Continuity Errors: On the New Old Films of Francis Ford Coppola

Dylan Adamson positions the discourses around Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis” within the director’s larger body of work.

By Dylan AdamsonMay 10, 2024

“I TRY SO HARD to be in the future,” Francis Ford Coppola told biographer Sam Wasson for 2023’s The Path to Paradise: A Francis Ford Coppola Story, “and always I’m pulled back by the past.”

The director of The Godfather Trilogy (1972–90) and Apocalypse Now (1979) has spent decades with his gaze fixed in the rearview, the years since his storied 1970s run followed by failure, compromise, and personal tragedy. But his future has recently brightened. Steadily increasing its profits since Coppola’s acquisition in 1975, the Francis Ford Coppola Winery sold in 2021 for an estimated $500 million. With every penny of the shooting budget his own, Megalopolis, his long-planned superproduction, is wrapped and awaiting distribution ahead of its Cannes premiere. Though some less versed in his catalog might label Coppola’s auteurist preoccupation as organized crime, its prevailing theme is actually time—more specifically, our inability to ever truly regain it.

Megalopolis takes for its subject the restoration of Republican Rome, transposing the events of the Catiline conspiracy to present-day New York. Following a natural disaster, an idealist architect (Adam Driver) clashes with the establishment figurehead, Mayor Frank Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), over his vision for the future of the city. “I’ve often described Megalopolis as being in love with a wonderful woman whom you cannot have,” Coppola told his wife, Eleanor, for her 2007 documentary Coda: Thirty Years Later. It is another of the could-have-beens that have vexed Coppola throughout his career—what if Rome had never slid into despotism, if his New Hollywood hadn’t exhausted itself in 10 years, if the studios hadn’t turned their backs on him? Megalopolis’s very existence seems to turn the clocks back, marking the culmination of a career devoted to setting down a relationship with time—one, evidently, that has shifted with Coppola’s personal fortunes.

The press surrounding Megalopolis has predictably cited Coppola’s 1970s oeuvre, eliding the half century separating The Godfather Part II (1974) and the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. In the intervening decades, Coppola’s films—One from the Heart (1982), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Youth Without Youth (2007)—have grappled with the futility of fighting fate. But with his fortune recovered, Coppola seems bent on choosing a different past. Parallel to the production of Megalopolis, Coppola has been reediting his back catalog at a furious pace. “Films are never completed,” George Lucas, another filmmaker-cum-mogul, once said, “only abandoned.”

This tinkering places Coppola in a lineage of American artists and egoists stretching from Walt Whitman through D. W. Griffith and Kanye West. There could be some merit to an avant-garde practice that would eschew product for process (“the album will be a living, evolving art project,” Def Jam alleged of West’s The Life of Pablo rereleases). But in reworking the past to fit his present perspective, Coppola undermines the relationship to fate, circumstance, and compromise that forms the very foundation of these films.

The years since Apocalypse Now have seen Coppola lose more than most people will ever have. Haunted by debt, nostalgia, and grief over the death of his eldest son in 1986, the films of this period were about negotiating and often failing to come to terms with fate. Learning to love a loser, to reconcile oneself to the hand dealt—these were life-and-death questions for the Coppola of the 1980s through the 2010s. The chasm between what could have been and what is forms the emotional core, or rather void, of many of these films. They are not works blessed with the good taste of hindsight, but the thorny, overwrought, and unbalanced art of a man grappling with his ghosts in real time, the calculations and compromises of a man who couldn’t know the future, that his Megalopolis was just down the road.

