His name forever associated with the Godfather trilogy, Oscar-winning writer/director Francis Ford Coppola was in town earlier this month for SIFF. There, he was the subject of a festival tribute for his self-produced new indie release, Tetro, which opens this Friday, June 19 at the Harvard Exit. (J. Hoberman's review.) With him when we sat down to chat at the W Hotel was his young actor Alden Ehrenreich, who plays a seemingly naïve American kid who travels down to Argentina to find his much older brother (Vincent Gallo), long estranged from their wealthy, cultured Italian-American family back in New York. This quest, along with sibling rivalries and various family secrets, gives the tale a mythic quality, which Coppola studs with ballet and theatrical passages, symphonic sequences, and snippets of other movies. Ehrenreich's teenage character, Bennie, is a seeker traveling back in time, in a sense, delving into his family's past, where brother Tetro (Gallo) continues to nurse old wounds, harbor grudges, and obsess over the manuscript for a never-finished novel. But the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca, where Tetro lives with his common-law wife (Maribel Verdú), is also a kind of Brigadoon, romantically locked in amber, where bohemians stride the crumbling streets.
Into this romantic Argentine idyll comes a crisp white uniformed American (Bennie is actually just a waiter on a cruise ship), who begins asking awkward questions and snooping. Is he like a detective, I ask Ehrenreich, or a cop?
Coppola answers for him: "He's a little rat!" The affectionate interruptions are a pattern that will be repeated throughout the interview--the professor listing for his young pupil the books and movies and music he must study; the student patiently explaining what IM means.
Speaking for himself, Ehrenreich admits that his character has a bit of an agenda..."Coming-of-age, at least in my experience and my experience with a lot of my friends, requires a certain aggression," says the 19-year-old Ehrenreich. "You have to carve the world into what you need it to be for you to grow into the best version of yourself."
In the movie, for Bennie to grow into himself, that means solving the mystery of his brother's estrangement from their father, an overbearing, twice-married symphony conductor.
Coppola says of Bennie, "So he's going around looking at the drawers, hoping to learn about his brother. He's sneaky and checking if [Tetro's] going to come in. He definitely wants to find shreds of information, because he knows they're also shreds of information about who he is and where he comes from."
So, I ask Ehrenreich, what about the propriety and potential cost of that snooping? Bennie must surely risk alienating Tetro forever, particularly when he begins reading and reconstructing his precious mirror-script manuscript.
"You have to shake up the mantle a little bit in growing up," the actor says of Bennie's stealth activities. "You have to have access to that mantle to do so."
And isn't it fairly universal for children to snoop through their parents' things, to be curious about the mysterious prehistory before their own birth?
"I did it!" Coppola exclaims, then pantomimes a child rooting through parental treasures and keepsakes. "What's this? What's this for...?" Then, shifting back to professorial tone, he speaks to Bennie's darker motives: "He has some resentment. He wanted to be just like his brother. And all of a sudden his brother goes off and leaves. So there's gotta be some aggression or hostility that comes out."
Meanwhile, as director launches into the many family-into-art parallels with his own life, the Tetrocini clan being a kind of mythologized version of his own, Ehrenreich listens and fidgets with paper clips and hotel candy, crafting a tabletop menagerie of little animals next to our tape recorder and notes. If this is a college lecture hall, he's the bright, impatient kid waiting for his chance to raise a hand. Only there aren't too many chances in this non-stop, warmly expansive lecture. Perhaps because, after a four-decade career, he has nothing left to prove, Coppola is remarkably open about his personal motives and direct influences on the project.
"In my family," he continues, "we moved every six months. My father was a musician, but he was selling our house all the times. So I didn't have any friends. I was always the new kid in school. We were so focused on our immediate family, because in a way that's all we had. So you can imagine whenever one uncle suddenly wasn't invited anymore. Or if my mother said 'Don't be nice to that aunt.'"
Family secrets, in other words, are more fascinating than other secrets--but also more potentially ruinous when resolved. See Oedipus or any number of other classical heroes. Or see the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger movie version of The Tales of Hoffmann, which Tetro directly quotes.
Again, Coppola explains: "The ballet [sequence] was simply that my older brother did take me to see a lot of Alexander Korda films when I was seven or eight. I saw movies that other kids weren't seeing. I never understood Tales of Hoffmann. It's a pretty weird movie. [My brother] had always told me that Coppelia was Coppola."
Art into life, life into art. Then there's protagonist Bennie, deciphering his brother's manuscript and imagining it--as we see it--as a kind of movie. Coppola calls Tetro's suitcase full of scribblings "a story that can't be known, that's written in code. Partly to obscure it. As Bennie imagines what's being told to him... he would imagine it as though it were a Michael Powell [film]. The whole milieu... La Boca, the theater people... that's kind of like Variety Lights and Fellini. Having myself been a theater major... I wanted to set [Tetro among] the bohemians."
