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Color Blind: Andre Ware (left) and Steve Hedden star as racist twin brothers is 'The Creature From the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park.'

Outside Looking In

With a passion for digital film and the indie ethic, Christopher Coppola isn't exactly cashing in on the name

By Steve Palopoli

When you hear about a Coppola making movies, you can't help but think of a few pointed comments. Nepotism. Insider. Brat.

So answer this one time: does this guy sound like an insider?

"I'm about to do a show called The Biker Chef. Which is me, cause I'm also a chef, and I'm a biker. It's kind of a Don Quixote-cooking-magical-philosophical-traveling show, but with big biker dudes. We break into your kitchen and go, 'Where the hell's the paprika? No, Hungarian paprika!'"

Meet Christopher Coppola, the man who will make you forget everything you thought you knew about Francis Ford's extended family. Just for reference sake, he's Francis' nephew, Sophia and Roman's cousin and Nic Cage's brother, but even the title of the film he'll be appearing with at the Santa Cruz Film Festival--The Creature From the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park--should give you a clue as to how much he cares about his cinematic pedigree.

"The only association I had with Francis was that I did a little low budget film for him, which he then put on the shelf for 10 years," says Coppola. "Ten years later, I raised the money and got it out--it was just a little Western, but I don't like things that aren't finished."

Indeed, though the word most often put near his name is "maverick," "workhorse" would be just as apt. After some 15 years of making independent films, he wants to begin marketing and distributing his work himself, a transition which would mean he would get about as close as one filmmaker can to total artistic control--if he survives. And in the meantime, he's going to the mat for his medium of choice: digital film.

Most people know about digital film, if they're aware of it at all, because George Lucas started making some noise about it a few years ago. But Coppola didn't get involved with it because it was "the wave of the future"--he almost had to be tricked into using it when his 1999 film Palmer's Pickup was on the line.

"What happened was the negative cutter destroyed my negative by smearing glue all over it. Had this happened, like, in 1992, I would have had no movie, but because there was digital, we were able to transfer the film to high-def and then digitally remove all the glue marks, and then go back to film. And it looked great," he says. "Because it saved my film, I became a real believer."

Believer? It's a little more intense than that. Coppola is so enamored of digital film at this point, he's practically stalking it. Not only has he shot exclusively in the emerging medium since then, he's so far ahead of the curve with it that he's accepted an offer to help open a special lab for digital film at San Francisco Arts Institute. He's also developed a whole philosophy around what he calls "digi-flicks" that emphasizes their versatility, portability and affordability.

"It's a brave new world for the filmmaker," says Coppola. "A lot of filmmakers have been feeling really down because there's no place for them in Hollywood with the $100 million movies, and none of their films get released, and Hollywood makes you feel bad if you don't kiss them on their feet to get your script sold. Now you don't need them. It's a whole new medium out there, and I'm sort of trying to plow the way."

His latest film, which by special arrangement will be showing at the Skyview Drive-in Thursday as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival, is his latest experiment, and it plays perfectly into his experimental urges. Ostensibly a monster movie, The Creature From the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park is both much weirder and much more realistic than typical films from the genre. It features twin brothers from the same parents who nonetheless appear to be of different races--Doug is white, Donnie is black. While up to this point it would seem to echo the little-seen thriller 1993 thriller Suture, the similarities end there. Not just because Creature throws in a satanic cult, monster-movie trappings and a lot of humor, but because it actually uses its bizarre premise to make a point.

"Literally, I wanted to make a film about racism," says Coppola, "but I wanted to do it in a very unpretentious manner. Because when I was little, I was extremely pretentious, I was very well read, I only listened to classical music. The older I got, the more down to earth I became. And I liked this phrase 'You never know what's inside a monster.' Because even a monster has a soul, and there's something in there that's still part of the human spirit. So I started basing the story around that little philosophy."

He's had a difficult time, though, getting audiences to understand that it's not really a horror film, prompting a few title changes.

"At first, we called it Bloodhead: Two Brothers, Two Colors, One Nightmare," he says. But then people started thinking, 'Oh man, that means it's going to be bloody.' And it isn't that bloody, it's really funny, and it's meant to be really funny. So I changed it to The Curse of Bloodhead. That helped a little bit, and we got a lot of laughs. But it still wasn't enough, so right now we're calling it The Creature From the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park. So you know right away going into it you're looking at a drive-in movie that has a message, but it's supposed to be funny."

The Creature From the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park, featuring an appearance by Christopher Coppola, plays Thursday, May 20, as part of a Santa Cruz Film Festival program that begins at 8pm at the Skyview Drive-in. Call 831.459.7676 for more information.

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From the May 19-26, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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