The connection between a director and his leading actors is always unique. It requires a kind of understanding and symbiosis, or perhaps a general distain for one another that could illuminate something in performance. But for Roman Coppola, the talented writer, director, and producer, he likes to keep things close to home. It’s one thing to have had a boyhood friendship with your star, it’s another to have spent your early adolescence together in the Philippines watching your father’s make one of the most infamous and beloved films of the last century, Apocalypse Now.
And premiering this week, from the overflowing psyche of Roman Coppola, comes his first directorial effort in a decade with A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, the deliciously entertaining film starring Charlie Sheen in a performance we haven’t seen him give in years. Perfectly suited for the part, Sheen takes on Charles with charisma, pizzazz, and just enough remorse for his fatal flaws to make you empathetic to his existential and romantic dilemmas. Tailored for the role like one of his many velvet suits, a more composed and endearing Sheen plays alongside the always lovable and brilliant Jason Schwartzman, making for an unlikely duo.
Set in 1970s Los Angeles, Charles Swan plays like a pop art wet dream. It’s filled with ephemera from the time and an aesthetic quality that makes you fall in love with the vibrancy of color and the personalities that made it come alive. The main focus of the film is on Charles as we gain an eccentric and fantastical look at a man whose life begins to unravel when the woman he loves leaves him. Charles copes by letting his mind wander off into elaborate fantasies as the film takes you on a ride through his unconscious, encompassing brief genre moments from old school western to spy thriller. The true question of the film is, "Is it possible to love and hate someone at the same time."
Last month, I got the chance to sit down with Coppola and Schwartzman to talk about the pleasure of working together, the creation of Charles, and the exploratory nature of filmmaking.
So I really enjoyed the film, I thought it was really fun and entertaining.
Roman Coppola: Oh good, I’m so glad you thought that. It was intended to be that way so hopefully people will see it that way.
Why did you decide to tell the story of this man Charles?
RC: I’ve got to get my head screwed on. I don’t want to just give a rogue answer here.
Was there something specifically that inspired the film, a breakup?
RC: A couple things. I did experience a breakup and got into a very loopy mode where I was talking with my friends—Jason and people I’m close to. You start to ask these questions and the whole, I still love her and want her back. No! I hate her. And you’re very dazzled and confused and on one hand you’re still connected, then you’re pushing away. In my experience, you reach out to people that you’re close to—my sister, Jason, pals—so just that feeling of processing and examining the relationship and going back in time and rehashing things. So anyway, there was that real occurrence.I thought it would be interesting to do a portrait of a character but also a portrait of a relationship told in a fractured way, I thought that was neat. And then I was also eager to do a character study based on someone who was very dynamic and outgoing and has a lot of pizazz. I’m a fan of certain movies like All that Jazz and whatnot, so I thought it would be fun. It’s personal and I relate to it, but it’s sort of a fantasy. So I asked myself, If I could have any car, what would I drive? Well, it would be a 1941 fast-back. If I could have any pet it would be a toucan. You sort of do a fantasy projection and it’s also stacked in writing—imagining things—but there was a starting point from my own tastes and interests that I started to build this far out character. I feel like I’m not giving a very clear answer.
Jason Schwartzman: Oh no, it’s pretty good! I’m still here like fuck…
And did you write Jason’s character for him?
RC: Definitely. Well, Jason was a person in my life when I experienced that thing and so I put it into the script. I would often ask Jason, "Hey, what do you think of this?" And a lot of the stuff in the early stages of writing when you have more of a glimmer of something, you know, I would say, this guy he wears a blue velvet suit and then I could tell Jason. You have a sort of shorthand with people you’re close to. So Jason was one of the people I confided in when I was working on the story. And as you may not know, Jason’s a very funny and very witty, so I thought if he was a standup comic that would be a fun character. So I cooked up this idea of Kirby Star for Jason.
Jason, what did you think when you read the script for the first time and the character Roman wrote for you?
JS: You know, Roman’s someone who has a lot of interests ands a lot of things happening in his life, so I don’t know when he does do everything. He’s always doing all this stuff and this script—
RC: I talked about it for a long time.
JS: Yeah, constantly. It was something we would talk about, just going over stuff or saying, "Hey, what do you think of this" or showing me a scene. So it was in the works for a long time, and then really exciting when I got the full finished script, seeing it all pieced and stitched together. I read it with a big smile on my face because I know Roman and it’s just so him and full of all these things. It’s just so inventive and you don’t ever know where it’s going next. Also, to me, it had a lot of emotion in it and it felt like the feeling of a breakup and remembering things and sometimes remembering things better than they were.
And how everything changes in memory.
JS: Yeah, so that was one thing. Even thinking about it now, is even what we’re seeing the truth? That’s just how he remembers it. Like if we saw a glimpse inside the mind of her, maybe it would totally different. I’m very interested in the imagination and the impression you take from a situation.
I loved the fantastical elements of the film and the different genres you played with. As a director, did you just want to be able to experience those things in one film? And as an actor, was it fun to not be confined to one sort of movie?
RC: It was fun day to day when we were filming. And of course, you often film things out of order so we’d be on the set and Jason would be in his Western outfit and then the next day in the nightclub. So it was fun to have a sense of adventure when we were shooting because you never knew the next thing we’d be doing.
JS: And also, the nature of the making of the movie was very small—it was a small crew and we shot it at Roman’s house. A lot of the props and things Roman actually bought himself on Ebay. I grew my own beard—it was very homemade in that way. And so sometimes on a movie with a bigger production, the bigger it gets, it’s typical that things get more spread out and there’s less interconnection. And so often times, not only you’re changing these things but you’re doing it so fast. I remember during the first day of shooting at Roman’s house, they put some clothes on me and we’re doing a whole thing then they slam a pie in my face then "clean em off! Now put on this thing!" You know the video for Peter Gabriel’s "Sledgehammer" [starts singing "sledgehammmma"]? I felt like I was on the longer version of "Sledgehammer," the not stop-motion version.
