Interview: Writer-director Roman Coppola

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From the February 28, 2013 edition

As the son of renowned director Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Coppola has grown up in the movie industry. He’s making a name for himself, too.

He was nominated for his first Oscar for co-writing the screenplay “Moonrise Kingdom” with Wes Anderson. His second directorial effort, “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III,” opens in Columbus this weekend, and he spoke with Alive about it.

How personal was this movie for you?

Well, it’s quite personal. It’s tricky because there’s a [difference] between something that’s personal, springs from my interests, working with people in my life, actors that I know. Then there’s personal in terms of the reflection, [like], “Oh it’s my story.” So there are two answers to the question, but the way I define personal, absolutely.

I shot it at my home, my office and the world around me, with my colleagues and friends I’ve known for a long time; people like Jason [Schwartzman], my cousin, and Charlie [Sheen] who’s an old friend from [when I was] a boy.

There are many props, wardrobes and details in the movie — like The Musso & Frank Grill restaurant Charlie goes to and that’s my favorite restaurant — and all these textures that make it very much a thing I care about and relate to.

The breakup aspect of the film feels very genuine. How personal is the story specifically?

The origin of the story was that I knew I wanted to tell a story about a very outgoing character, someone who was very imaginative and very balls out, not shy and kind of narcissistic, but with a good heart. Someone who had some learning to do in his life, but was outgoing and was just full of vitality and pizazz in their life.

Then I experienced a breakup around the time I was cooking this movie up and a very good friend of mine was getting a divorce. We were pretty helpless and hopeless. So that state of mind of being in a breakup and a kaleidoscopic life you lived for that time is what I wanted to portray. People who’ve been in love and had that love end abruptly against their wishes would relate to this. So anyway, it comes from personal experience.

Yeah, I connected with some of those aspects of the film. So besides being personal for you, you feel it has some universal theme about relationships?

It’s kind of a guy movie in that way. When you think of a relationship movie, it’s often geared to women. I thought it would be funny to have a guy’s point of view on relationships and breakups. Yet, when I show it to women they all say they related so much to it. That makes me happy.

Tell me about your approach to the visual style of this movie. It’s very vibrant.

The approach was its set in kind of a quasi-’70s era. I say that because I never really admitted to the time it’s set. It’s suggested and implied quite clear in my mind, but I didn’t want it to be defined as such. In any case, it was set in my mind in this 1973, 1974 period.

I grew up in San Francisco and would come down to Los Angeles as a kid. The world around you in Hollywood was so filled with this incredible pop imagery of album covers, billboards and magazines. The visual landscape of California at that time — especially Los Angeles — just had this quality of album cover art style. And I started to just become interested in this, prior to wanting to make a movie.

I started to familiarize myself with the guys who were responsible for this imagery. I learned about a guy named Charles White III — hence the name [of the titular character] — Peter Palombi, Dave Willardson and Michael Salisbury was a great art director. Eiko Ishioka is a designer I worked with later with my dad. She did costumes for “Dracula.” These are all people that created this pop visual style of that time. It was sexy, funny, playful, colorful, kind of ironic and just eye-catching.

I realized at that point that I wanted to make [Charles Swan III] a graphic designer and tell the movie in that style. So the costumes, colors and my approach were to evoke that feeling, which is cool California early, mid-’70s period.

Some of the sets were really cool. I loved the old bus that was Charles office.

You know that bus is from Columbus, Ohio. That was built by a guy from Ohio. It’s a very rare, one-of-a-kind Greyhound bus from the ’40s. This gentleman from Ohio totally retrofitted it with modern mechanics, but on a beautiful old bus. I tracked it down and bought it from him. It was just something, one of my treasures, and I was able to fit it in the movie.

Did you have Charlie Sheen in mind for the lead when you were writing the film?

It was 95 percent that I didn’t have him in mind when I was writing it. I just had this notion for this character.

I knew Charlie from when we were boys together, on “Apocalypse Now.” We were buddies, when we were 10, 11 years old and then I hadn’t seen him in many years. Maybe 10 years would go by and I’d see him. In the mid-’80s when he was a really popular actor, I’d happen to run into him. He’d say, “When are we going to make a movie?”

I remember being very flattered … that he would say that to me, some big star saying that. It was always something in the back of my mind; we’ve got to do something. In any case, it just so happened when I was finishing the script I got a call from the stuntman I work with who is pals with Charlie. He said we should call Charlie.

I called Charlie and he had that same sentiment, “Hey when are we going to work together,” and it kind of clicked for me. It kind of gave me a goal. If I could finish this, I could show it to Charlie, and this could be something. So it gave me this little burst of adrenaline to finish it up.

Why did you choose Charlie Sheen to star?

I’ve always admired Charlie and known him to be a very fine actor. You see “Platoon” and these movies and that’s just a fact. But that’s been forgotten a little bit. I cast him because he’s very charming, he’s very witty and funny, but I knew he had this real innate acting ability and that’s what my character needed.

I’ve always believed that, and it is a little frustrating to me that some people … I met this guy … and he said, “What’s it like working with a crazy guy?” I was offended. What do you know about anything? That’s a totally irrelevant, stupid kind of abbreviated thinking.

So I’m kind of defensive about Charlie — he is a really good actor and he brings so much to this role. I think it’s evident, and I’m very proud of it. I’m hoping I guess — what I should say is when the movie gets discussed — I’d be so grateful if people discussed it on the terms of what it is, rather than couching it in the terms of this recent stuff that doesn’t have any bearing or relevance to the movie. It’s sort of laziness … if everyone thought of Robert Downey Jr.’s troubles when they’re watching “Iron Man” that would probably hamper things.

How was your experience working with Charlie?

Charlie’s a very intuitive actor. Some actors are talkers and want to talk about things and understand it in some way. The benefit of working with Charlie is there was a very intuitive shorthand. You don’t even have to say anything. He knows what you’re trying to do, you get it intimately.

When I described the movie to him — it’s a guy going through a breakup trying to process through it; it’s kind of told through different fantasies — he said all that jazz. I said, “Exactly.” I knew we were in that immediate conversation together. So the process with Charlie was very practical, and he just did it.

The emotional scene at the end I could tell needed a certain privacy. That evening it was kind of drizzling on our location. I couldn’t start the scene, have it rain and stop. So we bided our time and just waited. Then he just did it. We did three takes, and then we stopped. I just made it available for him to do what he had to do. And he knew what he had to do. He knew what he had to do and he did it.