Francis Ford Coppola's Live Cinema

How the Oscar-winning filmmaker's groundbreaking experimental project became a reality at UCLA TFT

Francis Ford Coppola's Live Cinema (above), a documentary short directed by Cecilia Albertini (M.F.A. ’18), produced by Gayatri Bajpai (M.F.A. ’16), and with a UCLA TFT student crew, chronicles the behind-the-scenes events leading up to the debut of Distant Vision, a unique hybrid of live theater, film and television performed and viewed in real time, as envisioned by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Francis Ford Coppola's Live Cinema showcases the creativity and dedication of a talented team of students and professionals who had the great privilege of working with Coppola to help him realize his vision.

In May 2016, it was announced at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television that Coppola (M.F.A. ’67), at the invitation of Dean Teri Schwartz, would be bringing his concept of live cinema to the school in the form of an original, semi-autobiographical production that spanned three generations of the Corrados, an Italian-American family in New York City, from the 1920s to the 1980s. The creation of Distant Vision (a 19th century term for television) at UCLA TFT involved more than 100 UCLA TFT students, faculty and staff in various production and acting roles working alongside professionals in a six-week workshop co-produced by UCLA TFT and Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope. Using more than 40 cameras, the 25-minute production was realized in July 2016 from the stage of UCLA TFT’s Freud Playhouse and was broadcast live to select screening rooms around the world.


UCLA TFT alumni recall their 'Distant Vision' experiences

Seven UCLA TFT alumni who worked on Distant Vision in various capacities as students — actors Oscar Fabela (M.F.A. ’18), Israel Lopez (M.F.A. ’16) and Lea Madda (M.F.A. ’17); costume designers Kumie Asai (M.F.A. ’17) and Ruoxuan Li (M.F.A. ’16); movement coordinator Angela Lopez (M.F.A. ’17); and production designer Weihsun "Hogan" Lee (M.F.A. ’18), recently reunited for a look back at their experiences on the project with UCLA TFT’s Noela Hueso.

How were you chosen to participate in the Distant Vision project?

Lea Madda, actress, “Ciara,” mother of lead character “Tony Corrado”: All the actors auditioned for Francis. There were two rounds: The first was literally a 90-second meet-and-greet. Then he called some of us back and we met at 3rd Street Dance where we did a series of freestyle improvisations. He cast from that. It all happened in about 48 hours.

Oscar Fabela, cameraman, background actor: I did the audition as well. Once we got the logistics of the camerawork, I was also able to be in the film as a background artist. We applied to be a part of the camera team by writing short essays. The production team wanted to know how we were going to take our interdisciplinary training in the UCLA TFT program and utilize it on Distant Vision, because some of us were applying to work outside of our concentration.

Kumie Asai, costume supervisor: Ruoxuan was hired first. We were taking a film class with directors in it, taught by Professor Deborah Landis [head of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA TFT] and Jane Ruhm, who was also the Distant Vision faculty advisor. It was Jane who asked me to come on board.

Weihsun "Hogan" Lee, art director: Sydnie [Ponic, lead UCLA TFT student production designer] and I were also assigned to our jobs, by [production design professor] Myung Hee [Cho]…Francis asked Sydnie and me to travel to [his office/home in] Napa for a couple of days to start the design process, so the school sent us up there.

What was that like?

Lee We spent almost a day and a half with Francis talking about how this project was going to happen. He had a clear vision for the project right from the beginning.

Angela, how did you get involved?

Angela Lopez, movement coordinator: I was asked by J.Ed [Araiza, head of M.F.A. acting program] to interview as an actress. But when I met with Francis, I talked about my movement background and how I studied in Italy. He ended up creating a job for me that didn't previously exist, coordinating the blocking for the big scenes with all the extras, and sitting next to Francis, taking his acting notes and relaying them to the actors.

Israel Lopez, actor, “Tony Corrado”: I heard about the project from [Professor In-Residence] Jeff Burke and J.Ed. I was already on my way out — I was graduating that June. When I went in for the interview, everyone who wasn’t Italian was trying to do an imitation of [the actors in] The Godfather. I just talked to him. I think Francis appreciated that I wasn't trying to do a caricature.

Other than the chance to work with Coppola, why did you want to do this project?

Fabela It was the idea that he was just trying to do something totally new — the whole live cinema concept.

Angela Lopez I wanted to find out if I could work with someone at Francis’ level and feel comfortable doing it — being able to sit right next to him, working side-by-side, watching the same camera he was, asking him questions and learning from him.

Israel Lopez What was attractive was that Francis’ team was going to work not only with actors but with costume designers, lighting designers and cinematographers from our school.

