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Filmmaker and Coppola family matriarch Eleanor Coppola dies at 87

Eleanor Coppola died on Friday at her home in Northern California's Napa Valley, according to a statement from her family shared with NPR via her press agent. She was 87 years old. The cause of her death has not yet been shared publicly.

The documentarian was best known for chronicling the moviemaking process of family members Francis Ford Coppola, to whom she was married for more than 60 years and her daughter Sofia Coppola.

Eleanor Coppola was the mother of three kids when Francis Ford Coppola asked her to come to the Philippines to record the making of his 1979 magnum opus on the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now, starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen.

"They got very casual about their weapons," said Eleanor Coppola in a 1992 interview with WHYY's Fresh Air of the bodyguards the Philippine government hired to protect the Coppola family during their time there, fearing insurgents would attempt to kidnap the famous Hollywood director. "Our main bodyguard would stick his pistol in his belt of his blue jeans and he'd get it out and show the kids how it worked."

The filmmaking process, which Eleanor Coppola captured on camera in candid detail, was famously fraught. Heavy rains delayed shooting and a typhoon destroyed sets. Sheen had a heart attack. Brando was overweight and couldn't play the role as Francis Ford Coppola had originally conceived it; the entire part had to be rewritten. The production ran over schedule and vastly exceeded its budget, threatening to bankrupt its director.

"Everyone says, yes, well, Francis works best in a crisis," Francis Ford Coppola told his wife during one of their many heart-to-hearts captured by her on camera at that time. "I'm saying this is one crisis I'm not gonna pull myself out of. I'm making a bad movie, so why should I go ahead?"

Released three years later, Apocalypse Now was declared a masterpiece — as was, in its own quieter way, Eleanor Coppola's 1991 documentary about the tortured making of that film, Hearts of Darkness.

"It strips Coppola bare of all defenses and yet reveals him as a great and brave filmmaker," wrote film critic Roger Ebert of the documentary in 1992. "It also reveals the ordeal he put his actors and crew through, on location in the Philippines - and what he endured at their hands."

Eleanor Coppola grew up in Southern California and attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in applied design. She started out as a visual artist. In 1962, she met her future husband while working in the art department on Francis Ford Coppola's low-budget feature film debut, Dementia 13. They were married the following year.

Apocalypse Now nearly broke the Coppolas' marriage. In the Fresh Air interview, Eleanor Coppola spoke about sending her husband a telex — which she also shared with other production staff — telling him he was becoming like Kurtz (the madly intense character at the heart of the film) and creating his own Vietnam, through his excessive behavior. The couple went through many ups and downs over the years, including extra-marital affairs, mostly on Francis Ford Coppola's side.

But they stayed together. "The constant in a constantly upheaving carnival of film art and film crazy was Eleanor," said Kim Aubry, the former vice president for technology and post production at Francis Ford Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope. "She always provided a shelter in the storm for all of us."

Eleanor Coppola went on to make documentaries about The Rainmaker, directed by her spouse, and her daughter Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette. Late in life, she also wrote and directed her own feature films — Paris Can Wait and Love is Love is Love.

Eleanor Coppola was also an accomplished visual artist. Her drawings, photos and conceptual art pieces were exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. She designed costumes for contemporary dance productions and created experimental art installations.

"Eleanor was an extraordinary and gifted person who encouraged everyone with whom she came in contact," said filmmaker and visual artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, a close friend and artistic collaborator of Coppola, in an email to NPR. "Her generosity and spirit profoundly resonated and enhanced those fortunate enough to know her. The gift of her art, in many disciplines, remain as her great legacy."

She was also closely involved with the family's extensive wine business in Northern California. Wine-making ran in Francis Ford Coppola's family. In the mid-1970s, following his success with the Godfather movies, the film director purchased a Napa Valley estate and started making wine.

Eleanor Coppola was a writer as well. She was 87 when she completed her third memoir. According to her family's statement, in the manuscript, the author wrote: "I appreciate how my unexpected life has stretched and pulled me in so many extraordinary ways and taken me in a multitude of directions beyond my wildest imaginings."

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Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.