Filmmaker Eleanor Coppola Dies at 87; She Documented ‘Apocalypse Now’

Filmmaker Eleanor Coppola Dies at 87; She Documented ‘Apocalypse Now’

Eleanor Coppola, a documentary filmmaker who was married to Francis Ford Coppola for 61 years, died in the family home in Rutherford, California on April 12. She was 87.

Eleanor Jessie Neil was born in Los Angeles in 1936 and studied design at UCLA before beginning her career in the film industry. She met her husband while working as assistant art director on the set of Dementia 13, Francis’s directorial debut. Over the years, she chronicled the production of many of his movies. In 1991, she won an Emmy Award for her documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which presented a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of his epic about the Vietnam War. It was based on her earlier book Notes on the Making of ‘Apocalypse Now’.

Published in 1979, the book documented the chaos surrounding the production of Apocalypse Now on location in the Philippines. In it, Coppola also reflected on her role as “a woman isolated from my friends, my affairs and my projects” during their year in and around Manila. Commenting about her husband’s extramarital affair, she wrote “There is part of me that has been waiting for Francis to leave me, or die, so that I can get my life the way I want it. I wonder if I have the guts to get it the way I want it with him in it.”

Over the years, Eleanor Coppola contributed her creative talents to American Zoetrope, the family’s production company. She also directed other documentaries about her husband’s filmmaking process, including Francis Ford Coppola Directs John Grisham’s The Rainmaker and The Making of Marie Antoinette.

In 2016, when she was 80, Eleanor wrote and directed her first feature Paris Can Wait, followed by Love is Love is Love in 2020. Both were romantic comedies. Speaking of the former film, she was quoted as saying, “I’m this housewife who suddenly decided she’s going to write a film and actually direct it. It was terrifying, but part of the challenge was cutting through all of your fears and just going for it.”

The versatile filmmaker also created photographs, drawings, and conceptual-art pieces that have been exhibited around the world. A retrospective of her artwork was mounted at the Sonoma Valley Art Museum in 2014.

“I don’t know what the family has given except I hope they’ve set an example of a family encouraging each other in their creative process, whatever it may be,” Eleanor Coppola told a reporter in 2017. “It happens in our family that everyone chose to sort of follow in the family business. We weren’t asking them to or expecting them to, but they did. At one point, Sofia said: ‘The nut does not fall far from the tree.’”

Her first memoir, Notes on a Life, was published in 2008. In her yet-unpublished third memoir, Eleanor Coppola wrote: “I appreciate how my unexpected life has stretched and pulled me in so many extraordinary ways and taken me in a multitude of directions beyond my wildest imaginings.”

Eleanor Coppola is survived by her husband Francis, daughter Sofia, and son Roman. Their first-born son Gian-Carlo died at 22 in a 1986 boating accident.

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