My suggestion for a conversation ice-breaker with Francis Coppola is to show him an image of Michelangelo’s David and mention Forest Lawn. It was there that the then UCLA student shot scenes for his comedy Aymonn the Terrible and gave an early glimpse of the qualities that would come to define him as a filmmaker. Through a combination of charm and audacity Coppola got around the cemetery’s strict ban on filming and then bartered to bring the largest film crane in existence to the location. The film was about a narcissistic sculptor.
Megalopolis has been in the works for a long time, almost twenty-five years. According to Coppola it is “the story of an architect who dreams of building the city of the future, hoping to enable people to live in a utopia where people only do the work they love to do” … and “an evil man who becomes good crossed with a good man who becomes evil”.
I first heard about Megalopolis in a RIBA email newsletter reporting on Coppola’s recent visit to Curitiba in Brazil as part of his research for the film. It started a riot in my mind which has yet to be brought under control and led to my obsession with exploring the links between how films are made and what kind of architect I want to be.
The little guy with the big idea
A decade’s pre-occupation with the fundamentals of your career is a bit too long to be healthy but in many ways the idea of that questioning is one whose time has come. Big picture numbers and ‘recoveries’ have meant little to architects since the catalyst for the current stage of decline happened in 2007. Since then the world has gone through the worst financial turmoil since the Great Depression. The construction industry was at the heart of the problems and remains its single biggest victim. Through it all political and economic realities have shifted along with hints of new global balances of power.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of these recent events has been the transfer of wealth and value away from the state (ie. taxpayers) to a narrow segment of the private sector – in the form of outright ‘bailouts’, ultra-cheap loans on a gigantic scale and money printing wrapped up in exotic terms like quantitative easing. The consequence has been an ever widening gap between rich and poor setting the stage for class conflicts around the world, now and in the future. No one should be surprised then that financial industry bonuses and the current record breaking stock market performance in major economies such as the US and UK bear little resemblance to the realities of everyday people.
The vast majority of architects, contrary to the profession’s glamorous image, have suffered along with the rest. In fact unemployment amongst young architects in particular has skyrocketed and a recent survey in the UK found that 22% of registered/licensed architects were unemployed as well as a staggering 44% of graduates who could not yet call themselves an Architect. The worst national US unemployment during the Great Depression was 25%.
This is the context in which we anticipate a film about a heroic architect.
A documentary about Francis Coppola  can be every bit as enthralling as his best dramatic films. Certainly we are treated to a healthy dose of soap opera style highs and lows but what drives it all, as with many extraordinary personalities, is passion. That passion has fuelled David and Goliath battles against the major Hollywood studios; it inspired pioneering independent filmmaking by American Zoetrope at 827 Folsom St in San Francisco and it has no doubt inflamed the passions of family, friends and colleagues around him, for better or for worse. We still find evidence of these personal qualities and their consequences even if mellowed by time. Coppola was and remains the little guy with the big idea.
In recent years he has carried out his wish to make “small personal films” such as Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt. I consider these to be therapy (for him) – not at all from a basis of quality but from their relationship to the potential scale of his ambitions. Since my initial excitement about the prospect of Megalopolis almost ten years ago to the day  I have read about problems, delays and ultimately the shelving of the project (even the IMDb page disappeared) – but I always held out hope to see it one day on the big screen. Now Coppola says that he has “infinite money” for a new project set in New York.
We have had Aymonn the Terrible, Tucker and not least life of Francis Coppola himself – biographical dramas of mavericks and makers of things. Perhaps Megalopolis, ambitious in scale and a reverting to type for its creator, could be next.
[[ Originally published August 2012]]