Roman Coppola is still figuring it out

Roman Coppola article portrait

Ahead of his appearance at Never Permanent, the award-winning filmmaker and serial entrepreneur charts a singular trajectory from basement broadcasting to the blockchain.

Roman Coppola’s appearance at the 2012 Semi Permanent Festival of Creativity and Design was made memorable not for its inclusion of a big cat, nor for it having taken place in a basement, but for means through which it took place: via the nascent, then-unprecedented video calling capabilities of Google Meet. What then seemed fanciful enough as a standalone conceit for a product launch at a creativity conference presented an opportunity to Coppola that served to coalesce all that drives him into one connected whole - curiosity and technology operating in tandem to make something magical, if not a little bizarre. 
More than a decade later, Coppola will return to Australia and Semi Permanent in an altogether different format, anchoring the talks program of Never Permanent—a one-of-a-kind talks program in partnership with Now or Never, Melbourne/Naarm’s most exciting new festival—that celebrates and explores the rich intersection of creativity and technology now. It’s a timely reminder to embrace and leverage new technologies as a means of advancing our artistic vision rather than usurping it; it’s hard to imagine someone better suited to exploring that ethos than Coppola. 
A true polymath who, in addition to writing, directing and producing feature films, television series, music videos and commercials is a prolific entrepreneur, Coppola recently reconnected with Semi Permanent to discuss the future, past and present (or a lack thereof) of filmmaking over — what else? — a video call.
Semi Permanent: What do you recall of working with Semi Permanent in 2012?
Roman Coppola: I enjoyed it very much in that it was a bit of a talk show that I hosted, and I got to bring in guests that interest me, and I did it in a basement. You may recall we brought a leopard or some type of large cat in. So my memories are fond but being remote makes my recollection a little fuzzy. It’s like, ‘geez, what did we even [do], what was [that], who was there, who attended it?’ I appreciated Semi Permanent for having the gumption to do something as wild as what we did in that category.
Semi Permanent: What is your impression, if any, of Australian film – both our filmmakers and performers? Can you discern a distinct Australian sensibility in our filmmaking?
Roman Coppola: I hate to characterise things too much, but I'm friendly with Nash Edgerton and so I've seen many of his films and television shows. He's done some really amazing stuff, being a seasoned stunt man [who is] able to weave in stunts in a really clever, effortless way always at the highest level. I guess there's an outrageous ‘anything goes’ quality to his film. There's also a kind of restraint - a sense of humour that's kinda bold, but not silly or too broad. 
Semi Permanent: From all the ways in which you were describing Nash's work, it seems possible to draw parallels with your own work and sensibility: there's often a playful sense of humour; there are some bold elements, in terms of stunt work; and oftentimes choreography. How would you characterise your very diverse body of work to someone who hadn’t encountered it before?
Roman Coppola: I follow my curiosity. When I'm invited to try something that'll bring a new experience, I’m very inclined towards that.

"What drives me is curiosity: have I done it before? Is there something to learn or some aspect in my curiosity [that] will be sated? Coming to Australia and having this experience relates to that."

To try to characterise my work [is] always a little embarrassing. I do think that [there is] a sense of evoking delight. When I was a kid, theatrical magic was one of my interests - to do a trick and surprise someone. Sometimes the principle or the gadget is so simple but it’s just very clever how these things can have an impact. So humour, not just for laughs, but for that sense of delight and surprise. That's at the core of the things that I enjoy in my personal life and then in my work life [I ask] how can we surprise someone or bring them a sense of mirth.
I have kids now that are pretty young, so much of my life is like, ‘Hey, let's go to this rollercoaster’, or exploring things with that sense of discovery. With kids, there are things you get to rediscover that you maybe enjoyed. I feel kid-like, where I’m curious about things. 

