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Film Connections Interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of “The Rain People” 

October 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Film Connections

Interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of “The Rain People” 

In 1968 the future Oscar-winning filmmaker and his cast and crew ended up in Nebraska for the last few weeks shooting on an intimate road picture he wrote and directed titled “The Rain People.” A very young George Lucas was along for the ride as a production associate whose main task was to film the making of the movie. 

Coppola’s indie art film starring Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall was released in 1969. The experience forged strong personal and professional bonds. It not only resulted in the Lucas documentary “The Making of The Rain People,” but it’s how Lucas came to cast Duvall to star in his debut feature “THX-1138,” which Coppola produced. Coppola also produced his protege’s second film, “American Grafitti.” The two also co-founded American Zoetrope. Meanwhile. Coppola cast Duvall and Caan in his crowing achievement, “The Godfather.” From obscurity in 1969. Coppola and Lucas became start filmmakers who helped usher in the New Hollywood. 

The experience of “The Rain People” also introduced Duvall to a Nebraska ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons. he came to make the subjects of his own first directorial effort, “We’re Not the Jet Set.”

I am documenting this little-known chapter Nebraska Screen Gem as part of my Nebraska Screen Heritage Project, in a college class I’m teaching this fall and in articles I’m writing and in posts I’m making. On this blog you can also find my interviews with Knight, Caan and Duvall. I have also interviewed several others who were part of this confluence of talent and vision and I will be posting those over time.

My next step is to bring back as many of the principals involved in these three films for screenings and discussions.

Here is my interview with Francis Ford Coppola:

LAB: The Rain People is very much a road picture, and you and your small cast and crew traveled in cars and, I think I read somewhere, a mini-bus from Long Island to the South and then to the Midwest to capture the journey Shirley Knight’s character makes. Did you happen to shoot the film largely in sequential order?

FFC: “Generally I tried to shoot in sequential order, though if there was an opportunity to save money to shoot slightly out of it, I would.”

LAB: Is it true you hadn’t finished the screenplay when shooting began?

FFC: “I had a complete screenplay, but was prepared to make any changes if we encountered something interesting along the way.”

LAB: And so I take it that you hadn’t scouted all the locations beforehand but instead left yourself open to discovering places and events you then integrated into the story and captured on film?

FFC: “Exactly. We had a route, and wasn’t sure of exact location, But my associate Ron Colby was scouting a little ahead of us and we were in communication.”

LAB: What about Ogallala, Neb. – was it by design or chance that you ended up there?

FFC: “By chance. but once there, I think we felt at home and there were many good place that suited our story. And the people were nice and there was a nice little picnic grounds. And I remember a big steak cost about $6, so we’d have barbecues and we were all happy there.”

LAB: It was your first time working with the three principal cast members. At that point in your careers, Shirley was probably the best known of anyone on the project. I read somewhere that you met her at the Cannes Film Festival, when she was there with Dutchman, and that you saw her crying after a confrontation with a journalist and you consoled her with, ‘Don’t cry, I’m going to write a film for you.’ Is that right?

FFC: “Yes, that story is true. I think I was influenced by the notion of Europeans working with leading ladies, Monica Vitti or Goddard’s Anna Karinia, and so yes, I said that to her.”

LAB: You obviously admired her work.

FFC: “I liked Dutchman very much, where I also admired (her co-star) Al Freeman Jr.”

LAB: What about Jimmy and Bobby – did you know them before the project, and did any of their previous work make an impression on you?

FFC: “I had chosen Jimmy, and in fact before I even had the money or arrangement to make The Rain People, George Lucas and I went east and shot some ‘second unit’ footage at a football game and different images.”

LAB: Bobby mentioned that he might have replaced another actor who had originally been cast in his role, is that right?

FFC: “Original. For the rehearsals we had Rip Torn, but had as part of his deal that we give him the Harley motorcycle so he could learn to drive it well. We did, and he parked it in front of his house in New York City, and it was stolen. He came back to us and said it was his deal to have a Harley, so we had to buy him another. But all we could afford was a good quality secondhand one -– which then he said wasn’t his deal. It was supposed to be a good one. So later in the production, when Ron Colby called him to say we needed him to get his shoe and calf measured for the boots, he said, ‘That’s it’! and quit. I had seen Bobby in a movie (Countdown’ he made with Jimmy Caan for TV that Robert Altman had directed. I thought both of them were fantastic. So true and real in that kind of movie, so I offered the part to Duvall.”

LAB: I understand that in preproduction you like to rehearse or to at least do table reads with cast, or at least that’s how you preferred to do things then. Did you do anything like that for Rain People?

FFC: “Yes, I had been a theater major in college, and so I was very used to a few weeks of rehearsal and, yes, I did a rehearsal period for The Rain People and I’ve done it for every film after that.”

 

Montage of moments from “The Rain People”. ©motionpictureart.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LAB: As you know, Jimmy and Bobby became fast friends with a local ranch-rodeo family there, the Petersons. They were this loud, rambunctious bunch.  Did you meet any of the clan, particularly the patriarch, B.A., who is the central figure in the documentary Duvall made about the family, We’re Not the Jet Set? 

