Francis Ford Coppola Unplugged: Finding Gifts in Adversity

"The seeds of great success are often right in front of you, hidden in the ashes of adversity."

- Francis Ford Coppola

A few years back I had the distinct pleasure to spend an evening with Francis Ford Coppola. Of all the people from different walks of life I have been fortunate enough to meet, Coppola seemed to exist on a completely separate plane, and he offered one of the most interesting and unique perspectives on life that I have ever come across.

In one truly memorable moment, he recounted the making of The Godfather. The film truly launched his career, and in many ways has come to define it, ranking as the second greatest film in American cinematic history (behind Citizen Kane). But, it turns out, the process of creating the film was riddled with adversity.

Francis Ford Coppola started his career making low budget films, and his first notable project, Dementia 13, gained him some regional notoriety. With his star rising, he began raising money and investing personally in his own films. But this turned out to be a losing strategy when a subsequent film, Finean's Rainbow (a broadway musical adaptation) flopped, leaving Coppola deeply in debt. By the time Coppola came to Hollywood to interview for the director roll of The Godfather, he believed that he would soon be forced to file for personal bankruptcy.

His interview was a success (and a welcome distraction from his other issues), and Paramount Pictures offered him the job. But his shaggy haired, "hippie" appearance did not win him many friends within the company, and he quickly came to blows with studio executives over his casting choices (Coppola fought hard to cast Marlon Brando in the lead role, but some studio executives much preferred Danny Thomas in the role of a "family man").

As the film went into production, Coppola struggled with the eccentric personalities of his cast (Brando would often insist that his fellow actors wear his lines printed and taped to their foreheads!), and his disagreements with the studio escalated. A group of high ranking Paramount executives grew determined to have him removed.

"Studios typically will only fire directors on a Friday or Saturday." Coppola told me. "This way, they can quickly clean up the mess, bring in the new director, and resume production on Monday. Someone had tipped me off that at the end of the week, the studio planned to fire me. So there I was, on the verge of personal bankruptcy, and certain I was about to be very publicly canned from a high profile job."

"I really didn't know what to do. So that Wednesday, I fired almost my entire staff. I figured, this way they CAN'T fire me -- I am the only one left who knows what's going on!"

His strategy worked, but he feared his refuge would be short-lived. Coppola rushed to complete the entire project in under 65 days, with Paramount' executives on his tail the entire way.

"Looking back, at first I wondered how we were even able to finish the film. But now I know that it was the chaotic environment that contributed to the success of the project. We could have never achieved something so great without all that adversity in the mix."

"And so goes life", Coppola explained to me. "People spend so much of their time trying to avoid adversity. They fret and worry over it until it consumes them. I see adversity as part of life, and know that some of the greatest ideas, inspirations and life changing events occur in adverse environments. I look for adversity in my work, and in an odd way, sometimes even cherish it."

Today, there is plenty of adversity to go around, but I can't help but revisit Coppola's words as a lens through which to view my own life. Consider:

- In my first job, I was devastated when passed over for a significant assignment, but this freed me up to later take on an international management role in Germany
- My first firing led me to a better company that went through an IPO
- Emotions stirred by 9/11 caused me to write, and ultimately led to my becoming an author
- My second firing led me to found, grow and sell a company for more money than I ever dreamed I might make in my lifetime. It also brought me into close contact with some of the leading thinkers and personalities of our time -- including Francis Ford Coppola.

Success in life is often not based on the frequency with which we encounter adversity, but rather with how we choose to deal with it. Thanks to that memorable evening with Francis Ford Coppola, today when I find myself in the most difficult or painful of circumstances, the strongest of headwinds, I softly smile and ask, 'now what great gifts are in store for me this time...'