By Tim Pelan
Meanwhile, the mystique of ‘Apocalypse Now’ lives on. The Marine Corps invited me to Camp Pendleton to watch a demonstration of an aerial assault combined with an amphibious landing. As the helicopters came in, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ was playing over the loudspeakers. It’s become an anthem! I don’t think the United States can go to war without it. I went to Desert Storm to photograph the war for the Marine Corps, and just after the war ended. I went out to the oil fields in Iraq. The oil was burning where the manifold had been bombed and Saddam had released the oil into the gulf, so the sky was black. They put a perimeter up and these kids were out there in the minefields in their Desert Storm outfits. Every four hundred yards there was another American solider wearing a gauze mask because of the black smoke. It was nine o’clock in the morning. It was dark. Except for the fires of hell. A journalist friend and I walked out to the furthest guy, who was all alone in the far reaches of that hell. I said to this kid, “What unit are you with, son?” “FIRST OF THE NINTH AIR CAV. SIR. YOU KNOW THE FIRST OF THE NINTH? HAVE YOU SEEN APOCALYPSE NOW?” “Yeah—‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’!” “YOU GOT IT, SIR!” The soldier gave me a high five. When we were walking back, my friend asked me. “Why didn’t you tell him?” “I think he would have shot us.”
According to its director Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now was “a Los Angeles dream of war.” He told Empire’s Ian Freer in the May 2011 issue, on the occasion of the Redux release, that anyone’s favorite lines or scenes all originated from enfant terrible and surf enthusiast John Milius’ original script. “The set up on the boat, the helicopter assault, ‘Charlie don’t surf!’, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’, the tiger, the playboy bunnies, Do Lung Bridge–that’s all John.” The movie had drugs, beach parties, surfing and rock’n’roll. “Sayonara!” as Lance mocks the locals, spraying them whilst he waterskis behind the patrol boat. Mixed in with this wild ride is Coppola’s more esoteric, phantasmagorical reading of the source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a battered, annotated copy always about his person on location in the Philippines. Despite what he says recently on The Final Cut publicity circus, he never intended to make some straightforward war movie in the vein of The Guns of Navarone or some such—that was what his Japanese backers believed they were getting until he presented them with a stranger rough cut that weighed in closer to the Redux version from a few years back. He stepped back, trimming material, glad to see the infamous French Plantation sequence go, Willard and the gang stealing Kilgore’s surfboard, the further adventures of the bunnies, Kurtz reading to Willard from Time magazine—yet all or some of these remerged in either Redux form since there was so much curiosity about them, or this latest Final Cut, removing 20 minutes of fat (the bunnies leave, the Plantation stays!). Coppola supervised a clean-up crew who spent 2,700 hours over 11 months scanning, cleaning and restoring the film’s 300,173 frames. The 4K scan, combined with Dolby’s HDR processing, reveals new depth and detail in Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography. As for the sound, Coppola’s American Zoetrope archivist James Mockoski and the film’s original sound designer Walter Murch located one of the 1979 film’s original six-track print masters (for Redux, the best they had to work off was a third-generation dub). Murch was able to adapt his ground-breaking 5.1 surround mix to Dolby Atmos and that infamous “ghost helicopter flyover” can now pinpoint sound anywhere, even the ceiling.
Sound and vision are all very fascinating and “a bit technical,” as they say (to be honest, I felt I needed a better seat at my packed screening to get the most out of it), but how does Apocalypse Now make one feel? Making it certainly put Coppola and his cast, crew, and wife Eleanor through the wringer. It is an immensely quotable, brilliantly schizoid, mind-fuck of a rock’n’roll war/anti-war movie, as entertaining for the tales of its creation as for the final flawed masterpiece(s) it became. Within five days of moaning to Walter Murch on the set of The Godfather Pt II about how exhausting the creative process was for him, Coppola announced he would be taking over a little project his friend and colleague George Lucas was originally going to make (in Vietnam, during the war, cinéma vérité style) called Apocalypse Now. “I’ll have no trouble financing it, everyone will want to see it. It’ll run like clockwork.” “The impulse on that level to make Apocalypse was for Francis to experience the case of making a normal film,” Murch recalled. Little did Coppola know the agonies of the production, recasting, rewrites and post-production that lay ahead. By early 1975, John Milius was already revising his screenplay. At one point Coppola told him, “Write every scene you ever wanted to go into that movie.” Ten drafts of the screenplay amounted to over a thousand pages. Everyone involved in Apocalypse Now expected that shooting in the Philippines would last no more than four months. Co-producer Fred Roos was even contracted to be paid $1500 a week for each week it ran over. It did do so, by 37 weeks. Late into 1976, things had spiraled out of control. A typhoon destroyed many sets and costumes, the leading man Harvey Keitel was let go, his replacement Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack, and Marlon Brando was totally unprepared. Once upon a time… in the Philippines was beginning to feel like time out of joint. The troubles piled up so high there you needed wings just to stay above it.
Probably the biggest trouble was the characterization of Willard, the sacking early on of Harvey Keitel, who Coppola realized did not have the requisite stillness, and the pushing of Martin Sheen as his replacement, ultimately leading to a heart attack and shooting carrying on with his brother Joe standing in for him where needed until he recovered. Willard has been ordered upriver to kill Marlon Brando’s renegade Colonel Kurtz. Coppola told Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus in the November 1, 1979, issue, “I took Willard through many, many instances in which I tried to position him as a witness going on this trip—and yet give him some sort of personality you could feel comfortable with, and still believe he was there. Marty approached an impossible character: he had to be an observer, a watcher. A lot of reading dossiers, a totally introspective character. In no way could he get in the way of the audience’s view of what was happening, of Vietnam. That wasn’t going to work for Keitel. His stock in trade is a series of tics—ways to make people look at him.”
Keitel wasn’t even first choice for Willard—he got it after it was offered to Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Jack Nicholson, amongst others. When Coppola realized Keitel wasn’t right, Sheen was in Rome making The Cassandra Crossing. Sheen flew to L.A. to meet Coppola in the VIP lounge of LAX, but due to a delay, only fifteen minutes remained before Coppola’s plane left for the Philippines. Coppola quickly gave him a breakdown of the story and told him he was in contention for Willard. The next day he was told he got it, without even reading the script.
Sheen was a wonderful, warm human being, but as he acknowledged himself, he had his own demons at the time. He was also interviewed for the November 1 Rolling Stone issue, by Jean Vallely. Sheen identified with Willard. “Making that film was an ordeal, not just physically but emotionally,” he told her. “Francis had this way of directing,” says one crew member. “He would tell Martin, ‘You’re evil. I want all the evil, the violence, the hatred in you to come out.’ You tell that to a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic and he hasn’t a chance. Martin is so pliable.” “Francis,” the crew member continues, “did a dangerous and terrible thing. He assumed the role of a psychiatrist and did a kind of brainwashing on a man who was much too sensitive. He put Martin in a place and didn’t bring him back.”
We’re talking about the opening scene, filmed on Martin Sheen’s 36th birthday. In his most raw moment, awakening drunk in his Saigon hotel room. Only, he really was dead drunk, on a days-long bender, and in a very dark place. “I had no business being on screen. Francis didn’t want me to do it, but I insisted,” Sheen said. Joe Lowery, a Vietnam veteran, had told Sheen that the best way to practice martial arts was using a mirror, because “nothing is faster than your own reflection.” Sheen was too close and smashed the mirror with his fist, blood pumping out. He insisted on keeping the camera rolling, telling the documentary crew on the film’s disc extras, “I want to explore this.” From the footage used I doubt he was that lucid. The very public exposure of his private torment and his subsequent breakdown contributed to Sheen straightening himself out.