Having stormed back to the studios that had quite happily left him for dead, Coppola knows that no loss need be permanent. Megalopolis was long consigned to what could have been: an initial treatment in 1983 floundered, along with Coppola’s credibility during the Reagan years. The grandiose production had to wait until the director’s hungry creditors had been sated, and it is perhaps telling that he now cites two David Graeber books, The Dawn of Everything (co-written with David Wengrow, 2021) and Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), as source material for the film. James Gandolfini, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman all did table reads for a version of the film that was ultimately scrapped in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

In spite of all of this, Megalopolis is. And as every bit of advertising will surely confirm, this represents a historic event for cinema. For the newly minted vintner-plutocrat, time is putty in his hands. Rome can be dis- and reassembled with the signing of a check. But Coppola’s interest in shaping the future has coincided with a need to remodel the past with a hubris more characteristic of Silicon than Napa Valley. Megalopolis aims to deliver the teachings of both a bygone civilization and filmmaking to a new generation, while Coppola’s parallel reediting project raises the question of how—and perhaps more pertinently, why—we might learn from a history that can perpetually be rewritten.

“I’m older and I’m less frightened and I’m less easily bullied,” Coppola explained to Deadline regarding why his reedits are superior to his originals. “What have I got to lose?” From his present vantage point, he can afford to lose quite a bit. But essential to appreciating the films of his wilderness period—those now subject to his detached reimaginings—is realizing that, despite how much has been taken from him, there is always something more to lose.


Two paths diverged in a wood after Coppola’s 1970s run, one bound for the future, one leading forever back into the past. High off an edible and handing the Best Director award to Michael Cimino for The Deer Hunter, Coppola prophesied to the 1979 Oscars audience: “[W]e are on the eve of something that is going to make the Industrial Revolution look like a small-town tryout.” American Zoetrope, the production company he launched in 1969, was moving its headquarters from San Francisco to Hollywood, where Coppola had just purchased the Hollywood General Studios. There, Zoetrope would mount its insurrection against the filmmaking establishment.

Coppola’s vision was unabashedly utopian. Legends like Michael Powell, Gene Kelly, and King Vidor roamed the Zoetrope lot as vaguely defined mentors for children invited to spend their days learning the craft of filmmaking. Coppola’s “electronic cinema” previsualization method and “live method” shooting techniques took advantage of video technologies to save money, and a slate of films was planned, ranging from experimental video art to classical musicals. Nicolas Roeg and Wim Wenders were enlisted as directors, with Jean-Luc Godard making films from the making of other films.

One from the Heart, Coppola’s own directorial project, was to be the film that would show the world what Zoetrope could do. The film was shot entirely on elaborate soundstages built inside Hollywood General, laden with the burden of his dreams. Three years and several rewrites, reshoots, and missed deadlines after his Oscar speech, if Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) hadn’t ended the Golden Era of the Director in Hollywood, One from the Heart would.

Though Coppola couldn’t know what path he was on when he commenced production, the film is fascinating for its layering of idealist hysteria with a certain memento mori quality inseparable from its own moment in history. The Las Vegas depicted in One from the Heart seems to erode into the surrounding desert. At the fringes, neon signs jut out askance, half-buried in the sand. A hotel used to dream there. Dusty winds blow foreboding reminders down residential streets bathed in the glow of the Strip. Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr) break up, make up, and break up again before embarking on the twin odysseys that lend One from the Heart its structure. Longtime set designer Dean Tavoularis’s Las Vegas set cost a purported $300,000 in neon alone—enough, allegedly, to brown out Hollywood when the lights were first switched on. Hank and Frannie meet their respective flings, Leila (Nastassja Kinski) and Ray (Raul Julia), who seem phantasms born out of the buzzing glow.

Coppola wanted to shoot a romance that would save his damaged relationship with his wife, the kind that would refuse seduction, vindicating the comfort waiting at home. But One from the Heart was American Zoetrope, and American Zoetrope represented a future of fantastic possibility. As badly as Coppola needed Hank and Frannie to reunite, Leila and Ray are imbued with all the neon verve of his revolution, a future he wasn’t ready to forsake. When Frannie is about to depart for Bora Bora with Ray, she seems on the cusp of realizing a brilliant dream. In a final bid to win her back, Hank bursts into song at the airport. Shorn of musical accompaniment, his rough voice cracks: “You make me happy, when skies are gray.” The shaggy dog sentimentality is enough to make one blush.

