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Roman Coppola

What makes a great screenplay? We ask the man in the know.

Roman Coppola

Talk about a family firm. His father is one Francis Ford (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, On The Road). His sister, Sophia, wrote and directed Lost in Translation. Hell, Roman Coppola can even count Nicholas Cage as a cousin.

But the American writer and director, 47, has also proved his own worth with this year's Moonrise Kingdom and 2007's The Darjeeling Limited - both co-written with with Wes Anderson.

He makes a pretty decent music video - ask Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes, to name a couple.

So why have Coppola and his company The Director's Bureau, been welcoming even more talent into the fold?

As head judge on Four Stories, a screenwriting competition held in association with Intel, Coppola selected four scripts from aspiring screenwriters to be brought to life as ten-minute shorts.

So Roman, why this project?

I usually only read scripts for feature films or music video treatments. Four Stories meant getting involved with some shorts and seeing what fresh ideas were bubbling up out there.

Surely you didn’t read all the entries?

No way. There were over 1000 applicants. They went through a committee first.

Any stinkers?

No real stinkers, but some were less appealing. I don’t like it when people write to please others, rather than for themselves.

Isn't that the idea?

No. The winners stood out because they focused on the personal rather than the commercial. It’s useful to imitate others in the beginning, but once you’ve found your unique voice – that’s what turns me on. It’s like hearing one chord of a Prince song, you just know it’s him. The Coen Brothers have nailed that in film.

We barely have a GCSE in English, but we've seen over 1000 movies – do we have a shot at writing the next big thing?

Definitely. That’s the beauty of scriptwriting. It’s like being an actor - you’re only ever one role away from your greatest performance. The door is always open to possibility – think about Susan Boyle.

Ok, but you went to film school. Can we just read a couple of books instead?

There’s no set path. I’ve read the books too – there’s a good one by Alexander Mackendrick (On Film-making, Faber and Faber).

Should we be writing every day?

If you can’t help but keep cooking up stories, whether it’s telling stories, doing puppet shows, whatever, then you’ll get better. I’m always amazed by the storyboard artists I work with. Yes they have an artistic talent, but they’ve got a knack for it because they draw every day.

Ok, so we’ve got an idea for a film. What now?

It’s easy to imagine your ideas as huge features, but if you start with a short film like we did in Four Stories, then it's easier - you don’t really need a middle. An interesting beginning and ending is the basis of a compelling story.

Are music videos similar?

Yeah, one little trick I’ve often done is bookending – so the beginning and ending resemble each other, but some change happens in the middle. It gives you some shape.

Like the awesome Daft Punk video you did back in the day?

Yes. It ends where it starts, with a little insight in the middle.

Should you have an actor in mind while you are writing a character? Like Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom - surely that part was written for him?

Getting actors is one of the hardest things for any aspiring film maker. Great, you might have Jude Law in mind for a part when you’re writing – but Jude Law, like most actors, has a busy schedule and several gatekeepers standing in front of him. Looking back, I wouldn’t have anyone else play Bruce’s part in Moonrise Kingdom – but that part was written long before his name came up.

But you managed to secure the elusive Bill Murray. How?

Bill’s a very unique guy – most movie stars have agents and assistants, or at least a mobile phone. He has none, just this 1800 number where you can leave a message and he’ll call you back, only if he wants. I don’t think I said anything that compelling, just ‘lets meet up’ – but it worked. As well as Moonrise Kingdom, Bill’s also in my new movie, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (released February 2013).

Charlie Sheen is in that movie too – what were you thinking?

Every time someone else said ‘what are you thinking?’ It just made me have more resolve. Charlie is a great actor so it just didn’t compute with me. Sure, the insurance company chose not to support the film – but they lost out in the end now the film is finished.

How do you deal with procrastination while writing?

Quite often I don’t. I made my own short as part of the Four Stories project, and although I had the idea for ages, I didn’t actually write it until right before it was due. It’s human nature – you always think afterwards that you should have prepared earlier. But there’s just something about that ultimate deadline - the fear of total failure.

Should we team up with a co-writer, like you and Wes Anderson?

We’re close friends so we have this shorthand with each other. When he first described the concept of Moonrise Kingdom to me, he played this one piece of music and said ‘it’s about two kids who run off on an island together’. He told me nothing else and I totally got the concept. He created this new world and it was my job to fill in all the blanks.

So say the script is written – should we get an agent?

Get some feedback first. It’s nice to keep it private, but you need to know it works. I’ll often give my sister or my girlfriend a little kernel of something I’m working on, and see their reaction. By saying an idea out loud, in an everyday conversation, you end up editing out all the stuff which probably isn’t good enough anyway.

Finally, your dad gave you a part in The Godfather when you were a child. Please tell us you’ve dropped that into a conversation before?

As a pick up line? Maybe I should have. I can’t recall ever saying it, but it was the Godfather Part II. I was in Star Wars: Episode I though - I think that would have way more currency as a pick up line – although probably more with guys.

Four Stories was held in association with Intel. Discover more about the Intel Ultrabook, here