‘The Conversation’: A Brilliantly Composed Symbol of Watergate America

Filming the famous opening scene in Union Square. Still photographer: Brian Hamill

Between the huge successes of two Godfather movies, Francis Ford Coppola had the time to make, according to his own admission, his most personal film ever. The brilliantly subtle, moderate and restrained The Conversation introduced itself to the audience right after the Watergate scandal broke out, but despite the fact one would think this would help in its promotion, the film generally captured modest attention from American filmgoers. And yet, it remains a true little masterpiece of one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Coppola decided to tell a story of a professional eavesdropper so removed from life that he observes it from a distance, using a pallet of his nerdy gadgets and electronic devices with which he invades other people’s privacy without actually having a life of his own. He’s reserved, distanced, not all that great at his job, but he takes it more than seriously. Coppola needed someone ordinary-looking, and the visually unexceptional Gene Hackman was his first and only choice. Trying to do what he considers his duty, our hero keeps at it until his job consumes him, constantly burdened with guilt about what he does and the effect his findings have on other people’s safety. In a way, as many film scholars pointed out, The Conversation‘s protagonist represents the United States, which gives Coppola’s intimate movie an air of symbolism, transforming the central figure into a metaphor of the state and culture that gave birth to him and his profession. Symbolism is also present in the character’s very name (‘Caul’ means a membrane that protects an infant’s head at birth), as well as the clothing he chooses to wear (a raincoat present throughout the film). All of this generously helps create the protagonist’s background and psychological profile necessary for the film to be understood in all of its power.

The film was shot by cinematographer Bill Butler, but only after Haskell Wexler was fired from the position at an early stage of production. Nevertheless, the magnificent opening shot of the film is 100 percent Wexler, and it’s a scene of crucial importance for it sets the mood of voyeurism and paranoia that haunt the rest of the picture. Walter Murch, the celebrated sound engineer, edited the movie on Coppola’s suggestion, since sound was of pivotal importance for the film’s plot. Ultimately, Murch’s effort added up to the disturbing atmosphere of instability and fear. As much as we appreciate the importance and exquisite craft of his larger pictures, The Conversation, now probably more relevant than ever, still holds an equally special place in our hearts.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay for The Conversation [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). We also recommend you to listen audio commentary with Coppola. The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
The most personal of all films in Francis Ford Coppola’s repertoire was born between two big projects that helped Coppola gain the reputation he enjoys today, the first two parts of The Godfather trilogy. Two huge, big-budgeted movies, and a tiny personal story filmed between them, but an expertly made film that captured the nation’s state of mind and emotion after the Watergate scandal. The Conversation, starring the great Gene Hackman, is a subtle and restrained film about a professional eavesdropper, lonely and alienated, who uses his nifty gadgets to invade the privacy of the people around him. Coppola began meddling with the idea in 1966, but the first draft was penned three years later, with the film hitting theaters as late as 1974. The impact it made at the box office was negligible, even though it was hardly a failure. But with time, the film’s reputation grew, and today it’s considered one of Coppola’s very best. One of the perks of managing this website is definitely the challenge of finding rare treasures. This delightful discovery, a Filmmakers Newsletter interview from May, 1974, conducted by Brian De Palma, illuminates the process of this little masterpiece’s creation. And who’s more qualified to conduct such an insightful conversation with Coppola than a passionate fellow filmmaker.

Filmmakers Newsletter was a well-respected magazine with articles abounding in technical information, as well as extensive analyses of both contemporary films and those who played significant roles in the historical development of the art and business. This particular article can be classified as an impressive read thanks to the sheer quantity of interesting details regarding the development and production of The Conversation, but also to Coppola’s honest answers to De Palma’s perceptive questions. The fact that we’re talking about a piece of journalism virtually lost to the rest of the world only enhances the value of the interview, a six-page exploration of Coppola’s filmmaking technique, personal preferences, inner motivations and desires both before and after he steps onto the film set.

If you care to find out the nature of the connection between The Conversation and Henry VIIIth, why Coppola’s not in awe of Hitchcock’s artistry or why the acclaimed director admits the commencement of shooting often finds him in a “pants down” position, we urge you to read this wonderful interview as soon as possible. You can download the PDF version: ‘The Making of THE CONVERSATION: An Interview with Francis Ford Coppola by Brian De Palma.’





Coppola, who directed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, revealed that his earliest films—like The Rain People and The Conversation—were more like what he’d hoped to do over the course of his career. But then money and life got in the way. “I had to get a job, and of course, the job was The Godfather,” he says. “That made me be something I didn’t know I was going to be. I became a big-shot director. If you take a young Long Island Italian guy and give him endless possibilities, then you’ll see what kind of crazy things I did in the course of my career.”

 
Unseen photos from The Conversation—filming the famous opening scene in Union Square, courtesy of the edit room floor.

