“The Rain People” isn’t even mentioned in Francis Coppola’s Wikipedia biography, and perhaps that’s understandable, as it hasn’t been seen by a lot of people and few would argue it’s one of his best films. Warner Brothers never released a DVD, and has only recently made it available as a special order from WBShop.com or as a download.
“The Rain People” is a low-key road movie about an unhappy Long Island housewife (Shirley Knight) who flees her marriage when she finds out she’s pregnant. Driving cross-country with no set destination, she picks up a brain-damaged ex-football player (James Caan), who she gradually becomes responsible for, and has an encounter with a sexually aggressive highway patrolman (Robert Duvall). At the time, the film was generally perceived as a bit arty, and as a gloomier mirror image of “Easy Rider.” Nowadays it’s seen as an imperfect, but ambitious and important step in Coppola’s development. Dave Kehr wrote that “The Rain People” was the “first statement of Coppola’s perennial theme—crippling loneliness within a failed family.”
What thrilled me about “The Rain People” in 1969 wasn’t the movie itself, but the way Coppola made it. He loaded a small production team into a handful of vans and cars and made the same trip that Shirley Knight’s character did through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Nebraska.
The entire cast and crew of “The Rain People”
This all was very vivid for me at the time because his friend and American Zoetrope partner George Lucas documented the trip in “Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas.” I didn’t see Lucas’s film then, but there was an edited featurette that I saw many times. I have a very strong memory of Coppola saying in the featurette that he imagined a day when each town could have its very own film crew. As a teenager making my little Super-8 films, I found this incredibly inspiring. Here was this freewheeling traveling carnival, experimenting and improvising as they rambled from town to town. They were young and cool cinematic hippies challenging the “man” (Hollywood). Coppola even had a beard--just like Jerry Rubin! I would have given anything to be riding in that caravan.
If I had been able to see the whole “Filmmaker” I would have seen a very different portrait of Coppola. He was no hippie—he was a hot-head born to be pissed off. He fought with Shirley Knight, and raged against a DGA spokesman on the phone, escalating a demand for another AD to a world-level crisis and a potential end to all hope for the future of American cinema.
Another thing I didn’t know was that Coppola started out by bankrolling “The Rain People” himself with his Hollywood-earned loot. As he told Lucas: “I was acting very irresponsibly. I was committing all my personal money, with no guarantee that we were going to make the film. So I stood to lose everything. It’s not too much because I figure if you’re not willing to risk some money when you’re young, then you’re certainly not going to ever risk anything in the years that follow.” I know that Warner Brothers did ultimately step in to provide financing, but I’m not sure if Coppola got any of his investment back.
Today “The Rain People” would be called a Sundance film and of course it would have premiered there and Sony Classics would have brought it out. Instead it was released by a studio that didn’t understand or care about it and basically dumped it. That year, Coppola and Lucas set up their own company, American Zoetrope, to make studio films to pay for riskier fare. Unfortunately, the first one, Lucas’s “THX-1138” was a flop and Coppola was left $300,000 in debt. This would become a recurring pattern in his career: bold and expensive ventures followed by devastating financial ruin. In this particular situation, Coppola bailed himself out by making a film called “The Godfather.”
Years later, in 1989, I was working as unit publicist for the New York shooting of “The Godfather: Part III.” The production set up for a few days on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, to film the sequence involving the shooting of Joe Mantegna’s character, Joey Zaza. Coppola spent most of the time holed in his much-publicized Silverfish, a huge trailer rigged up with computers, monitors, and assorted high-tech sound and video gear. From the outside, the Silverfish looked like the kind of Greyhound bus you’d find in Oz and inside was Francis the Wizard with all his gadgets. It was state-of-the-art 1989-- I remember the stacks of countless Hi-8 Video cartridges. While the crew was sitting around in the usual torpor of movie sets, Francis was working furiously in the Silverfish. He wrote interstitial scenes to help the actors better understand how they got from the last scene in the script to the one they were about to do. He actually edited the film using video, something I had never seen before. And he plotted ways to keep people on their toes during the shooting. As we were getting close to the big moment, when Mantegna’s character got his, there was supposed to be one final rehearsal. But Coppola had the special effects guys make the actual killing happen in the rehearsal, without telling the actors, thus adding actual surprise and giving the scene more immediacy. He also had a thing about talking to the extras, giving them little backstories. Everything was important to him. Despite all doing all this stuff, Francis somehow found time to explain the Silverfish technology and tell me some great stories.
I set up shop for my publicity activities in a coffee shop across the street from the Silverfish. Paramount had supplied me with this huge brick cell phone. One day I saw Jim Jarmusch and his girlfriend (now wife) Sara Driver (also a terrific director, and a former employee of my publicity firm) come by (they lived very near there). We hung out in the coffee shop for a while, both of them fascinated by my hairdryer-sized phone until I asked them if they wanted to meet. They didn’t take much persuading.
Francis gave Sara and Jim the grand tour of the Silverfish and everybody had a great time. I got a big kick out of watching my friend Mr. Less-is-More talk to my idol, Mr. Monumental-is-More. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering, “what if?” What if things had gone differently with American Zoetrope? Would Coppola have had a career like Jim with complete artistic control—and own his negatives? I realized that it couldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t have happened. Coppola had a different kind of talent, the talent that flourished on a large scale and was often enriched by battles with producers, studio heads and all the anti-art suits. More than any American director I can think of, his career has lurched about like a boat in a storm. And a lot of the stories this now very calm and wise man told me in the Silverfish were about how he did something in reaction to someone like Robert Evans breaking his balls.
Now of course, the thing I thought could never happen--has happened. Coppola is making movies on a smaller scale, and just like Jim, he has complete artistic control and now he owns his negatives. He’s even doing the distribution himself. It wasn’t something he actually planned (see David Poland’s interview below), it just kind of happened. He spent five years trying to make two epic films, “Pinocchio” and “Megalopolis,” and both of them fell through. But something that seemed to me like a hobby in 1989 had made him incredibly wealthy. Now, as he says, he can be a rich guy making films as a hobby. So we can look at “Youth Without Youth” and “Tetro” with the knowledge that they are made by the guy that made the Godfather trilogy, “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Cotton Club” “Dracula,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and “Tucker.” And we can look at this guy who has reinvented himself over and over again using calamity as a fulcrum. People talk about how he’s become young again at 70 but of course that’s ridiculous. He was always at war when he was young and now he’s become the enlightened general who presides over the peace. This is just his latest reinvention, when he doesn’t need to struggle any more to find his greatness. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we get another Coppola at 75. If he has the desire to make something like “Megalopolis” in the future, and feels up to it—he will.
But for the moment, he’s utilizing his experience as Roger Corman’s assistant (45 years ago!) to bring these movies in on budget, the same skills he drew on when he headed off on that trip with “The Rain People.” I can’t wait to follow him wherever he takes us.
David Poland's interview with Francis Coppola