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How to Adopt a Coppola

A Barrington Hills society matron bankrolls the black sheep of a cinema dynasty.



A suburban grandmother of five, Elyse Roberts is into the arts, horses, and the family she's created with Ray Roberts, former CFO of an electronics manufacturer. She helps operate the Roberts Family Foundation, which supports organizations like the Lyric Opera, the Barrington Area Arts Council, and the Pioneer Center, which provides developmentally disabled people with housing, jobs, and life skills. "I spent my whole life as the wife of a manufacturer, working in social charities, entertaining, and riding horses," says Roberts, who's 64. "I try to make the social events and the parties and the charitable balls and the hunt." The hunt? "Yes. I'm a member of several hunts in the area," she says. "The fox hunt and the basset hunt. It's kind of a dying activity, but it shouldn't be. It's a marvelous sport."

Four years ago she took up another cause, a down-and-out film director with an attention-getting name: Christopher Coppola. Like you, she'd never heard of this member of the Coppola movie dynasty. Until, that is, she sued him.

Coppola, the 43-year-old nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and brother of Nicolas Cage, has a movie company in Los Angeles called PlasterCity Productions that specializes in digital cinema: films shot with high-definition digital cameras, edited with digital equipment, and, where possible, projected digitally. In interviews about his company, Coppola took to calling the movies he made "Digi-Flicks," not knowing that there was already a company in Illinois by that name making a security system for the transport of digital cinema. The founder of that company, Wayne Kurzeja, heard about Coppola's use of the term and asked Roberts, his friend and Barrington Hills neighbor, for her help in protecting his trademark. She advised him to form an international company, Digi-Flicks International, and file suit against Coppola. She also became a partner in the company.

They sent Coppola a cease and desist letter. "I got a thing in my fax saying stop using the term Digi-Flicks," says Coppola. "Basically that's how we met."

The dispute was settled out of court. Coppola agreed to stop using the name and, as a favor of Roberts and Kurzeja, to produce a 20-minute digital movie they could use to try out their encryption software, which scrambles a digital movie while it's being sent electronically from one place to another so no one can burn copies at any point along the way. "It didn't need to be anything," says Roberts. "We just needed a strip of film. His attorney said he could do anything he wanted. He could have gotten up on the table and danced naked."

"She probably would have liked that," says Coppola.

Instead he shot interviews with filmmakers and technical experts, which he interspersed with shots of himself predicting the triumph of digital movies over celluloid. In January 2002 Roberts flew to LA to watch the finished video, called The Digital Revolution. "It's a nice little piece," she says. "You've got to remember that this is 2001 that he did this, and the technology was in an early stage. But it was quite fine."

That night Roberts invited Coppola, Kurzeja, and one of Coppola's techies to dinner at Crustacean, a glitzy Beverly Hills restaurant. "He was kind of quiet," says Roberts, "so he didn't make the first move. I invited him. I had no expectations."

Roberts remembers what she wore to the restaurant: a conservative suit. "I'm not a chicky-poo," she says. "I'm an old lady. What am I going to wear?" She remembers what Coppola wore, too: a T-shirt, black jeans, and a black do-rag covered with bright flames. The two hit it off, talking about film history, digital movies, and their families. "He takes care of his mother and 90-year-old grandmother," says Roberts. "He's very much the caregiver in his family." Their group closed the restaurant.

A couple months later Roberts's company had a booth at ShoWest in Las Vegas, an expo for the film industry. She decided to show The Digital Revolution at the booth, and she invited Coppola to show some of his other work. He agreed. "No one but me thought he was going to," she says. "It was asking a lot. It wasn't his booth. He is so good-humored. He brought me flowers."

"She schmoozed me, too," says Coppola. "It was a mutual schmooze. She wanted to use my name and my experience."

His experience includes eight relatively unknown feature-length films, including Dracula's Widow (1989), Deadfall (1993), and G-Men From Hell (2000). He also has written and directed numerous episodes of America's Most Wanted for Fox TV.

As for the name: "How do I fit in with Francis, Sofia, and Nicolas?" says Coppola. "Well, remember that 1970s cartoon Speed Racer? And they had the bad guy who was X Racer? I'm X Racer. They are Speed Racers. I'm X Racer. That's where I am." Racer X, the character he's talking about, turned out to be Speed Racer's estranged brother.

