’s association with Salva has been controversial, and it remains to be seen how it will continue to affect his legacy.
Coppola’s passion project, Megalopolis, is set to release in 2024 and stars Adam Driver, Forest Whitaker, and Nathalie Emmanuel. Early reports indicated chaos on set, but Coppola and Driver denied these claims. Megalopolis will be Coppola’s potential swan song, and it remains to be seen if it will be a hit on par with Apocalypse Now and The Godfather or his biggest financial failure to date.
Francis Ford Coppola is a titan of American cinema, an architect of the New Hollywood movement that changed the way films are made. Alongside filmmakers including George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Brian de Palma, Coppola defined a new era of film that reflected the auteur’s vision. These guys didn’t want to churn out stale movies with mass appeal; they wanted to create cinema with something to say. For Coppola, this amounted to a wide catalog of over 20 films that reflect a seminal push and pull between the studio, culture, and the artist’s life.
As happens to just about anyone with a decades-spanning career, Coppola has faced his fair share of struggles. The most famous of these was the cursed production of Apocalypse Nowcaptured in the behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse. But this is just one film in a long and storied career; how else is Coppola cursed, and how has he cursed others in the process?
Coppola’s Early Failure Leads to Success
Coppola’s desire to work outside the Hollywood system came early. After the success of his MA thesis film, You’re a Big Boy NowCoppola was hired to direct a film adaptation of the musical Finian’s Rainbow. Reviews were modest, and although the movie is looked back on with some fondness, it’s still one of Coppola’s weaker movies. It was on the set for Finian’s Rainbow that Coppola met friend and collaborator George Lucas.
Coppola was already fed up with the studio system, so for his next movie, The Rain Peoplehe would attempt to break free. This was the first picture out of Lucas and Coppola’s new production company, American Zoetrope. After The Rain PeopleZoetrope’s next movie was Lucas’s directorial debut, THX 1138. The science fiction film was a flop and left Coppola and his new production company in debt to Warner Bros. It’s thanks to these dire straits and Lucas’ prodding that Coppola begrudgingly accepted Paramount’s offer to direct his seminal masterpiece, The Godfather.
The Cursed Production of Apocalypse Now
The 70s were the height of Coppola’s career, capped off by the incredible and infamous Apocalypse Now. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the still-fresh war in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is a psychedelic epic that follows a single soldier as he’s plunged into the horrors of war. The film was famously plagued by disaster. To start, the film’s budget ballooned from $12 million to more than $30 million; much of this money was Coppola’s. Coppola also faced issues with his actors: Marlon Brando didn’t prepare at all for his role, and production had to be shut down for a week so he could learn his lines. Martin Sheen famously almost died on the set of a heart attack from which he took over a month to recover.
Actors didn’t present the only challenges to making Apocalypse Now. The film was shot in the Philippines during a civil war, putting every member of the cast and crew in danger. Not only that, but the helicopters Coppola rented for the film were from the government. These and their pilots often left the set without notice (there was a war on, after all), costing the production thousands each time. As if the universe were trying to destroy the film itself, Typhoon Olga rolled through and destroyed most of the sets. The Filipino workers were already poorly paid for the first set construction and weren’t paid to rebuild. Despite these and other controversial setbacks, Apocalypse Now was a massive hit, but the curse was just beginning.
Coppola’s Curse Carries On
Coppola’s next film, One From the Heartwas supposed to be easy; instead, the romantic comedy was a box-office disaster, grossing less than $650 thousand against a $26 million budget. Coppola went into massive debt; his output from The Outsiders (1983) until The Godfather: Part III (1990) was the director’s way of paying this off. Of them all, only those two and the romantic comedy Peggy Sue Got Married was successful. The other four movies—Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stoneand Tucker: The Man and His Dream—all failed to break even. Despite this decade of financial failure, Coppola came out ahead when The Godfather: Part III was a box-office smash.
Coppola’s Connection to Victor Salva
In a karmic way, Francis Ford Coppola’s curse should at least in part be attributed to his connection to real-life monster Victor Salva. Impressed by the fledgling director’s short film Something in the BasementCoppola produced the feature adaptation Clownhouse. While making the movie, Salva sexually assaulted a 12-year-old actor, and the ensuing investigation also uncovered sexually explicit child abuse materials in Salva’s home. Salva confessed and was convicted to three years in prison, of which he served 15 months before returning to a Hollywood that embraced him. Following his release, Coppola gave Salva $5000 to get back on his feet.
Salva was arrested before Clownhouse wrapped production, and his victim Nathan Forrest Winters claims that Coppola told him during this time that he would be blacklisted in Hollywood. The producer also threatened to sue Winters for breach of contract if he didn’t finish his work on the film. When asked to comment about Salva during the height of the initial controversy, Coppola told the LA Times simply, “Victor is a talented young director.” In a later interview with the Times, Coppola stated“You have to remember, while this was a tragedy, that the difference in age between Victor and the boy was very small—Victor was practically a child himself.” Salva was 29, 17 years older than Winters. In 2001, Coppola executive produced the first of Salva’s Jeepers Creepers series, and he returned to the same role for the sequel in 2003. Combined, the films made over $120 million, proving that, in Hollywood, it isn’t what you do but who you know.
Will Megalopolis Break the Curse?
Coppola’s passion project Megalopolis is over 40 years in the making. The sci-fi epic starring Adam Driver, Forest Whitaker, and Nathalie Emmanuel wrapped production in March 2023. Early reporting indicated chaos on setparticularly when several members of the creative team were terminated and several others resigned. The $120 million budget, which Coppola supplied by selling his namesake winery, had also apparently ballooned out of control. Coppola and Driver denied the claims of chaos on set, Driver calling it “one of the best shooting experiences [he’s] had.” Megalopolis is set to release in 2024, so it remains to be seen if this potential swan song is a hit on par with Apocalypse Now and The Godfather or if it will be the director’s biggest financial failure to date.