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All Cannes eyes on Coppola as director set to unveil self-financed opus

Megalopolis premiere brings back memories of 1979 and Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola on Thursday will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival a film on which he has risked everything, one that’s arriving clouded by rumors of production turmoil. Sound familiar?

On Thursday, Coppola’s self-financed opus “Megalopolis” will make its much-awaited premiere. Other films are debuting in Cannes with more fanfare and hype, but none has quite the curiosity of “Megalopolis,” the first film by the 85-year-old filmmaker in 13 years. Coppola put $120 million of his own money into it.

Forty-five years ago, something very similar played out when Coppola was toiling over the edit for “Apocalypse Now.” The movie’s infamous Philippines production, which would be documented by Coppola’s late wife, Eleanor, was already legend. The originally planned release in December 1977 had come and gone. Coppola had, himself, poured some $16 million into the $31 million budget for his Vietnam-set telling of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

“I was terrified. For one thing, I was on the hook for the whole budget personally — that’s why I came to own it,” Coppola said in 2019. “In addition, in those days interest was over 25, 27%. So it looked as though, especially given the controversy and all the bogus articles being written about a movie that no one knew anything about but were predicting it was ‘the heralded mess’ of that year, it looked as though I was never going to get out of the jeopardy I was in. I had kids, I was young. I had no family fortune behind me. I was scared stiff.”

Gilles Jacob, delegate general of Cannes, traveled to visit Coppola, hoping he could coax him into returning to the festival where the director’s “The Conversation” had won the Palme d’Or in 1974. In his book, “Citizen Cannes: The Man Behind the Cannes Film Festival,” Jacob recounted finding Coppola in the editing suite “beset by financial woes and struggling with 20 miles of film.”

By springtime 1979, Coppola had assembled an edit he screened in Los Angeles — much as he recently did “Megalopolis.” When Jacob got wind of the screening, he threw himself into securing it for that year’s Cannes.

“Already considered an event even before it had been shown, ‘Apocalypse Now’ would be the festival’s crowning glory,” Jacob wrote. He added: “Ultimately I knew it was Cannes’ setting — more than a match for his own megalomania — that would convince him to come.”

But Coppola wasn’t so sure. The film was unfinished, didn’t have credits yet and he still was unsure about the ending. But after some back-and-forth and debate about whether “Apocalypse Now” would screen in or out of competition, it was decided: It would screen as a “work in progress” — in competition.

At the premiere in Cannes, Coppola carried his daughter, Sofia, then 8, on his shoulders. The response to the film wasn’t immediately overwhelming.

“’Apocalypse Now,’ one of the most ballyhooed movies of the decade, got only a polite response at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday,” wrote the Herald Tribune.

At the press conference, Coppola was defensive about the bad press the film received and the attention given to its budget.

“Why is it that I, the first one to make a film about Vietnam, a film about morality, am so criticized when you can spend that much about a gorilla or a little jerk who flies around in the sky?” asked Coppola.

But “Apocalypse Now” would ultimately go down as one of Cannes’ most mythologized premieres. The president of the jury that year, French author Francoise Sagan, preferred another entry about war: “The Tin Drum,” Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of the Günter Grass novel. The jury, split between the two, gave the Palme d’Or to both.

“Megalopolis,” too, will be premiering in competition on Thursday.

The day after the 1978 Cannes closing ceremony, Jacob recalled running into Coppola at the Carlton Hotel, just as he was leaving.

“A big, black limousine was about to drive off. The back door opened and Francis got out,” Jacob wrote. “He came up to me, held out his hand and, as he removed a big cigar from between his teeth, said, ‘I only received half a Palme d’Or.’”

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