When Frannie returns to Hank, shirking fantasy for reality, one feels as if Coppola had seen the cul-de-sac awaiting him at the end of the Zoetrope road. One from the Heart grossed just over $600,000 against a $26 million budget. Hollywood General was repossessed, and Coppola spent the next two decades servicing his debts. Watching the future slip between his fingers, he sought to renew his vows to the present. His marriage would survive his studio, but, at least until Megalopolis, Coppola would forever look back at 1982 as the last year when everything seemed possible.


Coppola’s post–One from the Heart filmography is suffused with individuals dislocated in time, mournful optimists whose presents can’t compare with the futures they once imagined. The possibility of reconstructing their pasts hangs over them and yet is constantly refused. Peggy Sue Got Married casts Kathleen Turner in the titular role, a middle-aged woman whose marriage to her washed-up high school sweetheart, former doo-wop singer Charlie (Nicolas Cage), is in shambles following his infidelity. She faints and reawakens in her senior year of high school with the opportunity to choose a different life.

The film’s most memorable scene finds Peggy Sue on a date with a boy she’d always had a crush on (Kevin J. O’Connor), looking over his shoulder and past the neon lights of their booth. Charlie stands onstage—the failure she has grown accustomed to glowing in an amber spotlight. “I’ll be there to take you home,” he croons. Reality usurps fantasy, and Peggy chooses Charlie all over again. Card laid, card played. Sometimes, more often than not, you’ve got to learn to love the losing hand. Coppola seems, for a moment, reconciled to his past as it was, not as it could have been.

Peggy Sue Got Married registered a yearning on Coppola’s part to let the past lie, but the following year, tragedy would leave his temporal compass forever out of balance. During the production of Gardens of Stone (1987), his eldest son, Gian-Carlo, died in a motorboating accident at the age of 22. “After that,” Coppola told Wasson, “I realized that no matter what happened, I had lost.” He insisted on finishing the shoot, and the resulting film’s static preoccupation with funerals bespeaks grief’s wish to stop the ceaseless present and remain in the past. Pauline Kael lamented in her review that “something in him has got blunted” since the Godfather days. Perhaps what was sharp in those films was his zest for the future, for the victories still to be claimed. With the death of Gian-Carlo, his grief had been compounded.

One from the Heart began Coppola’s era of beautiful losers, but Gardens of Stone is the first of his many films that, until Megalopolis, had to live with the twin impossibilities of forgetting the past and holding it in one’s arms again.

The five stages of grief imply a bend toward acceptance, but Coppola’s later films testify that the present is never done with the past, and vice versa. “I have crossed oceans of time to find you,” the Count (Gary Oldman) intones to Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), seeing in her the visage of his long-dead wife who was needlessly taken before her time. In Jack (1996), Robin Williams plays a 10-year-old boy in a 40-year-old’s body, cursed to age four years each trip around the sun. Youth Without Youth sees Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) struck by lightning at age 70, after which his youthful body is returned to him along with his lost love, seemingly reincarnated.

Grief folds time over on itself, yet the past remains perpetually just beyond our grasp. Though they’ve fallen in love, Mina must kill Dracula to return him to history. Beneath a pungent layer of fart jokes, Jack is another story of a child whose life must end with his youth. After a torrid affair, Matei discovers his proximity to his love is killing her, and he, too, departs to die. The urge to change one’s past, to edit together a life that elides failure, compromise, and loss, must continually be refuted. Time bends and flexes through his convex lens, but Coppola seemed to know, in this world at least, that past and present will never be reunited.


Like Dracula’s eyes etched into the Transylvanian sky, the past continues to exert lunar-centric force on Coppola’s universe, but these pre-Megalopolis films attempt to bid farewell to the could-have-been. Their power is drawn not from Coppola’s successes but from his need to keep failing, to keep trying to carve out a life in this strange moonlight. Living in the present is no longer the romantic proposition of One from the Heart or Peggy Sue Got Married but the impossible, unending work of grief—a dream that doesn’t dissipate with the morning. Twixt (2011), Coppola’s most recent film, is a portrait of the artist in 2011. Gone are the luminous sets, Sirkian lighting schemes, and roving Steadicam. We are left with a washed-up artist shot on HDCAM, stilted and harsh, hunched over an empty Word document on a MacBook that still has a disc drive. Val Kilmer stars as Hall Baltimore, a horror novelist struggling with writer’s block and lingering grief over the death of his daughter, Vicky. Some futures have come to pass; others have not.