Along with the flowers, Coppola brought a script to ShoWest for a feature film with the working title "Bloodhead." "He's not stupid," says Roberts. "He knew there was some money there, and he was looking for somebody to fund his movie."

The movie's plot involves a monster, an evil clan that takes over a trailer park, and two estranged brothers--one white, one black--who are racists but who must team up to destroy the clan and the monster. Roberts was impressed. "I just liked his ideas," she says. "He has great artistic vision."

Since the whole movie was to be shot on digital video, Roberts looked at "Bloodhead" as a feature-length commercial for Digi-Flicks, and agreed to fund it in exchange for the right to use it in demonstrations of her company's technology. "I figured we could put it on the equipment and demonstrate how to compress it and how to encrypt it," she says. "Part of it was how this would fit into the overall business plan. Would we lose our shirts on it?

"He wasn't peddling a big project," she continues. "A half-million to a million dollars. I thought, OK. I thought if it went to $2 million, OK. But then it became this huge production."

Within a few months Roberts found herself writing $34,000 checks for the rental of Sony high-definition digital video cameras. "And you can't just rent it," she says. "You need someone to run it. You rent five people per camera. The cost of the crew is where the bill runs up. And we had a tremendous amount of equipment: lighting, an entire production crew, and we had to make the monster. The monster was a huge expense, because it was made by Masters FX, who did Predator, and The Horse Whisperer, and What Dreams May Come, and on and on. You don't get that monster for nothing. And with the monster comes more crew: You have to have someone to run the claws, someone to run the beak, you gotta have a guy to wear the suit, you need medics around to make sure the guy wearing the suit doesn't die, etc. And you gotta have people to wet the monster down, because the monster's gotta be wet and slimy. When I started in this business I never expected to pay somebody to wet a monster."

The movie was shot in the summer of 2002 in the Mojave Desert. Temperatures hit 130 degrees. It was supposed to be a 24-day shoot, but it took 72. Roberts showed up every single day just to make sure people on the set were taken care of.

"My friends thought I was having a great time, but it was not fun," she says. She won't disclose how much the project finally cost.

From the beginning Roberts hated the name "Bloodhead." "It sounds like 'bloody head,'" she says, "like a slasher film. But it's not a slasher film." She proposed they change the title to "The Creature That Ate Your Mama." Coppola nixed that. "It becomes like a black exploitation film," he says. They finally settled on The Creature of the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park, another Coppola idea, to evoke the 1950s B movies that the film pays homage to. The cast includes Wonder Woman Lynda Carter, Frank Gorshin, who played the Riddler on the Batman TV show, Shirley Jones of The Partridge Family, and Bernie Kopell, who was Dr. Adam Bricker on The Love Boat. Andre Ware, a bit actor, and Steve Hedden, a former professional basketball player, star as the racist brothers.

The Creature of the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003. Nicolas Cage was at the festival promoting his movie Matchstick Men, Sofia Coppola was there for Lost in Translation, and Francis Ford Coppola was taking part in the Dialogues program, which invites filmmakers to discuss their work. "I went to all those," Coppola says. "I supported them. But none of them came to my screening. I'm the pimple on the otherwise perfect skin of the Coppola family."

For the past couple years Roberts has invited Coppola, his wife, Adrienne, and their nine-year-old-son, Bailey, to Thanksgiving dinner at her house, where they dine with Roberts's two grown children and Bailey plays with the grandkids. Roberts and Coppola have formed a digital-media studio together called EARS XXI, which works with both PlasterCity and Roberts's own production company, Elyse Meredith Productions (Meredith is her middle name), and collaborated on a pilot for a TV series called "Biker Chef." Featuring Coppola in the title role, the show combines two of his passions: motorcycles and cooking.

They went to Cannes this week and took a copy of their movie with them, hoping to sell it to a new market. "Monster movies are hot in Europe," says Roberts.

"It's kind of surprising," she says. "How does a grandmother from the midwest meet a child of Hollywood and end up making a movie and going to Cannes? I just sort of fall into these things."

She communicates with Coppola nearly every day, in person, on the phone, or through e-mail. "He's my kid," she says. "He's my baby."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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