Eleanor Coppola was keeping busy documenting the filming in her Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now (she also shot a load of footage, edited by George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr and released as one of the most searingly honest documentary accounts of the filmmaking process, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse). Here she writes:
“Yesterday Francis shot the scene in the hotel room. He let Marty get a little drunk, as the character is really supposed to be. He and Marty both knew they were taking a chance. The first layer of the character Marty played was the mystic, the saint, the Christlike version of Willard. Francis pushed him with a few words and he became the theatrical performer, Willard as a Shakespearean actor. Francis prodded him again and he moved to a street tough, a feisty street fighter who has been at the bottom, but is smart, knows some judo, is used to a scrap. At this point, Francis asked him to go to the mirror and look at himself and admire his beautiful hair, his mouth. Marty begins this incredible scene. He hit the mirror with his fist. Maybe he didn’t mean to. Perhaps he overshot a judo stance. His hand started to bleed. Francis said his impulse was to cut the scene and call the nurse, but Marty was doing the scene. He had gotten to the place where some part of him and Willard merged. Francis had a moment of not wanting to be a vampire, sucking Marty’s blood for the camera, and not wanting to turn off the camera when Marty was Willard. He left it running…”
A typhoon ripped the sets apart and Sheen and his family returned to the states for a timeous break from the madness. When he came back he was still in bad shape, and had a heart attack, willing himself out the door and propping himself up by the road, waiting for the bus to take him to hospital. The wardrobe bus spotted him and took there. “We drove to the production office and Dean Tavoularis, the production designer, stuck his head in the van, looked at me and started to cry. A doctor came in and he looked real worried. I just said, ‘Get me a priest.’ And he came and gave me the last rites. Here I am confessing and he couldn’t understand a word of English.”
Coppola, meanwhile, was frantically re-writing whole chunks of the script on an almost daily basis. John Milius was dispatched to get him back on track. “I felt like General von Rundstedt going to see Hitler in 1944—I was going to be telling him there was no more gasoline on the Eastern Front and the whole thing was going to fold,” Milius said. However, even he was powerless in the face of Coppola’s fervor. “I came out an hour and a half later, and he had convinced me that this was the first film that would win the Nobel Prize. I came out of the room like von Rundstedt: ‘Ve can win! Ve don’t need gasoline!’”
Coppola today underplays the sense of fear he felt as events and circumstances pushed and pulled at him back then. “I was scared because I knew I was getting into danger of financial ruin (he literally bet the farm, his Napa ranch, on securing funds). [But] I figured, ‘Hey, I was born poor.’ The idea of being poor [again] wasn’t scary to me.” He had to keep going upriver, mainlining all his creative nous to get the damn thing finished.
Denied materiel by then-Secretary of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Coppola secured the use of army helicopters from President Marcos’ Philippine forces. Unfortunately, they kept flying off to fight the real-life rebels, and had to be constantly repainted in US colors and insignia. Coppola later claimed some of them were flying high on heroin. The Air Cavalry attack on the coastal village was three weeks of intense, hairy filming. When the huge gasoline-filled trench dug for the napalm drop sequence went up, the heat could be felt half a mile away. There was no aerial supervisor, so it was extremely difficult to get all the choppers in the shots.
Vittorio Storaro recalls: “When Robert Duvall was looking outside the helicopter, and down at the waves checking the surf, I was seated outside the machine on a piece of wooden board. I had just one belt holding me in place, and my key grip was holding me with the hand-held camera. I remember looking through the viewfinder, and I could see one machine behind me, so we could have something in the sky; I kept shouting to Dick (a Vietnam veteran pilot) ‘Can you come closer?’ And he said ‘Are you crazy?’ The rotors were almost touching.” Other veteran pilots were hired to do authentic improvised microphone dialogue in post-production. They viewed the footage with no sound other than authentic, ear-splitting Huey chopper sounds. After an hour, one wife came in to the control room to hear her husband, transported back to the war, say “I’m gonna get that dink bitch, and put the right skid right up her ass!” She started crying at this violent shadow of the man she loved.
The famous opening montage of helicopters whup-whupping across the screen in front of an exploding jungle, mingling with the ceiling fan of Willard’s room as he atrophies, “waiting for a mission,” was created from discarded footage. “That shot was a piece of junk film: napalm in the trees,” Coppola recalled. “When I saw it, I said, well, put the beginning against that. I began halfway through to really enjoy making-the movie that way: let it be this dream.”
The original opening image of Milius’ script, of a soldier emerging from a primordial swamp, the words “gook killer” across his helmet, was recycled for Willard’s famous approach to the Kurtz compound to terminate the errant Colonel, “with extreme prejudice.” The End by The Doors plays over both scenes. At the start, helicopter rotors swoop slowly, hypnotically in from the corner of the audience’s perception, then behind, over a jungle canopy that bursts into flame, like a deadly flower. This opening sound medley came to be known as “The Ghost Helicopter Flyover.”
Coppola had always wanted the film to be an aural revolution, to properly reflect the first “rock n roll war.” He was fascinated by a quadraphonic recording of Japanese composer Isao Tomita. Sound editor Walter Murch, designers Richard Beggs, Randy Thom and the rest of the sound team built their own Dolby split sound system, then had the mammoth task of editing around 236 miles of image and sound. Beggs recalled, “Despite all the time they had spent over in the Philippines, nothing beyond the basic production track had been recorded in terms of jungle, hardware, weaponry, munitions, etc. The environment on the production was horrendous too, from a sound point of view, with noises on the locations ruining a lot of the track. So we created it all in post here in San Francisco.”
One of Murch’s first assignments was to construct the opening of the film, “a strange nightmare, which blended reality and imagination.” The sound designers created a “quintaphonic track” he said, “because there were three channels of sound from behind the screen and two channels emerging from behind the audience—a left rear and a right rear.” Not to mention the low frequency sound for explosions and so on. Beggs created the first helicopter heard on a Moog synthesizer.
The tour de force sequence in the film is, of course, the aforementioned Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) helicopter assault on the enemy-occupied village at the mouth of the fictional Nung river, ostensibly to deliver Willard and the PBR Street Gang crew’s patrol boat, in reality to watch famed surfer and boat gunner Lance do his stuff in that “outstanding peak.” A huge part of what makes it so memorable and awe-inspiring is the music. Milius said the idea “came from a vision I had of the exhilaration of war—right alongside the terror and the horror and the fear of being snuffed out. The glory of it!” Walter Murch told Nautilus the convoluted tale of how he hoped to secure the 1965 Georg Solti recording of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to accompany the iconic helicopter attack.
The music was so ingrained into the visualization of the scene that it was a last minute shocker when Decca, the record company Solti recorded his iconic rendition under, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, said no to releasing it. What to do?
Murch was left to trawl through every available recording of Die Walküre in the hope of coming up with the goods, while the film-makers continued to plead with Decca, and also attempt to secure their own, fresh recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. According to Murch, his search was frustrating:
“It was the musical equivalent of ransacking every bottle of burgundy—Gallo to Romanée-Conti—from the nearest wine shop. But as soon as I uncorked many of them, nestling the needle into the grooves of the LP, I knew that they wouldn’t work: There was a vinegary tang to them—certainly in comparison to the Solti—that made my eyes water.”
