Eleanor Coppola, filmmaker who documented chaos behind the scenes of her husband’s Apocalypse Now – obituary

Eleanor Coppola with her husband Francis Ford Coppola in her 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness
Eleanor Coppola with her husband Francis Ford Coppola in her 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness - Alamy

Eleanor Coppola, who has died aged 87, was an artist, writer and director whose eye for the chaos and carnival of cinema shone through one of the foremost films about filmmaking: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), an Emmy-winning documentary fashioned by directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper from the reels of footage she shot behind the scenes of her husband Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary Apocalypse Now (1979).

Filming partly to gather marketing material for United Artists, and partly to alleviate boredom instilled by a notoriously attenuated shoot in the Philippines, Eleanor caught scenes as dramatic as Apocalypse Now itself: a budget spiralling out of control, monsoon-strafed sets, and serious breakdowns in communication between the actors and their self-doubting director. “I tell you from the bottom of my heart that I am making a bad film,” Francis was heard lamenting. “We are all lost.”

The documentary also revealed their heightened – but fraught – marital intimacy. Roger Ebert noted how Hearts of Darkness “strips [Francis] Coppola bare of all defences and yet reveals him as a great and brave filmmaker”. (Coppola himself half-jokingly retitled the documentary “Watch Francis Suffer”.) In his gossipy New Hollywood history Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind suggested the shoot brought pre-existing tensions between Eleanor and the straying Francis to a cyclonic head.

Francis Ford Coppola filming Apocalypse Now, as captured by his wife
Francis Ford Coppola filming Apocalypse Now, as captured by his wife - Alamy

The pair had met on the set of Francis’s first film, the Roger Corman-backed, Irish-shot Dementia 13 (1963), where Eleanor, two years older, was the assistant art director. Eleanor became pregnant soon afterwards; the couple wed the same year in Vegas and remained married until her death.

After furnishing Francis’s American Zoetrope studio in orange and royal blue when it opened in 1969, Eleanor reportedly inspired the characterisation of Kay Corleone in The Godfather (1972). Despite the turbulence of the 1970s – during which Francis took to introducing Eleanor as “my first wife” – she raised all three of the couple’s children while also proving instrumental to the success of the Coppola wineries.

In her thoughtful 2008 memoir Notes on a Life, Eleanor reflected on the compromises entailed by marriage and motherhood: “Over the years I stopped whatever I was doing to go on location with Francis and the children. I sincerely tried to be a good wife and mother... For a variety of reasons, I haven’t created a body of notable work in my life when many around me have, and I haven’t yet made peace with that truth.”

Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola with their daughter Sofia
Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola with their daughter Sofia - Alamy

Eleanor Jessie Neil was born on May 4, 1936 in Long Beach, California, one of three children to political cartoonist Clifford Neil and his wife Delphine, née Lougheed. She studied applied design at UCLA before pausing her career as a tapestry maker.

In later life, after her children Roman and Sofia had established themselves as filmmakers, Eleanor Coppola found a creative second wind, directing two semi-autobiographical features: Paris Can Wait (2016), in which Diane Lane takes a scenic French break from bigshot husband Alec Baldwin, and the portmanteau Love Is Love Is Love (2020) in which, asked the secret to her long marriage, a philandering producer’s wife (Joanne Whalley) replies: “Don’t get divorced”.

While promoting the former, Eleanor Coppola told one interviewer: “I grew up in the Forties and Fifties, [when] a woman’s role was to support her husband and make a nice home for him. I was frustrated that I didn’t have much time to pursue my interests. Young women today have no concept of that. My daughter and her generation […] take for granted that they’re going to do whatever is their calling. There’s not going to be a question of their role or if they have to give it up because they’re a wife and a mother.”

She is survived by her husband, and two of her three children, Sofia and Roman. Her eldest son Gian-Carlo died in a boating accident aged 22 in 1986.

Eleanor Coppola, born May 4 1936, died April 12 2024