‘Tom Cruise was an intense kid’: How Francis Ford Coppola made The Outsiders

‘I was famous for casting unknown actors. I had Nicolas Cage, Robert Downey Jr and Matt Dillon in a circle watching each other try for parts’

Francis Ford Coppola, director

After my 1982 film One from the Heart failed commercially, my production company American Zoetrope was bankrupt – it was a low period for me. But then I received a letter written by Jo Ellen Misakian, a junior school librarian from Fresno, California. It read: “We are all so impressed with the book, The Outsiders by SE Hinton, that a petition has been circulated asking that it be made into a movie. We have chosen you to send it to.” It contained about 15 pages of children’s signatures written in different-coloured pens. It was very moving.

I read Susan Hinton’s book, written when she was in her late teens, and was touched by the level of regard these poor “Greaser” kids had for each other, even though they didn’t have the advantages of their “Social” rivals. I’ve always believed that kids have many more feelings than we give them credit for, and I wanted to make the story. When I was about 17, I had been a drama counsellor at a summer camp, and the idea of being with half a dozen kids in the country and making a movie seemed like being a camp counsellor again. I’d forget my troubles and have some laughs.

“People say it’s their comfort film, or they have a Stay Gold tattoo, or used the Frost poem for their wedding vows”

If my company was famous for anything, it was casting new, unknown actors. I believed in the concept of open casting calls – but I tried to do them in a way that was appropriate for the film we were making. For The Outsiders, I had all the candidates – which included Nicolas Cage, Mickey Rourke, Robert Downey Jr, Patrick Swayze, Dennis Quaid, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez – sitting on benches in a circle watching each other trying for the different parts. No one knows more about acting than other actors. Tom Cruise, who ended up in a small role, was an intense kid who would do anything to make his part better.

Often I err on the side of being too collaborative. I re-edited The Outsiders because Warner Brothers felt it was long, and that was a mistake. My father had also written a soaring, romantic score for it. I wondered if it was the right choice, but I couldn’t say that to him. By the time I recut the movie in 2005 he had passed away, and I balanced the schmaltzy music with more of what the Greasers would have listened to: early Elvis Presley and stuff like that.

There are parallels between the rivalry of the Socs and the Greasers, and the inequality in American today. Most of the bads of contemporary civilisation are not caused by nature. Civilisation invents fictions that people will kill for, which is absurd. Why is there such inequality when we’re all one family?

Unknowns … Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, C Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruise in The Outsiders.

C Thomas Howell, who played Ponyboy Curtis

I had established myself in my teens as a junior rodeo competitor. Pressure for me was riding a bull, not meeting someone called Francis Ford Coppola, or auditioning against the other guys. I only auditioned for one character, Ponyboy Curtis, and read with hundreds of actors in four or five cities. The only time I ever felt any pressure was when Norman Mailer’s son came in to read for it weeks after I felt I had already owned the role. But I think actually that was more about relieving me for half a day.

There was an envy that was intentionally dialled in to the Soc and Greaser actors. We played football and basketball against each other – they had matching jumpsuits, while we’d show up in whatever we brought from home. The Socs stayed on floor 18 or 19 of the hotel, while the Greasers were on four or five. It was like a fraternity house in there; some pretty crazy stuff took place. Once I got home at three in the morning after an 18-hour shift; I couldn’t wait to get into my room and go to sleep. And I went in there, two of the Socs had turned everything in my room upside down.

We rehearsed and shot the whole film on videotape first, which allowed us to get to know each other and created a trust. I was very green at 15. I had been in ET, but I had never played a lead. Francis was a master communicator, and taught me about film-making. He was patient enough to not just bully his way around and tell you what to do. And he’d cook you pasta for lunch.

One lesson I learned was to never, as an actor, cut a scene. During the scene at the drive-in cinema, at one point Matt Dillon fell off his chair, and I turned to the camera and started laughing, thinking they’d cut. But he told me I shouldn’t stop, but that I should adapt to what was happening: it creates something very natural, more real and connected than anything that could be written. Later, in the church scene, a dolly grip’s foot fell through the floor – it was a real abandoned building – so I just said: “I think there’s a monster outside.” And Francis ended up cutting to a shot of a raccoon outside. The film is peppered with real moments like that.

I still get letters about The Outsiders because it’s required reading in a lot of schools. People tell me it’s their comfort film, or they have a Stay Gold tattoo, or they used the Robert Frost poem for their wedding vows. I get asked all the time what the poem means. I had no idea when I was 15 that it represents the circle of life. Even the two boys don’t understand what it means – they’re just sharing a moment – until one of them dies. The fans are crying and upset that [Ralph Macchio’s character] Johnny is dead, and then they contact me and they realise Ponyboy is now 54 – and they cry even harder.

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