RC: One thing that popped into my mind is that it took me a couple years to kind of figure it out—I’m a little bit slow so it’s not like I work every day, I get distracted and do other things—but I think it was because this was something I had a gut feeling of what I wanted the spirit of the movie to be. I knew I wanted a lot of costumes and a sense of freedom that it could just go anywhere, so that was sort of the premise. I was thinking about how because it took me like eight years from the time I started it to the time I made it, that had I written it in three months or six months, it probably would have been very different because it’s over all that time just a new thing pops in your head—you see an old western and then say, hey I can put it in the movie, because anything goes. So there was a unique thing that came out of that gestation period where anything that just kind of seemed like it would be fun and more than just fun, speak to the spirit of what the movie was, I would just grab it and stick it in that container. So that’s why the movie maybe has a diversity.
And having this diversity in the aesthetic quality of it echoes Charles’ fixation with visuals and how he is with women and how everything is beautiful but fleeting. Did you want to set it in the past as an aesthetic choice?
RC: I did. One of the inspiration points was the Maxell guy from the famous ads in the 1970s. I was born in 1965, and in 1975 and you’re ten and everything is very so exciting. I grew up in Northern California so we’d go to Hollywood and go down the Sunset Strip and you’d see the billboards, you’d see Tower Records, you’d see the palm trees, you’d see that imagery of that time. There were the spectacular billboards and the album cover art of that time was really spectacular.
JS: There’s a great book that just came out called Rock and Roll on the Sunset Strip and it’s all billboards.
RC: Ohhh, I gotta get that one. So yeah, those are impressions of that time and place that meant something to me. It’s true, the Maxell guy, this iconic thing of the time, I was like okay the Maxell guy just broke up with his girlfriend, what’s the story? And that’s kind of a launch pad. The imagery of that time, the fashion, the culture, music, it’s just something that I’m drawn to. When I did CQ a lot of people said, "So are you a huge fan of 60s kitsch movies?" And I wasn’t but I was curious about it, so I used the movie as a way to check out this interest. There’s sort of two branches of filmmaking: one more pop commercial stuff and the more personal, which is what that movie is about. But I guess what I’m getting at is that I was drawn to this period of time and what was happening in the graphic art scene so I learned about the guys that were doing that work. There’s a guy named Charles White III who inspired the name whose become a friend; he’s a brilliant illustrator/conceptualizer. Guys like Michael Salisbury and all the greats of the time who created this imagery that I find so attractive. So in a way you use a movie to learn about it and all the art that’s in the movie is their work.
You were talking about the exploratory nature of making a film, but you’re both people that seem to also really love the collaborative nature of filmmaking and working with people you’re close to.
RC: I like telling Jason what to do.
JS: And I listen.
RC: This movie was very much, I don’t want to say a home movie because that’s the wrong cube, but everyone involved in the movie was a friend or family member or someone close to me. And even Charlie, who I hadn’t seen in many years, I was pals with him as a kid because we were both in the Philipines together during Apocalypse Now. So he was someone I that rapport with being a 12 year old kid, and Bill is someone who has become a friend now having worked with Sophia and Wes, and Jason I’ve known since the beginning and even other roles like Stephen Dorff become a pal—people that are all in your life. We shot in my house, in my office, I used my cars, my clothes for Charlie. So seguing the question, this movie has very much the spirit of a just fun, let’s make a movie!
JS: And it has to be that. A movie of this nature, that’s so personal. And again, the word homespun or homemade isn’t the right word because it’s so much more ambitions than that, but it’s not like we had a ton of time so everyone had to be flexible. I think the smaller you are as a unit and the more friendly you are with everyone, you can be more flexible and move more quickly because everyone’s sort of game like okay, let’s do this.
It felt like an ensemble film but everyone was rotating, which also helped you get inside of Charles because these people were coming in and out of his life very quickly. He didn’t spend enough time with anyone and so they were never fully there.
JS: And remember, it’s just a glimpse. It’s not the end all be all.
RC: What’s one more from a glimpse?
JS: A view? A glance? A moment?
Did you write it with Charlie in mind?
RC: I didn’t but towards the end I realized. I had been working on it for a long time and I had the idea of this character and the basic foundation and that he was dealing with a breakup and it was told in this kaleidoscopic way like the sensation of dealing with a breakup, and it was hard to grab a hold of the script because it could be anything, it was all over the place. And finally it just so happened I was doing a commercial and the stunt driver on the commercial was buddies with Charlie and he said, oh I’m going to get Charlie on the phone when’s the last time you spoke with him? Which was like ten years ago, and we got on the phone and he was like, "What are you doing we gotta make a movie one of these days," and that sort of stuck in my head like, wow if I can finish this thing, I could call Charlie and say, hey I got something for us. And to make a long story short, I was revved up by that feeling, I could show it to Charlie and I did and the rest is history as we say. For some other article we could talk about the text exchange with Charlie that’s like, "Hey Charlie, I got the script for us." "And him saying, "Cool come over" and then it’s like "Hey, Merry Christmas Charlie" and then it’s just like "I’m just here in Aspen with the kids," and we know the rest of the story… So the process of trying to get him to commit for a year and a half or so—
JS: For him, I think it’s so cool. He’s an incredible actor. I think it’s important to…obviously he’s so famous and hasn’t—
RC: He hasn’t had a chance to shine.
JS: He hasn’t disappeared from the public eye but he hasn’t been in a movie in a long time. I’m happy for him.