Seizing a pause, Ehrenreich swiftly raises his hand: "I think a lot of the traditions we were working with are so classical, so mythical. A bohemian world and a theatrical world."
The professor strikes back, saying of Bennie's bohemianization: "When he's a writer, he's got the cappuccino, he's got he cigarette... he's drinking, smoking--everything writers are supposed to do."
Student again interjects: "That's such an important part of growing up: heroes, admiring people. You see somebody, and you try out what they're doing. Once you embody those things, you learn so much about those worlds. It first comes from your imagination. The myth of the writer, even the sailor, are the things that determine [Bennie's] understanding of the world. He's a kid who grew up imaginatively, in a rich house without a lot of adventure. So this is what he knows--these stories, these fables."
Fables of the past. Coppola sighs. "To be a writer is to be Ernest Hemingway, in my generation. That was actually a problem with my film, or a discrepancy. I was writing from my heart--but my heart was 20 years earlier! I was in a way a prisoner of what impressed me when I was 20."
Here the professor pauses, asking who are the artistic heroes for Ehrenreich's generation. David Bowie? Who do kids read today--Thomas Pynchon?
Back to Hemingway and the bohemians: La Boca as a stand-in for Paris in the '20s? "There was a tremendous literary heritage," says Coppola of the Latin American publishing boom of his youth. "I was reading all that stuff, getting all worked up. And here I am: 68, 69 years old... hoping I was going to have some sort of literary rebirth by going [to La Boca]... just like all those guys were going to Paris. I wanted to get the injection of talent by being there."
But, apart from romantic fables, La Boca was familiar, too. Argentina received many Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. The country was quite prosperous until the 1930s. In Tetro, the central Italian clan then relocates from Argentina to the United States--land of the Corleones and Coppolas.
Coppola continues, "[La Boca] was a kind of Little Italy... always cheap, filled with artists. So it is a kind of bohemia. They're mainly Italians, anyway. You go out at eleven o'clock [at night] with your kids, having a fabulous time. They have a café life. They have great wine. There's a love a life that comes where you have to say, 'Why not? We're broke. And we got some terrible political issues. But there are beautiful girls and children and life.' They do theater everywhere. They do theater in department store windows; they do in private homes. Sometimes when you're broke--as our country maybe will see now--you get more drawn together, and you get more out of life, just because you get closer to one another."
Coppola makes no apologies for the romantic-bohemian setting and themes to Tetro. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, the film feels very old-fashioned,'" he notes. "I feel partly that's because it's in black-and-white. And it's very operatic. I'm sure I'm over-extravagant with emotion. Because that's also because it's the classical music [some by Brahms, most by composer Osvaldo Golijov] in the film. Those two things help skew it that way."
Here the tutorial detours a bit when I mention SIFF's screening of The Conversation. Coppola is unaware of it, but Ehrenreich chimes in, "That's one of my favorites. We all got together in our little dorm room at NYU and watched The Conversation. Everyone really, really loves that film. It really strikes strong chord. That whole dimension of it--privacy and technology. The relationship with technology that's very troubled and very dependent. We're still figuring it out."
And while Ehrenreich gently explains to Coppola whence the derivation of Generation IM, all those kids who voluntarily give up their privacy on Facebook and MySpace (which would horrify Gene Hackman's character in The Conversation), it should be noted that Coppola was discreetly checking his email on an iPhone before the interview began--so he's not truly living in the past.
Coppola puts it this way: "When I started out, when I was [Ehrenreich's] age, I wrote The Rain People. That was where I wanted to go. Then I wrote The Conversation. The Rain People hadn't made any money. I couldn't get any money for The Conversation, and then--waiting, waiting, waiting--finally I had to make some money. So I took what became The Godfather. Then I got to make The Conversation. And then my career was some other kind of animal that I thought it would be. Maybe the next film I would've made after The Conversation might've been Tetro. It would've been. And I even kind of faked it with Rumblefish. Rumblefish was even then already starting to deal with that relationship between the two boys. But in a funny way, my career got kind of interrupted. And I became a well-known, famous type director. That's had it ups and downs.
"But when I got to my mid-60s, films had changed. They weren't making the kinds of films I wanted to make. If I didn't write it...I had less [emotionally] invested in it. And then I just got lucky I that I got some money in the wine business. And I said, 'I'm going to go back to what I was doing after I wrote The Conversation.'"
So, chronologically, though Tetro has a 2009 release date, Coppola might give the film his own personal date stamp of 1975, a vintage year.