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A Master Dreams Beyond His Medium: Inside Francis Ford Coppola’s Live Cinema Production, Distant Vision

A Master Dreams Beyond His Medium: Inside Francis Ford Coppola’s Live Cinema Production, Distant Vision

Directing

Francis Ford Coppola’s Distant Vision details the triumphs and tragedies of three generations of Italian-American families, whose lives unfold alongside the historical development of television in the 20th century.

With this live cinema performance piece produced over three weeks in May and June in a 6,000-square-foot soundstage on Oklahoma City Community College’s campus, Coppola claims to be pioneering a brand new art form.

The production format was perhaps most akin to live television: Actors performed onstage for an audience while a crew, orchestrated by the director himself, captured the proceedings on 22 cameras. Each shot was painstakingly crafted as one would on a regular film set—hence a certain cinematic effect—in a carefully designed sequence, spanning the narrative’s 52 minutes. Coppola intended this summer’s production as a kind of proof-of-concept for an expanded rendition he is currently working on.

Actress Chandler Ryan performs a scene from Distant Vision for both the cameras and a live audience.

Actress Chandler Ryan performs a scene from Distant Vision for both the cameras and a live audience. Photograph by Brian Roberts

“We have been looking at recorded art now for 200 years,” said Coppola, during a lecture to his team of professionals and students from OCCC (where his longtime producer Gray Frederickson is an artist-in-residence). “From the photograph, to the Victrola, to the motion picture, to television; we’re basically looking at canned art. The public is watching sports and going to rock concerts, so there must be a yearning to break that cycle of the canned.”

Over the three-week preparation, crew members from Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company hustled around the soundstage, building a midcentury living room, rolling out cables, and building 45 different interchangeable sets. They spent the start of the summer creating the set around the 22 makeshift cameras, which had the ability to weave in and out of each set. Cameras were rigged on anything from a new Steadicam to a faithful 40-year-old dolly that was once used on the set of The Godfather.

The soundstage at Oklahoma City Community College.

The soundstage at Oklahoma City Community College hosted the crew and the audience for the production of Distant Vision. Photograph by Jonathan Shahan

A supreme amount of practice was required from all parties involved. This unprecedented level of precision, Coppola felt, was what made his take on live cinema different. “In cinema, we can go for a take two, a take three, until we get one that works. In live television the philosophy is to just light everything up with an immense amount of light, and the cameras are just so big, with zoom lenses following everyone around—so there is absolutely no ‘shot.’ In this notion of live cinema, precision becomes a real mantra. You know that’s the thrill.”

DP Mihai Malaimare (The Master) made his rounds on set, checking on Distant Vision’s 22 different camera operators. It took an expert cinematographer to coordinate the exact timing necessary to focus all those precisely placed cameras, working together as one unit—and his crew was under an immense amount of stress to hit their marks exactly. Live cable wires became the bane of the production—strung up across the studio, hanging over people’s heads and tangling beneath feet. Camera operators rehearsed movements around the wires while their assistants trailed behind, releasing and pulling cables quickly in specific areas.

Cameras Mihai Malaimare (The Master) preps the camera for the perfect shot JS

DP Mihai Malaimare (The Master) preps for the perfect shot. Photograph by Jonathan Shahan

Throughout this madcap choreography, sound recording loomed as one of the largest challenges. Boom operators had memorized steps to meet actors at their marks while remaining outside of the stage lighting—yet when the footage was reviewed, many were still showing up onscreen. The eventual solution was a vertical one: boom operators were raised on mobile rigs five to 20 feet above the set, dipping their booms down toward the actors below. A live narrator held court in a leather chair onstage; meanwhile, a live composer played piano, improvising his melodies according to the action onstage.

While this was taking place, Coppola eagerly watched the film in Silverfish—an Airstream trailer equipped with a kitchenette, couch, and monitors, previously used it as a mobile headquarters for several films, including The Outsiders, Dracula, and The Godfather: Part III. Scanned the images on his live feed, Coppola would identify his choice of shots on the fly.

Distant Vision has a strong autobiographical bent for its creator. One character, Tony, is a polio-stricken youth who turns inward to his imaginary to endure the isolation of his disease. The incident is taken directly from Coppola’s own life, and during that scene the director shed a few onstage tears.

Fraser Kershaw (Behind the Water) and Greg Mellott (Jackie Chan's First Strike) console tearful Coppola and encourage him through his live piece of cinema BR

Collaborators Fraser Kershaw and Greg Mellott console a tearful Coppola during a particularly personal moment in Distant Vision. Photograph by Brian Roberts

Another autobiographical theme? Television itself. “What is the thing that really nails the period that I grew up in? We had civil rights… we had the Vietnamese war; we had the death of a president. I realized all these things came to me through television.” Coppola owes not just Distant Vision’s subject but his ability to produce it to the medium. “You couldn’t do this three years ago because the cameras didn’t quite exist; the lights didn’t quite exist. The technology of television has so rapidly advanced due to sports.”

This summer 2015 rendition of Distant Vision was live-streamed to private showings in Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and at the Coppola family residence in Napa Valley, California. The immense amount of labor paid off, it seemed, for Coppola, who said, “These past couple weeks have been some of the happiest in my life.” MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2015 issue, on newsstands September 22, 2015.

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