 
Anisse Gross found a way straight to the human being who lies beneath the legend that is Francis Ford Coppola. This interview is so visceral, full of hope and longing, full of the kind of wisdom (and writing tips!) that only a legend could impart. Fabulous piece.

Of all your work, what do you feel the most personal connection to?
Coppola: In my earlier career I liked The Rain People, because that was my first film where I got to do what I wanted to do. I was young; I wrote the story based on something that I had witnessed. Few people know that film. It’s about a young wife who loves her husband but doesn’t want to be a wife, and one day gets in her station wagon and leaves a note with his breakfast and takes off. In a way it preceded the women’s movement. It’s curious for a guy like me to do. Then I made The Conversation, which was an original as well. That’s what I wanted to be doing. The Godfather was an accident. I was broke and we needed the money. We had no way to keep American Zoetrope going. I had no idea it was going to be that successful. It was awful to work on, and then my career took off and I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be.

What did you want to be?
Coppola: I wanted to be a guy who made films like The Rain People and The Conversation. I didn’t want to be a big Hollywood movie director. I was always a starving student and money was always a big problem. Suddenly I had all this money. I bought this building, and I bought a nice house. I didn’t want to ever do a second Godfather. I was so oppressed during The Godfather by the studio that when Mr. Big, who owned the whole conglomerate, said, “What do we have to do to get you to do it?” I had suggested that I would supervise it and pick a director to do the second Godfather. I don’t know why there should be a second Godfather. It’s a drama, it’s the end, it’s over. It’s not a serial. When I went back and told them I had chosen Marty Scorsese to do it they said absolutely not. Finally I told them I’d do it, but I didn’t want any of those guys to have anything to do with it. To see it, to hear the soundtrack, the casting, their ideas, nothing. So I made Godfather 2 because I’d always been thinking about trying to write something about a father and son at the same age, two stories juxtaposed. I had total control and it was a pleasure, I must say. I did that and won all these Oscars and had all this success for doing that. —The Rumpus Interview with Francis Ford Coppola

 
A vintage featurette, Close-up on The Conversation, contains on-set interview with Hackman and Coppola and shows the two men rehearsing a key scene. Sensational stuff.

 

ON FILM Q & A WITH BILL BUTLER, ASC

Bill Butler, ASC studied electronics at the Iowa State University, and began his career helping to set up a local television station, WGN-TV, in Chicago. He won an Emmy for electronic photography before segueing into shooting film documentaries for two Chicago TV stations with William Friedkin who became a seminal Hollywood director. After winning several awards at festivals, Butler teamed up with Francis Ford Coppola to shoot his first narrative film, The Rain People. His eclectic list of narrative credits range from Jaws, The Conversation, Lipstick, Grease, Stripes, Rocky II, Flipper and Biloxi Blues. Butler also earned Emmy Awards for Raid on Entebbe and A Streetcar Named Desire. Overall, he has compiled nearly 70 narrative film credits. Following are excerpts of an interview:

And how about Coppola?
Let me give you an example. I was shooting The Conversation with him. There was a scene in a room in a small apartment. A guy comes in through the front door, and we’re panning with him. As he comes in, Francis says, ‘Let him go.’ So I just held the camera as he walks off. We hold, and we hold, and we hold, and everybody in the audience is getting uneasy. Where did he go? What did he do? (whispers) ‘Now pan.’ I pan over and there he is sitting on the sofa. He’s depressed but the strength of that is 10 times what it would have been had we just panned over with him as he sat down. It was amplified because everybody is saying, ‘show me, show me what happened.’ You stay long enough until they get a little uneasy and then you come over and show them. It has strength and it has power. —Bill Butler

 
Francis Ford Coppola interviews David Shire, composer of The Conversation.


Open YouTube video

A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope, narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, covers the rise and fall of the struggling young studio during the late 1960s and early 1970s, touching on everything from the influence of Easy Rider to the bitter clash between Warner Bros. and American Zoetrope over the film itself. In all fairness, though, it’s great to see Warner Bros. swallow their pride by allowing this documentary to be presented objectively (one might be reminded of the clash between Universal and Terry Gilliam over Brazil, and the wonderful documentary produced for the Criterion Collection). Among other highlights, A Legacy of Filmmakers features short interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. —Randy Miller III

“I just finished a film a few days ago, and I came home and said I learned so much today. So if I can come home from working on a little film after doing it for 45 years and say that—that shows something about the cinema.” —Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Still photographer: Brian Hamill © The Directors Company, The Coppola Company, American Zoetrope, Paramount Pictures.


 

 
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in

  • Andre Seewood

    I loved this discussion of Coppola’s The Conversation, but my only objection would be with the assertion that.Harry Caul wasn’t “…very good at his job.” If anything Harry was exceptional at his job and his professionel repution was very well known in his particular industry. In fact, the plot of the film is based in part on Harry’s exceptional and exclusive ability to do his job so well.

  • jeez wonderful stuff. thanks so much