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Coppola, Solters, another publicist and I gather around a round wooden table, waiting for Sheen — I've been told he could appear at any time. Meanwhile, Coppola and Solters discuss Sheen's role in promoting the movie, which opens theatrically February 8 and is already available via cable video-on-demand. Coppola stresses that it's very important that Sheen talk about the movie in interviews and on talk shows, because Sheen has access to an audience that otherwise might not be exposed to an independent film.
Solters likes the narrative. "He's got the very commercial Anger Management, but then he's an artiste, he's got the independent film. It's a much better story than 'Sheen's Korner Meltdown.'"
The independent film in question happens to be pretty good. Charles Swan follows the title character, a rock-star graphic designer and dandy played by Sheen, as he suffers through a breakup, procrastinates on an album cover assignment and commiserates with other wounded men (played by Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray). The film's nonlinear narrative drifts between dreams, memory and a skewed present, painting a fractured portrait of an adult man mired in adolescent fantasy. It's a gently self-lacerating satire of entitled masculinity, literalizing "the battle of the sexes" by casting women as hostile Indians to the male characters' cowboys. It's a paean to the woozy comfort of being sad presented in a raucously psychedelic style, drawing on musical numbers and cartoonish costume sequences. It both is and isn't a period piece, set in an imagined Los Angeles that's all classic cars and yachts, smoke-filled recording studios and tropical foliage. It feels like a 1970s issue of Playboy come to life.
Coppola and Sheen have been friends since meeting as boys on the set of Apocalypse Now, in which Sheen's dad, Martin, starred under Coppola's dad's direction. Coppola says the initial seed of the idea for Charles Swan came in 2004, and it stemmed from his own crisis, not Sheen's. "I experienced a breakup, and at the same time a friend of mine was going through a divorce," he recalls. "And we would just sit around and talk incessantly about the same things in a very loopy way. We'd bring up a memory and be happy, and then be angry. The state of mind one can get into when you go through a breakup can be kind of dazzling and fractured."
So, in other words, in the midst of an intense personal trauma, emotionally we are all Charlie Sheen? "You're using 'Charlie Sheen' as a sort of euphemism for insanity, which is maybe not fair, but I understand what you mean," Coppola says. After all, both Swan and Sheen are on "the feather edge of keeping it together."
The film is Coppola's first directorial effort in a long while. He was one of the top music video directors of the end of the MTV-playing-music era, making iconic clips for Green Day, Fatboy Slim, The Strokes and Moby. In 2001, Coppola brought his first feature film, a late-'60s pastiche called CQ, to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was overshadowed by another Coppola film, Apocalypse Now Redux. The Village Voice's Dennis Lim summed CQ up thus: "Endearing but pointless, at once cluttered and tinny, this film-dork fantasia suggests a shopping spree at a high-end vintage emporium underwritten by Daddy's blank check."
Over the decade-plus gap between directorial efforts, Coppola collaborated as a writer, producer and/or second unit director on two Wes Anderson films and three Sofia Coppola films. What became Charles Swan was percolating all the while.
"You work on something, then you set it aside, you can't quite crack it," Coppola explains. "And I have a lot of other things that I do in my life, so you know, a year goes by, and you do this, you do that. But I kept coming back to it. All this time goes by and you have one little experience and you put that in, another thing occurs to you and you put that in. Part of its kaleidoscopic personality comes from all the time that it took."
Truly, part of Charles Swan's charm is the kitchen-sink factor — a metaphor that Coppola turns into a visual punch line — but his juxtapositions don't seem haphazard. The film may be an indulgence in the kind of vintage fetishism for which critics blasted CQ, but it's also a sustained and successful riff on the relationship between design and desire, via a lightly comic examination of the process of turning one's collected experiences into a work of commercial art. On that score, it has a direct precedent in Funky Squaredance, a 10-minute video Coppola directed in 2004 for the French band Phoenix, which uses scrolling text and a grab-bag of still images and video clips to describe Coppola's creative process, thus transforming the process into both a conceptual artwork and an advertisement.
"That was a step to coming to this project," Coppola says of Funky Squaredance. "You live your life and the things you're exposed to become collected —"
Suddenly, Charlie Sheen bounds into the room, his arms extended in Coppola's direction. "Congratulations, bro."
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