Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Lunch with Francis Ford Coppola

Le Marais, Paris.

I was walking to my apartment along the rue RĂ©amur, looking for a place for a quick late-lunch, when I noticed the moving dishes at this sushi bar called Eat Sushi—

Francis Ford Coppola
—and spotted Francis Ford Coppola sitting at the window.

I thought, “That can’t be him—that’s way too random. But I sure could eat!”

So I walked in, and plopped myself just two stools over from him, thinking he was just some random Frenchman who looked a lot like the Big Man of films.

The guy sitting at the stool in the sushi bar looked like a random French gentleman: Big and portly, plump of lip, froggy-eyed behind his round steel bifocal glasses, in a light brown beret and colorful but old scarf. And of course the beard: Snow white, and surprisingly well groomed.

Was he him? Nah—can’t be him: I’ve just arrived in Paris and I run into Francis Ford Coppola? Of all people? When, just two nights before—true story—I had been berating my girlfriend for never having seen The Godfather or The Godfather, Part II? And telling her—at length—that everything you needed to know about men was in those two Coppola movies?

Too weird and random to be true.

I’m not particularly interested in celebrity or celebrities per se. But for some reason, I’ve met an awful lot of them—all by chance.

When I lived in Los Angeles and was actually (though very peripherally) a part of the whole celebrity factory, I met and spotted tons of famous people—but they don’t count in my tally. It’s like saying you had sex with ten different women at an orgy—big deal: The weird thing would be if you didn’t.

But outside of Los Angeles, I’ve come across an awful lot of surprising people: In lower Manhattan, I—literally—ran into Wallace Shawn. On a train to the south of Chile, I shared the ride with Don Francisco. Bill Clinton shook my hand at my college graduation.

The two albino elephants that I’ve bagged in Celebrity Safari were J.D. Salinger (in a supermarket in New Hampshire in 1993; when I asked, “Aren’t you J.D. Salinger?”, he scowled and pushed his shopping cart away, crashing into mine with a racket as he passed it, as if to emphasize his unhappiness with our trivial and harmless encounter), and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (at—of all places—a luggage store in Hanover, NH, in 1994: Literally buying the suitcase that would carry his things back to Russia. When I told him I’d read all his books, and considered him a god for writing The Gulag Archipelago, he smiled blankly and shook his head: He didn’t understand any English—or maybe he was pretending he didn’t.)

Smoking weed with Thomas Pynchon on a Mexican beach at sunset would complete my trifecta of running into the Big Three Recluses of the XX century.

In the sushi bar in Paris, there sat an older gentleman who might be Francis Ford Coppola. Or might be some random Frenchman.

I glanced at him, then studiously looked at the food passing in front of me, to keep from being rude and staring. People look a lot different on camera than they do in real life. On camera, they are “on”, while off camera, they are quietly eating sushi. Besides, FFC looks like any older Italian or Frenchman, because after all, he is an older gentleman of Mediterranean descent.

So I asked him in English, “Are you who I think you are?”

“Yes, I think so,” he replied. (Clever. And his voice confirmed it was him.)

“Thanks for all your work,” I said off the cuff.

Then I let him be. I picked a dish of sushi off the rolling conveyor belt in front of me, rubbed my chopsticks against one another to remove any splinters, and began to eat. I figured no one is interested in having their luncheon spoiled by some random stranger chatting them up.

The waiters and staff at the restaurant were all intensely aware of him—they were clearly on their best behavior. But FFC was alone, quietly eating, the two of us facing the window that looked out onto the street, just one stool between us, both of us minding our own business as the dishes of sushi floated by on the silent conveyor belt.

He asked me to pass him the wasabi, then started chatting with me about how hot it was. From there, our conversation developed very naturally: We wound up talking about Los Angeles, about the cost of doing business in Italy, about Chile, Argentina, the banking situation, movies about the financial crisis, what I did, what he was doing, and so on.

It was a very easygoing, pleasant chat. No earth-shattering nuggets of wisdom: His opinions were all discreet and sensible to the point of ordinary, which is as it should be when you're someone famous (and thus quotable) talking to a total stranger. But he was a fine luncheon companion: Offering interesting tidbits—but not too much—while at the same time interested in what you had to say—but not too much.

The aviator jacket he wore had a logo of Lucasfilms stamped into the suede of the left breast. He had strong-looking hands, and tidy nails. His voice wasn’t as loud as on television and interviews, but it was just as alert and to-the-point.