Asai I liked that I could use professional costume houses: Palace Costumes and Western Costumes. They were very generous about renting costumes to us and we got to set up our own shop [with their clothes] at the school. Deborah and Jane were the biggest help because they knew all the industry people.

How would you describe live cinema to someone who knows nothing about it?

Angela Lopez It’s live but it’s different than live theater because there are so many film aspects to it. In film, you're looking at a montage of the best takes, wherein this, whatever take is there, that’s what you get. It’s more theatrical because you can't rewind in theater and you can't rewind in this.

Israel Lopez For me, it’s a film. You could pay for a ticket at Regal Cinemas for a 7 o'clock show, sit down with your popcorn and watch it like any other film. The only difference is that this one is live…and hopefully we don’t mess up when you're watching it! The ultimate goal was: Can we do this live and make it look like a finished film right now?

Fabela Francis told me that he loved the idea of being able to show film and being able to experience it with the audience right then and there — and having them leave knowing that they will never get that again.

What were your impressions of Francis?

Asai He loves talking and he loves teaching and sharing. I thought he was the sweetest person to work with.

Angela Lopez We asked him if he had a special power what would it be, and he said something like “making everybody happy.” (laughs)

Madda He's very much American but the Italian aspect of him is so deep and important to him. He could tell I was Italian just from looking at me. One of the very first things he asked me was if I spoke Italian or had ever been to Italy. Roman Catholicism is very important to him, too.

Israel Lopez He's very family oriented and he considered us his family. He would always make sure I was ok and would ask me, “Have you eaten anything?” He always made sure we were fed.

I understand that improvisation was a big part of what you all were doing.

Angela Lopez The first few weeks, for the actors at least, there was a lot of it. He was trying to create backstories for people, so he would do scenes that weren’t even in the show to create a relationship between a married couple, for example.

Madda The familial relationships were really, really important to him. These improvs were just fancy ice breakers and everyone did start to get quite close by the end.

Angela Lopez What was most interesting was hearing that he did some of the same exercises with Marlon Brando [who starred in Coppola’s films The Godfather and Apocalypse Now].

Where else did improvisation show up? Oscar, you're shaking your head no, not in the camera department.

Fabela No, not at all, that was very precise. Everything from the angle of the camera to the bubble levels [which ensure that the camera is completely balanced] — everything was so meticulous for obvious reasons — if you didn’t move on the five-count, that moving wall might hit you and knock you down.

The use of panels — those “moving walls” — seemed pretty crucial to the whole project. Can you describe how those work?

Lee Francis read an article about early 20th century [theater practitioner] Gordon Craig, who created these panels that were supposed to create multiple spaces on a stage and were easy to travel with from theater to theater. Francis was fascinated with the idea and wanted to have some panels made for Distant Vision. There was a whole crew of people who were on set, led by [former UCLA TFT stage manager] Kellie Knight and another M.F.A. designer, James Maloof, rehearsing how the panels should move to save space for the next coming shots, the staging and the blocking.

How important was collaboration to the success of the project?

Fabela From the camera team’s perspective, we literally could not do it alone. Just logistically speaking, from the movement of these panels, to where you're sitting to where your camera goes to where your actors are…unless you were absolutely paying attention to everything and everyone around you, it wasn't going to happen.

How is the fact that we are a School of Theater, Film and Television an advantage in creating a project such as this?

Madda We were treated like professionals. When we went in, it was assumed that we already knew the basic tenets of working in the film world. If I had come into this project without having already completed a couple of on-camera classes and also the pilot project in the Spring Quarter [Sanity, funded by Time Warner, and donors David Zuckerman and Ellie Kanner], I don’t think I would have been able to get through this one successfully.

Asai We are the only costume department in this whole program so we go back and forth [between theater and film] all the time. So, when this project came along, we were like “Ok, we got this.”

Israel Lopez I’ve always thought UCLA TFT is wonderful because we focus on story, so whether you're in film or costume design or in the theater program, playwriting, directing, cinematography — everything revolves around story. For this project, you really had to know the story. When someone understands story, they’re able to contribute more fully to the entire collaborative process in whatever medium and/or context that might be; they’re able to understand and celebrate others and they become indispensable.

How many rehearsals were there?

Madda We rehearsed technically for four weeks — the actors had a decent amount of days off here and there but in the final week, the entire production and acting team was there from Monday through Friday for 6-12 hours. The final day, we ran through the show four times.

On a set where everything is happening live, things must have been moving really fast.

Madda A couple of people, myself included, had all these wild costume changes. I literally had six hands on me tearing wigs and dresses off my body in opposite directions.

Did you guys coordinate that ahead of time?

Madda Yeah, we did! It was totally choreographed and I had to just stand there. (poses, laughs)

What were the challenges that each of you faced in your respective areas and how did you solve them?