What set Solti’s sublime recording apart from the others, Murch believed, was a “beating heart” that reflected our bodies “responding to neurological feedback between the heart, the brain, and the needs of the body for oxygenated blood… music that lacks this dynamic, quicksilver pulse is perceived, consciously or not, as lacking an essential spark of life. Solti’s conducting of the ‘Valkyries’ was instead a sublime example of what we might call ectopic music—a powerful embodiment of the living, pulsing heart and breath of Wagner’s composition.”
The editor/sound designer dropped the middle section of the piece, believing it would stop the energy flow of the sequence dead. Instead, the music drops out in favor of dialogue between Kilgore and the others in the chopper, and other radio chatter. The music picks up again as the choppers land and the men disembark (“I’M NOT GOING!”).
Murch went so far as to use a stop-watch to meticulously time Solti’s rhythm, hoping to emulate it in a found or new recording—his “ectopic pulse.” Only one other came close—Erich Leinsdorf’s 1977 Los Angeles Philharmonic recording. In the end, even this fell flat in Murch’s mind—where music would match image, Leinsdorf’s emphasized brass at a crucial moment, as opposed to Solti’s more sympathetic strings. The result was jarring, and Murch admitted defeat.
In the end, all it took was Coppola bypassing Decca and approaching Solti directly. Because the deal was struck so late in the editing process, the music used is a tape transfer from the LP recording, rather than a magnetic master.
The Playboy bunnies sequence was originally meant to be shot in daylight and the set had been built before Coppola had a change of mind about how he wanted to film it (at night, over water). As “luck” would have it, the typhoon destroyed the original set and a night time shoot it was. The lights and lens flare really add to the surreal impact of the scene. Coppola’s draft notes state “The playmates were never really meant to be sexy. They were always meant to represent home.” He didn’t count on the hormones of hundreds of pumped-up extras, among them Larry Fishburne, then only fifteen, as the bunnies gyrate pornographically with rifles between their legs. This was inspired by Raquel Welch’s remark on returning from a 1967 USO show with Bob Hope: “Sending girls like me to Vietnam to entertain troops is like teasing a caged lion with a piece of raw meat.” Carmine Coppola’s score tails off in a strange, woozy, haunting echo of the diegetic musical accompaniment, “Suzie Q,” as a spooked manager retrieves the girls and takes off whilst horny G.I.s storm the stage, impassive Vietnamese behind the fence blankly contemplating the incongruous entertainment. Thankfully the follow-up bunnies scene where they are stranded upriver and Willard effectively pimps them out to the crew for a couple of gallons of fuel has been discarded from the Final Cut. Perhaps Sofia Coppola’s influence, in this more enlightened time of #MeToo?
Of the footage restored for the Redux cut in 2001 and retained in the Final Cut, the most fascinating and divisive in terms of how it affects the narrative flow is the French Plantation sequence. As Willard and the boat crew progress further upriver it is as if they are slipping further back in time, passing from the French settlers still stuck in the 1950s and stubbornly refusing to leave, to Colonel Kurtz, squatting and waiting in his primitive Montagnard camp. The set, an old colonial-style house, was a real labor of love. It was filled with antiques, glazed figurines and potted plants, oil paintings and trophies, Persian rugs, fancy lamps and heavy mahogany and rattan furniture. Coppola took many pieces home since he stumped up the cash. He grew disenchanted with the scene, blaming the extravagant art department, bemoaning the difficulty in securing suitable western actors in his isolated setting (this is why he himself plays the TV reporter with the camera crew urging Willard “Don’t look at the camera, just keep going like you’re fighting!”).
The dinner scene took five days to shoot, Coppola often waiting for exactly the right light. Vittorio Storaro shone a tiny pocket light through an expensive bottle of 1954 Latour wine, from Coppola’s own home. The lighting and bitter dialogue create a mood heavy with nostalgia and faded colonial frustration. Note how Carmine Coppola’s score segues briefly into a facsimile of the part of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” where Judy Garland would sing, “Here we are as in olden days, Happy golden days of yore.” Willard and the widow Roxanne (Aurore Clement, who married Storaro) share a melancholy moment in her bedroom afterward, as she prepares an opium pipe for him. As she lowers the mosquito net around the bed, her silhouette pressing through the gauze fades into the river mist as the boat returns upriver, as if the encounter was all a dream. “Don’t you see? There are two of you. One that kills and one that loves.”
Coppola was increasingly coming unstuck when it came to the ending. He didn’t like the gung-ho version envisioned by Milius: “Attila the Hun [i.e., Kurtz] with two bands of machine-gun bullets around him, taking the hero [Willard] by the hand, saying, ‘Yes, yes, here! I have the power in my loins!’ Willard converts to Kurtz’ side; in the end, he’s firing up at the helicopters that are coming to get him, crying out crazily. A movie comic.” (Obliged to destroy the set, he had the base blown up for real, shot on multiple cameras and film stocks, including infrared). An overweight, unprepared Marlon Brando didn’t help matters either (you can see his lines on giant boards in the temple set behind Sheen in Hearts of Darkness). He and Coppola disappeared for three days to go over the source novella and discuss his part. Brando came up with Kurtz’s look, turning up with platform shoes for extra imposing height, his head completely shaven, recalling Joseph Conrad’s description. He conveniently forgot Conrad’s Kurtz was “withered” by the wilderness, which had “consumed his flesh.” Coppola had briefly considered Kurtz as a “Gauguin figure, with mangoes and babies, a guy who’d really gone all the way. It would have been great; Marlon wouldn’t go for it at all.”
Eventually the appearance of Kurtz evolved as a shadowy figure, looming in and out of the temple blackness. His scenes were shot as long rambling improvised pieces, which were then cleverly edited. Coppola was inspired by Creative Consultant Dennis Jacob to consider material such as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. He used these to interpret the Montagnards’ devotion to Kurtz as the belief of primitive people that their safety is tied to a man-God figure. This personage must be killed as soon as his power is failing, and his soul transferred to a more vigorous body, such as Willard—the Fisher King myth. This duality is realized in the poster for the Final Cut, Willard’s head emerging from the water, his reflection that of Kurtz.
On 10 November 1976, Coppola recycled Milius’ “Gook Killer” head, having Production Designer Dean Tavoularis supervise 25 laborers to create a pool of water the camouflaged Willard could emerge from, smoke wreathing about his monstrous visage. The image symbolizes Willard becoming one with the jungle: “Everyone wanted him dead. The army… and ultimately even the jungle; that’s where he took his orders from, anyway.” Storaro told Empire in 2001, “He has to put on the colors of nature in order to enter nature and become Kurtz.” A further apposite metaphor for this was stumbled upon by Eleanor Coppola when she witnessed the native Ifugao, who played Kurtz’s tribe, ritually slaughter a water buffalo. Coppola filmed them doing this, and intercut the rite with the killing of Kurtz by Willard, brilliantly lit and photographed by Vittorio Storaro, and scored to the music of The Doors, mirroring Willard’s “flash-forward” at the opening of the film, intense eyes merging with the exploding treeline, hungry for a mission. But not quite the same—Willard staggers out to the silent waiting crowd and casts aside his weapon after killing, the evil spell on the compound broken. You can never step in the same river twice, as he and Roxanne exchanged earlier, a lifetime ago, ’cause it’s always moving…
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
“When I was writing ‘Apocalypse Now’ I wanted them to meet people and become involved in the war, but I could never think of anything that was appropriate. Every time I would get them into a firefight or an ambush or something it would degenerate into just another meaningless Vietnam war scene. They had to be thrown into the war at its most insane and most intense.” —John Milius
Screenwriter must-read: John Milius & Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay for Apocalypse Now [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film (newly restored from the original negative, experience Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winning contemplation on the Vietnam War in high definition 4k UHD with this extended 40th anniversary release) is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
APOCALYPSE NOW: A SOLDIER’S TALE
Apocalypse Now: A Soldier’s Tale, by John Milius. Published in Rolling Stone: The Seventies, ed. Ashley Kahn, Holly George-Warren and Shawn Dahl (Boston: Little-brown, 1998); pp. 272-277.
