By Daniel Trotta
SAN ANTONIO DE LOS BAÑOS, Cuba (Reuters) - Director Francis Ford Coppola was reflecting on his brush with Fidel Castro, the blandishments to make another gangster film, and the pressure of borrowing at 29 percent interest to shoot "Apocalypse Now."
But first he needed to cook pasta for 150 film students.
Coppola, the multiple Oscar winner and maker of the "Godfather" films, was in Cuba as a guest instructor at the International School of Cinema and Television.
The mash-up of interests - film, food and Cuba - is all part of the Coppola brand. At 76 he says he is still driven by passion, not profits, while always finding a way to finance his avocations.
"You have to be part Machiavellian, part showman," he said from the cafeteria kitchen of the film school in the agricultural flatlands 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Havana.
"Most of all you have to have courage because it's always easy to take the easy road," he said. "For me that would have been to make more gangster films. Then after 'Apocalypse Now' became something of a classic, I could have made more war films. They always want you to make more of what they know could make money. They never want you to do what's really in your heart."
On Thursday, his heart was in the kitchen, where he delivered instructions to the Cuban staff in Italian infused with whatever Spanish he knew. Cooking for the students became a tradition on his first trip to the school in 1986, when he organized the student body to make gnocchi from scratch for 500 people.
This time he brought his own bottled marinara sauce and bumbola pasta shells from his eponymous brand, one of the ventures he started to finance his movies.
Coppola had visited Cuba before, after making his 1974 movie "The Godfather: Part II," which is partially set in Cuba.
While filming in Cuba today would be feasible given improving U.S.-Cuban relations, it was impossible in the Cold War era of the early 1970s. The Cuban scenes were shot in the Dominican Republic.
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro complimented the director on the scenes related to the Cuban revolution, Coppola said.
"Then Fidel said to me, 'Would you mind if I made a copy of the film, so we can see it in Cuba?' And I said, well, I don't own the film but for me it's OK. And he said, 'Good, because we did it last night.'"
Coppola tells students to embrace risk, a path that he said led him to running up $36 million in debt after he borrowed at 29 percent interest to finance "One From the Heart" and 1979's "Apocalypse Now."
He eventually worked his way out of debt by making a series of commercial Hollywood movies. Today he has the luxury of wealth, fame and prestige, winning the lifetime achievement Oscar in 2011 to go with his five prior Academy Awards.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta, editing by Jill Serjeant and Richard Chang)