Fabela I applied to UCLA TFT because I knew I wasn't just going to be an actor. I was going to be an artist — to do a lot of things — so having the chance to do this project, I was like, “Absolutely!” The challenge for me going in to it was that I had never touched a camera. Most of the camera crew [undergrads and M.F.A. candidates] were directors and cinematographers — people who were very experienced with cameras and equipment — and they made sure I was taken care of. Now I know how cameras work, the differences between lenses and so much other stuff, which as an actor, I think is so important.

Angela Lopez The street scene [which established the neighborhood in which the Corrado family lived] was my biggest challenge and the most stressful day because there was a baby, 20 adults, eight or nine kids running around, a dog, a cat, a goat and a 1920s car that had to move — and we had only 20 minutes to get this baby on camera [because of child labor laws].

Israel Lopez I remember everybody being so enamored by the goat and then Francis saying at one point, “What is this, a petting zoo?” (laughs).

Ruoxan Li, costume designer: The costumes we rented from Palace and Western were the real deal — real vintage clothing from the ’20s and ’30s. We had lots of dress rehearsals with lots of big movements (running, jumping, etc.). On a production with a big budget, recreations of the original costumes might be made but we didn’t have the time or money to do that, so the actors wore the actual costumes and many times, they ripped with all the movement. We were constantly sewing clothing that kept ripping…

Asai …Especially the kids’ clothes. Their costumes were made from fine cotton and they were always running or on the ground…

Did you make any of the costumes?

Asai Some of them. We built a dress for the actress who portrayed the grandmother of the family.

Madda She was an opera singer!

Li ...and also for the stunt people.

Madda The biggest challenge for me was when they asked me to chop all my hair off. (gasps)

Asai What?!

Madda They chopped off a lot because they needed to do 1940s victory rolls. Barbara, the hat lady, was like, “We will not do a wig on you,” and she knew that I would say yes…and I did say yes.

That would have been hard for me.

Israel Lopez They cut my sideburns. It was supposed to be the early ’80s. After they cut them, I walked over to Francis and the documentary camera is following me and Francis was like, “What did they do to your hair?” (everyone laughs)

Asai Makeup and hair were the only departments without any students. They were seasoned professionals.

Madda That must have been one of the biggest parts of the budget.

Li A lot of money was spent on the wigs; they were very specific to the eras. Because the set was really quite simple, for storytelling purposes, the characters’ costumes were really the only way to indicate the time period. Also, it was important for the costumes to be authentic because there were a lot of close-ups.

How did this project enhance your time at UCLA TFT?

Asai It was special. We have a lot of theater projects at our school but this was epic to make this kind of film with all those professional people coming in. It was a really big event for us.

Li It was a really good transition experience from school to the real-world industry — and it’s a really good credit to have on my resume!

Madda One of my favorite moments of the entire project was at the very end of our final taping. The steady cam went around and filmed everyone celebrating behind the scenes. We watched this later as the credits ran at the end of the show. It wasn’t just the actors but all of the camera crew and all the sound guys and everyone else. It was just so cool because everyone was together in the gigantic room and you saw how many people it took to make this project a reality.

Israel Lopez It was a crazy, tough transition time for me when I was cast in Distant Vision. I was graduating, there were a lot of moving parts, and I was driving a truck for this carnival service. It was really hard work but it was the only thing that was flexible enough to let me do this project. One day, I was working in the hot sun setting up a ride and I got a voice mail: "Hey, Israel, it’s Francis. I just wanted to ask if you could be in here at this time, we need you to do this voiceover.” Even though everything was kinda terrible in my life at that moment, when I listened to that message, I thought, “Wow this is really wonderful.” It was the feeling, that ultimately, I would always have that story to tell. The great thing is now when I go on auditions, I’m not nervous at all…Francis Ford Coppola has left me voice mail messages; what’s there to be nervous about?!

What did you learn through this experience?

Angela Lopez Theater was this pure art form for me and I thought I wasn’t really interested in film. Now I get paid to direct music videos, which is taking everything I did as a theater artist and using what I learned on this project to now make this other art form.

Fabela It confirmed to me that in this day and age you must be a multi-hyphenate artist. It’s invaluable to know more than just your concentration. You come to this interdisciplinary school — the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television — and this literally epitomized everything that the school said it was. I was a first-year student at the time and I was like, “I’m getting paid for my first gig at the school, my first IMDB credit is a Coppola film…what other school is doing this?”

PHOTOS: (Middle) Francis Ford Coppola with the Distant Vision cast and crew; (bottom, clockwise from far left) UCLA TFT alumni Israel Lopez, Ruoxuan Li, Kumie Asai, Lea Madda, Oscar Fabela and Angela Lopez (not pictured: Weihsun "Hogan" Lee)

Posted: June 14, 2018