Francis Ford Coppola’s search for the best ending

August 9, 2012, 5:04 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t care for what he calls “the tyranny of genres.” He’s the man behind the Godfather series and Apocalypse Now. And yet, even as someone whose work has helped define American cinema, he says he still has trouble fitting in.

The director’s most recent project is a mishmash of horror, comedy, drama, and fantasy called TWIXT. It’s tough to categorize, and Coppola prefers films that way. He’s been answering questions about his process for his entire life.

He’ll be answering more about TWIXT, which opens today at the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, and will run there for a week. Coppola will hang around after two showings for a Q&A with the audience tomorrow.

In the midst of the hubbub, he took some time to speak with Fortune about directing six-year-olds at drama camp and drunk dreaming in Istanbul about Edgar Allen Poe. An edited transcript of the conversation is below.

Fortune: You’ve been in the film business for years. And you’ve also jumped into wine as well. What have you learned about running a business?

Francis Ford Coppola: There’s nothing better than doing things that stem from your own heart and enthusiasm. I own two wine companies now, and somehow I’ve managed to convince the public that I’m not a celebrity who just licensed my name, that I really do make the wine and that I stand behind it. I never started a business that was successful, but I followed a lot of trains of enthusiasm that became successful businesses.

Is it more difficult to stay true to that enthusiasm when you’re making movies for larger studios?

Well, it’s a business and people are only trying to make a profit in their investment. So if people are going to put their hard-earned money into a movie, they want it to be the kind of movie that people are going to come to in droves.

But yet, commercial studios are the first one to say, “How do we sell that? What is it?” And I say, “It’s a work of art. It’s a movie, what does it have to be?”

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Back in the day, even in my so-called period of success, my films were very controversial. Here I am, 73 years old. And people will say, “How come your new films aren’t as good as your old films?” And I say, “Well, the truth is a lot of those old films did not get good reactions.” Apocalypse was very shaky in its first years, and I was sure we were going to lose the farm. But little by little, it just wouldn’t go away. And it began to influence people, as art can do.

But people tend to want movies to fit into certain genres?

Well, they force them, but cinema art should be one of the few things in life that doesn’t have to be contained in a preconceived genre or space. It should be free.

That’s what I like about my own children’s films because they make films that are personal and not like other films, but that’s a very tough row to hoe.

What’s it like to work with your family?

Right now, the only one of my family who really consults with me is my granddaughter Gia Coppola, who is 24 and about to make a film and is very talented, by the way. But for my daughter Sofia and my son Roman, I’m the last one they’ll show what they’re doing. But I think, when you’re a successful parent, it means that your children at some point don’t need your help anymore.

Plus it gives you more time to focus on your own work.

Yeah. Although, I’ve always loved children. When I was 16 or 17, I was a drama camp counselor doing plays with little kids. With the six-year-olds, I would do things like Jack and the Beanstalk, you know, little fairy tales. At the end of the summer, the neighboring girl’s camp would do a musical with the 16 and 15-year-old kids. We did Best Foot Forward.

From Jack and the Beanstalk to the big screen. So, where did you get the idea for your latest film?

It’s very hard to compete with the successes you made when you were a young man. So I decided a few years ago that I would annihilate myself, in a way, and give up all the great collaborators I had worked with and just make two or three films very inexpensively. I did two films like that and I was planning to do a third one in Istanbul.

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I went out with some of the lawyers, one of which was a young woman, and she said to me, “Oh, have you ever had Raki?” Raki is an alcoholic Turkish drink; it’s sort of like Ouzo. I drank a lot of it, and I got drunk. Then I went home to my little hotel with the window open and I fell asleep and had this incredibly vivid dream. Edgar Allen Poe appeared and was leading me. Then in the middle of when it was getting to the end, the call to prayer at five in the morning just rocked the room and it woke me up. I thought, “No, no, I need to dream, I need to get the ending!”

I closed the window and I tried to sleep, and of course I wasn’t able to. So I just dictated the dream into a little recorder. I said, “Instead of going to Istanbul, I’m just going to stay home and make the third film and for no money.” So that’s what I did. I called the story, “Twixt now and sunrise.” It’s a movie about the in- between, in between day and night, between success and failure, which is where I am.

Are you pleased with the film?

Very much so. But it’s…you know, it’s wacky. In the course of trying to find the ending, it got a little close to home and sort of heartbreaking to me. But that’s one of the things I learned from Poe. That if, in your work, you really reach into the inner part of your own heart or your own soul and you write about what you feel then you immortalize those things, and that’s what happened to me.