Notes on a Life

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9780385524995: Notes on a Life

Eleanor Coppola shares her extraordinary life as an artist, filmmaker, wife, and mother in a book that captures the glamour and grit of Hollywood and reveals the private tragedies and joys that tested and strengthened her over the past twenty years.

Her first book, Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, was hailed as “one of the most revealing of all first hand looks at the movies” (Los Angeles Herald Examiner). And now the author brings the same honesty, insight, and wit to this absorbing account of the next chapters in her life.

In this new work we travel back and forth with her from the swirling center of the film world to the intimate heart of her family. She offers a fascinating look at the vision that drives her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, and describes her daughter Sofia’s rise to fame with the film Lost in Translation. Even as she visits faraway movie sets and attends parties, she is pulled back to pursue her own art, but is always focused on keeping her family safe. The death of their son Gio in a boating accident in 1986 and her struggle to cope with her grief and anger leads to a moving exploration of her deepest feelings as a woman and a mother.

Written with a quiet strength, Eleanor Coppola’s powerful portrait of the conflicting demands of family, love and art is at once very personal and universally resonant.

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About the Author:

ELEANOR COPPOLA is an artist, documentary filmmaker and the author of Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now. She lives in Napa Valley, California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

May 12, 1986 Washington, D.C.
I am sitting at an old wooden table in this rented apartment in Washington, D.C., our home for Francis's next film, Gardens of Stone, a military story involving the honor guard who bury the dead from the Vietnam War in Arlington Cemetery. Francis is doing a final rewrite of the script. Gio is here preparing to shoot video of the rehearsals. During the production they will be working closely together as Gio will be responsible for the video tap to the main camera. He will record what the camera is shooting so that Francis can review the shots immediately rather than wait for film to be developed, and he will be electronically editing sequences. It takes a lot of technical skill. I am reminded of how much Gio has learned from working at Francis's side since the age of sixteen.

On the table top in front of me are note cards with reproductions of Matisse paintings. I am writing thank-you notes for gifts I received on my fiftieth birthday last week. Early this year I began to realize my experiences over the years had stretched me, expanded both my threshold of pain and of exhilaration, pushed me far beyond what I thought were my limits. I felt the family had somehow survived the highs and lows of our lives. The children are well and essentially grown. [Sofia will be fifteen in two days, Roman just turned twenty-one and Gio is twenty-two, soon to be twenty-three.] They are healthy, loving and creative. My fear that our unconventional family life might harm them has begun to fade. I have nearly completed my part in raising them. I see a time of new freedom for me. A time to pick up threads of my creative life left behind at age twenty-six when marriage and family took over my focus.

By the time my birthday actually arrived, I felt happy and excited. Two days before, I had a dinner party upstairs at Chez Panisse surrounded by ten wonderful women friends. Alice Waters made a beautiful feast. I felt skinny and terrific in a black Donna Karan bodysuit and wrap skirt. Everyone looked radiant. All the gifts had something to do with flowers, a glass basket of miniature wild roses, a vintage flowered dressing gown, a silk scarf with a floral design, a small flowering tree, a photograph of flowers. I felt as if it was a message to me about blossoming. I told the story of visiting a Chinese fortune teller years ago who said, "Your life is like driving a Rolls-Royce over a bumpy road until you are fifty, and reach the pavement." The road ahead looks smooth.

The next day Sofia and I left home in Napa and flew to Washington, D.C., to celebrate with Francis and Gio on location for Francis's thirteenth feature film. Roman arrived from New York City where he is attending New York University. I told Francis what I wanted was to do something I had never done before. On the Sunday morning of my birthday he said, "Get dressed, we're going out to brunch." We drove to the river. I guessed he had made reservations at a restaurant overlooking the water. Instead he led us down a gangway onto a boat. A dozen friends in Washington for the film production were already aboard, along with food, champagne and a band of gypsy violinists. We sailed slowly down the Potomac, stopping for a private tour of Washington's beautiful home, and returned as the river reflected shades of purple and deep orange with the setting sun. I opened the gift from the cast and crew. It was a beautifully faceted Baccarat crystal flower vase. Alex [Tavoularis], from the film's art department, took pictures of our family: Francis in the middle with Sofia and me each tucked under a large arm and Gio and Roman on either side as we sat on the back of the boat, our hair blowing wildly in the wind, smiling happily.
May 13, 1986

Yesterday was Mother's Day. Gio and his girlfriend, Jacqui, invited me for lunch. They finally arrived nearly two hours late, their arms loaded with bouquets. They had driven around Washington looking for flower stores not already depleted by holiday shoppers. They brought nine bouquets. We put them everywhere in the small apartment, arranged in my new crystal vase, in pots, pans and a wastebasket. I felt as if Gio was trying to make up for the hard times he has given me since his teenage years. This past six months he has changed, he is living with Jacqui, is happy and more self-confident and has grown closer to me.

