Exclusive: Roman Coppola Talks CHARLES SWAN, Breakups, And Wes Anderson

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

I had the pleasure a few weeks ago of chatting with Roman Coppola, writer/director of the irritatingly titled A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swann III. This is the first feature from Coppola sitting in the director's chair since 2001's CQ, but he's certainly kept busy, working on the second unit on family productions -- his sister's Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, his father's Tetro and Youth Without Youth -- as well as helping write and second unit direct more than one project with Wes Anderson.

It's Anderson's quirky style that is most hearkened by this film, yet, as I mentioned in my review, it lacks the kind of coherence and sense of satisfaction one gets from Anderson's playful pieces. Still, there's a tremendous warmth in Coppola's film, despite the overtly miserable tale of betrayal and heartbreak, and while it's a failure as a film, it's an interesting one, with moments (such as the delightful ending) that make it something at least worth contending with.

After some fitting, almost diagetic twangy guitar music that played while I was on hold during the transfer, I began our conversation by mentioning the recent good news about his latest collaboration with Anderson.


Twitch: First of all, Mazel Tov on the Oscar nomination!

Roman Coppola: [Pause] OK.

I thought of CHARLES SWAN as Fellini meets HERMAN'S HEAD meets AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON. How did you keep everything straight while you literally and figuratively made a "kitchen sink" movie?

It took a long time. Time was a tool, in a way. I had a lot of scraps, and notions and images. The starting point was I wanted the feeling of a breakup. When you break up with someone, at least in my experience, you're thrown into a razzle-dazzle state of confusion and suffering, even some enlightenment and joy.

I had a notion of what I wanted to do, and over time I'd say, "There's a Western scene, and he gets shot by an arrow, and then he's in a hospital," and he's a bullshit artist, so maybe he gets a best bullshit award, and you just free associate to all this stuff.

To your point, it did take a kind of editorial approach at a certain point; once I'd created all this wacky stuff, I had to figure out a way to weave it together. I didn't want to disorient the viewer, I wanted them to be swept up in it. So that was my task, how to have this craziness, this kaleidoscopic approach, but make it make sense and draw an audience through.

That was my challenge, and hopefully I pulled it off adequately.

Another part of the challenge is that the film centres on what at least superficially is a highly unlikable character. How did you try to work that out in terms of tonal balance?

Obviously, with an actor like Charlie Sheen there's a lot of preconceived feelings about him as a person. A recent interviewer asked me, "I found that he wasn't despicable, was that your intention?" No, it was never my intention that he was despicable!

He was a portrayal of someone who is a cad, a bullshit artist, and has some qualities are less than super honourable, but he's also a gentle person who's imaginative and has some charm and wit.

You had to strike a balance - the guy had to be a mess, but we as an audience have to stick with him through his struggles. Still, It's not so hard to see why his girlfriend dumped his ass!

Right. [Chuckles]

I guess that was to me the challenge, or something fun about it. He is an overblown character, his appetites are large, he's obsessive, he's outrageous in his way and kind of childlike. It's fun to portray a character that's out of whack, but I hope that it bordered on overload but that he did portray a certain likable quality.

For me, one of the best complements I got when I showed the movie, I had thought it's a very "guy" movie, a guy processing a breakup, and a woman said to me, "Oh, wow, I really connected with that character, and my experiences with a breakup." I thought that was pretty cool, that a woman could associate with that character, it was a nice complement.


It seems an intimate production. When you have the celebratory finale, it almost feels like a family celebration. Obviously you have your cousin in it, and your leading actor has a strong connection to your family's history. Was this sense of the familial a result of the freedom afforded by low-budget filmmaking, or was it always intentional, right from the script stage?

When I was writing it, I wanted it to be intimate, it's a character study and I wanted that kind of closeness. The way I was able to make this movie was through the help of my friends and colleagues. I shot in my house, Charlie wears some of my clothes, Jason [Schwartman] is my cousin.

We had to do a shoot day to qualify for a tax credit, and both Charlie and Jason came down, I got this wig, I put a perm on it, and we shot in my office. A lot of the locations I had found as I was writing -- I'd go down Mulholland to visit Charlie, perhaps to talk about the script with him,  and found the place where he'd throw the bags.

It was made in a very handmade way, with a lot of friends of colleagues. That last shot on the beach, that was our crew, and we were all celebrating because we were over the hump of the movie, that was something I'm proud of, that camaraderie.


charles_swan_photos.JPGThe music of Liam "Plush" Hayes is all over the film. Did you learn about him from HIGH FIDELITY? What was your connection with his music?

Jason turned me on to him. More You Becomes You (1998) was the first record, I loved it, it spoke to me. I got his next record, Fed (2002), and I'd thought I'd get more of the same, of this kind of introspective, intimate music. If you're familiar with Fed, it's this kind of balls out, big orchestration, arrangements with horn sections, epic pop music. That blew me away a second time!

