TORONTO - When director Roman Coppola first envisioned Charlie Sheen for the lead role in his new film "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III," the actor was still one of the most powerful men in TV starring on the top-rated comedy "Two and a Half Men."
By the time Coppola finally got his longtime friend to commit to the project, Sheen had devolved into a drug-addled punchline and no film studio wanted anything to do with him.
But Coppola stuck by Sheen — whom he first met while their fathers worked together on "Apocalypse Now" in the late 1970s — convinced he was perfect for the part of Charles Swan, a rich, aging ladies man whose life starts unravelling after a bad breakup.
The people who had to sign the cheques to make "Charles Swan," on the other hand, weren't so sure about Sheen.
"A lot of people around me, certainly investors and stuff, were like, 'Oh my god, we're not going to go near this in terms of financing,' a movie with someone they perceived to be, you know..." says Coppola before trailing off.
"Charlie, as big of a star as he is in TV, was not particularly bankable."
Casting Sheen wasn't the only obstacle to raising money for the film. Coppola — who's nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar for "Moonrise Kingdom" with Wes Anderson — imagined a trippy, unconventional narrative for "Charles Swan," which didn't exactly spark a bidding war among hit-seeking studios.
The story of Sheen's character is told through a non-chronological melange of dreams, fantasies and memories — along with scenes from his present-day turmoil.
Coppola says the story and its themes of love and love lost are based on amped-up versions of own experiences.
"I cooked it up in 2003/04 and around that time I had a breakup with a girlfriend and my friend was going through a divorce. So we would hang out and talk and say, 'I love her! I hate her! Do you want her back? No way! Yes, I want her back!' There's this kind of chaotic swirl of confusion — you want to talk about it, but you don't want to talk about it, you can't stop thinking about it — it's just kind of a crazy, dazed state of mind that you get in," he says.
"It occurred to me: 'Wow, this is an interesting starting point for a film where a character is processing what he just went through in this kind of kaleidoscopic way."
His scattered storytelling vision didn't make it easy to sell the movie, even though he recruited an impressive cast of supporting actors, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, Aubrey Plaza and Canadian Katheryn Winnick.
"It's certainly not everyone's cup of tea ... this film was basically turned down by everybody," admits Coppola.
"Financiers want to have a precedent for what they're investing in and they want to be able to point to another product ... so there's very little interest in financing something that isn't a proven form or genre.
"Not to rag on anything, but there's a bit of a same-ness to a lot of movies. Movies that have an individuality that perhaps try something or are a bit more inventive, those are (movies) I really value."
Coppola says his experience working with Anderson in some ways shaped "Charles Swan" and encouraged him to embrace his un-Hollywood ideas.
"There's such a distinctive path that he takes. It's inspiring for me in my work to really try to ask myself what do I want to do, because Wes is very clear-headed about what appeals to him and he's known for that defined sense of his personality," he says.
"So I think in the process of writing my piece, after having worked with Wes, you sort of say, 'Jeez, I could have this, I could have that but what do I really want to have, what is that choice that really is a reflection of who I am?'
"And that's a little something that came out of working with Wes, it's basically being true to yourself."
Part of that commitment to his ideas was sticking with Sheen.
He's glad he did.
"He came through in the biggest way, he took Spanish lessons, dance lessons and just jumped in in a super dedicated way and couldn't have been more professional and more available," Coppola says.
"And in my opinion, really brought a great performance."
"A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III" opens Friday in Toronto and Montreal and on Feb. 18 in Vancouver.