After lunch they took me to the National Gallery and the Smithsonian. I was startled. I brought the children to museums frequently when they were young but when they became teenagers they refused to go. This was the first time a child of mine invited me to a museum. Gio had his camera; he took photos as we walked of Jacqui and me, of street people, of a crowded hot dog stand. I was interested to see what he chose to shoot, how he composed an image, sometimes on the diagonal. His photography skills are developing.

In the evening Jacqui made a salad and Gio barbecued steaks on the tiny terrace of our apartment, trying to keep the thick smoke outside. Francis got home just in time for dinner. We ate in a hurry. I had to catch the last shuttle flight to New York. Gio carried my heavy suitcase out to the waiting taxi. He gave me a lingering hard hug in his distinctive bone-crunching style.

A few hours later I arrived at our apartment in New York City in the Sherry-Netherland hotel, and entered through the side door into the little kitchen. Piles of dirty pans and dishes crowded the stove, the sink and tiny counter; the smell of leftover tomato sauce and garlic overwhelmed the small room. Roman, looking tousled and sweet, gave me a kiss and a hug. As I stepped further into the apartment I could see his clothes in mounds on the floor of the bedroom. He said, "Yeah, I worked out a system, I only have to go to the laundromat once a month." There were guitars, drum pads, tapes, books and art projects strewn over the sitting room. His friend Greg was there. It looked as if they were having perfect college student fun.

I was happy to have seen two of my children on Mother's Day. I opened the doors to the part of the apartment that is usually kept locked and rented by the hotel when we are not using it, where I would be staying. It was clean and spacious. I noticed a smear of tomato sauce on the dining table. The boys confessed they had sneaked in with their dinner.

Today I spent making calls for apartment maintenance; the air conditioner isn't working, the shower ceiling is peeling. I waited for the new bed and headboard to be delivered and installed. There wasn't time to go out. I only took a few minutes to run across the street and look in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman; they often appear as if they are sculptures, well composed with witty elements and good lighting. The mannequins were wearing black cocktail dresses and standing in hundreds of broken white plates. Roman was still at school when I left for the airport. I was sad to miss hugging him goodbye.

Ice crystals are sparkling on the plane's oval window in the late afternoon sunlight. I am flying to San Francisco to be home for Sofia's fifteenth birthday tomorrow. I left some things unfinished in New York but am determined to be at home for her. Last night we talked on the phone. I was trying to complete arrangements for her party. She had changed her mind and wanted to go to a different restaurant after I had asked a friend as a special favor to get reservations at one she'd chosen. I could hardly hear her so I said, "Please speak into the phone, I can't understand what you're saying." She said, "My friends can all understand me. Why are you being so negative?" We began bickering. Finally, exasperated, I said, "I get along with my other kids, their girlfriends, my nephews, other people, the only difficult relationship I have is with you." She began crying. I felt awful. I told her I loved her and looked forward to seeing her. When we hung up I could feel the emotion in my chest radiating out through my arms. I was furious with myself for being unable to transcend a typical teenage daughter and mother encounter.

I am feeling isolated, here on this airplane in a seat next to the window, no one beside me; the members of the family are in different cities and I'm somewhere in between. I feel the contradictions in myself, an ongoing theme in my life, as I both appreciate the solitude of these few hours and also feel lonely and left out. Francis and Gio are excited about the new film on location in Washington, D.C., Roman is enjoying school in New York City. I am going home alone to take care of Sofia, who at the moment doesn't want to be with me.
May 16, 1986 Napa

In the late afternoon I went for a walk. As the back door slammed a large blue heron rose up from the pond. The baby swans had grown from the size of fuzzy tennis balls to large footballs of feathers. Two beautiful pomegranate trees were in bloom, their leaves an intense chartreuse and the small blossoms vibrant vermilion, colors so garish they seemed unnatural. I walked down the lane with vineyards on either side of me and inhaled the perfume of dry earth and thick leafy vines stretched out in the sun. I picked up trash: an empty Marlboro package lying as if it were an ornament on the freshly plowed dirt, a flattened beer can at the side of the road, several small yellow plastic flags left by the telephone linemen. Along the north side of the vineyard where the furrows were smooth I saw lines of jackrabbit tracks in the dirt with dog prints alongside.

Sofia and I had dinner on the porch, then I took her to a friend's house to stay overnight. With just the two of us here now, she tries to spend as much time as possible at her friends' homes. She said, "It's no fun here anymore."

Francis called: "Thursday is the first day of shooting." He said he'd had good rehearsals with the actors and was expecting everything to go well. I asked him how the Nigerian student I'd hired to clean the apartment was doing. "She's ...

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