How Will Francis Ford Coppola Divvy Up His Business Among Family?

When asked if he sees himself as a good businessman, Coppola pauses: “I have a good imagination but that’s all. Look at all the mistakes I’ve made.” Nevertheless, the creative impulse bleeds into the commercial. “Business and art – it’s all timing,” he says. “It’s all lucky breaks, near misses and long nights of the soul.”

There are strong synergies between film, wine and the hospitality business. It’s all about selling your particular vision to the public. Even employing the right staff here follows a casting protocol similar to film. When Coppola hired the palazzo’s general manager, a local from Matera and former Alitalia air hostie, Rossella De Filippo – widely hailed as among the best in the hotel business and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Isabella Rossellini – she had to go through five interviews, including a game of cards.

Role play recruitment

Coppola is known for his love of role playing. Before the first day of shooting for The Godfather, he famously assembled the actors for a casual, improvised dinner party to establish their onset dynamic. He put Marlon Brando (The Don, Vito Corleone) at the head of the table, flanked by Al Pacino (his youngest son, Michael Corleone) and James Caan (Sonny, the hot-headed eldest son). He had his sister Talia Shire (nee Coppola) serve the food. She played Connie, the Corleone’s only daughter. Coppola is known as a director who gets the most out of not just his stars, but the entire cast.

“I was so nervous,” De Filippo says of her own casting experience. “I couldn’t believe that I was going to dinner with Francis Ford Coppola to talk about managing his hotel,” she recalls later that evening when we share a beer and pizza. “I watched The Godfather films many times as a young girl growing up like everyone in Italy did. It was always my favourite film. So this was just a dream. But he put me at ease straight away. He was so pleasant and funny. Then he says, ‘Do you play cards?’”

De Filippo won the game and Coppola gave her the job, telling her, “we never play cards again”.

Corruption and red tape

But even paradise can create headaches. Recognising his tourist-pulling star power, Belize made Coppola an Honorary Consul. Bernalda has traded on his celebrity in different ways. Everything in the town is now advertised as “200 metres from Palazzo Margherita”. Potential town projects are pushed under Coppola’s nose to fund, including a plan to do up the crumbling old local cinema. While charmed by small-town life in southern Italy, Coppola is frustrated in equal measure by the corruption and red tape – not to mention exhausted by the hope that his presence will somehow fix the local economy.

“You see it time and time again,” he says. “Someone like me comes into a town and everyone thinks. ‘Oh great! Everything will change now.’ But then things don’t change so much. Nothing good happens to them and they get angry and blame you.”

There’s also the bad blood to contend with when local staff don’t work out or are caught giving kickbacks to friends and family. “I like coming here. But it hurts my feelings when … people are obsequious and nice to you but they don’t really like you. I’d rather they say: ‘You fired my mother and I don’t like you for that.’

“We’ve changed the economy of this town. I’m glad about that – it’s my grandfather’s town. But don’t get mad at me if we don’t buy the meat from your cousin.”

Inching towards retirement

So why not fold the cards? Nearing 80, with one of the most brilliant careers imaginable behind you, why not retreat into the beautiful set you’ve created?

He’s at least inching towards it. Roman and Sofia now wholly own Zoetrope, which released The Beguiled along with all Sophia’s other films.

Coppola is also giving the family a taste of the wine business: they each have their own label, including Ellie. And he continues to knit the family together with bricks and mortar: he’s building Roman, Sofia and Gia a home each on Inglenook “so they can come there more regularly, and the cousins can get to know each other”.

When you stand back, his films and businesses appear like a multi-faceted prism. Whichever way you turn it reflects back more Coppola: the wine business honours his childhood where watching his elders drink wine around a dinner table was ingrained in him as the glue that held a family together. It also pays for his creative life. Belize pays homage to his love of wilderness – and protecting it – that he acquired shooting Apocalypse Now. Palazzo Margherita is an expensive pilgrimage to his paternal grandfather’s birthplace, and a place his family can gather to relax, a la the Long Island compound in The Godfather.

An invitation to swim

To cover so much ground, we’ve talked through lunch and past Bernalda’s daily siesta. As the sun begins to sink over the town, and its inhabitants wake up into the cool night, Coppola finally calls time on his more than generous half-a-day interview. De Filippo wanders into Bar Cinecittà to tell him that Ellie and Roman, Roman’s wife Jenny, and their kids are all around the pool. Coppola is suddenly recharged, as if struck by a thunderbolt. “Oh good,” he says brightly. “Are they waiting for me?”

It recalls author Mario Puzo’s line from The Godfather: “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

Not wishing to disappear too abruptly, Coppola politely inquires if I have my “swimming trunks”, and invites me to join his family for a dip in the pool. Of all the days to forget one’s swimmers. I decline, thank him profusely and watch him wander off, still mulling over the many business puzzles of the empire that require solving. A new ad campaign has to be created for Sofia Mini, small cans of sparkling wine that have sold particularly well for his business. Caught up in the publicity whirl for The Beguiled, Sofia has just told him that she’s not so keen on the latest creative his art department has mocked up: a can bursting through a shattered glass ceiling. “She wants me to fix it,” he sighs, telling Pfotenhauer that’s now his job.

Later, while enjoying an aperitif in Bar Cinecittà with Pfotenhauer, I ask why Coppola doesn’t stop. “Because he can’t,” Pfotenhauer laughs. “He still has too many visions.”

So is he The Don or Michael Corleone? A more sane version of Kurtz or King Lear? Who knows. But in the vein of the Facebook fan page “I want to be a Coppola”, so do I. More than ever.

The December issue of AFR Magazine is out on Friday, November 24 inside The Australian Financial Review.

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