The present remains slippery. Baltimore’s dream sequences are shot day-for-night. The moon, the stars, and the ghostly face of his young guide (Elle Fanning) seem to emit something whiter than moonlight, as if the projector lamp had burned a hole in the film and shone through unobstructed. Typing and backspacing “The fog on the lake” between gulps of whiskey, Baltimore is led to automatic writing. “There was no fog on the lake,” he types. “Only mist—misty mist, miss Misty mist, miss Vicky where are you sweetie?” The gravitational force of tragedy strips away everything, an open invitation to free-fall into the familiar morass of the could-have-been.

Late in the film, Baltimore is forced to watch Vicky’s death in a boating accident, played out nearly identically to that which killed Gian-Carlo Coppola. “That’s my daughter. She wanted me to go with [her and] her friends,” he moans. Time heals no wounds, and Coppola’s naked grief feels almost too personal to witness. The few scenes that wrap up the all-but-forgotten plot show Baltimore turning in the draft of his long-awaited novel. On one hand, this feels like a hacky, if understandable, retreat from an unbridgeable impasse. On the other, it shows the director’s stubborn resolve to make art in the face of futility. Megalopolis wasn’t yet a twinkle in his eye. Neither forgiveness nor reconciliation awaited at the end of his road, and yet he was compelled to continue, his past past and his present present.


“Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?” the tagline for Peggy Sue Got Married asked its audience. Coppola’s films of the decades since the 1970s have, first with romance and later with mournful resolve, answered this question with: Nothing. These films desire and then need to live in the present as it is, despite all that has and hasn’t come to pass in Coppola’s life, lending them their unique gravitas. His constant reiteration of this theme—the past is past—becomes a life-affirming mantra.

But from Coppola’s present view, the chasm between past and present, between could have been and is, no longer appears so insurmountable. With Megalopolis looming, he has released The Cotton Club Encore (2017), Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) and Apocalypse Now Final Cut (2019), The Outsiders: The Complete Novel (2005), and The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (2020). Some are minor improvements on the originals, others slight downgrades, but each represents an amendment to history that cuts against the grain of Coppola’s last 40 years of artistry. Time in these reedits appears in a digital flux. Grief and romance are no longer affixed to immobile points. Coppola now lives out the could-have-been, and futility, it would seem, so fundamental to his middle period, is not a feeling that he can easily inhabit anymore.

In 2022, Coppola released B’Twixt Now and Sunrise, a reedit of Twixt that, among other minor changes, excises the brief coda that shows Hall Baltimore delivering his novel to his publisher. Following a scene that seemed almost beyond fiction—his child’s horrific death by motorboat towline—this denouement had always been out of place. Upon the original’s release, critics panned this scene, and Twixt as a whole. The tonal non sequitur from boating accident to book deal was termed “puzzling,” “a cheap plot gimmick,” and “frivolous.” Awkward though it may have been, it was the coping mechanism that Coppola required in 2011.

Responding to his critics and the good taste only apparent in retrospect, B’Twixt Now and Sunrise inserts the Coppola of 2022. “What have I got to lose?” Coppola asks behind a digital editing suite, 11 years and millions of dollars between him and Hall Baltimore. Twixt wandered in the moonlight, brashly asserting the need to persist as an artist in the face of loss without end. As is apparent in the change of title, B’Twixt Now and Sunrise knows the dawn is coming. The anachronistic emotional logic of the present intercedes on behalf of the past. The film ends abruptly following the boat scene, book deal left on the cutting-room floor. The author of Twixt would persist as a hack if it meant he could persist; the author of B’Twixt Now and Sunrise stepped out of the editing suite and onto the set of Megalopolis.

