Roman Coppola's new film a stylish, dark comedy

Roman Coppola's new film a stylish, dark comedy

When film director Roman Coppola talks about the things he loves, he sounds like a thesaurus of enthusiasm.

“Imaginative, outrageous, filled of life and pizzazz, full of surprise, sensations of delight, the feeling of mirth, the word ‘verve,’ zest, these are things I respond to,” he says. “So all the movies I love and all the experiences I love relate to those words. That’s all one big word together for me. That’s what I love, that’s what I want to see, that’s what I want to do.”

And thus: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, a stylish dark comedy that stars Coppola’s childhood friend Charlie Sheen as a graphic designer in 1970s Los Angeles. It’s a world of funky design and airbrushed art — the hero drives a vintage Cadillac with a drawing of bacon on one door and eggs on the other — that provides a contrast to a story about a man who is abandoned by his lover and turns to his friends for advice and solace.

It’s the second feature film from Coppola, the 47-year-old son of director Francis Ford Coppola (and sister of director Sofia Coppola). He made his debut on 2001 with CQ, a sci-fi comedy about a young filmmaker, and he has filled the intervening 11 years with a host of projects: music videos, commercials (he runs a company called The Director’s Bureau that makes ads), assisting on his sister’s movies Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, co-writing The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom with Wes Anderson, producing the Jack Kerouac biopic On The Road, and more.

“I’ve always wanted to follow my curiosity and be involved in interesting things,” Coppola says. “I never made any real plans to make movies. I never thought, ‘I’ll be a movie director like my dad.’ I never thought, ‘I can’t be a movie director like my dad.’ I just do the things that interest me.”

Charles Swan came out of personal experience. Coppola had broken up with a girlfriend and he talked over his grief with a friend who had just been divorced. Their conversation — as he recalls it in a phone interview from Los Angeles — sounds much like a scene from the film: “‘Oh, I wish I could get her back.’ ‘You don’t want her back.’ ‘You’re right, I hate her.’ ‘No, you love her.’”

Coppola says the movie was designed to capture that kaleidoscope of thought, but in a world that was highly stylized. The working title of A Glimpse Inside the World of Charles Swan III was Rhino, a tribute to a painting by figurative artist Mel Ramos of a naked woman riding a rhinoceros.

“The image is so bold and so funny and cool and sexy and striking that I called the beginning of this project Rhino as a reminder that it can be as wild as that painting is.”

The character of Charles Swan is loosely based on real-life graphic designers of the era, men who invented the pop culture imagery of Los Angeles in the 1970s, especially Charles White III, who inspired the hero’s name. Coppola gave him an anything-goes persona. He was to be flamboyant, outrageous and immature.

“If he has a car it would be a 1941 fastback Cadillac,” he says. “If he had a pet it would be a toucan.”

Coppola says the job of a graphic designer — someone who embodies the contrast between art and commercial art — is also something he relates to. “I’m a person who makes commercials and I also want to make personal movies. That’s a curious and interesting discussion,” he says.

There’s a cultural contrast as well. During the Great Depression, American movies were “the most glorious, imaginative, playful inventive material that you can ever think of. We’ve never topped it. Fred and Ginger and Pennies From Heaven and all that romance and glamour came out of the Depression time. And it occurred to me that if you’re in a state of personal depression, your daydreams and your fantasies and your other life is almost like you have to have that breath of contrast to survive.”

The result is a film filled with pizzazz and verve and all the rest, with the added subtext that Charles Swan III and Charlie Sheen — at least the Sheen of recent tabloid excess — don’t seem that different. Both are out of control hard drinkers who seem to be racing toward disaster.

Coppola says that it’s a coincidence and that he wrote the character before he thought of getting Sheen to play him. “His wit, his charm and also his humanness, in the scene where he says farewell to his girlfriend, it’s very soulful I think, and that’s also who he is.”

Coppola and Sheen met when they were just boys and their fathers were working together: Martin Sheen was the star of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. They kept in touch through the years and always meant to work together some day. The film also co-stars Jason Schwartzman, who is Coppola’s cousin, and Bill Murray, who has worked on several of the Wes Anderson movies that Coppola co-wrote.

Coppola says it’s “magnificently difficult” to make an independent film, but he has many other interests on the go. Aside from his various film and commercial work, he’s a partner in a company that markets an inflatable film enclosure. He says he’d love to build an amusement park or design a restaurant.

“If someone said we’re looking for someone to make a world’s fair, design a pavilion, that type of thing would be thrilling. I love technology and inventions and I have a few apps that I’ve made and I have some more ideas that are in that realm.”

He adds, “And of course movies as well.”

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