FFC: “I remember the family, and Bobby’s interest in them. He was always interested in things that were ‘real’ authentic, as opposed to the fake reality of people in movies and TV shows, and thus he made We’re Not the Jet Set. I remember the song he wrote (?).”

LAB: What about another area ranch-rodeo family Jimmy and Bobby came to know, the Haythorns, did you meet any of them, particularly patriarch Waldo Haythorn?

FFC: “No, I don’t remember them. but perhaps I met them.”

LAB: I know that Duvall has often sought your opinion on the projects he’s directed – did he do so for We’re Not the Jet Set, and assuming you’ve seen the film what do you think of it?

FFC: “Over the years, he’d come visit me and bring me his films and ask for my reaction. I was pleased to be of any help I could be, especially after he did me the great favor of appearing in a tiny role in The Conversation.”

LAB: When you worked with Duvall on Rain People and later on the first two Godfather pictures and The Conversation, did you sense he had a directorial sensibility about him?

FFC: “I didn’t think about it. Iv’e always known that actors make the best directors among all the crafts – writing, editing, assistant directors, et cetera. There’s a long list of actors who became fine directors.”

LAB: After Rain People did you know you wanted to work with Caan and Duvall again? When you got The Godfather did you immediately think of them?

FFC: “I liked working with them very much, and yes, they were on all the early lists of names for The Godfather.'”

LAB: The Rain People production team also included two key collaborators in George Lucas and Mona Skager. The film came at an interesting juncture in your young careers. You had wanted to be an independent director but soon found yourself being a studio wonk.  After Finian’s Rainbow it appears you intentionally set out to liberate yourself from the studio apparatus with Rain People, is that right?

FFC: “Yes. George Lucas was, and still is, like a younger brother to me. I knew early on that he was a great talent, and though a different personality to my own, one that was very helpful to me, and stimulating to me. hH’s a fine, very generous person, so bright and talented.Ii am very proud of him. Mona was the first ‘key associate’ I had, starting out as a secretary and blossoming into an all-around associate in the entire process.”

LAB: I believe that you, Lucas and Skager formed American Zoetrope not long after the project. Did the idea for Zoetrope come to you during the making of the film or did the experience of that film point you in the direction of launching your own studio?

FFC: “The idea for American Zoetrope really came from the theater club that I was president (or executive producer) of in college, called ‘The Spectrum Players.’ It still exists at Hofstra University in Long Island, and I was the founder and merely took many of the ideas of a creative entity that attempted to create art works with it’s own means. George was essentially a co-founder, and Mona was what they called in those days ‘the Girl Friday’ – today a production supervisor who was involved in all we were trying to do.”

LAB: Rain People certainly fits the vision you had for Zoetrope in terms of small, personal art films. which Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now and subsequent pictures took you away from for many years before you returned to this model the last few years. Do you still regard Rain People warmly after all these years?

FFC: “Yes, very much. I wish Warner Bros. would allow me to buy it back, as there’s not even a DVD available about it (there is now). It has value, I think, beyond being an early film of mine but as one of the first films to touch on the theme of ‘women’s liberation’.”

LAB: The documentary Lucas made about the making of the film captures you and the others before you became so well known, which makes it a very interesting time piece, don’t you think?

FFC: “George’s film is excellent, if I may say, and he caught the spirit of this exciting trip, which for us was an adventure into filmmaking.”

LAB: In addition to working again with Caan, Duvall, Lucas and Skager, you also ended up working again with Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, and so that film really forged some key relationships didn’t it?

FFC: “Bill Butler did a terrific job, and it was a pleasure to work with him.”

LAB: And, of course. Lucas ended up casting Duvall in his first feature, THX-1138, which you produced.

FFC: “Yes, George got to meet Bobby and knew he should be in THX-1138.”

LAB: The confluence of talent and connections that arose out of Rain People has always fascinated me, as has the fact that within a few years of its making you and Lucas helped usher in the New Hollywood and became kingpins in the industry. But you tried to escape the constraints and weight of studio filmmaking over the next few decades, and you finally have regained the independence you found on Rain People, all thanks to your wine company. You’ve kind of come full circle, haven’t you?

FFC: “I hope so. With the conclusion of the ‘student’ films I just made, Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt, I feel ready to tackle a new and much bigger project. I feel blessed in my life, and of course hI ope I’m able to enjoy the freedom and autonomy enjoyed in those last three, on the new one, which will need a much bigger budget. I hope fate allows me to do  it, as I don’t yet feel i’ve achieved what I long to do in film.”

LAB: As you know, Lucas has long talked about freeing himself from his corporate machine, CGI endeavors and Star Wars franchises to make small experimental films.  Have  you nudged him at all to say, ‘Hey, look, I did it, you can too’?

FFC: “George is so talented, anything he attempts will be a pleasure to see. Yes, I always ask him to quit fooling with the Star Wars ‘franchise’ and go back to what he and I always wanted: to make personal — experimental films. I have no doubt that he will succeed.”

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