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Roman Coppola
Roman CoppolaCourtesy of The Directors Bureau

Roman Coppola: how to make films and influence people

The blue-blooded director discusses founding The Directors Bureau, the importance of swapping creative ideas and his legendary father

As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.

Roman Coppola put his thang down, flipped it and reversed it by founding director's collective The Directors Bureau, a who's who of directing superstars like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and CANADA. For Dazed, The Directors Bureau chart the changes in indie cinema, and challenge young filmmakers to pick up a camera.

In 1969, when Francis Ford Coppola was an up-and-coming writer-director, he and some filmmaking buddies – George Lucas, Walter Murch, Carol Ballard – decided to set up their own production company, American Zoetrope. Throughout the 1970s, Coppola, Lucas and co revolutionised Hollywood with what’s now viewed as US cinema’s second Golden Age. Not a bad inspiration, then. And something Francis’s son, Roman, definitely kept in mind in 1994 when he and Mike Mills – director of Beginners and Thumbsucker – founded The Directors Bureau.

Boasting the likes of Roman’s sister Sofia (Lost in Translation) and his friend and collaborator Wes Anderson on their books, The Directors Bureau has gone from strength to strength, with a reputation for distinctive and daring commercials and music videos. But let’s face it, with the surname Coppola, moviemaking is in the blood. If you spent part of your youth on the set of Apocalypse Now, sooner or later cinema comes calling.

Roman co-wrote acclaimed screenplays for Anderson’s films The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom and has directed a couple of his own features: 2001’s moviemaking satire CQ and more recently A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III (2012), starring Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray. He also now runs American Zoetrope. And as more Directors Bureau alumni make the jump into features, he’s ideally placed to offer an insider’s insight into independent filmmaking today.

How much was American Zoetrope an inspiration for setting up The Directors Bureau?

Roman Coppola: I was very young so I remember (Zoetrope’s founding) in a muted way, but this bunch of people coming together, who got this office, a pool table, an espresso machine, filmmaking gear: there was this camaraderie, this feeling of “I’ll produce your movie if you’re writing that” and “you direct it and I’ll do this…” Basically ours was a similar idea of a fraternity of creative people, under the same roof, sharing ideas and resources. 

It’s a fantasy many people have when they’re younger, but they – and you – made it a reality… 

Roman Coppola: It was sort of a romantic notion – like 1920s Paris, or the Beat era in the 50s. And even the name, The Directors Bureau, had a bit of intrigue to it that I liked, like the FBI or something… But of course it’s a business too – I don’t want to paint it as a dreamy fantasy.

The affiliated Bureau directors are very impressive but also very diverse – is there a certain ‘house style’?

Roman Coppola: There’s no real rhyme or reason. At the same time, you want a feeling where the work has a unifying quality and I’d say it’s our more adventurous and, without being a snob, more creative work. Also most of our directors have other strengths. Mike had a graphic design foundation; I always had a hand in second-unit direction and cinema; Melodie McDaniel is well known as a photographer. Sofia’s a filmmaker, Wes is a filmmaker.

So what about feature filmmaking – how does The Directors Bureau feed into that?

Roman Coppola: People who’ve made movies, like Mike and others, have used people we've come to know – assistant directors and other crew – through our company.  But cinema’s a very beautiful, noble, passionate thing and I don’t want to just have it as a branch of our commercial company. 

So you deliberately keep Zoetrope and the Bureau separate?

Roman Coppola: American Zoetrope has an office in The Directors Bureau and when one of our directors wants to make a movie, often they’ll speak with us and we’ll give whatever advice we can. But it’s a separate endeavor. Sometimes, if I can just slag off other production companies when they say they do it all, it means they don’t really do it quite as well. 

But you’d agree that the work you do at the Bureau is a great training ground for features?

Roman Coppola: Absolutely. One of our directors, Nash Edgerton, made a movie called The Square that was really impressive and he’s been working with us on a script. Sofia’s working away, my niece Gia’s working away. We’re not really involved with Wes’s movies as a company but of course I am. M Blash made a film recently – I’m sure that’s going to be great. Everyone always has something they’re cooking up.