I didn’t get the full impact of Apocalypse Now when I saw it at the Hollywood screenings in 1979. I had been angry at Francis Ford Coppola because I thought he was trying to hog all the press. Then I took a bunch of people to see it at the Cinerama Dome here in L.A. The place was full. There was a trailer for 1941 with John Belushi—another movie I had been involved with—and it was a very raucous audience, yelling at Belushi and generally being loud. All of a sudden Apocalypse Now came on, with the helicopters and the Doors’ “The End” playing. The theater went silent. There was never a comment, not a fucking noise in the audience, until the movie was over. When the lights came up, I looked around and saw that people were sitting transfixed. Vietnam vets were there, too, weeping. I was stunned by how good the film was and what Francis had done. I was proud. I knew that we had accomplished something: whether it was good or bad, we had somehow kept the faith with those people.
Apocalypse Now achieved its highest aspiration: Not only was it immersed in the historical period and place—Vietnam—but it was an allegory of people facing reality and truth. The truth of life and the nature of war, of man, of civilization and of savagery. That is why the novel Heart of Darkness worked as a model. It’s a timeless story. Apocalypse Now has now attained Citizen Kane status and is revered as one of the great films of all time. It wasn’t always that way. Critics excoriated Francis and me when it was first released. It is certainly, though, my most famous, and one of my best, efforts as a writer. When I die they won’t say anything but “John Milius, who wrote Apocalypse Now, died this week.”
The screenplay started when I was in USC’s film school—the West Point of Hollywood—with George Lucas. We hadn’t met Francis yet. George and I were the two ringleaders at school, making student films and winning awards. George was sort of the good boy and I was the bad boy. I lived in my car. I was an anarchist surfer, a complete, consummate rebel and an anti-intellectual of the worst kind. I was threatened with dismissal every other day. I’ve always had a problem with authority. The specter of the Vietnam War was hanging over all our heads. I was the only one who wanted to enlist—everybody else wanted to go to Canada or get married. I figured sooner or later I was going to go. So I signed up for the Marine Air Program, but I had asthma so I washed out. Then I had to reconfigure my life because I hadn’t planned on living past twenty-six—nobody in the Sixties planned on living very long—and I had assumed my legacy would be a smoking hole in the ground over there.
Today in filmmaking there are mainly people who want to be famous, who aren’t driven by the need to tell a story. They just want the fame. Hack then. I never thought about the potential rewards of anything I did. I didn’t think about whether I was going to be paid, whether I was going to get a new BMW or a house in Bel Air or any of that kind of shit. I had what I needed. I had my surfboard. I was fit. I had girls. I was trained. I was a weapon. I just needed a mission. I was STRAC: Strategic. Tough. Ready Around the Clock. At USC I had a writing teacher. Mr. Irwin Blacker, who gave that mission to me. He’d tell us exotic Hollvwood stories, including one about how many filmmakers had tried to do Heart of Darkness—most notably Orson Welles—but that nobody had been able to lick it. I had read the book when I was seventeen and had loved it.
So that did it. I said. Not only am I going to do my Vietnam movie. I’m going to use Heart of Darkness as an allegory because if you’re going to be passing under the skeleton of an elephant, it will be much better if that skeleton is the tail of a downed B-52. I had the ambitious idea of going to Vietnam and shooting the film there. When George tells this story, exaggerating everything, he’ll say Milius was really insane. The truth is, they all wanted to go. Cinéma vérité had become a popular idea then with the emergence of films like Medium Cool which had been shot during the riots at the ’68 Chicago Democratic convention. We were going to do it dirt cheap: shoot a feature film in 16 millimeter in Vietnam while the war was going on. Who knows, maybe we would have been killed. It certainly wouldn’t have been the same movie—nor would it have been as good without Francis.
Alter USC I was a young, cheap screenwriter, hanging out at American Zoetrope, Francis’s company. Then I cowrote Jeremiah Johnson, which became a hit for Robert Redford. I was hot. I got offers to fix up other screenplays. So I was now at the crossroads where I could become a rewriter or I could go off and write my own stuff, do my Apocalypse Now. After The Green Berets it was unhip to do anything about Vietnam, because no studio wanted to touch the controversy. Yet in 1969 Warner Bros, struck a deal with American Zoetrope, and the screenplay for Apocalypse Now was part of that. I received fifteen thousand dollars for the script, and later, when the movie was finally made, another ten. That’s it. But you know, fifteen was enough. I was getting my surfboards at a discount anyway.
The title came from the buttons hippies wore that said NIRVANA NOW with a peace symbol. I made one with a tail and engine nasals, so that the symbol became a B-52, and read APOCALYPSE NOW. As a matter of fact, I put it on one of my boards. Surfing was inevitably going to be featured in Apocalypse Now. One of the movie’s themes is that Vietnam was really a California War. By the Seventies, California culture had become the leading edge of the world, of hip youth. Not only the hippies, the guys in the Valley with their cars, the Beach Boys, the whole surfing culture, but also rock & roll. The British—the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—had faded: the real hip people were listening to the Byrds and the Doors.
I was obsessed with the Doors. It was my idea to use their music in the film. I remember hearing “Light My Fire” while the Six Day War was going on. when Israel was trouncing the Arab armies and retaking the Wall. I always thought of the Doors in terms of war, though the bandmenibers were horrified by that connection. It just worked for me, though. Friends of mine who were in Vietnam said. “God. I was always plugged in to the Doors when there was a lot of stuff to be done.” One friend who was in a Special Forces camp said his group had put on “Light My Fire” and played it all night while being attacked.
Adults didn’t handle the Vietnam War very well. Remember, it was a war that was fought by teenagers, who hopped up their helicopters and put flame jobs on the gun pods. It became this sort of East-meets-West thing, an ancient Asian culture being assaulted by this teenage California culture. In Apocalypse Now you’re given a view of transplanted America in that scene in the compound of expandable trailers where Playboy bunnies are putting on a show for the soldiers. The depiction conveys the enormity of importing all this incredible American culture and power. You get that even with the film’s image of cows being brought in by helicopter.
A friend of mine, who requests anonymity, was an important influence on Apocalypse Now. He did three tours of Vietnam in the Special Forces, and he told me the greatest power we had over there was that we could call from the sky either fire or a cow. We could burn a village down from the sky. Or we could make a cow appear out of the air. This friend was the model for Willard (played by Martin Sheen) in Apocalypse. Remember the story that Marlon Brando tells about the Communists chopping off the inoculated arms of children? It’s a true story. My friend was a Special Forces adviser to a South Vietnamese unit when the Forces were doing civic-action programs. Inoculating people from a village not too far from Saigon. Afterwards, the Viet Cong came in and chopped off all the villagers’ inoculated arms. To retaliate, the Green Beret team and the Special Forces civic-action team rounded up a bunch of known Viet Cong leaders and killed them all. My friend and the others got in trouble for it. Though, because the dead had been the sources the Americans were buying intelligence from. It’s a harrowing true story that he will have to live with for the rest of his life. Every movie that I write contains a scene like it: Somebody tells a story of an event that is more harrowing than anything that can be depicted.
