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Growing up in a Francis Ford Coppola film

While Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Sheen endured 18 months of craziness shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippines circa 1976, their 11-year-old sons Roman Coppola and Charlie Sheen were having the time of their lives, running around the jungle and hanging out in Colonel Kurtz's compound. "The set wasn't fibreglass and balsa wood, it was a real temple and a real village, and the company brought in real Ifugao tribespeople to live there," Roman recalled in a recent phone interview. He and Charlie roved among the severed heads and staked skulls that decorated the set; they painted scars on each other with skills learned from the makeup crew; and when the Ifugao sacrificed a caribou (a rite that became the film's climax), they had a front-row seat.

Both scions eventually entered the family business. Charlie, of course, became a film and television star, while Roman, who has a sonorous voice and a mug a lot like his dad's, embarked on an eclectic career behind the camera. He made commercials, music videos, short films and a feature, 2001's CQ, an affectionate send-up of sci-fi films such as Barbarella. He worked as a second unit director for his father (on Dracula, The Rainmaker and Tetro), his writer/director sister Sofia (on The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette) and his writer/director friend Wes Anderson (on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited). Together with Anderson, he wrote the scripts for The Darjeeling Limited and last year's Moonrise Kingdom; the latter is up for a best-original-screenplay Oscar next week. As well, he and Sofia currently run American Zoetrope, the production company their father founded.

Over the years, the younger Coppola and Sheen ran into each other occasionally, and Sheen always waxed enthusiastic about the idea of working together. "He's a huge Apocalypse Now fan. He's always quoting it," says Coppola, who's now 47. "Even in the late 1980s, when he was a massive movie star and I was just this young guy trying to do whatever, he would say, 'Your dad and mine made such a brilliant movie, we have to do something together.' That meant a lot to me."

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A few years ago, Coppola experienced a bad breakup, and found himself trapped in an emotional Mobius strip. "I kept having these conversations, 'Do I love her or hate her? Do I want her back? No, she was the worst. What do you mean, she was perfect,'" he remembers. "The same memory could be beautiful or painful." Naturally, given his DNA, he decided to explore his pain via film.

He wanted the movie to begin with a breakup, and he wanted to present his hero, who's "very outgoing, balls-out, crazy, immature," in a kaleidoscopic way, through his varying memories of the relationship. And since he loves films that have "a verve and a pizzazz and a sense of play," he wanted to create a world in which anything he could dream up could potentially fit – "I could put in a western sequence and a Nazi attack, and have it all make sense and be germane," he says. He called the resulting script A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, and he wanted Sheen to play the lead. (It opened in selected cities Friday.)

Sheen's reputation for being a hard-partying bad boy wasn't an issue for his old friend. "Not at all; I know what he can do," Coppola says. "But it took a while to pin him down. He had to learn how to dance, speak Spanish, sing in Portuguese and expose himself in a deep way in some of the more emotional scenes. That can be scary. But I kept nudging him, and finally, I feel, it was the right time in his life for him to dig into this character. Once he decided, he couldn't have been more committed and dedicated. People consider Charlie to be flaky, but he's really quite the opposite."

Coppola surrounded Sheen with members of his unofficial repertoire company, including his cousin, the writer and actor Jason Schwartzman, and his frequent collaborator Bill Murray, who does an amusing John Wayne impersonation in the western sequence. "My upbringing, the emphasis on family is a big one, and that includes the family that you work with," Coppola says. "To have the pleasure of the continuity, loyalty, friendship that extend over years is a wonderful thing. It's fun, that's for sure. To see Bill show up in that red shirt, and Jason in a sheriff outfit with a Star of David, and our absurd, sexy Indians, to be shooting in the canyon where they used to shoot westerns and serials and Star Trek, with the Hollywood sign just off to the left, it was thrilling." He also continued a family tradition: Coppola appeared in some of his dad's films – including The Godfather: Part 2, when he was 8 – and his baby daughter appears in Charles Swan III.

His father's success never intimidated him, Coppola maintains – "That sounds like b.s., but it's true." Instead, it inspired him to be choosy, to turn down paycheque jobs (including directing I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) and to pursue only things that interested him. In high school, he was in a band and considered becoming an architect. He did the cinema-studies program at New York University, took art classes and got into 3-D design. "I do a lot of commercials and videos, which allow me to try out all kinds of new things," he says. "But when it comes to films, I've been rather precious, because I aspire to make movies in which you can feel a personality. I don't want to make a movie that some other person could make just as well as I, and it would be the same. You see a lot of movies like that, that don't have the stamp of individuality. I'm interested in the ones that do."

His stamp includes "things that have a sense of delight, that are colourful and pertain to the imagination. I like journeys, movies that take you into a world." His films are indie in scale – Charles Swan III was shot in a mere 25 days – but not necessarily in spirit: "They're not moody and dark and gritty, as a lot of indie movies in recent times are," Coppola says. "I'm not a very angst-filled person. My style is more about playfulness and the joy of putting on a show. I hope there's an appetite for a little sparkle and fun, even when a film comes from a soulful place – using a painful experience to graduate through it with some understanding, to be able to embark on the next experience with a bit of insight into yourself." He believes that movies have a magic, and he should know – he's lived inside them.

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