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A Visit to Paradise With...Francis Ford Coppola

updated 04/04/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1994 01:00AM

Francis Ford Coppola is a perfectionist, and the pizza here al his Blancaneaux Lodge is not perfect. "You see this crust?" he asks the waiter. "This is white! That means it's not baked." He pauses. "You've never seen me angry, have you? Oh, it's fun." Instead of exploding at the waiter, though, he scribbles a note to his cooks. "I told them that on a scale of 1 to 10, that pizza was a minus 5," he explains. "But 1 also told them the sauce was A-plus. I want to encourage them. When I'm here for a week, the quality of the pizza goes up every day."

In this hideaway in the Mountain Pine Ridge, a national preserve in a remote corner of western Belize, Coppola has learned to tame his anger. The kitchen staff here only know him as the owner of Blancaneaux, a 23-room resort a bumpy, two-hour drive (or a 30-minute flight) from Belize City. They've never seen The Godfather—I, II or III. They know nothing of Apocalypse Now.

Yet it was Coppola's adventures in the Philippine jungles making Apocalypse Now in the late '70s that drew him to Belize. "This place is a lot like the Philippines," he says. But it's only an hour and a half by plane from New Orleans and, more important, it has something a visionary like Coppola lusts after—a future.

In 1981, when he discovered Belize, the former British Honduras, Coppola's own future was cloudy. He had just bought Hollywood General Studios, which later went bankrupt. In 1982 his high-tech film One from the Heart was one of the most derided movies of the year. Then, in 1986, during the making of another flop, Gardens of Stone, his 22-year-old son, Gian Carlo, who had been working on the film, went boating with Ryan O'Neal's son Griffin and died in an accident.

It wasn't until 1992, when Bram Stoker's Dracula grossed more than $200 million worldwide, that Coppola's fortune was finally restored. "Dracula is why we're here," says Eleanor, 57, Francis's wife of 31 years. "I'm on sabbatical—I never have to work again," adds Francis cheerfully. "Has it changed me? Yeah, absolutely."

At 54, Coppola is a new, if somewhat stouter and grayer, man. His production company, American Zoetrope, is healthy; his wine company, Niebaum-Coppola, is expanding; and on March 16 he opened a new restaurant, Rubicon, in San Francisco with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro (who plays the lead role in Zoetrope's upcoming Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). "I see these activities as an aspect of the art of living," says Coppola. "I'm not try-in"; to make all the money I can, although my philosophy does give you financial success."

Coppola's dream is to turn Belize into the center of a gargantuan telecommunications network. With the right technology, he says, this independent nation of 200,000 on the Gulf of Honduras, east of Guatemala, could become a media hub for the Americas because its literate, multicultural population speaks English and Spanish and its parliamentary government is stable. On his first visit to Belize, Coppola met with then Prime Minister George Price to suggest that the country, which had just won its independence from Britain, apply for space on a satellite. Though Belize doesn't have a satellite address yet—TV arrived only eight years ago—Coppola still hopes to set up a Pan-American bilingual super-station operating out of Pine Ridge with programming from North and South America.

Next year, he says, sweeping his arms toward a clearing near the lodge garden, he will build a hall where visiting archaeologists can lecture on the nearby Mayan ruins in Caracol and writers and musicians can convene. "The creative arts are the field of the future," he asserts, "the petroleum of the 21st century." Somehow he makes it sound almost plausible. When someone jokes, "You could become president of Belize one day," he responds, "Nah. That's not enough. I want to be the man with the real power—El Jefe."

Coppola acquired Blancaneaux for a modest $65,000. At the time, the 50-acre property on the banks of the Privassion River included a rustic, dark-wood lodge with six guest rooms, seven thatched huts and an airstrip. At first, the Coppolas used it as a getaway—Eleanor less frequently, since she preferred their Victorian home on 2,000 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley north of San Francisco. ("I already live in paradise," she told her husband.) But after the success of Dracula, Francis conspired to do something with the place. He invited a group of 20 relatives to celebrate his 53rd birthday there on April 7, 1992—and obligated them to come by buying all the plane tickets. He hauled in beds and mattresses, draft beer and food, and diesel fuel for the electric generator. He even designed a pyramid-shaped logo, with a Mayan ruin against a sunburst, now imprinted on dishes and T-shirts. "So that's how I jump-started it," he says. "I tricked it open."

That experience inspired Coppola to open the lodge to the public last December. He has built a small hydroelectric plant to provide 24-hour electricity and has completed two of five two-bedroom villas. So far this winter, he hasn't had trouble filling the rooms, which range in price from $80 a night for a double to $220 for a luxury villa, but he figures it will be a year before he can measure his success. "Maybe there will be months when nobody comes," he says.

At breakfast, Francis is in a sullen mood. He has been unable to find his shorts, and he doesn't like the piped-in music. "Could you turn that down?" he grumbles to a staff member, "or make it less schmaltzy?" His mood lifts, though, as he tours the garden. "Here," he says, pointing proudly to the cabbage patch, "is where we get our children."

A truck arrives loaded with furniture. To give the rooms a Mayan look, Francis and Eleanor spent weeks buying handmade furnishings—ceremonial masks, silver lamps, carved wooden jaguars—from craftsmen in Guatemala and Mexico. This delivery is a set of brightly colored sofas and chairs from Guatemala for the sitting areas. Alter the workmen leave, Coppola casts a critical eye around the room. "Now we've got too much furniture," he frets. "This place looks like it has a telephone." Per order of El Jefe, there are no telephones or televisions in the rooms. "Blancaneaux is not for everybody," he admits. "We have luxuries, but we're still sort of rustic."

The tropical forest across the river, where jaguars and pumas roam free, reminds Coppola again of the Philippines and the making of Apocalypse Now. He still chafes at the drubbing he look from the press at the time. "They were making fun of the movie when it hadn't even come out!" he complains. "The thing about me [they said] was that I was this megalomaniac. I was certainly a maniac, but what they were judging was a form of enthusiasm." Eleanor, who produced an impressive short film about the venture called Heart of Darkness, smiles slyly. "A minimaniac maybe?" she suggests.

Suddenly there is a downpour. "I like rain," says Francis contentedly. "I like everything! I like life in all its diversity. I don't like things to be prethought and turned into Styrofoam. You have to always try to see the whole picture."

As soon as the rain stops, he changes into swim trunks and pads down to the river. Without hesitating, he plunges into the chilly water.

He has found peace.

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