Obituary: mother of film-makers with her own visions of cinema

Eleanor Coppola and Francis Ford Coppola attend the The Godfather 50th Anniversary Celebration at...
Eleanor Coppola and Francis Ford Coppola attend the The Godfather 50th Anniversary Celebration at Paramount Theatre in 2022 in Los Angeles. Photo: Film Magic


Eleanor Coppola’s life was film. From marrying a film-maker, to raising a family of film-makers, to making her own distinctive movies, Eleanor Coppola gave sterling service to her chosen artform.

Eleanor Coppola, born Eleanor Jessie Neil in Los Angeles in 1936, graduated from UCLA with a degree in applied design before getting into the movie business,

She met her future husband, Francis Ford Coppola, while working as an assistant art director on his directorial debut, the Roger Corman-produced 1963 horror film Dementia 13.

The film — not unlike many subsequent Coppola productions — had a convoluted path to the big screen.

A cheap imitator of the recently successful Hitchcock film Psycho, it was deemed unreleasable by Corman and much hacked about: a director’s cut was released by Coppola in 2017.

Within months of dating, Eleanor became pregnant and the couple were wed in Las Vegas in February 1963.

Their first-born, Gian-Carlo, quickly became a regular presence in his father’s films, as did their subsequent children, Roman (born in 1965) and Sofia (born in 1971). After acting in their father’s films and growing up on sets, all would go into the movies.

Gian-Carlo died at the age of 22 in a 1986 boating accident. He was killed while riding in a boat piloted by Griffin O’Neal, son of Ryan O’Neal, who was found guilty of negligence.

Roman directed several movies of his own and is president of his father’s San Francisco-based film company, American Zoetrope.

Sofia became one of the most acclaimed film-makers of her generation as the writer-director of films including Lost in Translation and the 2023 release Priscilla — a film Sofia dedicated to her mother.

In joining the family business, the Coppola children weren’t just following in their father’s footsteps but their mother’s too. Beginning on 1979’s Apocalypse Now, Eleanor frequently documented the behind-the-scenes life of Francis’ films. The Philippines-set shoot of Apocalypse Now lasted 238 days. A typhoon destroyed sets. Martin Sheen had a heart attack. A member of the construction crew died.

The poster of the film which launched Eleanor Coppola’s own movie-making career.
The poster of the film which launched Eleanor Coppola’s own movie-making career.
Eleanor documented much of the chaos in what would become one of the most famous making-of films about moviemaking, 1991’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

"I was just trying to keep myself occupied with something to do because we were out there for so long," Eleanor told CNN in 1991.

"They wanted five minutes for a TV promotional or something and I thought sooner or later I could get five minutes of film and then it went on to 15 minutes."

"I just kept shooting but I had no idea ... the evolution of myself that I saw with my camera," continued Eleanor, who ended up shooting 60 hours worth of footage.

"So, it was a surprise for both of us and a life-changing experience."

Eleanor also published Notes: On the Making of Apocalypse Now in 1979. While the film focused on the film set tumult, the book charted some of Eleanor’s inner turmoil, including the challenges of being married to a larger-than-life figure. She wrote of being a "woman isolated from my friends, my affairs and my projects" during their year in Manila. She also frankly discusses Francis having an extramarital affair.

They remained together, though, throughout her life. And Eleanor continued to seek out creative outlets for herself. She documented several more of her husband’s films, as well as Roman’s CQ and Sofia’s Marie Antoinette.

She wrote the first of three memoirs in 2008, Notes on a Life.

In 2016, at the age of 80, Eleanor made her narrative debut in Paris Can Wait, a romantic comedy starring Diane Lane. She followed that up with Love Is Love Is Love in 2020. Eleanor had initially set out only to write the screenplay to Paris Can Wait.

"One morning at the breakfast table my husband said, ‘Well you should direct it.’ I was totally startled," Eleanor told the AP.

"But I said ‘Well, I never wrote a script before and I’ve never directed, why not?’ I was kind of saying ‘why not’ to everything."

She died on April 12 aged 87. — AP, agencies.