I love the smell of napalm in the morning. I had been sure that that would be the first line taken out of the Apocalypse script. As leader of the First Battalion of the Ninth Cavalry Regiment. Colonel Kilgore was a wildly drawn character—straight out of Dr. Strangelove—who, I must admit, I didn’t think would ultimately work. But Francis left the role as it had been written, and Robert Duvall is such a good actor he made it work. He made Colonel Kilgore a professional military guy who has acquired this California surfer cool and never deviates. He’s still a warrior. He’s just a warrior who surfs. He isn’t just some fucking guy who says. “Yeah man. I like to surf. I wish I could find a good point here or something.” Duvall s approach was: “That’s Charlie’s point?” Yeah, well Charlie don’t surf. You know. “Fuck Charlie! I’m going to take this point and I’m going to surf it. I’m going to surf Charlie’s waves. I’m going to fuck his women and surf his waves.”
Of all the versions there have been of the movie, there’s one that is my favorite. Francis made a tape of it for me. It’s three hours and five minutes long and includes some of the famous cut out French scene, more footage on the beach and more of a resolution in the end with Brando. The version of Apocalypse most people have seen is what Francis calls the Modified Milius Ending, which hadn’t been his preferred ending. Francis’ ending shows Willard throwing down the sword, walking through everybody, getting on the boat and going down the river—that’s the end of it. No air strike. But I said. “This is Apocalypse Now. This place is evil, it has to be cauterized by lire.” Finally he came around to that idea and decided to have the air strike under the closing titles—his way of saving face but, in fact, it really worked.
Francis had the arrogance, the hubris, the ambition to make Apocalypse Now. Whenever I direct a movie, I say “If i get sick, I’m willing to die here,” and that’s the same kind of drive Francis had. There’d be a terrible typhoon, and Francis would say, “Let’s shoot! Let’s do something! Get a camera! Let’s shoot! That’s what we came here for.” He became Kurtz. Francis’ personality is also the one most similar to Hitler’s that I know: Hitler could convince anybody of anything, and so can Francis. Francis is my Führer. I’d follow him to hell. Apocalypse took so much out of so many people that everyone who worked on it feels like a veteran. When they all came back from the Philippines, the same things that happened to Vietnam Vets started happening to them. They didn’t work for a long time and suffered intense depressions, they drank and had nightmares. Everybody who worked on that movie got post-traumatic stress disorder. They had messed with the war and it had stained them.
I think filmmakers don’t have that kind of push anymore. James Cameron with his Titanic is the only example I can think of from the last twenty years. I can just hear Cameron saying something like. “I don’t care how much this movie costs, they’re going to have to kill me to get me oil this movie.” That’s the only way great movies get made. I’m not saying you have to spend $200 million. You can make one for $2 million, but you have to be willing to push. You have to take the samurai attitude, be willing to die in the attempt. Today in moviemaking, there’s a pervasive fear of not being hip enough, not making the right corporate move, not having enough money. Corporate nazis have replaced individualism, dignity and ethics. Take the Heidi Fleiss scandal. It came out that executives at a major studio were hiring Meiss’ call girls, and the corporation was paying for them. Can you believe that, having vour corporation pay for your sex? The corporation telling you when and with whom and how long you could take your human pleasure? That’s lucking science fiction. Can you imagine Sam Peckinpah being given a whore and the studio saying. “We’ll pick up the tab”? He’d say: “Fuck you! I’ll pay for my own whores!”
In a way, Apocalypse Now is about a guy who decides to make his own decisions. The further he gets in his career the more he’s convinced he’s not going to listen to the crap. He says to himself. “I’m not going to fight the war they want. I’m going to win. I’m going to go out there and do what it takes to win.” And he’s willing to pay. In the Seventies our country still retained a tinge of idealism. It was a much freer society, where the individual was important. The Vietnam War made people evaluate their lives. If you were going to he drafted, either you went and fought for your country, or you had to make the decision to fight against that. But you had to decide. I knew one guy back then who went to every fucking riot there was and got the shit beaten out of him. I told him he could have gone to combat and done that and probably would have had less chance of being killed. But he fought the cops and loved doing it throwing himself into the middle of riot cops. He was a fucking warrior, just displaced.
One of my purposes in doing Apocalypse Now was to tell the story of the Vietnam War soldiers who had been treated with such incredible injustice and disrespect when they returned to America. I wanted to give them a sense of dignity and a place in history. In order to be great, a movie has to be true. It must stay loyal to certain ideals and challenge them at the same time. Apocalypse Now challenged the inanity, the total unreasonableness of war. Everybody in the movie has gone insane, and they’re all pointing to this madman at the end of the river, who’s the one that finally tells you the truth. Francis and I, we still talk like old veterans. “This was a great thing we did, shouldn’t we go to war again? I mean this is what we were made for. We should go make Napoleon or do something outrageous and great and challenge Hollywood and ourselves.”
As for the Vietnam War, my opinion hasn’t changed too much since then. My feeling is that, if we were going to fight the war, we should have won. The original mistake was made by Allen Dulles and the CIA. They got us into Vietnam because they fucked up the Bay of Pigs. It was also Kennedy-family machismo. Kennedy had the ability to get us out and didn’t do it. But l believe that once we were in and saying. “Okay, this is where we draw the line, we should have fought the war quickly and decisively. You don’t send young men to die in a war you don’t intend to win.
Besides Apocalypse Now and Platoon, I don’t think any of the Vietnam War films capture just how clearly ill-fated the conflict was, much as the Peloponnesian War was. It was a war that should never have happened, that became hideously immoral, and so there couldn’t he any correct political opinions about it. And yet, in a war, every opinion was right—it was simply the war that was wrong. Francis is a real artist. I don’t believe he’s made up his mind about the Vietnam War, so he didn’t let Kurtz have any answers. I think he wanted Apocalypse Now to be a work in progress, and every year he’d rerelease it.
Is Apocalypse Now anti-Vietnam War? Nearly all the people involved in making it, from Francis on down, were against the war and held what were considered politically correct views at the time. Except for me: I wasn’t for the war, but I was for the American soldier and I wanted the film to reflect that. I wanted the grunts to be the heroes, to make a movie that they would look at and say. “This is ours.” I believe that one of the only noble attributes of our society is its concept of the American Citizen soldier. I’m a militarist and an anarchist. But don’t expect that to make sense. As David Bowie once said when accused of contradicting himself. “Well—I’m a rock star.” What do you expect? I’m a movie director.
Meanwhile, the mystique of Apocalypse Now lives on. The Marine Corps invited me to Camp Pendleton to watch a demonstration of an aerial assault combined with an amphibious landing. As the helicopters came in, “Ride of the Valkyries” was playing over the loudspeakers. It’s become an anthem! I don’t think the United States can go to war without it. I went to Desert Storm to photograph the war for the Marine Corps, and just after the war ended. I went out to the oil fields in Iraq. The oil was burning where the manifold had been bombed and Saddam had released the oil into the gulf, so the sky was black. They put a perimeter up and these kids were out there in the minefields in their Desert Storm outfits. Every four hundred yards there was another American solider wearing a gauze mask because of the black smoke. It was nine o’clock in the morning. It was dark. Except for the fires of hell. A journalist friend and I walked out to the furthest guy, who was all alone in the far reaches of that hell. I said to this kid, “What unit are you with, son?”
