'Megalopolis': Francis Ford Coppola's $120M film debuts at Cannes. It's hard to look away from the epic.

Francis Ford Coppola's Roman Empire-inspired epic has its own chaotic back story, not unlike his last Cannes entry.

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel star in Francis Ford Coppola's
Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel star in Francis Ford Coppola's Megalopolis. (Cannes Film Festival)

Megalopolis, the latest magnum opus from famed director Francis Ford Coppola, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival on May 16, and the response has been chaotic, to say the least.

With some critics calling the dystopian “fable” about a Roman-style power struggle in New York (er, New Rome) “overstuffed,” “juicy and weird” and “a work of absolute madness,” others concede that “while it should never have been made,” “we should be so grateful that it exists.”

Self-financed by Coppola, 85, to the tune of $120 million, from a script that the Godfather director said took decades to come to fruition, the 2-hour, 13 minute-long film received a seven-minute standing ovation from the Cannes audience. Still, it’s had its share of detractors and has yet to find a U.S. distributor, leaving a nationwide release date up in the air — for now.

Megalopolis stars Adam Driver as Cesar Catilina, a visionary architect who wants to build a utopian version of the sci-fi version of New York that’s on the brink of collapse, à la the Roman Empire.

However, Catilina is facing resistance from the corrupt Mayor Franklyn Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), who is less into creating a sustainable future and instead wants to pave paradise with a parking lot — or, in this case, a casino. The mayor’s daughter Julia (Nathalie Emmanuel) complicates matters by falling for Catilina and struggling with her own alliances.

Rounding out the cast are Shia LaBeouf as Catilina’s scheming cousin Clodio, Aubrey Plaza as sugar-daddy-seeking journalist Wow Platinum and Jon Voight as said sugar daddy.

If this sounds like a Roman conspiracy saga, that’s because it’s based on a historical event.

Coppola said that he had the idea for Megalopolis as far back as the 1980s, soon after he finished filming his infamous Marlon Brando vehicle Apocalypse Now. Coincidentally, that film, which had its own controversies and accusations of overindulgence, also premiered at Cannes, winning the Palme d’Or in 1979.

Reports of cast members quitting, along with script rewrites and production delays have also kept Megalopolis in limbo for years. However, footage filmed in 2001 was saved and even included in the final iteration. To fund the multimillion dollar production, Coppola even sold a portion of his winery to cover costs.

“The money doesn’t matter,” Coppola said at a press conference in Cannes on May 17.

Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Nathalie Emmanuel, Francis Ford Coppola and Adam Driver at the Cannes film festival.
Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Nathalie Emmanuel, Francis Ford Coppola and Adam Driver at the Cannes film festival. (JB Lacroix/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Coppola was accused of behaving inappropriately toward female extras while filming a nightclub sequence, according to a May 14 report from the Guardian.

“He allegedly pulled women to sit on his lap, for example. And during one bacchanalian nightclub scene being shot for the film, witnesses say, Coppola came on to the set and tried to kiss some of the topless and scantily clad female extras,” the Guardian reported.

One of the film’s executive producers, Darren Demetre, claimed that he was not aware of any harassment complaints on set and issued a statement in defense of Coppola.

“Francis walked around the set to establish the spirit of the scene by giving kind hugs and kisses on the cheek to the cast and background players. It was his way to help inspire and establish the club atmosphere,” the statement read in part. “I was never aware of any complaints of harassment or ill behavior during the course of the project.”

Other complaints, according to the Guardian, include Coppola sitting in his trailer “for hours on end” instead of planning or filming, and requiring Adam Driver to sit in a chair for hours to employ an “old-school” filming technique rather than use digital tools that “could have been done in 10 minutes.”

One crew member told the Guardian that working on the film “was like watching a train wreck unfold day after day, week after week, and knowing that everybody there had tried their hardest to help the train wreck be avoided.”

Calling her first impression of Coppola’s script “a beautiful nightmare,” Plaza told Deadline that the director has “such a magical way of directing and inspiring actors.”

Saying he ran the production “like theater camp,” Plaza added that Coppola seems to gather “a group of interesting, wild actors and then he tries to inspire them to play.”

Acknowledging the political nature of his film, as well as its echoes of the current political climate in the U.S., Coppola said at a press conference after the film’s premiere, “What’s happening in America, in our republic, in our democracy is exactly how Rome lost their republic thousands of years ago.

"Our politics have taken us to the point where we might lose a republic, and so it’s not people who have become politicians who are going to be the answer, it’s the artists of America.”

Coppola then brought Voight, who has supported former President Donald Trump, into the conversation, adding, “One of the things I might say about our wonderful cast is that they reflect all sorts of political ideas.”

Voight responded philosophically rather than politically.

“Where are we going? I think we’re all at this moment asking that question of ourselves. Where are we going and what can we do?” he said. “It’s in my head every second of the day to see what can we do to make this world better."

While the film remains in competition at Cannes, it has yet to secure a distributor in the U.S.

At a industry screening of the film in March, potential distributors reportedly gave a “muted” response and declined to make offers at the time, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Coppola could still find a distributor while at the festival or beyond. After all, the last shot of the Megalopolis trailer features an onscreen title that reads: “Only in Theaters 2024.”