A salon on the blockchain

The notion of a rollercoaster ride (with all its attendant high-stakes thrills and unsettling dips) will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the Web3 technologies that have proliferated in recent years. Rather than be dissuaded by their tendency toward instability, Coppola and his collaborators, Leo Matchett and Michael Musante, threw themselves in headfirst. A modest Bitcoin mining operation soon sparked an idea to find an application for decentralised systems in the film industry, the continuation of which is contingent on preserving the status quo. Gatekeeping, in other words. 
One year since its inception and their venture, Decentralized Pictures, has amassed over 10,000 users. The core of DCP’s invention is a user consensus algorithm with what Coppola calls "a patented submission process". Participants contribute a decentralised cryptocurrency known as ‘FILM’ as an entry fee, and others review their work. Higher quality projects that resonate within the system are then reviewed by a board in a bid to receive grants from Hollywood heavy-hitters, like Steven Soderbergh or Kevin Smith. Coppola considers it the continuation of a familial tendency, now in its fourth generation, to examine how technology can serve filmmakers and democratise the types of stories that can be told. Ultimately, Coppola’s belief is that DCP can help unearth the rare talents that are struggling to surface amongst a vast pool of submissions.
Semi Permanent: Was it with that spirit of childlike curiosity that you approached the ‘Film3’—or Web3 filmmaking—space with Decentralised Pictures? What was the genesis of this project?
Roman Coppola: The notion of having a film endeavour that was founded on these decentralised platforms with highly-democratic activity that was designed to reward engagement and quality—not only quality in the material, but in the reviews—felt very worthwhile. 
We have an ambitious notion that we can stimulate a vibrant film community. People that gather because they love cinema and they wanna participate in it. We recognise that film has a lot of barriers for entry. It's rather hard to get your foot in the door. There's not a conduit for people [who] are aspiring to find mentorship to [get] a leg up to get to where they want to go. That wonderful relationship is hard to find but that is what we're endeavouring to do - that people can participate, the community upvotes things and then people are rewarded with grants and opportunities.
We launched a little more than a year ago and we've had about four or five prizes. Each one of those has had a great story. It's wonderful that our premise is working. 
Semi Permanent: Intellectual property rights are a crucial concern for filmmakers. How does Decentralised Pictures address the ownership of creative content within a decentralised ecosystem? Do these participants retain all of their rights?
Roman Coppola: Yeah, they do. We basically become a partner and a financier with the rights that any investor would have in the continuity of how [a film is] financed. The rights are totally owned by the artist…it's just a platform. In fact, there was concern like, ‘oh, well what if someone steals my idea’. In a way, as a decentralised hub, there's a lot of proof that an idea was established in this place cause that's in immutable record. If the movie is a smash success and we [have] one little sliver of ownership, [any profit] goes back into the entity because it's a 501(c)(3) charitable organisation. And as such, it just allows us to [create] another grant for another film.
Semi Permanent: Are there any other resources or tools that the platform offers to help filmmakers bring their vision to life from conception to completion?
Roman Coppola: We've had a lot of conversations over the years now [about] the blockchain being [an] immutable place [where] you could make a contract with someone [based on] the notion that if you need a joke for a scene [you could] have a writer submit something and then say, ‘okay, you're gonna get this in exchange for that.’ You're always [looking for] experts in filmmaking and trying to draw people in, and this platform could be very suited for that. 
There's a Discord channel [where] there are little friendships budding. There are these chat groups and channels which are meant, in the fantasy of artistic endeavour, [to emulate] where people hang out at a cafe and see other people's work and comment. That's the goal: there'll be this wonderful exchange and people might become collaborators in some way above and beyond just what we're offering through the community itself.

