Francis Ford Coppola is widely regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, having directed classics such as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation. But not every film he made was a masterpiece. In fact, one of his most ambitious and visionary projects turned out to be a colossal failure that nearly ruined his career and his studio.
The film was One from the Heart, a musical romance set in Las Vegas, released in 1982. It starred Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr as a couple who break up on their fifth anniversary and spend a night with their idealized partners, played by Raul Julia and Nastassja Kinski. The film was inspired by the golden age of Hollywood musicals, but also tried to capture the realism and complexity of 1970s cinema.
Coppola self-financed the film and used his own studio, Zoetrope, to create a stunning visual spectacle. He built lavish sets on soundstages, used miniatures and backdrops to recreate the neon-lit city, and experimented with new technologies such as video editing and live mixing. He also hired Tom Waits to write the melancholic songs that served as the film’s soundtrack.
But Coppola’s artistic vision came at a high price. The film’s budget ballooned from $15 million to $23 million, making it one of the most expensive films ever made at the time. Coppola also clashed with his co-writer Armyan Bernstein, his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and his distributor MGM over creative differences. He faced accusations of animal abuse and overspending from the press and the public.
The film was a disaster at the box office, grossing only $636,796 in the US. It received mixed reviews from critics, who praised its technical achievements but criticized its lack of emotional depth and narrative coherence. It was nominated for four Razzie Awards, including Worst Picture.
The film’s failure forced Coppola to sell Zoetrope to MGM and declare bankruptcy. He also lost his reputation as an auteur and had to make films to pay off his debts for years. He later said that One from the Heart was “the biggest flop in history” and “the film that destroyed me”.
However, some critics and fans have reevaluated the film over the years, calling it a misunderstood masterpiece and a cult classic. Coppola himself has restored and re-released the film several times, hoping to find a new audience for his passion project. He has said that One from the Heart is “the one I love the most”.
Here are some of the facts and quotes that illustrate the story of One from the Heart:
- Coppola initially rejected MGM’s offer to finance the film for $2 million, then bought the rights to the property through Zoetrope, with MGM remaining as a distributor for North America.
- Coppola wanted to make a small film after the enormous cost, pressures, and production problems of Apocalypse Now (1979), but he ended up making an even more extravagant film.
- Coppola said: “I wanted One from the Heart to be a very personal kind of expression; I wanted it to be beautiful; I wanted it to be like an enormous painting.”
- The film was almost entirely shot on Zoetrope soundstages. Coppola insisted on building sets to add to the artificiality of the proscenium.
- Coppola said: “I wanted to make a movie where you could see how it was done.”
- The film used innovative techniques such as electronic cinema (a process that involved shooting on video and transferring to film), live editing (a process that allowed Coppola to switch between multiple cameras and angles in real time), and computerized lighting (a system that controlled thousands of lights with a computer).
- Coppola said: “I wanted to use all these new technologies that were emerging at that time.”
- The film featured original songs by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, who sang as the voices of Hank and Frannie’s hearts. The songs were recorded live on set with an orchestra.
- Waits said: “It was like being in an opera.”
- The film faced numerous problems during production, such as delays, reshoots, script changes, crew firings, union disputes, animal deaths, lawsuits, bad publicity, and artistic disagreements.
- Bernstein said: “It was like being in a war.”
- The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall on February 11, 1982. It was poorly received by critics and audiences alike.
- Roger Ebert wrote: “One from the Heart is an interesting failure.”
- The film lost millions of dollars for Coppola and Zoetrope. It also damaged Coppola’s credibility as a filmmaker.
- Coppola said: “One from the Heart broke my heart.”