Autobiography as Paranoia:  Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION

Coppola is the latest filmmaker to sit in THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR, and Jacob reports back. 

Francis Ford Coppola has always considered himself a student of cinema. This is an ethos he passed on not only to his self-made cinematic family at UCLA (a unit which included “little brother” George Lucas), but also to other aspiring filmmakers he’s had the pleasure of meeting throughout the course of his career. One such aspiring artist was Robert Rodriguez, whom the legendary Godfather director chatted with at his Napa wine estate nearly twenty years ago. While Rodriguez hugged his tiny son, the two traded tales about art and life, forging a bond that would later inadvertently bloom into The Director’s Chair, the absolute best show on Rodriguez’s El Rey Network.

The Director’s Chair is, at its core, that initial meeting writ large and broadcast for others to witness. Rodriguez has said that some of the best creative moments of his life came from simply witnessing filmmakers chatting with one another and sharing how they approach the very process of creating. And while the self-described “maverick” admits that there’s a bit of craftsman “inside baseball” going on during each of the series’ episodes (which have already featured the likes of John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro), he hopes that the show will inspire creators everywhere, regardless of the medium they specialize in. March 2nd sees Rodriguez reuniting with the filmmaker who helped plant this seed in his brain and, in a genius stroke, the forty-five minute interview (which was cut down from three-and-a-half hours) is paired with Coppola’s most personal work, The Conversation. Watching the segment and Coppola’s other 1974 picture back to back is a revelation, adding intimate layers to what is already a paranoid masterwork.

The Conversation is Coppola’s “one for me” movie, following his hellish stint of “studio prostitution” on The Godfather. Paramount, floored with the film’s critical and commercial success, wanted the director to deliver a sequel ASAP. But Coppola said no, remembering that he had to literally throw himself on the floor and pitch a fit in order to get Marlon Brando cast as Vito Corleone. If he was going to commit to a follow-up, the studio was going to have to sweeten the deal. So they let him make one, smaller, intimate picture* before penning his operatic, simultaneous telling of Vito’s rise and Michael’s fall. What resulted was his paranoid opus and true masterpiece; the chronicling of virtuoso surveillance engineer, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), and the act of deadly corporate espionage that ruined his life forever. However, it’s the autobiographical details, running like a sewer main beneath the movie’s lumpy, shadowy veneer, that compound the picture’s already omnipresent air of existential dread. Much how Dressed to Kill would later see Brian De Palma re-working his “first film” into the narrative of a desperate housewife’s slaughter**, The Conversation almost acts better if viewed as a work anxiety dream of the True Artiste, wondering just when and how the money men are going to rob him of his soul.

Harry Caul is an otherworldly talent; a revered “bugger” whose methods of surveillance made him a legend in his business. He’s even built his own cult of followers (much how Coppola did in college), all of whom admire the jobs he pulled off in the past; their reverence bordering on mythologizing as they discuss his accomplishments the same way ex-high school athletes reminisce about “glory days.” Yet Harry can’t help but feel a void in his humanity, the years of mistakes and threat of professional blowback causing him to go as far as to change the way his mail is delivered at the drop at a dime. His years working for shady big businessmen have taken their toll; just as Coppola’s stint with the Hollywood studio machines made him dread ever having to leave the mobile Zoetrope Studios production trailer he had built with his independent-minded colleagues in the late '60s.

The same way Coppola is obsessed with technical improvements and innovation*** when he makes his movies, Caul pushes himself toward discovery. The master listener isn’t one to miss a trade show staffed by his fellow eavesdroppers, some of whom (like his NYC counterpart, played by Allen Garfield) want nothing more than to partner up with Harry, just to get a look at the personalized toys he’s brought to the occupation. But Harry even keeps his “friends” (like John Cazale’s assistant sleuth, Stan) at arm’s length, lecturing them to not take the Lord’s name in vain while in his presence. It’s a heavy veil of guilt Caul wears at all times; a murderous mistake from his past hanging over him like a dark cloud. Hackman sells the spy’s onus in how reserved and removed he is from the rest of his colleagues, his body language rendering him a near-invisible man. It’s an extraordinary performance, completely underplayed with a slackness that conveys all-consuming despondency.