He didn't have a very clear idea about the ongoing financial crisis—which was more than understandable: Some of us in the biz aren't too clear about it either. But he knew it was bad, and knew enough to realize that the repeal of Glass-Steagall during Clinton had been key. I mentioned that I didn’t think any film had really captured the mess of the Global Financial Crisis, though some had come close. We talked about the films that had tried—for better or worse—to tackle the problem. He was noncommittal about the quality of the pictures we discussed—Too Big To Fail, Margin Call, Inside Job—but we seemed to be in general agreement as to which had failed and which succeeded. Only later did I realize that neither of us mentioned Wall Street 2. (I’m guessing Oliver Stone wants to forget that POS too.)

Apropos of his opening a boutique hotel there, he told me some real eye-opening stories about the difficulty of doing business in Italy, which surprised me—though they made a whole lot of sense once you stop and think about it: How trivial things, like getting a cash register, can be a pain, and the high cost of hiring someone full time. Basically, how business in Italy succeeds almost in spite of the government (my words, not his).

Around the time we were both done with our sushi, we got to talking about wine—or rather, the wine business; my brother-in-law just took over Fetzer Vineyards, and FFC has some Chilean friends in Napa. So we talked about them a bit, as the waiter asked us if we would like a coffee. I ordered an espresso, while FFC passed on the coffee, but stayed to chat.

My Aphorism #1: “The secret to a long life is knowing when it's time to go.” I didn’t want to be one of those creepy people who latch on to someone well-known, and overstay their welcome. So after about an hour, I told him I had to go get my hair cut (true, but I had plenty of time), gave him my card (literally the last one in my wallet), wrote down my e-mail address, and bid him good-bye.

I have no doubt I’ll never see or hear from him again—but I got a wonderful little memory out of it. Nice man. No airs at all. I bought him lunch—it was the least I could do for giving me so much pleasure over the years with his work.


PS: In lieu of comments, post your favorite lines from Coppola’s pictures.



  1. What should you bring with you on a weekend trip to the country?

    “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” —The Godfather

  2. "...may their first child be a masculine child"

  3. "Leave the gun, take the cannoli" is my favorite, but GL already used it so here's my next favorite:

    "In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns."

  4. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" - classic

  5. . . . the horror . . . the horror.

  6. i smoked some weed with the fat bastard in costa rica back in 97.

    fav line (exchange) - on the gunboat
    "remember that last tab of acid i was saving?
    I dropped it!"

  7. I am an italian entrepreneur living in Chile , i was living as engineer for several years in Bernalda (Basilicata region) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernalda a very small and pretty city where the FFC family origined and where FFC has built his boutique hotel and where this year his famous daughter married! Yes its a beautiful city and people in spite of the Italian Governament! i have so marvellous remembers of living in Bernalda! Anyway I can fully understand what FFC and you sensed in the conversation!

  8. Say it isn't so! I thought the French were all slim and fit and it was only Americans who ate too much. But your comment "looked like a random French gentleman: Big and portly, plump of lip..." seems to deny this popular belief.

    Oh what a tangled web we weave...

    1. I can confirm that the French are not much different than Americans there. Neither are the Swiss. Some get fat and others don't. ;)

  9. Hi,

    From Apocalypse Now:

    Are you an assassin?
    I'm a soldier.
    You're neither.
    You're an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill.



  10. Godfather II
    Kay: It made me think of what you once told me: "In five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate." That was seven years ago.
    Michael: I know. I'm trying, darling.

  11. Although the below quote is by FFC, it sums up GL quite appropriately..

    "I don't think there's any artist of any value who doesn't doubt what they're doing"

  12. Never get off the boat....

  13. GS

    While you were schmoozing over sushi ... the Japanese yen was tanking.


    1. Schmoozing over sushi with FFC is a hell of a lot more important than whether the yen tanks or not.

      Priorities, people, priorities . . .


  14. The one I use the most is in actual conversation is:
    "This is the business we have chosen."

    I use it when people complain to me about things that we completely foreseable.

    The context that comes up most often is the weird hours in Software development (or testing) as the deadline looms.
    "Man I worked 120 hours last week. That's just not right."
    "But this is the business we have chosen."

    Death marches in software development are the norm in the industry since the early 1970's. If you do not know that, then you have no business in software development.

