THERE is perhaps no more mythical film-maker in today's Hollywood Pantheon than Francis Ford Coppola. His reputation rates him as genius, megalomaniac, patriarch and rebel. He has given us monumental works of genius such as the Godfather trilogy, and equally monumental box-office flops such as The Cotton Club.
As a competitor in the Hollywood Olympiad, he boasts five Academy Awards, 10 Oscar nominations, and two Palmes d'Or. His astonishing body of work ranges from cult classics The Conversation or Koyaanisqatsi to your Aunt Sara's favourite Friday-night video rental, Peggy Sue Got Married.
Meeting Mr Coppola is quite a surprise. Instead of a temperamental colossus, he turns out to be one of the warmest, most charming and delightful conversationalists imaginable. Funny and articulate, at one point he produces a photo of his nine-year-old grand-daughter from his wallet, at another he offers old movie yarns about Fellini on the set of La Dolce Vita, gesticulating and joking frequently.
Last time out, Coppola brought us the opulent hit, Bram Stoker's Dracula. This time he tackles Jack, the story of a suburban kid suffering from a (fictional) disease that ages him four times faster than normal, rendering him a misfit among other kids. For some fans, it's an unusually tame subject for the maestro who gave us Apocalypse Now. But Jack, he claims, is a project he took on for a mixture of reasons.
"Well, I've made 19 movies, and think many of them are very different from one another in style, certainly, and I think I'm very attracted to try something different, to learn from it. Some of the films they offered me lately were very violent, shooting everywhere and I'm sick of that. I wanted to do something that would be fun, that would have a little comedy...
"Jack also appealed to me because it was an opportunity to work with children, whom I love to spend time with. And it was a chance to work with Robin Williams, which I have wanted to do for years."
Williams is priceless as Jack, and hugely spices up this tragi-comic exploration of age, growth and perceptions with his winning rendition of the boy's timeless lust for life. Although Jack's mother over-protects him by keeping him at home with a private tutor, away from other children, there comes a time when he must face the challenge of school, which is when he can really let fly and take on whatever life has to offer.
"When I was a kid, in 1949, I had polio during a big epidemic," the director says. "Because it was a children's illness, if you had polio the other children vanished. No one would let their kids come near you. So they took me out of school, just like Jack, and I had a tutor who would come to my house, just like in the movie, and I never saw any children. I wanted to have friends, but had none. So when I read the script, it made me think of my own situation.
Another aspect that's close to home relates to the film's dedication, subtly found at the end of the credits. Jack was made for Coppola's grand-daughter, Gia.
"Her father died when he was 22. So in a way, you know, when she grows up, I want her to see that even though he had a short life, he had a full one. The key thing is to have a full life. I felt Jack reflected this idea in a way that was both serious and funny at the same time."
Thus, one of the strongest themes is the need to give kids a childhood, no the matter what, and to allow them freedom of innocence. "If you have a good childhood and can keep that mentality as long as possible, then you make a better adult. Today, because families are more torn apart, kids become adults early, and they turn cynical at only nine years old. That produces adults that are very disturbed and unhappy. And you should always be a child, at least in some way.
Which sounds like good advice, coming from a man whose own lust for life belies his 57 years. In a career which has roller-coastered so alarmingly that lesser men might have crumbled under the pressure, Coppola has always bounced back, endlessly diversifying.
HE founded the independent film studios American Zoetrope, set up a successful San Francisco restaurant, and grew a vineyard in Napa Valley on which he now supports his family. A few years back he built a resort in deepest Belize, which now runs as a commercial venture, and he has established a New York- based literary magazine called AZX Fiction. In between all of this, he has found time to produce a number of recent critical successes such as Don Juan de Marco, Mi Familia and The Secret Garden.
"I'm getting older myself, and haven't had a chance to make a film of my own since Apocalypse Now, which was made with my own money. So I need to make films that people will like and go and see, and then I make money, in order to make my own work. This is the game we play today, because the movie business is a little more difficult than it was before."
In today's increasingly conservative and formulaic film industry, Coppola is determined to beat the system at its own game, and at times he can be fiercely outspoken.
"In America, we have five or six big companies, who dominate the movie world, so all the movies that they make are more or less the same, because they are big corporations. Some arebetter than others. I found Disney a lot of fun to work with, because they said, `If you like the story, do it the way you feel will make it good'."
Even winds of change, such as the famed super-trio of his colleagues, Spielberg, Geffen & Lucas, collectively known as the company Dreamworks, leave him sceptical. "I think they have the power, but I don't think they have the personality to change things. They are the establishment, they always were, that's why they are so successful."
The next film Coppola will direct is a film version of John Grisham's The Rainmaker. But behind the scenes, he is planning a larger independent project, which will be entirely his own.
"What I've done is taken a classical story that took place in 63 BC, in Rome, because I thought that Rome as a Republic was very much like America today. It was the great power of the world, run by an oligarchy, and so I've set it in modern New York, in the hopes that it might tell us something about where we are.
"But I don't want to talk about that, you know," he concludes dramatically, but with a clear tongue-in-cheek twinkle. "Because if you talk about it too much, then they don't want to let you do it!