Francis Ford Coppola on receiving the Academy's Thalberg Award: 'I was created by Hollywood'
“Whenever you get a phone call from some folks from L.A. you haven’t heard from, immediately your heart stops and you say, 'Who died?,'” says the 71-year-old-Coppola, who has directed such seminal movies as those in the “Godfather” trilogy, 1974’s "The Conversation” and 1979’s “Apocalypse Now.” “That was my first thought because Sid Ganis is my connection to lots of friends from L.A.. But they said, ‘This is not bad news.’”
Indeed, it was very good news. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors announced Wednesday that Coppola would be this year’s recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. The Thalberg Award is named after the famed MGM producer who died in 1936 at the age of 37. The award is given to “a creative producer whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Winners over the years have included John Calley, Walt Disney, David O.Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Mirisch and Steven Spielberg.
The Thalberg and three honorary awards will be handed out at the Academy’s 2nd annual Governors Awards dinner Nov. 13 at the Grand Ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center.
Coppola says he’s “very honored indeed” with the award “when you think of the tradition” of the prize. "But when I stop to think about it,” he adds, “I did found a movie company that is still making relevant movies after 40 years. Another thing a producer should be expected to do is to introduce new talent -- both directors and creative people, writers and actors -- and American Zoetrope over the years most notably introduced directors George Lucas and Carroll Ballard…. When you think of the actors, we introduced not only the cast of the films like 'The Godfather' but then there was 'American Graffiti,’ I can’t take credit for all of that, but the producer presides over that. We introduced a lot of innovation. We were among the first to move into the more electronic and digital phase of films.”
Coppola shares a connection with two of the honorary Oscar winners this year -- film preservationist Kevin Brownlow and French director Jean-Luc Godard. Brownlow preserved Abel Gance’s 1927 epic “Napoleon,” which Zoetrope presented on tour in theaters. “Zoetrope made the innovative contribution of putting a live orchestra with a conductor (Coppola’s father Carmine conducted the orchestra and penned the music) and that started another trend.”
Godard, he says, was one of his influences. “And in the days where I owned the old Zoetrope studio on Las Palmas, Godard was wandering around shooting things. I never knew what he was shooting. If you live long enough you tend to be intertwined with everything. That does seem to be a fact.”
Coppola earned his first Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for the 1970 best picture winner “Patton.” But he says he wasn’t there at the 1971 ceremony to pick up his statuette. “I was in New York trembling about my situation, whether I was going to be the director of ‘The Godfather’ or not. Winning the Oscar for ‘Patton’ certainly did cement my shaky position."
Even before "The Godfather,” Coppola earned raves with the intimate 1969 drama “The Rain People,” with Shirley Knight and two actors who would go on to earn Oscar nominations for “The Godfather,” James Caan and Robert Duvall.
"That was, in a funny way, what I had wanted to do, and I thought, I was going to do," Coppola says. "I thought I was going to make little films that I wrote and I could learn from and that was my intention. I had no idea that I was going to have this other, grandiose career.”
Coppola is looking forward to coming down to Los Angeles to receive his honor. “I have lots of people I want to see,” he says.
“I know I have often been kind of a rebel and what have you. People say, What do you feel about Hollywood? and I say, I was created by Hollywood. I am their child and one’s child, which I have learned from my own, are the best people to try to suggest change because I was born of that. I am one of the few people in the movie industry today who worked for Jack Warner, who worked for Sam Goldwyn and worked for Darryl Zanuck and the other founders. I feel very much the offspring of the Hollywood tradition and I always loved it. And my efforts were only to try to bring more variety and innovation so that for every five blockbuster movies there might be one more kind of personal or experimental.”
He says that when he created his own studio in 1969, some thought he was crazy. “Well, of course, I have been considered crazy…there hasn’t been a year when that hasn’t been in the case,” Coppola says. “But a lot of good came from it. One of the factors you don’t think about is because we had our own studio up here, we had our own sound mixing and that brought about a whole San Francisco style of sound mixing, which is the basis of what sound is today. The Dolby 5.1 system originated in San Francisco between George Lucas and Walter Murch and myself.”
Coppola, whose most recent film was 2009’s “Tetro,” says he is still as passionate about his craft as when he was a young Turk. “I have always had the makeup of an enthusiastic 6-year-old, so I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
-- Susan King
Photo of Francis Ford Coppola in 2003: Jim Cooper / Associated Press
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