“FIRST OF THE NINTH AIR CAV. SIR. YOU KNOW THE FIRST OF THE NINTH? HAVE YOU SEEN APOCALYPSE NOW?”
“Yeah—‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’!”
“YOU GOT IT, SIR!”
The soldier gave me a high five. When we were walking back, my friend asked me. “Why didn’t you tell him?”
“I think he would have shot us.”
John Milius, the writer of Apocalypse Now, is interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola.
John Milius originally wrote the Apocalypse Now story for George Lucas to direct under Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studio, but when Lucas decided to do Star Wars and Coppola decided to make Apocalypse Now himself, a re-write was in order. But what happens when two brilliant screenwriters swaying toward opposite sides of the political spectrum collaborate on a script about the Vietnam War? And how did Milius’ life leading up to Apocalypse Now, shape the story? We’ll find out in this episode of Making Apocalypse Now. This video is by Tyler Knudsen.
JOURNEY UP THE RIVER: AN INTERVIEW WITH FRANCIS COPPOLA
Journey Up the River: An Interview With Francis Coppola by Greil Marcus, Rolling Stone, November 1, 1979.
Francis laughed when he said that in July; he was clearly exhausted, in a good deal of physical pain, and it was one of the few laughs our talk had produced—certainly, it was the best of them. In September, Francis was full of energy: monumentally displeased by the shallowness of the critical reaction to Apocalypse, and just as happy about how the picture was doing in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, the three cities where it had already opened. He’d recently taken the picture to the Moscow Film Festival; I asked about the reception there. “The reaction,” Francis said, “was very much the same as here—and the Russians, I think, are very much like us. At the first screening, when the lights went on, the audience was totally quiet, stunned, then there was a little applause, just like in America. Then I’d hear, ‘Great, great,’ and then, ‘Well…,’ and then, Vassily doesn’t like it at all…’ No different. I think half the people thought it was a masterpiece, and half the people thought it was a piece of shit” I asked how the North Vietnamese in Moscow reacted; for the first time in either of our talks, Francis pretty well closed off a question. “They were,” he said with a long pause, “favorably impressed.” “You don’t want to talk about that?” I asked. “No,” Francis answered. “There’s no mystery, no secret. But I just don’t think it would be right for me to characterize it beyond that.”
When we’d talked in July, Coppola was, as they say, philosophical about his own financial stake in the picture. If Apocalypse failed at the box office, he said, “It would prevent me from helping a lot of other people… I can always get a job directing another movie, so it would just mean that my plans would be stopped. I’d live the same—I’d have a lot less employees. It might he the best thing that ever happened to me.” If the movie succeeded, he said, “I’d get the freedom to start a whole studio and make twelve movies a year. The studio had already been bought—the old Hollywood General Studios in Los Angeles, “a beautiful Thirties studio, nine stages”—and even in July, Francis was eager to talk about his plans. There were, he said, many projects in various stages of development, from Carroll Ballard’s recently completed The Black Stallion to sketched-out proposals: “Ten that could happen, five or six long shots that look promising.” If the studio worked, it would mean an economically self-reliant, artistically self-sustaining group—directors, writers, editors, composers, sound designers, students—that could take chances without risking ruin every time: “We could have a horror-film program, or a Roger Corman division—because you’ve got to have a Roger Corman division!” The goal would be to enlarge the resources of film outside of the major studios, while at the same time cutting down “the baggage of individual pictures: to make them more quickly, with less waste, less indulgence, in a context of common endeavor—to make pictures, Francis said, less of an “ever-covering shroud.”
In September, Francis discussed the future of Omni Zoetrope not as a possibility, but as a fact. “It’s big,” he said of Apocalypse. “It could make a lot of money—and getting out of hock is in the bag. Everything will stay intact—people won’t be fired, I won’t have to give up my car. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Francis said. “It might he the Tucker movie.” That will be much more outrageous than Apocalypse. It’s in the style—it’s always in the style. There are a lot of ways to show people things: and there are two ways of making it I’ve thought about. It could be treated as if Preston Sturges were making that movie, and it would be wonderful. A comedy, nicely paced—I thought of Burt Reynolds. But I thought—no, that’s not my way. What is it? And I’m thinking about that. “The Japanese project is even more outrageous. It will be about love and sex, romance, Japan and America as lovers—it treats cultures as if they were sexual elements. It’s based on Goethe’s Elective Affinities.
“Goethe is my idol… if I have an idol. He was a great poet, a physicist, a thinker. He was interested in painting. He’d devote five years of his life to studying something like the psychology of color; he was part of the Weimar government. And he kept falling in love—he was always in love. He had mistresses and mistresses. German schoolchildren hate them, because they have to memorize all their names, the dates of the births and deaths—because this poem was about that woman, that poem about this one…” As I got up to leave after our second conversation, I mentioned our earlier talk about the choice between endings for Apocalypse Now; given the choice that had been made, and a couple of months to live with it, I asked Francis if he was satisfied. “I am,” he said. “I have no regrets. And I’ll tell you how I finally bought it. It was when I saw it with the music—that music was so strange, so heroic, so sad. The rain. Willard walking down the steps, taking the kid—it came together for me. I went for the warmth of his taking the kid away. I liked that.
“Too much, way too much, has been made of this business of the endings. We went through the same thing with Godfather II; it just wasn’t publicized. The same with Godfather I. Don’t they know by now I wouldn’t have put on an ending I didn’t feel was right?” I mentioned to Francis that when we had talked before, he’d spoken of the ending as a lie—in the sense that Heart of Darkness ended with a lie: in the sense of a comfort. “There may be… there may be a little bit of a lie, about what I think about human nature: the idea that he would throw down the weapon, refuse the power. I don’t know if someone would. In terms of what I’d like to think of human nature—well, I like to think human nature isn’t necessarily what I might at times think it is.” We shrugged off the conversation and walked down the stairs from Francis’ office. “Ahhh,” he said, with no little satisfaction. “I was always afraid I’d be the guy with The Godfather printed after his name.”
Inspired by the classic Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness (already a lost project by Orson Welles), this Vietnam epic directed by Francis Ford Coppola began with a first draft by John Milius in 1969 entitled The Psychedelic Soldier. It took ten years for the ambitious project to reach the big screen after a turbulent, lengthy production as fascinating as the film itself. Apocalypse Now went on to win Oscars for its cinematography and sound, and today it is regarded as a supremely powerful war film and an unflinching look into the darkest recesses of the human soul.
Featuring highlights from the Margaret Herrick Library and the Academy Film Archive.
Seen here during production, the director expressed interest in making Apocalypse Now as early as 1974. George Lucas had previously intended to direct but was unavailable due to the production of Star Wars (which, according to editor and sound designer Walter Murch, incorporated some of the political themes from this script).
The reason our family owns ‘Apocalypse Now’ is because no one else wanted to finance it. When it was done it was a) long and b) weird, in most people’s opinion. But I was a kid who never had $100 to his name, who owed $20m or $30m at 25% interest. So I was scared stiff, and doubly so because I now had this place and my little kids. I remember being on that terrace right out there that Niebaum built, just depressed. “This is so beautiful and I’m going to lose it shortly because of this picture.” It turned out that ‘Apocalypse’ didn’t get into financial trouble after all. It opened respectably and then it never stopped. What happened is that the audience kept going and going and going, and, over time, we began to realize that the picture was going to actually make its money back. On the strength of the Cannes award, it did very well in France and in other countries. So what saved me is the picture itself. —Francis Ford Coppola: How winning Cannes 40 years ago saved ‘Apocalypse Now’
This trade announcement from 1976 featured numerous first choices for Apocalypse Now not cast in the final film.
