Two milestones hit for Francis Ford Coppola this weekend. The legendary filmmaker celebrated his 73rd birthday on Saturday, April 7th (happy belated, Francis) and, on the same day, observed the 38th anniversary of the opening of one of his most artistic efforts, 1974’s “The Conversation.”
Released into theaters just a few months before Richard Nixon resigned as President, the film was commonly interpreted to be a commentary on Watergate. But in actuality, Coppola had written the outline way back in 1966 but couldn’t get financing together until after “The Godfather” became a massive commercial and critical success. After battling Paramount throughout the production of the crime family classic, the studio wound up backing “The Conversation,” which Coppola worked on at the same time as “The Godfather Part II.”
Featuring one of the finest performances of Gene Hackman’s career (one that the actor reportedly considers his favorite) and embodying the paranoia and fear of the Cold War era, “The Conversation” is slow burn thriller of the highest order. Here are five things you may not have known about the film.
1. Original cinematographer Haskell Wexler was fired and replaced by Bill Butler
The film’s gorgeous, opening tracking shot, which carries the viewer into the taut and tense world of surveillance, sets the tone for the film, and was lensed by the great, Oscar-winning Haskell Wexler (“Who’s Afraid Of Virigina Woolf?,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”). Everything else? By Bill Butler ("Jaws," "Grease"). After clashing with Coppola over creative aspects of the production, Wexler was sacked by the director, replaced by Butler, and all of his footage was reshot. Everything, that is, except the Union Square sequence that kicks off the film.
2. Francis Ford Coppola wanted Marlon Brando for the lead
“The Conversation” finds Coppola using a couple of actors from “The Godfather” in supporting roles, including John Cazale as Hackman’s associate, and Robert Duvall in a cameo as the client. But had he got who he wanted, the lead role would’ve gone to Don Corleone himself. “He was really a constipated character. But the misery was partially Coppola's fault because he had let it be known that he wanted Brando for that role and Brando didn't want to do it,” Hackman told The Guardian in 2002. ”I loved the idea of the role, but I also knew that I was second choice.”
3. Some consider “Enemy of The State” to be a sort of spiritual sequel to “The Conversation”
In 1998, Hackman found himself in a different kind of spy movie, starring opposite Will Smith in Tony Scott’s “Enemy Of The State,” but there are more than a few similarities between his NSA agent Edward Lyle and the freelance operator Henry Caul. From the wardrobe (translucent trench coats) right down to their all-consuming paranoia, the two characters are cut from the same cloth, and to underline that fact, Scott used a picture of Henry Caul from “The Conversation” as the younger version of Edward Lyle. The film also contains a sequence that is a direct nod to the opening shot from Coppola's movie.
4. The Conversation won the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for three Academy Awards
Shot on a modest $1.6 million budget, “The Conversation” wound up earning nearly three times that figure at the box office, making it a profitable success, but the film was also a critical darling. In a year that saw it running against Coppola’s own “The Godfather Part II” at the Academy Awards, “The Conversation” still managed three nominations including Best Picture. It also won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, making Coppola one of only six filmmakers to take that honor twice, and the only person to win twice in the same decade (he'd win again for "Apocalypse Now" in 1979, albeit shared with "The Tin Drum" that time around).
5. “The Conversation” was inspired by Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”
Given how much Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese and the rest of that loose '70s gang loved foreign films, it’s no surprise that the filmmaker found inspiration from Michaelangelo’s Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” In a sense, it’s an aural twist on that film, substituting photography for surveillance recording, but trading in a similar tone of paranoia and anxiety. "Francis had seen [it] a year or two before, and had the idea to fuse the concept of Blowup with the world of audio surveillance," editor Walter Murch told Michael Ondaajte in "The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film." And a few years later, Brian DePalma would also take an audio-based approach, is his decidedly more B-movie homage "Blow Out."
"The Conversation" is available on DVD, BluRay and through various digital outlets.