    Another example from your life might be:
    "I took a haircut on Greek bonds and am only getting 1 cent on the dollar."
    "This is the business we have chosen."

    The other quote I love (GF II), but which would never normally come up in conversation is:
    Micheal: "My father is no different than any other powerful man -- any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president."
    KAY: "You know how naive you sound...senators and presidents don't have men killed."
    Micheal: "Oh, who's being naive, Kay?"

  15. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.

    Great post.

  16. We gave him an offer he can't refuse.

  17. God Fadda; Mikey Carlioni quoting his father's advise; "keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer".

  18. ...and Yes fate does bestow upon us some wonderful treasures...thanks for sharing this little highlight of your many travels...

    Some of the more appropriate quotes for our times
    Favs include : Michael ...."I'll Make him an offer he cant refuse "

    Van Helsing...."My friends we fight not one beast, but legions of them living age after age, feeding off the blood of the living".

    1. Just like banksters..

  19. "I’ll Do Business With You, But The Fact Is That I Despise Your Masquerade....”

    Welcome to Nevada!

    The Cannoli line was my first choice. But, the Google sure is amazing. I searched "I’ll Do Business With You, but" and got G.D. Spradlin's obit, with the full quota as a headline.

  20. "Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, consider this justice a gift on my daughter's wedding day."

  21. Did you:

    Make him an offer he couldnt refuse?

  22. "Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." - 1970 PATTON

  23. "Sworn in by a fool and vouched for by a scoundrel...I'm a lawyer at last."

    "The Rainmaker"

    K Smith

  24. "Your car is uglier than I am!" - American Graffiti

    C deK

  25. I'm a SAUCIER!!!!!!!
    (just before 'never got off the boat')

  26. "Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500."

  27. Soldier do you now who is in charge here.................

  28. Vincent Mancini: Don Lucchesi, you are a man of finance and politics. These things I don't understand.
    Don Lucchesi: You understand guns?
    Vincent Mancini: Yes.
    Don Lucchesi: Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.

  29. "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. "

    1. Isn't that an old Arab saying?

  30. Pauly? Oh, you won't be seeing Pauly anymore. Clemenza

  31. As they say in Madrid, FFC and your story "me toca los huevos".

  32. I live in Napa Valley where FFC has some holdings. A tenant of mine who worked for FFC told me stories of how FFC would make a surprise visit at the business, and just summarily fire half the people for no particular reason. This happened where my tenant worked several times over several years. My tenant's luck or skills kept him working, and he survived these purges. Until one day, he didn't. I also have a relative that works for FFC, and he corroborated this method of doing business. I would say that FFC is a ruthless SOB.

    1. We know who you are and where you live. You have insulted one of our own. You now must pay the price of your disrespect.

    2. HAHAHAH. You must work for the government.

  33. "Charlie don't surf!!!"

  34. "I have crossed oceans of time to find you."

    Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

  35. "I drink more wine than I used to" Vito Corleone, Godfather 1

  36. Michael: (shouting) IN MY HOME! IN MY BEDROOM, WHERE MY WIFE SLEEPS! Where my children come and play with their toys! In my home! I want you to help me take my revenge.

  37. Kay: "Micheal, Senators and Presidents don't have people killed"

    Micheal: "Look who's being naive now, Kay."

  38. I got to smoke a cigar with him at his winery in napa while drinking a glass of his syrah. felt natural to just kick it with him. just a down to earth guy.

  39. Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.

  40. Oh, wow, Gonzalo, this was an article I would expect from someone regular, not from you. You have good education, you should know better.

    Don't you understand?

    Take a good look at your pyramid, and suppose that the bottom wants to put more concrete at the top, and that they actually succeed at doing it.

    Will the top bear that extra concrete? Or will that have to be carried by the bottom, what do you think?

    You can not ever achieve any equality before the law whatsoever, if you want to control other people.

    The fact that you want to exercise control, will magnify that control on the majority, down below. It will not hang way up top for long, it will press down more that it will add rigidity at the top.

    This is why every group of dumb people who ever tried to control others, ended up under their control itself, while their controllers become exactly as those they originally intended to control.

    I expect someone from the street not to understand this. Look at the OWS, all dumb, across the board. They have an excuse, however. They never had any help in figuring this out. They had been fed propaganda instead. They all have bad genes. But you?

    What is your excuse?

    Very disappointed.


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