“You see the movies they make now… They just keep making the same one over and over again.”
Francis Ford Coppola no longer believes in cinema.
Of all the Best Films Never Made projects haunting the dark corners of Hollywood, Coppola’s ‘dream project’ amasses the most space. It was going to be a career-ender, or a masterpiece that redefined cinema. There was no in-between. At once, it’s bizarre and unique. On the other hand, it’s overblown and maddening. Welcome to Megalopolis.
To refer to that opening quote – the Coppola of old was a true legend of film. Creating four of the best films of all time in seven years, 40 years ago Coppola was untouchable. The Coppola of today is a disappointment. Since 1992 the director’s résumé has read like a downward-heading line graph: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jack, The Rainmaker, Supernova, Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt.
“He’s gone soft”, “he’s lost his edge”, “the times have changed”. Valid explanations? No, that’s too simple. The mind behind the paranoia of The Conversation, the class of the Godfather series and the beauty of Apocalypse Now does not just ‘lose his touch’. It’s where Megalopolis provides the key to a new theorem: Coppola, for the last two decades, has been a mind distracted and bored. He’s been quoted prolifically saying three of the above were fodder to convince the studio to do Megalopolis. Meanwhile his latest trio have been small, independent, self-financed movies with little care for profit. His wine business covers him in that respect. There’s little wrong with that, but his tune is too heavily in the minor key. So what happened?
2001 was the game changer, and Megalopolis was front and centre of it all. Looking at reports from early in the year, Coppola seemed a man of hope. Reports say he’d already shot at least 30 hours of second unit footage, and his redrafted script was ready for a cast. Further inspired by Star Wars: The Phantom Menace pioneering new filming techniques, he arrived at Cannes to announce Megalopolis. The enigmatic director announced that this new one was going to be even bigger than Apocalypse Now. A Cecil B. DeMille-like feature. This was going to be a “vastly huge, enormous production”, with the aim of casting “the greatest actors around”.
An enthralling narrative of a genius rejuvenated, and this is just Coppola. Listen to him tease Megalopolis as “the story of a man’s battle to build an ideal world… a hero’s fight to realise his dream to build a city of the future.” A spirit reinvigorated. “My feeling is that if we can show people what is possible, they will want it”.
Six months later, 9/11 struck New York. The Big Apple could no longer be the star of a Utopian future. The director argued that “I feel as though history has come to my doorstep” with Megalopolis becoming more relevant than ever. Soon after, he shifted his Zoetrope company from New York back to San Francisco and began reevaluating. By 2005, no one had stepped forward, and the project was declared dead.
It’s the hope that kills you.
So what is Megalopolis? This fountain of youth set to revitalise cinema and Francis Ford Coppola? Well: no definitive script has ever emerged, but we have sketches (included throughout) and one of the drafts, which weighed in at 212 pages. The top-line analysis is that this was inspirational and ambitious filmmaking. It was an evolution of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with heavy influences from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, receiving direct inspiration from the Cataline conspiracy framed within an epic vision of a future New York City.
The star of this picture is Serge Catalane: a genius architect, controversial icon and lover of debauchery. His goal is to revolutionise the city, overhauling it to become a global and economic icon to the world. In doing so, he kicks ‘Cityworld’ to the curb – a conservative facelift for New York from Mayor Frank Cicero. The battle between two men begins, as Frank becomes determined to destroy Serge and Megalopolis. There are dirty politics, organised crime and evil big businesses that combine to try and take down Megalopolis.
That’s an intriguing storyline, yet hardly puts the Mega in Megalopolis. See, the devil is in the detail. Megalopolis is drowning in extensive, and overwrought details, themes and characters. Throughout the story’s five-year period, there are underage sex scandals, an inordinate amount of lead characters, political agendas and social commentary. All varying from the brilliant to the odd and unpleasant.
The length and breadth of Megalopolis makes it hard to define all its ambition and plans. On script, the words reveal a visionary at work. Coppola’s let everything flow into this. He’s making the movie he thinks everyone should be making. Every modicum of an idea or character he’s observed is within these pages. It’s not clear how it would have all worked, but you suspect it might have. Coppola dealing with futuristic utopian ideals, using the latest tech, and based around Ayn Rand, is an irresistible temptation. If he had pulled off the thematic stabs at modern-day America, Coppola could have created another masterpiece. Truly. Only he could write and direct this beast.
Now in his late 70s, Coppola’s ‘dream project’ appears to be just that. This series of articles has seen projects from the insane to the outright absurd. For Megalopolis, it earns the title of being the most ambitious. A quote from a 1999 interview confirms that Megalopolis is the key. Coppola says: “You live for the work. To be challenged… the things that I did make didn’t really live up to what I would love to make. If I didn’t have this script [Megalopolis], I could not hold my head up, I would be crushed.” Coppola no longer believes in cinema, but he did believe in Megalopolis.