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Francis Ford Coppola rarely met a deal he couldn't refuse. From money to movies, he's swung from the highs to the lowes. Isn't it time fo a little middle?

August 04, 1996|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein's last piece for the magazine was about Arnold Schwarzenegger

Long before the arrival of Bill Gates, the 500-channel universe and the Internet, one of the great showmen of modern filmmaking imagined satellite communications as the basis of a grand new business and cultural exchange between North and South America. Francis Ford Coppola chose the republic of Belize, newly independent in 1981, as the seat of this grand enterprise. His mission, he said at the time, inspired by Plato's "Republic," was not so much "making just movies, but building a new city."

* "It was one of my Jules Verne-type ventures," Coppola says today, recalling that heady time just before his career went into a tailspin after the disastrous reception to his 1982 film, "One From the Heart." The portly 57-year-old director is recounting the story as he lounges on the front porch of his 20-room Napa Valley home, tufts of curly gray chest hairs showing under his half-open Hawaiian silk shirt.

* Belizean government officials sat awe-struck as the director of "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now" wowed them with elaborate plans for a film studio that would utilize the latest in high technology. "I wanted to start a TV industry where they could be a port or a hub, with telecommunications as a new form of trade," Coppola explains, lighting up the cheroot-style cigar he sells commercially, named after his father, the late composer Carmine Coppola. "It appealed to my Utopian fantasies."

But his global vision went unappreciated. "The government didn't take me seriously," he says. "They said, 'That's interesting, but there's just this one little thing--we don't have any TV sets yet.' "

As he has done so often in his career, when a grand vision goes bust, Coppola downsizes. Instead of a city of the future, he built a resort hotel called Blancaneaux in the Maya Mountains near the Belizean town of San Ignacio. It boasts the only wood-burning pizza oven in the country, furniture carved from native woods and wine from Coppola's Napa estate. Cabana lodging is available for $160 a night in high season.

Don't they call Belize the Mosquito Coast? "Oh no!" Coppola says with alarm, suddenly the fast-talking salesman. "It's a beautiful place up in the mountains. Don't worry--no mosquitoes at all!"

He puffs furiously on his cigar. "The resort makes money, you know," he says proudly. "So sometimes your dreams lead you to things that don't quite happen the way you first planned."

Coppola could be talking about his famously topsy-turvy career. Winner of five Academy Awards by the time he was 36, he was the most celebrated of a generation of Young Turks in early '70s Hollywood--George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin--all eager to topple the aging studio system. Fiercely ambitious, Coppola saw himself not as a mere filmmaker but a visionary Godfather of the arts--a combination Medici, Magellan, Marconi and P.T. Barnum.

"Francis had no concept of failure whatsoever--he was convinced we were going to take over the world," recalls Lucas, a longtime friend who first met Coppola when Lucas was a USC film student watching Coppola direct "Finian's Rainbow." "Francis isn't just a filmmaker. He's an Italian opera. He's the kind of person who would've built the Vatican or, before that, the pyramids. He thrives on chaos and tumult. He was constantly jumping off cliffs and I was the guy who kept running after him, saying, 'You can't do that!' "

But things didn't turn out the way anyone planned, especially for Coppola. As a filmmaker, Coppola worked on a dizzyingly epic scale, always courting disaster, whether it was disappearing into the Philippine jungles for a hellish year while making "Apocalypse Now" or launching American Zoetrope, an artist-controlled studio that he lost to creditors in 1983. He financed "One From the Heart" largely out of his own pocket, but the $25-million fantasy of two lovers adrift in Las Vegas was overwhelmed by unwieldy video effects. It earned less than $8 million overall and it had a devastating effect on his career.

In bottom-line Hollywood, filmmakers never risk their own nest egg. The mantra is: Always spend someone else's money. Coppola spent millions of his own. He's clearly missing the chromosome that stops people from jumping off roofs to see whether they can fly. "If somebody gave me $2 billion," he once announced, "I'd use it as leverage to borrow $30 billion and do something really big."

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