Francis Ford Coppola waits for a distribution offer he can’t refuse for ‘Megalopolis’

The filmmaker will debut his new futuristic drama in Cannes, a project he funded it by selling part of his wineries

Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola at the Telluride Film Festival; September 2021.Vivien Killilea (Getty Images)
Gregorio Belinchón

The first screening of Megalopolis at Universal’s CityWalk IMAX theater in Los Angeles ended with a standing ovation from 300 guests. Octogenarian filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola had finally brought his 40-year-old dream to the big screen. Coppola began writing the script while making Apocalypse Now in 1979. However, there have been no other screenings, leaving many people wondering about its global release due to financial challenges. Coppola has spent $120 million of his own money to make the film, but has struggled to find a studio willing to pony up $100 million for distribution. Making it more difficult, his most recent film, Twixt, only earned $1.3 million in 2012.

The Megalopolis screening was attended by the likes of Al Pacino, Nicolas Cage, Spike Jonze, Shia LaBeouf, Darren Aronofsky, Anjelica Huston, John Favreau, Roger Corman and Andy García. Friends and family were also there, like his sister Talia Shire and son Roman, who helped his father during filming as head of the second unit. Absent was daughter Sofia, who has been caring for Eleanor Coppola, the filmmaker’s wife and artistic collaborator who passed away on April 12. Someone who attended the screening said that Andy García (who took over the Corleone family in The Godfather Part III) — shouted out when the applause died down: “This man is the reason we all make movies.” Attendees described the film as not a typical blockbuster, but believe there’s a fan base eager to watch, especially with critical acclaim and a big ad push at the premiere. Another said that its boldness would attract some and repel others, requiring careful handling during launch, a daunting task in today’s market. The film is shot in IMAX format, and at one point an actor — a real human — stands up in the theater and speaks to the screen (at least that’s what happened at the screening in Los Angeles). Then, the on-screen character played by Adam Driver looks at the camera and responds to the human in the theater. A third viewer described Megalopolis as part Coppola and part Ed Emshwiller, an innovative visual artist known for experimental cinema and science fiction illustrations.

Megalopolis is a brilliant, visionary masterpiece,” said Selena director Gregory Nava in a statement to IndieWire about his experience. “I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day but think about ‘Megalopolis’ and feel it’s powerful, uplifting message.” Mike Figgis, who has been making a documentary about the filming of Megalopolis said that Coppola’s movie is something like “Julius Caesar meets Blade Runner.” Mike Fleming, editor-in-chief of Deadline, also attended the screening and noted the influence of Ancient Rome, which is reflected in the characters’ hairstyles.

An image from 'Megalopolis' released by American Zoetrope.

What is Megalopolis about? The protagonist is a visionary architect named Cesar, played by Adam Driver who portrayed similar characters in Ferrari and The House of Gucci. Cesar is a tortured innovator, echoing the character in Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Nathalie Emmanuel portrays Julia, torn between her love for Driver and respect for her father, Mayor Frank Cicero (played by Giancarlo Esposito). The story follows a clash between the conservative mayor and the progressive architect working to rebuild New York with a utopian vision. Lawrence Fishburne narrates, with Aubrey Plaza as Emmanuel’s love rival adding to the drama. The star-studded cast includes Jon Voight, Shire, LaBeouf, Jason Schwartzman (Coppola’s nephew) and Dustin Hoffman.

At the screening were key figures from major Hollywood studios, Netflix, Amazon MGM Prime Video. However, none have made offers to distribute the film. Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux recently announced that Megalopolis will be screened on May 17, 45 years after Apocalypse Now won the Palme d’Or. Coppola hopes that a good reception at Cannes will clinch a global distribution deal for Megalopolis, which is increasingly difficult these days. Without a global deal, Coppola and his lifelong lawyer turned producer, Barry Hirsch, will have to follow the traditional route of selling piecemeal exhibition rights to local distributors, including a U.S. distributor.

A 40-year journey

Coppola came up with the original idea for the movie in 1979 and completed the initial script in 1983. Six years later, Coppola explored filming Megalopolis at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Production designer Dean Tavoularis even set up an office there to finalize sketches and build sets. However, other projects like The Godfather Part III, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jack and The Rainmaker got in the way. With no final script or financing, Coppola then searched for Arab investors, which didn’t pan out.

In 2001, Coppola revealed in an interview that the script paralleled the story of Lucius Sergius Catilina, a Roman politician and soldier best known for a failed attempt to violently seize control of the Roman state in 63 BC. However, this time the story would unfold in a futuristic New York City, which is why Coppola began shooting second unit material there a few weeks before 9/11. That material was scrapped after the terrorist attack. Around that time, Coppola met actor Russell Crowe at a dinner in Paris. Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Edie Falco, James Gandolfini, Paul Newman, Kevin Spacey, Uma Thurman and others have participated in readings at various casting meetings over the years. In 2002, with the advent of high definition, Coppola filmed more material at major cities. When a friend gave him Youth Without Youth by Mircea Eliade, Coppola decided to adapt the book to film in 2007 and put Megalopolis aside.

Since 2007, Coppola’s career has been like a roller coaster ride. While Tetro and Twixt didn’t do well commercially or critically, he made a comeback with the 2020 re-edited version of The Godfather Part III. While his attempts to make Megalopolis faltered, his wineries thrived. Selling part of that business raised enough cash for him to revive the project in 2019. A few years later, there were more cast changes with Oscar Isaac, Forest Whitaker, Cate Blanchett, Jon Voight, Zendaya, James Caan, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jessica Lange joining the project in 2021.

Of all these stars, only Jon Voight remained in the film. Caan, who died in 2022, was replaced by Dustin Hoffman. Filming took place in Atlanta from November 2022 to March 2023. Initially planning to use StageCraft technology seen in The Batman and The Mandalorian, which surrounds actors with large LED screens, Coppola opted for traditional green screens due to cost.

Adam Driver y Nathalie Emmanuel, Megalopolis
Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in a scene from 'Megalópolis'

That course change obliged Coppola to switch out part of the technical crew in January 2023. The Hollywood Reporter reported “chaos” following the departure of the production designer, art director, visual effects supervisor and their teams. Coppola and Driver promptly responded to the article to address the rumors, while Coppola fans defended him by saying a similar change during the filming of Dracula did not affect the film’s quality. Eventually, some Megalopolis scenes were reshot and a few new ones were added last summer.

Now all we have to do is wait for May 17, when the lights go down at the Grand Théâtre Lumière in Cannes and the 140-minute film starts. That day will mark the culmination of Coppola’s longest cinematic journey in a career that has weathered huge box-office flops like One From the Heart and three bankruptcies of his American Zoetrope production company. Now, he just needs to bide his time for a distribution offer he can’t refuse for Megalopolis.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS