Good Works

Francis Ford Coppola Talks ‘Megalopolis,’ Homelessness in San Francisco

By Erin Carlson

Francis Ford Coppola on the homelessness issue: “I was very offended by the notion that human beings could be put on a level of garbage.” (Sonja Kari)

The legendary Godfather director reflects on his efforts to end homelessness in North Beach and the one movie he has yet to make.

Francis Ford Coppola remembers walking from his apartment to his office in North Beach and seeing homeless people panhandling on the street. While his neighborhood had always been a hub for tourism and entertainment, it remained a vibrant, neighborly community of residents and merchants. And yet the homelessness issue revealed an undercurrent of alienation: The panhandlers were regarded as a collective nuisance, or not regarded at all. But Coppola thought about them a lot on his daily walks. He saw a problem, and he wanted to fix it.

“They were human beings,” Coppola recalls. “They were people who had, for whatever reason, fallen on hard times or couldn’t cope with certain situations or evictions or traumas or tragedies. … I was very offended by the notion that human beings could be put on a level of garbage. That’s not possible. Every human being is a vital, complicated, interesting story. It’s never something that can just be passed over or pushed out of your sight literally.”

Rather than do nothing, what if he lent a helping hand by inviting the homeless to be functional members of North Beach? With that question in mind, and seed money in his pocket, the six-time Oscar-winning movie director formed his nonprofit, North Beach Citizens, in 2001, embarking on a bold mission to help poverty-stricken individuals not only find housing but gain purpose in their lives. He envisioned a pyramid structure that would recruit men and women whose situations could be easily fixed, then enlist them to support a larger group facing trickier challenges. “Well, the first thing is to not call them homeless because they’re really citizens of North Beach,” he says, explaining his thinking at the time. “As such, you wouldn’t immediately despise them or consider them in some other category.”

The organization, he felt, should be a hands-on, hyperlocal group effort to tackle homelessness because no “city or state or government really had the personal knowledge or perhaps the motivation to do it.” But not everyone backed the idea. “At first, the businesses were very, ‘Oh, we don’t want to be nice to the homeless because then they’ll stay here,’” recalls Coppola, who responded, “These are your fellow citizens. They could also do a lot of good things. In a way, they could make the streets safer because they would feel part of it.”

Now, nearly 20 years later, North Beach Citizens — headquartered on Kearny Street and overseen by executive director Kristie Fairchild — has been a steady, positive force in housing hundreds of people through a personalized plan of action that first addresses health and basic human needs (access to meals, mailing addresses, clean clothes). Among the success stories: An elderly former electrical engineer, who had been sleeping on a bench in Washington Square Park and grappling with substance abuse, recently signed a lease for affordable housing. A female survivor of domestic violence whose medical emergencies, including kidney disease, are now being treated. A San Francisco transplant, who couldn’t find a job in his new city and quickly fell through the cracks, is back at work with a roof over his head, also volunteering as a North Beach Citizens mentor.

Once, in New York City, Coppola learned a valuable lesson when he approached a homeless man and unintentionally insulted him. “Obesity is a big problem with our citizens and I [was] obese for years,” he says. “No one’s happy about it, who’s in that condition. I finally did just say, ‘I’m not going to do it anymore,’ and lost a lot. Anyway, I came upon this obese person. I wanted to have a good effect on him. I took a $100 bill or some bill. … I put it in his hand and I said, ‘Take care of your weight.’ The guy got so angry at me that he wouldn’t take this big bill. He said, ‘What right do you have to question my weight?’ I said, ‘I just mean for your own health.’ He said, ‘You have no right.’ I said, ‘Well, take the money.’ He said, ‘No. I’m not so down as to have someone interfere with me.’ I realized he was right and I was wrong.”

He continues, “I was so impressed that he refused to take the money, but I also was taught something very important — that these are sophisticated, complicated human beings no different than me. And I thought I was a big shot that could give someone $100 like that. … Everyone of those people — no matter how down they seem — is, in reality, a very sophisticated human being of … who knows? The guy could have been a nuclear physicist who had his heart broken because he lost his wife or something. I don’t know. But I know he had dignity, no matter how down and out he was. I think that was a very big lesson for me. I mean, I was really tamed when it happened because I thought, ‘Gee. What kind of a jerk am I that I think just $100 gives me the right to comment on what this person’s issues are?’”

Coppola chooses to raise money through hot-ticket benefits, not street handouts. While the multi-hyphenate mogul is based in Napa Valley, where he oversees his hugely popular wine business, he serves as chairman of North Beach Citizens and remains heavily involved in the operation’s philanthropic efforts, including fundraisers such as April’s annual Spring Dinner at Saints Peter and Paul Church.On November 10, the Fall Community Recognition Award Dinner pays tribute to attorney Dick Grosboll, a former board member, for his service. The event, held inside the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, combines Coppola’s star power with the warmth of a family reunion, which seems to be exactly the mood that The Godfather icon set out to create. He thought North Beach didn’t “ever really get together and have fun together much.” For about five years, he hosted “Francis Cooks for North Beach,” serving massive dinners until he could no longer handle kitchen duties for a crowd as large as 600 guests.

According to Coppola, North Beach Citizens commands a budget close to $1 million and has seen its client number balloon from 40 citizens to more than 500 in the past 18 years. Meanwhile, homelessness in San Francisco has escalated to a crisis level with some 9,000 homeless residents, many of whom suffer from mental illness and drug addiction. As a similar epidemic plays out across other California cities, many urban residents are clamoring for a cohesive, sustainable solution. But Coppola remains invested in a localized approach that he thinks could be replicated beyond North Beach.

“There should be no citywide homeless program,” Coppola contends. “It should all be community programs because that’s what works. … It’s a more successful thing than to [have] some administrator who then goes home and lives in a neighborhood where they don’t have those problems.”

Coppola turned 80 years old last spring, but age has not diminished his legendary ambition. Besides his namesake winery in Geyserville and portfolio of international resorts, he hasn’t left Hollywood behind. Last month, he appeared at the New York Film Festival to celebrate The Cotton Club Encore, his new cut of the fraught 1984 crime drama that restores scenes featuring black performers. And he’s working to assemble his long-term passion project, Megalopolis, which he plans to direct from his original script. He had put the brakes on the drama (about an architect’s mission to build a utopian city) following the September 11 terrorist attacks. But in October, he slid on the gas pedal, signing with powerhouse agency CAA to drive the picture to fruition.

“My habit has been always to try to tackle some new kind of movie,” he tells the Gazette. “In other words, when I made a successful gangster picture, I didn’t then follow my career making 20 years of gangster pictures. I went always to something very different from the last film. … I went from a gangster movie to a Vietnam War movie to a stylized musical. I mean, I just was always tackling new kinds of films basically so I could learn about what I could learn. I’m doing that again. I’m working on a big, ambitious movie, which is not like anything I’ve done before or anyone else has. Now, in the film business, it’s, of course, more difficult to do any kind of so-called feature film that isn’t a superhero [film], or whatever the formula is. So, yes, I am working and mainly that means writing and beginning to figure out how I would be able to pull off something that I had never done before.”

If Megalopolis constructs an ideal city of the future, then it must be science fiction, right? “It’s not really science fiction,” he says. “In a funny way, it’s more about today than it was when I started working on it, which was maybe 20 years ago. It’s about what kind of world we can make to live in that would be as close to a harmonious utopia as possible.” Especially, he adds, during an era where “confusing politics” and the “retreat from globalism” has made “the notion of one happy world … seemingly impossible. It’s about what could be possible.”

Whether his creativity is focused on the gritty realities of North Beach or the gloss of the big screen, Coppola, the restless artist, perpetually tinkers with narratives that involve entrepreneurial minds attempting to maneuver pipe dreams into existence and nightmares into an American Dream. “If my new world has a government, it’s a local government,” he says. “It’s not a bunch of guys sitting around in a tower somewhere trying to govern how people really should live together.”

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