Striking while the iron's hot

At the time of writing, both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) failed to reach an agreement for a contract renewal by their respective deadlines, resulting in the first dual strike in 63 years on the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). This strike, like all other Hollywood strikes preceding it, is about the impacts of technological change - on residuals, inflation, streaming, auditions and, seemingly chief amongst them, the ostensible threat of artificial intelligence. The latter in particular has come to dominate popular thought as the strike has become increasingly protracted. 
The WGA, of which Coppola is a member, is demanding that AI not be used to produce original material, conduct rewrites or source material for union-covered projects, nor can union-covered material be used to train machines. The AMPTP has rejected that proposal and countered instead with an offer to hold annual meetings to discuss the evolution of this technology. How then does an ardent technologist like Coppola negotiate the creative possibilities and pitfalls of machine learning at a time as fraught as this?
Semi Permanent: Does your embrace of technology extend to generative AI tools? Do you see them as friend or foe?
Roman Coppola: I have to see it as a friend. It's crazy what it can do, but the genie's out of the bottle. To me, it's a device to be used in the service of making things as a human artist.

"The idea that there would be art generated by an AI doesn't seem possible to me because art is all about exploring new ideas."

And AI, by its definition, is just churning around all the things that have been and anticipating what is likely. I'm not interested in AI-generated work. But I did some stuff where I said, ‘oh, write a song about this, this, and this’, and it found these remarkable rhymes that would take a lot of work for a team of people to figure out. So to me, that's just a remarkable tool to tap into, if you needed that service… I haven't used it deeply, but I think it's here to stay and I see it as a tool in service of the artists and I embrace it.
Semi Permanent: I know it’s an issue that’s central to a lot of the demands that are at the heart of the writers’ strike at the moment as well. What do you think success looks like where these issues are concerned as we enter the third month of the strike?
Roman Coppola: I'm in the Writer's Guild, so I need to support my group. I'm loyal to the collective [and] what our organisation feels needs to happen. I think when it comes to AI it's so uncertain. I mean, it's gonna be used one way or another. And so it seems like [there needs to be] a path towards accepting that, not just to deny it. What makes me a little nervous is that when there was the writers’ strike [from 2007 - 2008], basically, reality TV was born out of that. And we know other noteworthy people that came out of reality TV - not to blame a writer's strike for things it's not responsible for. It’s a little inopportune that just when AI is kinda a feasible tool to play with, that you wouldn't want this opportunity of a strike to make it all the more explored and potentially used.
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A once in a lifetime collaboration

One of the most consequential working relationships of Coppola’s career to date has been with Wes Anderson, with whom he has worked on projects including the upcoming Asteroid City, The French Dispatch, Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. 
Semi Permanent: What do you think makes your partnership with Anderson so unique? How do you see your differing approaches as complementing one another?
Roman Coppola: Wes and I are quite different. As writing partners, we have different perspectives and different places our imagination goes. Not only is he the writer, and we work in our curious way, but he's the filmmaker and so he really is the final say. He conceives the premise of the movie he wishes to make. So it's not an equal partnership in terms of like, ‘Hey, we're doing this 50/50’, but I have some ability to draw out things that he's trying to express. It's lurking there, but without a partner, it's sometimes hard to access that. We have a social component to when we write, so we'll have a nice meal, or we'll travel or do something. 
My experience in filmmaking started as a second unit director, which is an interesting creative endeavour where you're getting shots in service of the director. It's not about my opinion. It's really [about] trying to get into the mindset of the director. And that's kinda what I do with Wes when we're writing.
I try to see what it is that he's looking for. There's an aspect of me in a lot of these movies, like, ‘oh this episode happened to me’, or ‘that's a reference to something in my life experience’. So it is very personal, but it's all these little things that might relate to [a] particular movie. So that's the task - to probe a thing that almost exists. He has the antenna.
Semi Permanent: So it's more of a long-term, iterative process where you’re bouncing off one another over a long period, rather than sitting down in front of a document together?
Roman Coppola: It's very seldom that there's a treatment. I can never recall any occasion [where] there was a treatment. Sometimes when we're deep into it, then we [ask], ‘okay, where are we? Where are we going?’ You try to look at it as a whole, but it's very much a [question] of what happens next […] and what are we trying to do here? [Wes] doesn't have a lot of patience. He’ll just say, ‘well, what do they say? What does he see?’ It's very practical.