As originally scripted, the first two scenes were conceived differently than what was seen in the final film (which opens with a more abstract jungle attack and Willard’s nonverbal introduction to “The End” by The Doors).
Apocalypse Now was primarily shot in the Philippines, after previous location scouting had covered other possibilities like Queensland.
The continuity of Apocalypse Now involved numerous different locations, costume changes, and alterations in the appearance of the main characters over the lengthy shoot.
This detail comes from an amazingly detailed map created for the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic.
The documentarian and wife of Francis Ford Coppola chronicled the making of Apocalypse Now; her footage was used as the foundation for the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse co-directed with George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr.
Up to the time of filming, drafts of the screenplay for Apocalypse Now included an explosive firefight involving Willard and Kurtz. The final version of the film features a more stripped-down, introspective conclusion.
In May of 1976, a massive typhoon caused extensive damage to the sets of Apocalypse Now and left many of the cast and crew members stranded for up to three days.
Director Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and other members of the crew prepare a shot for Apocalypse Now.
This storyboard drawing depicts a moment from the famous helicopter sequence scored with Richard Wagner’s ‘The Flight of the Valkyries’ in Apocalypse Now.
The attack was meticulously storyboarded by Coppola and production designer Dean Tavoularis. Empire asked Doug Claybourne, helicopter wrangler on the scene, to talk through the shoot.
The star and director of Easy Rider was brought on board to play an American photojournalist in Col. Kurtz’s camp; the film garnered him significant mainstream attention after spending the past several years working in Europe. Originally Hopper was intended to play Colby, one of Kurtz’s disciples.
The first test screening of Apocalypse Now in incomplete form was held on May 11, 1979 at the Mann Bruin in Westwood, complete with a personal note to the audience written by Francis Ford Coppola.
Influential illustrator Bob Peak designed the artwork for the U.S. theatrical one-sheet poster of Apocalypse Now. Some of his other famous poster art includes Excalibur, The Spy Who Loved Me, My Fair Lady and Superman.
The common two-channel audio format was still a recent innovation when Apocalypse Now was released in 1979 and had only been around for three years. Among its audio highlights, the ‘The Flight of the Valkyries’ sequence was often singled out for praise. For 70mm bookings, the film was presented with six-track sound.
The Japanese theatrical artwork for Apocalypse Now emphasized the action of the film far more than the American designs.
VITTORIO STORARO, ASC, AIC
Vittorio Storaro recalls the photographic challenges he confronted during the tumultuous production of Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. Interview by Stephen Burum and Stephen Pizzello. This article was originally published in the February 2001 issue of American Cinematographer.
After a grueling 15-month shoot in the Philippines, Apocalypse Now was finally released on August 15, 1979. At the time, critics were sharply divided in their assessments of the film, but Francis Coppola’s visionary Vietnam War epic is now regarded as a modern classic. The film’s spectacular images earned Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, his first Academy Award and cemented his reputation as one of the world’s most brilliant and innovative cinematographers. Storaro’s philosophical approach to the picture incorporated the careful use of deeply saturated colors, silhouettes and artificial light sources that selectively pierced the darkness of the story’s jungle settings. He further enhanced the film’s dramatic look by flashing the negative. The result was an immersive experience that took viewers on a surrealistic and hallucinatory upriver journey through an array of wartime horrors.
What follows are some fascinating excerpts from a roundtable discussion held at the ASC Clubhouse, during which Storaro responded to questions posed by Stephen Burum, ASC, who supervised the second-unit cinematography on Apocalypse Now, and AC executive editor Stephen Pizzello. Also participating in the discussion were cinematographers John Bailey, ASC and Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC, as well as AC associate editor Doug Bankston.
Vittorio, before I turn the floor over to Mr. Burum, I’d like to ask you how you got the assignment to shoot Apocalypse Now, which was your first collaboration with Francis Coppola.
Actually, I initially refused to shoot the picture, because I didn’t want to interfere in the relationship between Francis and Gordon Willis [ASC]. They’d done such wonderful work on The Godfather films that I thought it would be wrong for someone else to shoot Apocalypse. But when I spoke with Gordon about it, he assured me that he was not a part of the project, even though there was nothing wrong between him and Francis. Ironically enough, around the same day that [Apocalypse co-producer] Fred Roos came to Rome to speak with me about the picture, I met with Alejandro Jodorowsky; he was planning to direct Dune, and he offered me the chance to shoot it. I love Frank Herbert’s book, and at that time I thought Apocalypse Now was just another war picture. To Italians in the year 1975, the topic of the Vietnam War was not that compelling, because it was so far away from us. But Francis told me, “Read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, because I took some of the spirit of Apocalypse from that book.” When I read it, I understood that the main theme of the story was the superimposition of one culture on top of another culture. I realized that the darkness mentioned in the book’s title did not belong to the jungle culture, but to the supposedly “civilized” culture that was making its way up the river. That idea became very interesting to me, and I ultimately accepted the job.
Steve, can you tell us how you came to serve as second-unit cinematographer on Apocalypse?
Stephen Burum, ASC: I’d been trying to get into the union for 13 years, and I got my chance by shooting television. I’d been doing that for about two years when I got a call from Fred Roos, who told me, “Francis wanted me to ask if you’d come to the Philippines to shoot second-unit footage for Apocalypse.” I’d been reading in the papers that the production had been shut down because the terrible typhoon had destroyed the sets, but I said, “Well, sure.” I went to an office at Samuel Goldwyn to talk to Francis, and he wanted to discuss the aerial footage. When I asked him who was going to direct those scenes, he said, “You will.” I suggested that maybe [director] Carroll Ballard should supervise the scenes with me shooting them, but Francis replied, “Carol told me that you should do it.” [Laughs.] I agreed to head up the second unit, so about a month later I got on a plane and flew to the Philippines. About a day and a half after I got there, I met Vittorio, who introduced me to Piero Servo, who would be operating the camera for me. Vittorio then said to me, “I want you to watch me shoot two scenes before you do anything.” So first, I watched Vittorio shoot [the military briefing] involving Martin Sheen, G.D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford and Jerry Ziesmer. Then I watched the filming of the picture’s opening sequence in the hotel room, when Willard is horribly drunk.
I was looking very carefully at what Vittorio was doing, because I knew I had to duplicate exactly what he was doing not only technically, but spiritually. I’d gone to school [at UCLA] with Francis, so I understood how he thought, but I didn’t yet understand how Vittorio thought, and it was very interesting to observe the way in which he used the light. Coming from the industry in Los Angeles, I was used to having all of this equipment; we had more gadgets and tools than anybody else in the world. Vittorio, on the other hand, was just using Brute arcs and Photofloods with blue gels on them. In the hotel room, he had two arcs coming in through the windows and a little cluster of lights bouncing up on the ceiling to provide a bit of fill. Then, back in this dark corner, he had a lamp on with a lampshade over it. By doing that, he made the black in the corner look better, because he had that bright reference in the frame. He also had this elaborate system of cutting pieces of paper or gels for the shades in order to block out the light coming toward the camera, and have as much of it as possible hitting the wall instead. From watching all of this activity on the sets, I immediately understood that the color black was very important to Vittorio. About two days after watching those scenes, we started working out this big sequence set at the Do Lung Bridge. [Special-effects coordinator] Joe Lombardi was going to demonstrate those parachute flares; he was planning to shoot them into the air, for they would hang and light up a whole, huge area. Well, the flares didn’t work, because the air was so humid that they wouldn’t even burn. Vittorio’s solution was to really use the black areas [of the scene] and the highlights provided by the arc lights and Photofloods that we did use in the scene.
