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The Long Apprenticeship of Roman Coppola

Academy award-nominated screenwriter and director Roman Coppola grew up in a famous filmmaking family, but he arrived at success in Hollywood by slowly learning the trade.

Seth MacFarlane had some blunt words for Roman Coppola while hosting the Academy Awards recently. "He is the sixth member of the Coppola family to receive a nomination," said the controversial cartoonist. "That’s got to be a fun house to grow up in: 'Mom, I got an A in Spanish.' 'Really? Literally everyone you’re related to has an Oscar.' "

Roman joined the ranks of his family’s illustrious ilk when he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay this past winter. Although he didn’t walk away with an award, the nod for his collaboration with Wes Anderson on Moonrise Kingdom marked a new milestone. The February release of his second directorial effort, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, only further completes the victory lap. Rather than an inheritance, however, Coppola owes his development as a filmmaker to a variety of experiences and teachers over the past 20 years—the Hollywood equivalent of an evolving apprenticeship.

"Obviously, growing up around filmmaking informs you and it’s an influence, but I never really thought about it as a path," Coppola says. "It was never like any kind of plan or inevitability or 'You have to get into this.' It was more like, Follow the things that interest you."

Some of the things Roman Coppola was interested in at the dawn of his creative career were arts, music, and performance. Similarly, the journeyman’s Academy-honored sister, Sophia, started off in art school, with an eye toward fashion. Both siblings took the circuitous route toward taking the reins on a feature film. In Roman’s case, it was his ties to the music scene that lead to directing videos for the likes of The Strokes and Daft Punk, and his first film, the stylized, dreamlike CQ. Along the way, he picked up some experience working for his father, Francis Ford Coppola.

Roman Coppola

Roman’s first real job in the industry was as second unit director on his father’s film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which he was allotted a generous 60-day schedule, practically unheard of at the time. It was this immersive crash course in leading a crew that gave the novice confidence he could go into bigger duties. It was also his first experience learning through deferential collaboration.

"It’s kind of your job as a second unit director to get into the director’s head and deliver what they want," Coppola says. "It’s not really about saying, 'Hey, I’ve got this great idea for you.' It’s more about really channeling what they want the most, and serving them, and that can be a fun thing to do."

Working as a second unit director was Roman’s first experience in selfless contribution to someone else’s vision, but it would be far from his last. After working in music videos during much of the '90s, the budding lensman began what ultimately became his most fruitful working relationship—with director Wes Anderson. Actor and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson introduced the pair, after working with Anderson on the aesthete’s debut Bottle Rocket and influencing Coppola in his first film, CQ. Eventually, Anderson hired Coppola as his second unit director for 2004's The Life Acquatic--a subservient stepping stone towards future full collaboration.

Mutual friend Jason Schwartzman proved to be the lynchpin that brought Coppola and Anderson working together as peers. The three all happened to be in France while Schwartzman, a Coppola cousin, was filming his role in Marie Antoinette. Pretty soon, Anderson suggested that they start developing a project.

"It was always a notion to create a screenplay together," Coppola says. "In order to get the ball rolling, because we knew the premise was the story of three brothers having these kind of rich adventures, we started to go out to dinner and stay out late and sort of invite things to happen. Then we went to India, so the writing process sort of included a certain amount of getting out there and have things happen that could relate to our story."

Although the three let real-life experiences guide their writing on The Darjeeling Limited, Coppola was content to acknowledge Anderson as the leader of the mission—a natural extension of his behind-the-scenes role on The Life Acquatic.

"It’s fun to work with a collaborator when you’re in sync with them, and in the case of Wes, he’s really the creative leader because it’s understood that he’s going to be the director," Coppola says. "He really has the final authority—as the director should—to say which way we’re going to do it, and I’m very happy to serve in any way I can."

After a second time out as Anderson’s writing partner, on the Academy Award nominated screenplay for 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, Coppola has returned to the helm of a project all his own: the just-released A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, which is also available on Video on Demand. It’s his most ambitious project yet, complete with a strong cast that includes simpatico compatriots Bill Murray and Schwartzman, and a star turn by Charlie Sheen. Although over the course of his 20 years in show business, he’s earned the ability and privilege to strike out on his own, the serial collaborator is not yet done learning.

"I chose kind of an odd path for myself where I made a film and then worked on things for other people, but it seems to work for me," Coppola says. "I would like to make more films myself, and I intend to, but I like teaming up with people and having other adventures, so I’m kind of just open to what comes my way."

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