The original cuts will ebb out of circulation, relegated to the nether realm of bonus features if available at all, and programmers will have difficulty screening anything but the reedits. An Outsiders VHS will become rare like the Tucker 48 Coppola maintains or his first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). Responding to critics of his 1997 reedits of the original Star Wars films, George Lucas spoke like a multimillionaire who has long since forgotten how to live with compromise: the original cut “doesn’t really exist anymore,” he said. “I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be.”

None of Coppola’s changes to any of his films are so protuberant as the CGI monstrosities peopling the 1970s sets of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition, but Coppola’s reedits are equally cleaved from their circumstances of production. To watch the original Star Wars is to feel the scrappy possibility of the outsider’s one-in-a-million chance. To watch the special editions is to be transported to a boardroom in 1997, with several men dressed like Lucas, each wanting to satisfy his every misplaced whim.

Just so, watching the theatrical cut of One from the Heart, one feels at the center of one of the parties Wasson describes in his book, when Zoetrope staff and artists gathered on set with Hollywood’s finest, basking in the neon glow and raising a toast to Coppola’s dream. With the sound of popped bottles and bounced checks hanging in the air, they couldn’t have known whether they were celebrating a beginning or an ending.

One from the Heart: Reprise hit select theaters on January 19, 2024. Coppola announced in the Blu-ray liner notes: “[W]hile preparing this film for 4K, it was apparent I could refine the story.” Casting back 40 years, from peak to peak of a career spent primarily in the valleys, Reprise aims to hone the imperfect past, to replace the tantalizing and infinite could have been with the eminently graspable now is. No longer must we squint to see the film’s shaggy beauty or strain our voices to declare our love for the loser. It’s all there, we are informed, on screen.

In a mostly positive appraisal for The New Yorker, Richard Brody pointed to a continuity error introduced in One from the Heart: Reprise—a scene in which Frannie is shown at the hair salon now precedes another in which she does not have her hair permed. Beyond a carelessness that would not have survived the high-octane Zoetrope lot in 1982, the error betrays the fundamentally unreal stakes of the reedit project as a whole. The events of the film—and of Coppola’s career—are no longer bound to time’s forward march. There’s no need for grief or longing or urgency in a world drawn in pencil.

I didn’t bother to catalog each of Reprise’s changes. Certain moments felt wrong, and the theater’s derisive laughter confirmed that these were not merely new beats on a record I had worn thin with replaying. I can only say that while I’ve previously rooted for Hank and Frannie to reconcile against all good judgment, their reunion this time did not feel so fated. The disappointment, failure, and compromise that surely awaited them seemed avoidable—a fate not worth the effort of resigning oneself to, far less falling in love with, in the first place.


Everything old is new again. Having rewritten his past, Coppola now embarks on his future. Like it’s 1979, he will stand before the French press at Cannes and pronounce Megalopolis a world-historic masterpiece, and one would not want to bet against him. A new generation of A-listers have spent months quelling rumors of Coppola’s chaotic set, with the film’s star, Adam Driver, now occupying the role of Martin Sheen telling Apocalypse Now naysayers that everything is fine. Rome, New Hollywood, and the Zoetrope dream can all be rebuilt. Just as each of Coppola’s previous films confronted the impossibility of turning back time, a deeply human experience, so too does each Reprise, Redux, and Final Cut suggest the contrary.

To make a film as expensive and apparently unmarketable as Megalopolis in the commercial film landscape of 2024, perhaps Coppola had to dislodge himself from the contingencies of human temporality. Anticipating the new film, with its lofty ambitions of teaching the lessons of antiquity to modern audiences, I cannot help but wonder how much can be learned from a historical perspective wherein nothing is fixed, and what kind of future is born out of a past still on the editing table. If it doesn’t quite feel right, one can always wait for the Reprise.

LARB Contributor

Dylan Adamson is a film critic and preservationist from Toronto. He was written for Screen Slate, Sabzian, and Ultra Dogme.


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