So I realized his musical DNA, the intimate, contemplative feeling with this kind of far out, big sound was the identity of the movie. So the movie would have this intimacy, the guy's poking around his house, he can't quite get his shit together, and then the garage door opens, and this Cadillac rolls out. It's super bombastic, just over-the-top.

I can't say enough about how much Liam'influenced the movie, this movie would not exist if it were not for his music.

Did you write it while listening to specific tracks?

Absolutely, 100%.

Liam sitting there at his Hammond B3 at the finale is my favourite part of the film!

[Laughs]


Bear with me here. You credited four artists for the artwork you attribute in the film to Charles Swan: Charles White III, who did the original STAR WARS roadshow poster, Peter Palombi, who did the AMERICAN GRAFFITI poster, Alex Tavoularis, who did original storyboards and designs for STAR WARS, and David Willardson, who is famous for doing Disney inspired illustrations. Is this your roundabout way of saying you're in line to work on one of the next STAR WARS films for Uncle George?

 Ah. That's a very clever way to connect all those things, but uh, you know uh, what's the word...

Stupid?

Coincidence!

I was aware of those guys growing up, seeing the Star Wars poster, seeing the American Graffiti poster.

My dad had a magazine called "City Magazine" that was art directed by Michael Salisbury [Author note: He did the ILM logo - the connection continues!], who was the genius behind all that kind of imagery, so it was all a part of my life.


Any news on a potential CQ Blu-ray release? I know some who would be quite excited at the thought

It hasn't come to my attention, but that would be wonderful. Of course, it didn't get a lot of notice when it came out, so it's nice to hear that there's interest. That's a good idea, I should look into getting a Blu-ray going.

Your association with the Andersonian universe is rich, and may drown out your own voice sometimes with your own projects due to inevitable comparisons. Is this something you actively think about with your projects?

When I do work with Wes, it's a given that he's a director, and I'm a co-writer, and that the writer's there to serve the director's needs. There's no confusion in my mind; they're his movies, and I'm part of a team on that.

With regards to a public perception, just an average Joe saying, "Oh, it's similar in this way, or that way," it's not my concern or job to speak for them. Hopefully for those people who like Wes' movies, it would suggest that they like imaginative things that are individual, created by someone that's trying to something fresh and original. Those categories, I feel my work relates.


Given that it's a film about imagination coming to life, did the film itself live up to your initial inspiration?

Yes and no. When you conceive something, or write something, you have very high expectations, you're imagining something huge and epic. There are certain scenes in my film I'm imagining a huge Western sequence, Searchers or whatever it was, and when it comes down to reality you can't afford to have hundreds of horsemen in the valley, so you get by as you can.

In certain ways it improves the movie in the intimacy, the playful factor. I love solving practical problems with creative solutions. Rather than saying, "Oh, we can't do that scene," it's "Well, how can we do it?" I'm proud of that.

In a way it's lesser than I imagined, but some of the effect is more soulful, perhaps.

The area that's always the real joy and that surpasses what you imagined while you were sitting there writing or daydreaming is what the performers bring.

Like when Bill Murray lies face down on the bed? Was that improvised?

It's him doing it, in that moment. I created the condition for that to happen, but he did it. That's the real place that you soar, I never would have thought of that. That's where your expectations are far exceeded, what Jason does, what Charlie brings, what Bill does and the rest of my cast. That's the real joy.

In order to capture those moments, you wisely kept with the master shot. Was that planned from the beginning or a stylistic choice you discovered during editing?

When you prepare a movie you don't want to cut if you don't have to. Cutting is to emphasize something, or to work around a problem or a technical thing. When I shot the scene with Bill and Charlie in the hospital, we did it in a single take, and I was confident we had it, but I did do additional coverage just to have it in case we needed to shorten something.

[The previous scene] with the horse woman, and Jason, and all that kind of stuff, I thought it was a nice contrast. I can't remember if in CQ that I did it, but I like it. On a practical level it can be an aid when you're shooting on a tight schedule -- that's one take, that's one take, you just kind of get a lot of time-sapping sidetracks off the table and you kind of commit to those few things. I was comfortable to commit to those pockets of single takes, and then the other stuff would have more conventional coverage as a way to get more diversity, and also be respectful to the performer carrying the load.

Great, thank you very much!

Thanks for your interest


A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III is playing in selected theatres in the US, and on VOD/Itunes. It opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on February 15, 2013.

Around the Internet:
  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    I would pre-order a blu-ray of CQ as soon as it popped up. Roman is an amazing visual director. Loved a lot about CHARLES as well (saw it on VOD and need to see it on a real screen, I think).

  • Christopher Webster

    CQ is one of my all time favourite films. Roman, we fans ARE out there!

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