As attendees entered Hall H at Comic-Con International in San Diego on Saturday, they were given strange masks featuring an image of Edgar Allen Poe whose eyes had been replaced by 3D lenses. "For me, I don't like watching 3D movies with 3D glasses,” legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola explained to the audience. “Even during Avatar, I'd take them off."
Returning to Comic-Con for the first time in 20 years, Coppola offered an unusual look at his latest film Twixt. Spinoff Online was there as the acclaimed director, composer Dan Deacon and star Val Kilmer offered a glimpse at the film and Coppola's offbeat use of 3D. As the presentation began, Coppola explained that the masks would have a role to play in his attempt to push the medium forward.
"Starting about 14 months ago, after Avatar, people were asking me if 3D was going to be the new thing that cinema had to offer,” the director recalled. “I said, gee, I always liked 3D. We were all excited by a movie back when called Bwana Devil. Then 3D petered out until a movie called House of Wax, and even Hitchcock made a 3D movie called Dial M for Murder, but few people ever saw it that way." All of those movies featured the same primitive 3D technology with the famous (or infamous) red/green lenses. After each wave of interest, the technique would be dismissed as a gimmick, but Coppola expects it to have staying power this time. "It's easier to make 3D movies now with the computer animation technology," he said.
After thanking the group of technicians involved with Twixt, Coppola presented a demo reel. The story itself is deceptively simple: A C-list horror writer comes to a small town and learns of its spooky history. The sheriff is convinced there’s a serial killer lurking in the woods and he wants the writer's insights. Oh, he also thinks it has something to do with vampires. Now entrenched in the local lore, the writer has dreams of Edgar Allen Poe and other murders committed in the area, all of which may be connected to the town’s unusual seven-faced clock tower. The 3D portion takes us inside that location, which is far more complicated, expressionistic and creepy than it has any right to be. The trailer ends with Kilmer in the county morgue about to pull a sheet off a corpse.
With the crowd now interested, Coppola continued his part of the presentation. "Cinema is still so young, how dare anyone think all it’s got up its sleeve is just 3D and higher ticket prices," he began. "It's just at the beginning of the expression of movement and sound. Of course, we're going to see wonderful innovations [in the future], and I think I was taken aback when certain studio executives said they were going to make all their films in 3D." He then asked Deacon to discuss the way live performances changed after the invention of recording.
"The big shift happened when [anything] could be reproduced without the original creators being there,” the composer explained. “Once recordings came about, it changed the way people thought about music. The performance came to them.”
"If you were a composer, you didn't get any money," added Coppola. "You made money by touring. This idea of getting rich off of art is new."
"And that's where the idea of stars came about," Deacon continued. "There'd be this one particular person who sang better than anyone else or acted better, but then recordings came."
Coppola interjected again: "Art has only been recordable in the last 170 years (with photography); then came sound and the ability to hear Caruso on a record. In a sense, ever since then, most art given to us is recorded; it's canned."
"Now it's made to be commodified," Deacon continued. "[Igor] Stravinsky started making music that could fit on one side of a record." He noted that the length of the recording medium is still a concern for musicians to this day.
"Why do movies have to be canned?" Coppola asked. "It's competing with a lot of entertainment, like cable news and politics. The only thing we have that's alive is concerts or sports." He then mentioned how his granddaughter makes sure to see movies opening night to capture the freshness of the experience. "There's a yearning for the live to be put back in cinema," he said. "When we made Twixt, we knew it'd be [released] around Halloween, so I thought I'd love to go on tour and perform the film for each audience. That's what opera was like."
This is the key idea for Coppola as he explained, "Because cinema is now digital files, if the director was there, he could essentially change the experience to the mood of the audience. I can give you more of the things you like. For a seven-minute promo, it's not much to work with, but for a whole movie ... in fact, let me show you a couple of things." On the big Hall H monitors, the audience saw a close-up of Coppola's workstation. It was a combination of touchscreen monitor and iPad that allowed him to manipulate the trailer into a different form on the fly.
"I have all kinds of options," he said. "With live music, we can perform the film again just for you." He then prepared to do that very thing. Of course, there were some hiccups with the new technology as he and his support crew tried to get the touchscreen monitor to respond to the play command. "I said [backstage] that this was going to be a dress rehearsal," he joked. As they continued to work out the bugs, he added this intriguing thought: "Theoretically, I could push the shuffle button and show you 20 versions of it."
After a few false starts, Deacon jokingly declared that, "The new age of cinema has begun!" A second version of the trailer appeared. This one featured more of Kilmer and his ability to mimic voices. It was a brief moment in the first trailer, but seeing how the audience responded to it, Coppola extended its presence in the new version. Deacon also adapted the score to correspond with the changes.
Afterward, Coppola attempted to get a third versions going, but the technology again thwarted his plans. He handed the panel over to Kilmer, who simply said, "It was fun working with a genius. I want to go on tour with them and hang out."
Deacon then shouted, "Thirty nights of this!"
A third version finally played that, the director said, was the result of hitting the shuffle button. Deacon decided to let it run without music, but Coppola read the narration live. This version was distinctly different, focusing on the main character's dream state and his conversations with a young girl played by Elle Fanning. They walk in the forest talking until they come across a dream version of the hotel where Kilmer's character is staying. She refuses to enter.
When the lights came up, Coppola took some questions. The first was about the film he brought to Comic-Con 20 years ago, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and how it changed his relationship to horror. "I've always loved the horror story," he explained, going on to describe his time as an assistant to B-movie king Roger Corman. Starting out by washing the producer's car, Coppola eventually directed the low-budget horror film Dementia 13 for Corman. "I also used to be a camp counselor, and I read the kids in my cabin the entire Dracula novel. When I was given the chance of doing it, I knew the novel." He considers gothic horror to be a great American tradition.
Another fan asked whether he'd ever return to big-budget filmmaking. "What I'd like to do is work with a bigger budget, but with the same economies and the same stringent controls [as I do now]," he explained. "I'm writing something [large-scale] now, and I don't know how I'm going to make it, but ..."
Coppola told the next fan that making the film was a very enjoyable experience. "I made it in Northern California so I could sleep in my own bed," he joked. "The writing challenge was to make this gothic story, but make it personal for me. I think when you make a movie, you ask a question and when you're done, [if it works] you have an answer." He went on to explain how the dream with the girl and Poe came from a dream he had himself. "They helped me answer the questions of this movie," he said.
The next fan asked Kilmer what brought him to the project. "I think when we met, he said 'I'm not quite sure how it ends," the actor said. He also recalled watching the restoration of Abel Gance's silent epic Napoleon that Coppola supervised. In a movie similar to Twixt, the director commissioned his own father Carmine Coppola to perform a new score for the film live. Efforts like Napoleon and the tour for Twixt impressed the actor. "It's new. It's genuine," he said. "He's so excited about the medium and to do a new idea because he's trying to capture something. Every day was a thrill, really."
When a fan begged Coppola to prevent The Godfather from ever being remade, the director informed him that he had no financial control over the property, but understood the sadness in the studios' overreliance in remakes. "I think when they remake films, it's a pity because that money could go into investing in new stories and new talents," he said.
The final question came from a fan dressed as Captain EO. Appropriately enough, he wanted to know the director's thoughts on post-3D conversions. Coppola offered a simple enough answer: "The same way as I feel about colorization. It's just for commercial reasons."
Twixt will be released later this year.