Screening at Cannes: Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Megalopolis’

Coppola’s self-financed $120 million sci-fi epic drew a 10-minute standing ovation. Adam Driver said filming it "felt like experimental theater." Aubrey Plaza compared the experience to a trust fall.

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in Megalopolis. American Zoetrope

Go big or go home: The Cannes Film Festival prides itself on grand gestures and romantic ideals—especially when they exude cine-folie—making it the perfect platform this year for the World Premiere of Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis. “I sing of Colossus and the History of Man,” a narrator intones as the movie opens. What’s at stake? Civilization itself.

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The 85-year-old filmmaker, who has nabbed the top-prize Palme d’Or at Cannes twice (for 1974’s The Conversation and 1979’s Apocalypse Now) personally bankrolled every penny of this $120 million passion project, more than 40 years in the making and already beset with breathless gossip about on-set chaos, a free-form shooting schedule, and a director who reveled in experimentation.

Shia LaBeouf in Caligula-era drag? Aubrey Plaza as a louche cable finance reporter nicknamed the Money Bunny? Jon Voight dressed as Robin Hood and bragging about his alarmingly tall boner? An early private IMAX screening in L.A. last month left baffled distributors shaking their heads in disbelief.

It’s no small wonder why. His melodrama might be larded with campy chestnuts, but Coppola also digs deep into ancient history to update the Catiline Conspiracy for his sci-fi epic, recasting the decline of the Roman Republic as the natural parallel to the end of the hegemonic American century. It reimagines New York as New Rome, a decadent capital of political power struggles, billionaire bankers, and master builders. Madison Square Garden doubles as a modern-day Colosseum with chariot races. Nightclubs host an endless bacchanalia of coke-addled scions and lamé-swathed glamourpusses rubbing flesh until dawn.

At its nexus: Cesar Catilia (Adam Driver), a Fountainhead-worthy starchitect espousing the virtues of city planning while running New Rome’s Design Authority from a perch at the top of the Chrysler Building. Imagine a beguiling fusion of Jane Jacobs and her nemesis Robert Moses, and you start to get the gist. Add in a dash of Elon Musk, too, since he’s also the inventor of a futuristic material called Megalon, strong enough to support skyscrapers and supple enough to be turned into wearable fabric.

Spoiler to his dreams is the calculating Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), a short-term compromiser who’d rather built a quick-cash casino than oversee a decades-long urban revolution. His rebellious daughter, Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel) is a former med school student and current tabloid-fixture party girl who plants herself in Cesar’s orbit, increasingly seduced by his vision of the future. And duplicitous Clodio Pulcher (LaBeouf), Cesar’s cousin, is eager to spoil everything, eventually doing a cannonball dive into politics where his talents as a raging buffoon-provocateur earn him a loyal base that—wait for it—have a preference for red baseball caps.

Coppola’s film—gaudy, corny, optimistic, righteous, uniquely confounding yet utterly sincere—cast its spell during the black-tie evening Cannes premiere, where it earned a 10-minute standing ovation from an adoring audience. Paul Schrader and Abel Ferrara showed their respect. Richard Gere, Coppola’s lead in The Cotton Club, gave him a big bear hug. A tuxedoed Coppola bowed widely, leaning on a bamboo cane, and made sure to embrace each one of his cast members. “It’s impossible to find words to tell you how I feel,” the overwhelmed director told his fawning crowd. “The most important word in any language is the most beautiful one: esperanza—hope. And that’s what I dedicate this film to. And the children. Make a world for the children.”

Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Nathalie Emmanuel, Francis Ford Coppola, Adam Driver, and Aubrey Plaza (from left) at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 17, 2024 in Cannes, France. Samir Hussein/WireImage)

The next day’s press conference continued that theme. “I come with an army of kids!” said Coppola as he entered the room with two of his grandchildren, 17-year-old Romy (Sofia Coppola’s daughter) and her 13-year-old cousin Pascale (Roman Coppola’s daughter). No surprise he brought them, considering that Coppola had a 5-year-old Sofia on his shoulders during the Apocalypse Now press conference 45 years ago. True to his patriarchal nature, Coppola also made sure that Megalopoliswas a family affair, giving roles to sister Talia Shire and nephew Jason Schwartzman, with son Roman assisting behind the camera during production.

The respectful reporters in the room didn’t have any harsh words for Coppola’s film, but the actors were still compelled to talk with a mix of defensiveness and defiance. Prompted by a question about the film’s ultimate message of hope, Esposito gave a full-throated display of loyalty. “Film is supposed to inspire us,” he said. “It is also supposed to take risks. I’m not supposed to know all the answers. And neither does Francis!”

When asked about the state of politics in the U.S., Coppola quickly drew parallels with Megalopolis. “We might lose the republic,” he said, but then gestured to his cast—including Voight, whose vocal support of Donald Trump is no secret—and proudly asserted how they all brought myriad views. “Jon, you have different political opinions than me,” he said with a glimmer in his eye. “How do you feel about the future? How can we make a beautiful world of the future?”

“Where are we going?” Voight replied in a measured tone. “I think we’re all asking ourselves that. I agree with our film. Human beings are capable of solving every problem. We can do it if we band together. And we have to do our best.”

That sense of interdependency was evident in other actors’ experiences filming with Coppola. “Getting into his mind was kind of a trust fall,” Plaza explained. “He likes to inspire actors, and he’s very playful. And he trusts the people that he’s cast. The script for me is very dreamlike. And the process really almost reflected that in a way.”

“It felt like experimental theater,” said Driver. “And that’s what made it feel rebellious and exciting. And I think it’s reflected in the film. I don’t think that there’ll be something this imaginative on that scale again. I’ve seen it a lot of times, and last night I saw it in a different way than I had before. And I think it’ll just get richer and richer.”

One reporter asked if Coppola would be re-editing Megalopolis in a few years, like he’s done with Apocalypse NowThe Cotton Club, and The Godfather Part III. But his answer, at least for now, is no. “It’s how I felt the film should be,” he replied. “And since I was paying for it, I thought I was entitled. If there’s a way I can make the film a little better, I will try, but I know that I’m done with it because I’ve already started writing another film.”

As for his own future? Coppola is optimistic. “I’ll be back here in 20 years, I think,” he said to a burst of rapturous applause. One of the film’s leitmotifs is the slippery nature of time. Cesar, in particular, has a Neuromancer’s way of briefly stopping time. “He’s always talked about stopping time,” said Lawrence Fishburne, the actor with whom Coppola has worked the longest: since 1976, when Fishburne was just 14. “Even before he was talking about Megalopolis, he would say, ‘I could stop time. I can stop time. I’ll show you.’”

“All art is controlled time,” said Coppola. “Painters freeze it, dancers move in space with it. Goethe said that architecture is frozen music.”

But the most poignant insight came from Shire, who recalled how her brother was paralyzed with polio when he was 9. “People weren’t walking,” she said. “And Francis decided he was going to walk every day for one year. That was an act of courage. it’s very easy to go backwards. Backwards is wonderful. It’s comfortable. To go forward is unknown. Every day with my brother, he made you go forward. Take a risk. You do go forward when you’re with Francis. You go forward.”

Screening at Cannes: Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Megalopolis’