And a looming legacy

While a thread of nostalgia is readily discerned throughout many of Coppola’s projects—his features in particular—the notion of legacy, both individual and familial, also looms large. In recent months, both his sister and father have wrapped milestone projects - not only films (Francis Ford Coppola’s decades in-the-making Megalopolis has entered post, some 40 years since he and Roman first embarked on its initial phases of production), but also deeply personal retrospectives (in September, Sofia will publish Archive, her first self-authored book comprised of material captured on each of her sets, including those where Roman has worked as a second unit director, including The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette). At the outset of an era rife with ‘full circle’ moments, Coppola’s negotiation of the push and pull between past and present, the family unit and the individual, would appear ripe for interrogation.
Semi Permanent: How else does that sense of nostalgia inform your process, whether you’re working with your sister on a project like the upcoming adaptation of an historical memoir, Priscilla, or creating something original informed by a nostalgic sensibility, as in your work with Wes? How do you bring a fresh perspective to established texts or period stories? Is that something that you’re conscious of the need for?
Roman Coppola: I've made two films personally that are my writing and directing and that I made from the ground up. They're both rather nostalgic and they're both movies that pertain to something about my story, maybe something I experienced. I have a lot of early memories, and those things really loom larger than life in the same way that an early crush on a girl in fourth grade could feel so huge. That was something we tapped into for Moonrise Kingdom, for example. So I think nostalgia often is charged with really powerful feelings, and those are often relevant for wanting to tell a story. 
There's also a component [when] you make a movie [where] you're transported to that time and place, so it all depends on what you're interested in. So to me, part of the fun [is] creating a movie world like we did on Dracula, for example, my dad's [1992] film, which I was involved with, you go onto the set and there are these extraordinary costumes and you're in a haunted house. I tend to like things that are set in the past. I may be conflating nostalgia with the sense of a journey that's part of movie making, but I definitely cop to the notion that there's an aspect of both nostalgia and also magically being in another time and place that draws me in. 
Semi Permanent: Related to this notion of nostalgia is the idea of legacy. You obviously come from a filmmaking family for whom technology and creativity go hand-in-hand. Is this notion of legacy preservation something that you're consciously working towards?
Roman Coppola: I don't really think about it too much. I'm 58 years old, [but] I feel like a younger person. There's a certain point where [I realised], like, ‘I did it, I worked with The Strokes.’ You know, they're a cool band, but they're a 25-year-old band now. So there's a slow processing [that] I'm in a certain place in my career.

"You also think a little more urgently. I only have so much time to do things that matter to me." 

It's curious because, as I mentioned, I'm predisposed to be like, ‘hey, I haven't done that. I'll try that.’ Sometimes you find yourself [thinking] ‘well, where am I after exploring all these things and what does it all add up to?’ Somebody might say, ‘oh, I like your work’ and my brain will be thinking, ‘well they talking about [TV series] Mozart In The Jungle? Are they talking about maybe a film I made, or a music video? Maybe it's something I've done with Wes? Oh, maybe it's this record I made’, whatever. It points to [the question of] well, ‘what does it all add up to?’ And that's what legacy is about. I guess I'm beginning to think about that.
For me personally, I do feel as part of our family [that] DCP is very much a modern version of the founding principles of American Zoetrope [the production company founded by Francis Ford Coppola in 1976], which is don't be obliged to Hollywood; make your own personal work however you can; and cinema as predominantly an art form that is director-driven, that auteur feeling. That's largely what we espouse - individuality and finding your voice. I think part of growing up around American Zoetrope and some of my dad's ideas and love of technology is filtered into that project and it’s important. 
My daughter just turned 12 and she's becoming another evolution of herself. Incidentally, she made a movie for her birthday party with her friends and I helped her shoot a 20 minute movie in a half a day. But these things are all stirred up, I guess. Helping my dad with his big epic film, my daughter with her thing, and the notion of legacy weaves into that group of thoughts… I’m still figuring it out.
Roman Coppola will appear at Never Permanent as part of Now or Never on August 24 at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne/Naarm. Learn more here. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos: Courtesy of Daniel Jackson; Roger Do Minh/Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features