Interview: Roman Coppola

Not that it wasn’t interesting before today, but the life of filmmaker Roman Coppola is about to get even more interesting. Not only is he nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay for his work with collaborator and kindred spirit Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom, but he’s also seeing the release of his second directorial outing (and first in well over a decade following CQ) A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III.

The frequent music video director, son of Francis Ford, and brother of Sofia, sets out to tell the story of a not entirely grounded titular character (played by Charlie Sheen) who often daydreams himself into a corner. He’s been left by his wife thanks to his sexual obsessions. He talks a big game because he has a hero complex. Sometimes he gets so depressed that he fixates on his own death. All of this isn’t helping his personal relationships with friends and family, and it certainly isn’t helping his fledgling advertising and design firm when he can’t focus on the type of creativity he needs to actually do work.

The film revisits some of the writer/director’s favourite things, and Dork Shelf was lucky enough to talk to him last week about the design of the film, the creation of the character, period advertising and music, and the similarities between his works.

Dork Shelf: My first question is about the character of Charles Swan himself. He’s very much of a certain era or time, and I know that in the film it isn’t specified when this is all taking place, but he has sort of this almost Robert Evans/old professional look to him with the suit and his shades, but he also has the imagination of a child. I was wondering, how much of that character was how you perceived those types of professionals that you grew up around that sort of encircled your family?

Roman Coppola: Definitely to some degree. I grew up in San Francisco, so I would come up to LA to visit my relatives or something and then you would drive down the Sunset Strip and you would see all that imagery of billboard art and music and Jackson Browne and James Taylor, and all these guys and how they looked and that whole culture.

I can kind of see the Bob Evans thing, but with him I don’t have a lot of memories of him as an individual and as a person, but his aura or whatever you see looking back at you and his style and his kind of whole feel of people like that and Jack Nicholson and Bryan Ferry definitely had a big influence on the style. But for me, I don’t remember talking to Bob Evans or any of those people really, so it wasn’t a kind of first hand thing where I just said “Oh, I’m going to portray all those people that I know.” The most direct way was through that actual pop culture experience, like album covers, billboards, and that type of thing, if that makes any sense.

DS: That makes perfect sense, and I really liked the look of the character of Charles Swan, and one of the things I found most fascinating about him was how he was always wearing his sunglasses around the clock and if he ever took them off it was only for a second and to put something else over his eyes, like his hand or a pair of X-Ray specs. Was that decision that you made about the character or one that Charlie Sheen made?

RC: That was something about how I kind of imagined and how I kind of conceived the guy. It’s interesting because I wear prescription glasses, but they have a little bit of a tint as those in the film. They aren’t really sunglasses, but those were a kind of style at that time. It was kind of groovy, and I thought it was kind of daring to always kind of be covering his eyes and sort of adding a bit of a veil to make you sort of curious and make you want to reach in a little bit more. I thought that was a nice and kind of fun and interesting choice that would make him more distinctive.

I remember reading an article in Vanity Fair about The Blues Brothers and how the studio was freaking out that you never say John Belushi or Dan Aykroyd’s eyes because they were always wearing those wayfarers. It was just kind of funny that sometimes that the less you see of something or if you hold back a bit things seem a bit more provocative or a bit more striking.

But that look was something I was excited to see Charlie take on, and when I went to convince him to try and take on the role and describe who this guy was, he put on this velvet suit, and these glasses, and a fedora and I took a picture that we both looked at and said “Oh, yeah, that’s the guy.” So the look was always a big part of who he was.

DS: And that ties into his own overactive imagination and how he skews his own view of the world, but I think that a lot of actors would have their own ideas on how someone would portray a character that has all these fantasies of death, sex, and being a hero in their own mind that they would bring to the table. How much is it a collaborative effort between you and the actors to make a fantasy world within the real world that Charles inhabits?

RC: The script was something that I put a lot of care into and something that took me a long time to really figure out. When I started shooting we had quite a short schedule, so the vibe on set was not one where there was a lot of real discussion where we said “Oh, we should do this” or “Oh, we should do that.” It was just, like, “We’re going!” (laughs)

And in the case of Bill Murray and Jason (Schwartzman), who are very witty, it was a little different. Jason is supposed to be playing a stand-up comic, and he’s supposed to sparkle with some surprise or some wit, so I encouraged him to do that. And Bill, no matter what you say or do, is going to come up with incredible amounts of funny stuff that you wouldn’t expect. That’s just what he does, and he’s a genius at it. In those instances I was very open to what happened, but I have to say that shooting very quickly with no discussion or elaboration meant that I just jumped in and did the work.

Charlie was very witty too, but he put a lot of confidence in me to do the right thing. He was always asking “Roman, what should I do?” He trusted me, and I had a very clear sense of who that guy was and what he would say.