Once we discover the source of Harry’s shame (his tapes unwittingly led to the murder of previous subjects), it becomes apparent that Coppola seems to be wrestling with the self-applied scarlet letter of selling himself to a major studio. Though the script was inspired by Antonioni’s Blow-Up and penned in the mid-'60s (predating both The Godfather and the Nixon wiretapping scandal with which The Conversation shares hardware), the director’s fiercely independent philosophy was tested while learning on a shoestring budget for Roger Corman’s AIP with Dementia 13 and the Jack Warner-produced adaptation of Finian’s Rainbow. It felt natural to return to these themes of soul-crushing paranoia after The Godfather, a job he took in spite of hating the source novel because he was dead broke after founding American Zoetrope. He had turned his first trick and (in his own words) “found something to love” in the John that was The Godfather, but the experience had left a stain on his spirit.

Harry’s guilt manifests itself in a very Catholic manner, as the spy offers up confessions to his priest regarding everything from swiping papers off the newsstand to murder. This heavy focus on Catholicism again adds a personal air to the proceedings, as Coppola revisits the religious iconography that dominated not only his biggest motion picture to date, but also his early life growing up in New York. The isolation to which Harry subjects himself is Coppola replicating the loneliness he describes after exiting Hofstra College’s theater program for the solitary art of film studies at UCLA. In the Director’s Chair interview, Coppola tells Rodriguez that he loved working with a troupe of actors, because he had never been blessed with community before. As a child, Coppola’s father kept moving the boy from school to school, never allowing the “science geek” to develop tight bonds with fellow students. Instead of human connections, Coppola found himself immersed in technology, attempting to understand the way things mechanically operate, just how Harry obsessively pushes himself deeper and deeper into his work. This obsession culminated in a grade school FFC bugging his own house and listening to his parents’ phone conversations. In essence, even though Harry Caul may be a fully-grown flesh and blood man, his core is the projection of Coppola’s adolescent solitude.

The nameless corporation who enlists Harry is the movie’s easiest thematic mark to pin down. Harry is panicked that the shadowy Director (Robert Duvall) is simply going to pay for his work and then transform it into something ugly and awful, just as he had done before. In the real world, Coppola was congruously wary of returning to the big studio, and the fact that he used this script as a shield from making The Godfather Part II is quite telling. The unremittingly bleak ending of The Conversation feels like the filmmaker’s worst nightmares committed to celluloid. In the picture’s final moments, big business strips the artist of his skills and basic trust in humanity, to the point that he is naked and playing music in a cave, completely cut off from the rest of society. As fate would ironically have it, this white-knuckle fever dream ended up landing Coppola at the Oscars for two of 1974’s Best Picture nominations. After winning the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Conversation would combine with The Godfather Part II for twelve nominations, losing both Best Director and the Academy’s top prize to what’s been called “the greatest sequel of all time.” Though it’s easily debatable (as The Godfather Part II is undoubtedly a masterpiece in its own right), The Conversation might actually be the better of the two movies; an all-encompassing portrait of paranoia that drowns you in a sea of Walter Murch-designed sonic doom.

Like the very best “craft showcases,” The Director’s Chair works well as a means to augment one’s viewing of the profiled artist’s work****. If the show has a bone-deep flaw, it’s that you can feel the conversation’s truncation in order to obtain a forty-five minute runtime. Rodriguez is able to distill his old mentor’s mantra and, like the very best lessons, the student wants them to run longer. While one could argue that the interviews aren’t a whole lot more than really solid DVD special features, it’s still hard not to want further elaboration on each film Rodriguez brings up with the geniuses he engages*****. Yet El Rey’s choice to pair Coppola’s segment with The Conversation led to a reading this viewer had never truly considered before, and that certainly counts for a whole lot. The movie becomes required reading after you’re done sitting in class -- a text that any cinephile should feel obligated to devour and digest.

*Along with a million dollars, no input from Robert Evans and the guarantee that he could call it Part II.

**Brian De Palma has always said that his “first film” was a camera he had rigged up as a teenager in order to catch his philandering father in the act. Keith Gordon’s science kid character replicates the rig in order to catch his mother’s killer.

*** See his then-untested son Roman’s in-camera effects on Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the best example of this.

**** See Ted Demme’s A Decade Under the Influence to apply this theory wholesale to a time period.

*****I’d kill to see Coppola speak this honestly on The Godfather III (obviously).

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The Conversation airs on the El Rey Network March 2nd at 9 PM ET/9:30 PT, immediately following the network premiere of The Director’s Chair with Francis Ford Coppola 8PM ET/8:30 PT.

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