I was walking to my apartment along the rue Réamur, 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|
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.