Coppola Gets Dickslapped
Promotional lobby card for One From The Heart depicting an entire outdoor set pointlessly built on the studio lot. Image via
Last year, I interviewed for a writing job at Hollywood Center Studios. I remember thinking I’d clearly aced the interview (I hadn't), and afterwards I roamed the premises, exploring a studio lot I assumed would be my new workplace. My smartphone reeled off an impressive list of masterpieces filmed onsite: Green Acres, I Love Lucy, Jeopardy!, One From The Heart.
One from wha-huh? I'd never heard of it. Few of my pals, I soon learned, had ever heard of the film. Was it cursed? Banned? A myth? An internet hoax? Me and my friends displaying our filmic ignorance?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. In the early 80s, following the prolonged public drama of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola decided to make a nice little romantic comedy. Instead of jungles and insanity and napalm, he'd settle down in his brand new studio and craft an intimate romantic comedy. But after deciding to shoot exclusively on the backlot, the production costs soared from $2 million to over $25 million (for comparison, Star Wars, a film in which an entire planet gets blown up, only cost $11 million).
The movie made a mere $637,000, which is not even 3 percent of the total investment. Creditors repossessed the backlot after just one film, and Coppola spent the next decade paying off debts. Years earlier, speaking about his time in the jungle, the director famously told Roger Ebert, "We had access to too much money, too much equipment... and we went insane." Turns out he was actually describing his next project.
The film follows one couple's separation like an elaborate stage play, with dissolving walls and dramatic lighting shifts. The dialogue seems pulled from a less elaborate stage play, perhaps one staged by a struggling Midwest civic theater. The plot and pacing and wardrobe choices come from a low-income junior high school stage play, one with a stylist who thought it’d be smart to plop a floppy little Afro on Harry Dean Stanton.
And yet Frederic Forrest is the leading man! We all love Frederic Forrest. We enjoyed his lax parenting in Valley Girl, we feared for his safety in The Conversation, we excused his racism in Falling Down, and we mourned his beheading in Apocalypse Now. When he inevitably catches up with Garr in the airport gangway and haltingly sings "You Are My Sunshine" to win her back, we want to cry, No Forrest! It's not worth it! There will be other films! Walk away!
Of course, it's not really an airport. Instead of driving four hours to Vegas, Coppola simply built a replica of a McCarran International Airport terminal inside his own studio. When Forrest stands in the rain and watches Teri Garr's plane swoop off into the night, he is quite literally seeing a full-sized commercial jet, purchased by American Zoetrope Studios and hoisted on wires from the studio ceiling.
That's actually not the most impressive scene. Earlier in the film, the director built his own private Old Town Vegas, complete with Fremont Street and gigantic signs and presumably working slot machines. The sheer, obscene tonnage of neon mocks the entire endeavor of filmmaking, including Blade Runner, which wouldn’t be released for another four months. The sets go on and on. Outdoor lots are really huge indoor lots with distant painted backdrops, like the largest dioramas in a nonexistent natural history museum. It's reminiscent of The Truman Show or, more accurately, the massive indoor stage set in 2008's Synecdoche, New York—a life-size replica of NYC—in which actors are walled into fake apartments and carry out entirely fake lives without the benefit of an audience.
Beautiful two-millimeter miniature neon signs were designed specifically for the film, although it would have been much easier and cost-effective to film the Vegas strip itself. Image via Aargon Neon
Did I mention this is a musical? Tom Waits starts up over the opening credits, and doesn't let up for the rest of the movie. Crystal Gale joins him for a few songs, and the two form an impromptu Greek chorus, describing the characters' doings with a boozy, end-of Saturday Night Live vibe. Does that sound good? Because it really isn't. This tinkly piano jazz is still playing at the end of the film, when a curtain descends and credits announce that yes, the film was indeed "filmed entirely on the stages of Zoetrope Studios," as if that were something to be proud of.
And yet pride is exactly what drives the film. An army of artisans and electricians and designers all labored under the watchful eye of a man who'd made three of the 20th century's most celebrated films in less than a decade. Failure must've been the farthest thing from anyone's mind. Certainly the concept of failure must've been quite remote from Coppola's, as he perched in his canvas director's chair, sipping his own vintage of wine, oblivious to history’s mighty schlong descending for a smackdown.
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