“I don’t lament the passing of film; I love its sensual quality but I embrace all that digital brings” – Roman Coppola

What does “independent film” mean to you? Does it still exist?

Roman Coppola: I guess true independent cinema is like outsider art – Lucifer Rising or some Kenneth Anger movie not even on the charts. But the short answer is: cinema outside of the studio system. That’s also tricky because in the 90s studios got into the business of making independent films – so 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has Fox Searchlight. I admire Fox Searchlight but they have a type of movie that they make due to their studio edict, kind of ‘feel-good’ indie movies. 

Doesn’t an edict automatically invalidate a film’s independence? 

Roman Coppola: Independent movies can be made within that. Actually, I was involved with one: The Darjeeling Limited. (Fox Searchlight) did distribute and support us but there was disagreement about whether the movie should be more… uplifting. The essence of it is whether the filmmaker has enough control to make their vision without interference. In the case of Sofia or Wes, these are totally uncompromising filmmakers who’ve proven their mettle. People have to get with it to release it.

How about technology?

Roman Coppola: I’m always optimistic about advances in technology. I don’t lament the passing of film; I love its sensual quality but I embrace all that digital brings. I’m going on vacation and I’m bringing a Canon 7D, my Mac, some cables and this tiny light and basically there’s nothing to stop me making a totally professional movie. That potential is really powerful. 

It’s something your father seems to embrace too with recent films like Tetro and Twixt.

Roman Coppola: I love, of course, his earlier movies we all know. But in terms of admiration, to just go out and make a movie with whatever resources you have, very modest budgets, done from the heart… I think he’s been really charged by it because he got to do totally what he wished. 

I can’t think of another major filmmaker from his era who’s done that. Maybe David Lynch.

Roman Coppola: Well, Lynch always dances to his own tune! We all admire Scorsese, Spielberg and that generation who still make big movies for a wide audience; but I’d love to see prominent people, who have the means to make a studio movie, go and make a little film. That’s a real bonus for culture.

So your father’s renewed creative independence inspired you all over again?

Roman Coppola: His example really got me off my ass when I was going to do Charles Swan. I was waiting on a big actor, a bunch of money and that didn’t come to pass right away. So I just said, I’m going to do it however I can.

How was that experience for you, given that the film didn’t…

Roman Coppola: …didn’t have “boffo”! Charles Swan was incredibly personal, it was the movie I wanted to make but it didn’t click or grab hold of people’s imagination. It does create a question, because if I want to make another movie, either I do something even further far out – which is my inclination – that’s smaller; or in another way, animation or whatever, because movies are expensive.

“You can shoot a movie on an iPhone if you have to. There are no excuses” – Roman Coppola

Budgets today seem schizophrenic: hundreds of millions for blockbusters, peanuts for everyone else.

Roman Coppola: Budgets have shrunk. Now movies are being made for under $1 million routinely. CQ technically cost $10 million and that was a smaller indie. Nowadays that would be a miracle to get that budget. It’s very, very competitive and has gotten more so. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle.

So given your success with The Directors Bureau, have you ever thought about turning your back on features?

Roman Coppola: It’s a curious thing, but when you make a movie, it’s this crush that you just can’t shake. In my life now, I live in San Francisco and have two kids and all these entrepreneurial things I do. As soon as I start to rest easy, all of a sudden, bing, an idea will come in my head about a movie I want to make. And I’m kind of waiting for that to happen – and also kind of happy that it’s not happening, it’s funny…

So how do you see the future for independent cinema in general?

Roman Coppola: I’m always optimistic. Where there are creative people with cameras there will always be some interesting things being made. Luckily you can make a movie for $800,000 with craftiness and toil. There are always ups and downs but it’s sort of like a bloodlust, so whether you’re encouraged or not, it’s sort of immaterial. One way or another you’ll do it. You can shoot a movie on an iPhone if you have to. There are no excuses.