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Remembering Eleanor Coppola, Whose Quiet Contribution To Cinema Will Live On

Few followers of cinema could dispute the influence of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of such cinematic masterworks as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. But when Eleanor Coppola, who sadly passed away yesterday, set her camera on the action behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now, she would lay the foundation for a film that I believe has had just as much impact on the landscape of cinema in the 30+ years since its release. If Francis’s influence is bold and loud, Eleanor’s is quiet and subtle, but it is no less powerful.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which was released in 1991 and was also directed by Fax Bahr and the late George Hickenlooper, has taught generations of aspiring filmmakers to trust in a process that at times can feel fraught and doomed to peril. For the truth is that every film production is its own journey up the river. For every great work that successfully makes it into an arthouse or multiplex, there are a thousand more that get scuttled on the rocks they encounter on that journey. Hearts of Darkness, then, is a salve for any filmmaker who has encountered obstacles in their path, which is to say, every filmmaker.

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Apocalypse Now is not the only fraught production that would eventually emerge into greatness. It might not even be the most fraught production in the annals of cinema history. But, thanks to Eleanor Coppola, it is almost certainly among the best—and most honestly—documented. That it happened somewhat by accident attests to Eleanor’s unassuming nature. It was Francis who asked her to document Apocalpyse Now for United Artists’ marketing department. “I don’t know if he is just trying to keep me busy or if he wants to avoid the addition of a professional crew,” she wrote in her book Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now, which is formed from the diary she kept throughout production. “Maybe both.”

Every year around this time, Deadline prepares its annual list of Disruptors. We apply the term broadly, encompassing not only the challenges faced by the business we cover but also the positive forces going against the grain to do great things. When I heard, in 2017, that Eleanor Coppola had directed her first narrative feature film at the age of 81, I needed little time to ponder her place on that year’s list. Hearts of Darkness, after all, had long since become the film most frequently referenced in my conversations not only with filmmakers but with many different kinds of artists. The film Eleanor directed was called Paris Can Wait, and it was a sunny road-trip romance starring Diane Lane and Arnaud Viard. I was curious… had the production of this film felt like her own version of Apocalypse Now?

“I think it gave me a great appreciation for everything my family goes through on their movies,” she told me when I put that question to her. “There are disappointments, but also surprises at the same time that are caused by the difficulties. And all of these are things you learn when you just don’t give up. In your most desperate moments, you figure out how to be as creative as possible, and it’s a part of the process you never really think about when you’re writing and planning.”

I traveled to Napa Valley to see Eleanor, and we sat on the veranda of the captain’s mansion on the Inglenook winery the Coppolas bought in 1975. For a couple of hours in the pleasant heat of the Californian sun, Eleanor reminisced not just about her new film, but about her creative life in the long shadow cast by her husband and, eventually, several of her own children. When we finished, she phoned down to the winery’s tasting room and organized another hour for me to sample some of Inglenook’s finest. The good spirits in which I left the property were caused only partially by the wine.

Eleanor Coppola’s loss is hard to quantify. She would go on to direct only one other feature, 2020’s little-seen Love is Love is Love. Her influence won’t be felt quite as keenly as that of the art’s most legendary practitioners, including her husband’s. But there can be no mistake that her contribution to cinema will echo in the memory of generations of filmmakers for years to come.

In our conversation as in her books, she was open and honest about the struggles her marriage and motherhood put on her creative ambitions. She was also effusive about the great gifts she’d been given by both, and, I think, proud of the world she had created for the subsequent generations of her family. Whether reluctantly or not, she allowed her creative ambitions to take a backseat, but they never stopped burning bright.

When I met her daughter Sofia last year, I asked about the impact her mother had on her own work as a filmmaker. It was a question she had asked herself as she made Priscilla, a story about a woman of a similar generation to Eleanor’s. “I was thinking about [my mother] and the kind of struggles that she would talk about of being of that generation,” Sofia Coppola said. “When Priscilla wants to get a job, Elvis says, ‘No, I need you to be at home.’ That resonated with the kind of expectation of my mom’s generation. I know that she struggled with having a creative life of her own, and was expected to be a mother and a wife; or at least, those were the priorities.”

Still, Sofia was adamant that her approach as a filmmaker was shaped as much by her mother as by her father. “My mom is more of a quiet observer, which I think I’ve taken from her into my work,” she said. “I think that comes through; that aspect of her personality, or what I’ve inherited from her. That side of myself is deeply connected to her. She also exposed us to contemporary art that she was into, and showed us things. People don’t see it as much, but she has definitely had a big impact on me, and I feel lucky that I have sides of my personality and my approach that come from each of them.”

Cinema, too, is lucky to have had Eleanor Coppola.

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