Francis Ford Coppola’s Faerie Tale Theatre: “Rip Van Winkle” Episode (1987)

In the year 1982, actress Shelly Duvall began producing a television series called FAERIE TALE THEATRE.  Originally conceived as a nourishing antidote to commercial-heavy children’s programming, Duvall and company set out to create a series of fairy tale retellings with lavish vision and elaborate production design.  I like to think she started it to reclaim some assurance in the natural goodness of the world after Stanley Kubrick tormented her to the point of insanity on the set of THE SHINING (1980).

In 1987, the show began its sixth and final season with a retelling of the legend of Rip Van Winkle.  Director Francis Ford Coppola, still struggling to climb a mountain of debt, signed on to direct his friend Harry Dean Stanton in the title role.  Despite the depressing nature of this development, Stanton and Coppola really give their all to the charmingly cheesy children’s show.  It has aged terribly in the time since—its handcrafted set designs don’t hold up against the hyper-bright colors of LCD televisions—but what remains is a fascinating look at how far children’s programming has become, if not saying much in the way of Coppola’s directorial development.

We’re all familiar with the tale of Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep as a young man and woke up twenty years later as an old man.  Told over the course of an hour, Coppola’s RIP VAN WINKLE fleshes out the story significantly, adding in an interesting dramatic through-line by placing the action in the Catskills of New York in the mid-1700s.  We first meet Van Winkle as a lazy oaf of a man that has to endure his screeching wife (Coppola’s sister Talia Shire) and her attempts to get him to do some work around the house.  One day, he wanders out into the mountains and happens across a band of pirates, or ghosts, or something.  They all end up having a merry time, get Van Winkle drunk, and he passes out.  When he wakes, it’s twenty years later and everyone he knows (save for his son) is dead.  To make things even more confusing, his country has seemingly changed hands overnight into the United States of America, and his loyalty to King George puts him at great odds with the patriotic townspeople.

Coming in six seasons deep, I can’t imagine Coppola had much of a say in the visual look of the show.  The series, or at least the episode I watched, seems to use a theatrical proscenium conceit much like Coppola used in ONE FROM THE HEART (1982).  This is supplemented by the lighting, which is heavily colored and stylized to match the intended mood.  Elaborate, hand-crafted backdrops and costumes populate the 4:3 television frame, and a crude version of green-screen visual effects seem to be employed to further add to the whimsical-ness.  Interestingly enough, RIP VAN WINKLE seems to be Coppola’s first brush with video as a finishing format (he had previously shot full versions of 1983’s THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH on video using only rehearsal footage).  The magical-sounding music is provided by Carmine Coppola, Francis’ father, in what is yet another family affair for the seasoned director.

RIP VAN WINKLE is similar to 1986’s CAPTAIN EO short, in that Coppola indulges a cheesy, shambled aesthetic that seems considerably beneath someone of Coppola’s cinematic stature.  It’s a forgettable foray into disposable programming, and another relic in the video-tinged graveyard that was 80’s pop culture.  It’s a curious move by Coppola, but people will do some weird shit for cash. At least he continues to keep us on our toes.

And hey, a young Chris Penn is in it too.  I guess that’s something.

FAERIE TALE THEATRE: RIP VAN WINKLE is currently available on Hulu Plus, or you can watch it all on Youtube via the embed above.


Producers: Bridget Terry, Fredric Fuchs

Writer: Mark Curtis

Production Designer: Michael Erler

Editors: Murdo Laird, Arden Rynew

Composer: Carmine Coppola