Make one for them (a genre film with mass appeal), then one for yourself (something small and personal) is Martin Scorsese's famous credo of how to maneuver in Hollywood. His model could be Francis Ford Coppola in the early 1970s, sandwiching The Conversation (1974)--downbeat, moody, eerily atmospheric, neo-European in its sensibility--between his mammoth popular masterpiece, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974).
When The Conversation first appeared in theatres, critics assumed that Coppola was making a topical film, as they compared the story of protaganist, Harry Caul, wire-tapper and surveillance man, to the then-daily headline sagas of the Watergate burglars. Gene Hackman's description of his subterranean character--"Uptight, right-wing, eccentric, secretive..."-- was applicable to the H. Howard Hunt/G.Gordon Liddy plumbers. Couldn't Caul easily have been one of the them?
In truth, Coppola was as surprised as anybody by the revelations of Woodward-Bernstein and the Watergate Commission. Resemblances to All the Presidents Men, though uncanny, were totally coincidental. Principal shooting on The Conversation had begun November 26, 1972, and ended days before the March 19, 1973 Watergate break-in, months before what happened there became known to the public. Coppola had been developing his story since 1967, completed a screenplay in 1969, and wished to film it, with Marlon Brando in the lead, prior to The Godfather. "I never meant it to be so relevant," he said. "I almost think the picture would have been better received if Watergate had not happened."
The germ of The Conversation was a 1966 conversation with fellow director, Irvin Kershner. Coppola recalled, "We were talking about eavesdropping and bugging, and he told me about some long-distance microphones that could overhear what people were saying." Kershner sent Coppola an article about a sound-surveillance expert named Hal Lipset. Coppola was smitten. "I was fascinated to learn that bugging was a profession, not just some private cop going out and eavesdropping with primitive equipment."
A bugger's tale resonated, more importantly, with the private Coppola, who, as a techno-obsessed child growing up in Long Island, had discovered, he said, "a tremendous sense of power in putting microphones around to hear other people." He wrote quickly, and autobiographically. Harry, as he, a Catholic New York tranplant to San Francisco, would reveal in a nightmare what was Coppola's own forlorn boyhood: bed-ridden with polio. Coppola: "Somewhere along the way he must have been one of those kids who's sort of weirdo in high school. You know, the kind of technical freak who's president of the radio club. When I was a kid I was one of those guys like I was describing."
The Conversation is a story which aptly can be described as "Kafkaesque," and guilt-ridden Harry being summoned before The Director (Robert Duvall, uncredited) feels much like a weird day in the life of The Trial's Joseph K. Also, Harry was based on the alienated, misanthropic hero of Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, the cult novel which was a favorite literary work of Coppola. The last name Caul? Seemingly, it resulted from a typing error by a secretary--"Caul" for "Call"--and the screenwriter/filmmaker kept it that way.
Fittingly, Coppola cast Gene Hackman, after The French Connection, as the disappearing-in-a-crowd, Harry. "Hackman is ideal for the part," Coppola waxed enthusiastic, "because he's so ordinary, so unexceptional in appearance."
During the actual filming, in downtown San Francisco, the relationship cooled between director and star. Coppola couldn't understand why Hackman seemed aloof, why (according to one source) he didn't wish to participate in lunch-time volleyball games. In turn, Hackman, complained about the acute problems in becoming Harry Caul. "It's a depressing and difficult part to play because it's low-key. The minute you start having fun with it, You know you're out of character."
It was an immensely difficult on-location shoot, including the unceremonious firing at one point of cinematographer Haskell Wexler. As filming dragged on, weeks longer than originally budgeted for, an exhausted Coppola came close to a breakdown. He'd barely looked up to notice that a deadline was fast approaching from Paramount to finish the contracted script of The Godfather, Part II; and he was obliged to commit full-time to its production. What to do about The Conversation?
Bring in Walter Murch, the brilliant picture-and-sound editor. "Since I was working on The Godfather, Part II, I asked Walter to edit the film," Coppola said.
Murch was hired to make a movie out of what had been shot, much of it open-ended and confusing. With Coppola advising on some weekends, Murch went to work, in a famously creative year in the editing room. "The material wasn't paced out, it wasn't itemized in the script," Murch has said, succinctly. "Shots were shot, and I structured them."
Murch chose to foreground the obvious parallels in The Conversation to Antonioni's Blowup (1966), in which a photographer, instead of Coppola's surveillance expert, accidentally eavesdrops on a possible murder. In choosing to open with a camera coming slowly down on San Francisco, and with paranoid-inducing shots of blood, a toilet, a shower curtain, Murch created a mini-homage to Psycho. He reversed the order of the narrative in some scenes and, in his most controversial move (Coppola-approved), Murch re-recorded the key sentence in which two characters discuss a potential killing so that, when the scene is shown a final time, a telling different word than before is emphasized.
A cheat? "It's tricky, but we were desperate men," said Murch. "I am eighty-five percent sure that it was the right thing to do."
Coppola blamed a faulty advertising campaign, but The Conversation was a box-office disappointment. However, it won the Grand Prix at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and was Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It remains a strong cult favorite, and Peter Cowie, Coppola biographer, asserts, "No more intense film exists in the Coppola canon."
(From American Movie Classics Magazine, Fall 2000)