09/12/2011 11:57 EDT | Updated 11/12/2011 05:12 EST

Coppola's Twixt explores personal tragedy

Though average filmgoers might see Twixt as a quirky and fantastical gothic tale about a washed-up writer, for Francis Ford Coppola, the movie reflects a personal tragedy he's struggled with for more than two decades.

"I believe every film I work on now should be personal, because one of the beauties of the film is you learn so much about the subject you're working on," Coppola told media the day after Twixt premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Whereas his last film, 2009's Teatro, helped him gain perspective on his relationship with his older brother August, Coppola said making Twixt helped him explore his feelings of guilt over the death of his son Gian-Carlo, who was killed in a speed boating accident in 1986.

"I didn't realize it was going to take me to something I haven't ever admitted to myself," Coppola said, fighting to keep his composure.

"Every parent feels that they're responsible for whatever might happen to their kids ... I didn't realize how much I felt personally responsible for what happened those 25 years ago. I should have been there."

In Twixt, which was inspired by a vivid dream Coppola had in Istanbul, Val Kilmer stars as a Hal Baltimore, a bargain basement horror/thriller novelist struggling with writer's block and a drinking problem after his daughter's accidental death. While making a stop on a book-signing tour, the writer becomes embroiled in a murder mystery in the comically bizarre town of Swann Valley.

The film veers between whimsical and darker scenes, weaves in and out of stylized dream sequences — guided by a ghostly girl and Edgar Allan Poe — and also dips into 3D in several instances.

"It was just exciting and fun. There’s so many great elements in it," Kilmer said of his experience making the film. "Like the film, you’re not sure what genre you're in sometimes, and whether it’s real or if it is a dream."

Coppola described Sunday's packed TIFF premiere of Twixt at the approximately 1,500-seat Princess Of Wales theatre as gratifying, because the audience was "so alive and so receptive." To his recollection, he'd "never had such a wonderful and positive screening of a movie," he added.

That said, Coppola isn't as concerned about its reception from critics, noting that his films have always garnered bad reviews at first — even ones now considered classics like Apocalypse Now, which upon its release one reviewer described as the biggest disaster Hollywood has ever encountered in 50 years.

"One of the most frequent things I hear is that, 'Well, the films you’re making now are not as good as the films you made 30 years ago.' My answer is the truth: 30 years ago, those films you think were so good were not received well," he said, referring to the Godfather films, as well as his Palme d'Or winners The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.

"If you're doing things a little differently than others are doing, you’re going to stick out and you're going to be slapped on the wrist. Thirty years later, they'll give you a lifetime achievement award for what you got fired for," he said.