DS: Do you think it’s a lot easier to work with people you have either worked with or known for a while for a movie like this given the short period of time and what you needed to get done?

RC: You know, that’s such a mystery. Who knows? It could have been five times better or it could have been really terrible. It’s such an unknown, but my opinion is that it was great to have the report that I had with Charlie, Jason, Bill, and Patricia (Arquette), who was someone I’ve known many years. It’s very comforting and familiar and you have a sense of trust. Jason didn’t want to let me down, and Charlie always wanted to do a great job, and I wanted to do a great job for Bill because I wanted something for him to be proud of. You’re invested in these people.

At the same time someone like Aubrey Plaza, who I had never worked with before, I just felt like someone I had known forever. You have such a great relationship and she’s so cool, funny, and loveable. I could just hang out with her all day long. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead, same thing. You just fall in love with that person and you feel like an old friend. I feel very blessed and lucky on this movie that I had such a great cast and it was such a good experience.

DS: With CQ, this movie, and your work with Wes Anderson last year on Moonrise Kingdom, I realized that you have a penchant for creating these main character who have extraordinary talents, but they have different crushing stresses in their lives and different coping mechanisms outside what most people would consider normal and they are trying to maintain a sense of humanity and trying to stay grounded. What is it that keeps you coming back to these kinds of characters?

RC: It’s a very good question, and I don’t really know. My work and the things you do probably always come from a sort of gut instinct or you’re just drawn to it. It has occurred to me that there’s a curious similarity to a lot of the things I’ve done, particularly these two films and how there seems to be this girl that’s shrouded and filtered through your imagination and how your imaginary life filters into your work and that relationship there and how daydreams fit into life. I guess that’s just my nature. I’m a bit of a daydreamer. I’m sort of a free associator where if I think of this it leads to that and then all of a sudden it kind of makes sense to me. When I watch my movie it’s all kind of matter-of-fact. Like, of course the Nazi is going to pop out of that scene and get pulverized there. Of course we’re going to have a cowboys and Indians scene right here. It’s kind of a natural thing for me to come up with, but if you take a step back it looks rather wild.

DS: In the design of the film, I was reminded a lot of how in the late 1980s and early 90s there were all these books about the subliminal nature of sexuality in advertising. There were a lot of people talking about these dynamics and how sex sells. Was this something that you were thinking about when you were doing the layout for the ads Charles does in the film and in the design of how he lived his life?

RC: I remember a book called Subliminal Advertising or something and it had ice cubes on the cover and it was talking about how sex sells and sexual arousal. Do you remember that?

DS: I do remember that, actually.

RC: I can’t really say I thought of it consciously. It seems like there was this kind of imagery – mid-70s styled album cover art – and there were all these maters that sort of created this language. Charles White III, who was actually the most direct inspiration for Charles Swan, Peter Palombi, David Willardson were all of these great airbrush masters at the time who kind of created the visual style and langauge. Eiko Ishioka was involved and this guy Mike Salisbury, who was a great art director. There was a whole group of people who were kind of behind this imagery. It was very sexy and very playful. It was very wry, funny, and witty, and I had met these guys and thought that they portray the art that they would have seen in the movie and they become friends and the sort of sort of scrap that they call it.

Charles White III said he once found a pile of old Life magazines and he and his buddy Dave Willardson would just flip through them and look at the ads, and these images were from the 30s. They were all along the lines of “Drive the biggest American cars!” or “Smoke Lucky Strikes! They’ll soothe your throat!” and all of this kind of ridiculous and outrageous claims within the lens of this depression era joy that was all kind of manifested and manufactured by Hollywood and all of these ad agencies. They kind of took that imagery and kind of spun it on it’s head and kind of used the views of women and almost phallic imagery and they put a kind of ironic twist on this kind of imagery that we were fed in advertising and it kind of made a new thing that evolved into a generation of new commercial imagery.

There are a lot of things that come to mind as we talk about influences, but it wasn’t so much like a subliminal form of advertising as it was more of this outrageous kind of and overt imagery that you would see in a Playboy magazine or on a billboard.

DS: The music in the film is really evocative of that kind of era. What was it like coming up with the grooves for Charles Swan?

RC: Well, the music of this film is incredibly important to me and incredibly integrated into the movie, and Liam Hayes who’s the composer songwriter to me is basically a partner in making this movie because the soundtrack and his contribution is just something I leaned on so much as I was writing and as I was working, so I have a huge feeling of debt to him for what he contributed to this film. The music is just perfect for whatever reason. I can’t really even explain it.

I’m really proud of the music in this film because Liam is more of a contemporary artist. He’s younger than I am, and he’s not an old fashioned person, but he obviously draws from things that have a lot more breadth. He loves recording on tape and using real arrangements and instruments, so he obviously has a feeling for references of times past, but he’s a really contemporary artist in my mind.

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