In a piece called “When Francis Coppola Met Jim Jarmusch: The Rain People to Tetro,” Speedcine‘s Reid Rosefelt writes that Coppola’s The Rain People “isn’t even mentioned in [his] Wikipedia biography, and perhaps that’s understandable, as it hasn’t been seen by a lot of people and few would argue it’s one of his best films.” (Actually, Wikipedia does mention it; there’s just very little discussion.)
“The Rain People (’69) is a low-key road movie about an unhappy Long Island housewife (Shirley Knight) who flees her marriage when she finds out she’s pregnant. Driving cross-country with no set destination, she picks up a brain-damaged ex-football player (James Caan), who she gradually becomes responsible for, and has an encounter with a sexually aggressive highway patrolman (Robert Duvall).
“At the time the film was generally perceived as a bit arty, and as a gloomier mirror image of Easy Rider. Nowadays it’s seen as an imperfect but ambitious and important step in Coppola’s development. Dave Kehr wrote that The Rain People was the “first statement of Coppola’s perennial theme — crippling loneliness within a failed family.”
“What thrilled me about The Rain People way back when wasn’t the movie itself, but the way Coppola made it. He loaded a small production team into a handful of vans and cars and made the same trip that Shirley Knight’s character did through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Nebraska.
“This all was very vivid for me at the time because his friend and American Zoetrope partner George Lucas documented the trip in Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas. I didn’t see Lucas’s film then, but there was an edited featurette that I saw many times. I have a very strong memory of Coppola Francis Coppolasaying in the featurette that he imagined a day when each town could have its very own film crew.
“As a teenager making my little Super-8 films, I found this incredibly inspiring. Here was this freewheeling traveling carnival, experimenting and improvising as they rambled from town to town. They were young and cool cinematic hippies challenging the ‘man’ (Hollywood). Coppola even had a beard — just like Jerry Rubin! I would have given anything to be riding in that caravan.
“If I had been able to see the whole Filmmaker I would have seen a very different portrait of Coppola. He was no hippie — he was a hot-head born to be pissed off. He fought with Shirley Knight, and raged against a DGA spokesman on the phone, escalating a demand for another AD to a world-level crisis and a potential end to all hope for the future of American cinema.”