Documentary filmmaker Eleanor Coppola dies at 87: NPR

Director eleanor coppola attends a special screening of Paris can wait in New York in 2014.

Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP


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Director eleanor coppola attends a special screening of Paris can wait in New York in 2014.

Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP

Eleanor Coppola died Friday at her home in Northern California's Napa Valley, according to a statement from her family shared with NPR through her press agent. She was 87 years old. The cause of her death has not yet been publicly shared.

The documentary filmmaker was best known for documenting the filmmaking process of family members Francis Ford Coppola, to whom she was married for more than 60 years, and her daughter Sofia Coppola.

Eleanor Coppola was a mother of three when Francis Ford Coppola asked her to come to the Philippines to shoot his 1979 magnum opus about the Vietnam War. Apocalypse nowstarring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen.

“They were very casual with their weapons,” said Eleanor Coppola in a 1992 interview with WHYY's Fresh air of the bodyguards the Philippine government hired to protect the Coppola family during their stay there, fearing that insurgents would try to kidnap the famous Hollywood director. “Our main bodyguard put his gun in the belt of his jeans, took it out and showed the kids how it worked.”

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The filmmaking process, which Eleanor Coppola captured on camera in candid detail, was famously fraught. Heavy rain delayed shooting and a typhoon destroyed sets. Sheen had a heart attack. Brando was overweight and could not play the role as Francis Ford Coppola originally conceived it; the entire part had to be rewritten. The production ran longer than planned and greatly exceeded budget, putting the director at risk of going bankrupt.

“Everyone says, yes, Francis works best in a crisis,” Francis Ford Coppola told his wife during one of their many candid conversations that she captured on camera at the time. “I'm saying this is a crisis I'm not going to get myself out of. I'm making a bad movie, so why continue?”

Released three years later, Apocalypse now was declared a masterpiece – as was, in its own quieter way, Eleanor Coppola's 1991 documentary about the tortured making of that film, Hearts of darkness.

“It strips Coppola of all defenses and yet reveals him as a great and courageous filmmaker,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert of the 1992 documentary. “It also reveals the ordeal he put his actors and crew through on location in the Philippines – and what he endured at their hands.”

Eleanor Coppola grew up in Southern California and attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in applied design. She started as a visual artist. In 1962, she met her future husband while working in the art department on Francis Ford Coppola's low-budget feature debut, Dementia 13. They married the following year.

Apocalypse now almost broke the Coppolas' marriage. In the Fresh air interview, Eleanor Coppola talked about sending her husband a telex – which she also shared with other production staff – telling him that he was going to be like Kurtz (the insanely intense character at the heart of the film) and create his own Vietnam, by his excessive behavior. . The couple has experienced many ups and downs over the years, including extramarital affairs, especially on Francis Ford Coppola's side.

But they stayed together. “The constant in a perpetually exhilarating carnival of cinematic art and cinematic madness was Eleanor,” says Kim Aubry, former vice president of technology and post-production at Francis Ford Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope. “She always provided shelter for all of us during the storm.”

Eleanor Coppola subsequently made documentaries about it The Rainmakerdirected by her husband, and that of her daughter Sofia Coppola The Virgin Suicides And Marie Antoinette. Later in life she also wrote and directed her own feature films: Paris can wait And Love is love is love.

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Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola are pictured in 2013.

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Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola are pictured in 2013.

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Eleanor Coppola was also an accomplished visual artist. Her drawings, photographs and conceptual artworks have been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. She designed costumes for contemporary dance productions and created experimental art installations.

“Eleanor was an extraordinary and gifted person who encouraged everyone she came into contact with,” filmmaker and visual artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, a close friend and artistic collaborator of Coppola, said in an email to NPR. “Her generosity and spirit resonated deeply and strengthened those who were fortunate to know her. The gift of her art, across many disciplines, remains her great legacy.”

She was also deeply involved in the family's extensive wine business in Northern California. Wine making ran in Francis Ford Coppola's family. In the mid-1970s, after his success with the Godfather films, the film director bought an estate in Napa Valley and started making wine.

Eleanor Coppola was also a writer. She was 87 when she completed her third memoir. According to her family's statement, the author wrote in the manuscript, “I appreciate how my unexpected life has stretched and pulled me in so many extraordinary ways and taken me in a myriad of directions beyond my wildest imagination.”

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