Storaro: That sequence at the Do Lung Bridge really demonstrates the main photographic concept for Apocalypse Now, which sprang directly from this idea I mentioned of one culture superimposing itself on another. Every country that has ever conquered another country—whether you’re talking about Egypt, Italy, Spain, France, England or the United States—has always imposed its own language and culture upon the conquered region. Everyone from those conquering countries always believes that they’re only exporting the good aspects of their culture, but that’s simply not true. Everyone has a good side and a bad side—a conscious and unconscious. America was the same way in Vietnam, and in Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz represents the unconscious, which we all have inside of us. He represents the dark side of the United States, which is why black is such an important color in the film. When I was planning the visual strategy for the film, I began thinking that I could convey the conflict of cultures by creating a visual conflict between artificial light and natural light. The first time I saw that we would be using colored smoke to convey specific military messages, I thought it was wonderful, because when these artificial colors were placed next to the natural colors of Vietnam, it created that sense of conflict that I wanted.
I also sought to create that type of conflict in the lighting. For example, consider the scene in which the Playboy girls put on their show in the middle of the jungle. The lighting I used for that scene came about for two reasons. First, at that point in my career, I had never used a really extensive lighting package; the biggest picture I had ever done was 1900, on which I used a single thousand-amp generator! When I arrived to do Apocalypse Now, I brought just one thousand-amp generator, without any backup—that’s how crazy I was! Given the relatively low budgets that I’d had, I was accustomed to simply using the minimum lighting I required. To light that huge Playboy sequence from beyond the stage area was basically impossible, so instead I came up with the idea of using lights set up within the stage area. I asked the production designer, Dean Tavoularis, to design a set that would incorporate a number of Photofloods. However, the second reason for doing the scene that way was that I wanted to create this intrusion of artificial light in the jungle—the incredible force of the light would serve to enhance the blackness of the Jungle. The same idea applied to the sequence at the Do Lung Bridge. When Francis showed me his idea for the scene—which involved panning from the patrol boats to the bridge, at night, on a river in the middle of the jungle—I thought to myself, “How in the world am I going to light such a huge amount of space with just one thousand-amp generator?!” My solution was to have the crew erect several towers, each of which had one arc on it. We had an electrician on each tower, and I would talk to them by walkie-talkie and tell them where to aim the light. I also remember asking Joe Lombardi to create some explosions in spots where I needed some light. But if you watch the scene, during the huge pan above the bridge, you can see only the silhouette of the two main characters against this explosion beyond them.
Burum: I find it interesting that you were able to take those technical limitations and use them to create a distinctive visual style.
Storaro: In my mind, the different scenes in the film became like parts of a puzzle. We would only show certain things amid all of the darkness, and we would reveal different pieces of the puzzle as we went further up the river.
Burum: Exactly. If you’d shown the whole jungle, it wouldn’t have been as effective.
Storaro: In Italy, we have a saying: “When the wolf is hungry, he will come out of his cave.” In other words, necessity will force you to come up with an idea! Back in those days, the Italian film industry didn’t have much money, so we did everything with very low budgets. In that regard, 1900 was really an exception; when I did The Spider’s Stratagem, we had no generator at all! On all of those pictures, I really had to work out the visual strategies with the director, because we couldn’t afford to do a master shot, an over-the-shoulder and then a close-up; that approach took too much time and money. We really had to have a good plan, because we knew we’d only have one chance to shoot each sequence. We could do multiple takes, of course, but we had to get the scenes right on the days when they were scheduled.
Burum: Don’t you think that in some ways you have more of an impact on the audience when you work with limited technical resources? You don’t have a safety net, so you have to present a vision that comes from your heart.
Storaro: No doubt. When you’re in that type of situation, you must push yourself a bit more and be very creative. You also have to think things through really carefully. Even now, when I have all of the time, money and equipment that I need, I always try to employ that type of creative approach. Sometimes, I have to fight with the director or the editor if they push me to get coverage “just in case.” In case of what? In case our plan is no good? That way of working costs the film industry a lot of money, and it drains the quality of the filmmaking. Today, unfortunately, editors are used to working on the Avid system or something similar. They have a very small screen in front of them, and it’s very hard to see an emotion from an actor, or a particular action. On some pictures, they don’t even print dailies anymore, so editors can’t even double-check footage on the big screen to make sure that the cuts, the rhythms or the emotions are right. They work only from a small monitor, so they’re probably editing the picture with television in mind, at least subconsciously. That’s the worst thing you can do to the film industry, because you’re reducing everything to video quality. Digital technology is a great tool, but in my opinion everyone should be able to look at their footage on big video projectors, or at least a large, television-sized monitor.
Which camera and lenses did you use on Apocalypse Now?
Storaro: We shot the film with Mitchell reflex cameras, which were modified by [the Italian company] Technovision to accept Cooke Hobson Taylor anamorphic lenses from England. Because the Italian film industry was so poor at the time, we could not afford Panavision equipment, and the only serious company over there was Technovision. I developed a really strong relationship with Henryk Chroscicki, who unfortunately died last spring. No matter what I needed, he was already ready to make any changes or adjustments to the camera.
Burum: We had the most wonderful Cooke anamorphic zoom lens on Apocalypse. It converted by just unscrewing the back and screwing on the anamorphic [attachment]. It was one of the best anamorphic lenses I’ve ever seen or used, and Francis eventually bought it.
Vittorio, let’s talk a bit about the way Francis handles people, because he does it in a very interesting way. When I got to the Philippines, I went into his office, and he said, “Steve, I’m in so much trouble now that the only way we can get out of this is to do everything perfectly.” I answered, “Francis, I’ve been waiting all my life to hear someone say that to me. We’ll do it.” I walked out of that office, down those stairs, and back to my hotel, and all the way I was thinking to myself, “This is going to be great.” Then all of a sudden, I began asking myself, “What is perfect? What am I going to do?” I sometimes wound up sitting on the riverbank for three days to get a shot, because Francis had told me not to shoot anything unless it was perfect!
Storaro: On any picture, when you meet the director for the first time, you have to have a very strong connection in order to share a truly spiritual collaboration. Going back to my meeting about Dune with Alejandro Jodorowsky, I remember that the tone of it was quite cold. I knew he had a reputation for doing everything on his pictures, including the cinematography, so I asked him why he had called me. And he answered, “I know that on this movie, I need much more in terms of the operating and the lighting, and I think that you can do better.” But I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere with me or not, which made me a bit hesitant.
On a picture like Apocalypse Now, you know right away that it’s going to be a long, expensive, dangerous shoot in a location that’s very far away. But from our very first meeting, Francis was so friendly that I felt as if I’d known him forever. In the professional sense, he also made me feel totally comfortable. He told me that he had admired my work on The Conformist, and he never let me feel that I was out of place, or too young, or that I didn’t know enough English. Apocalypse became my first picture outside of Italy with a foreign production company, because prior to meeting Francis, I’d never felt comfortable with any of the other foreign directors I’d met.
When I arrived in the Philippines, he wanted to show me some color sketches of the helicopter attack sequence—Francis had actually filmed these sketches in CinemaScope and edited them together with music, and he showed me this footage on a big screen! The camera operator, Enrico Umetelli, was sitting next to me, and Francis told us, “Remember, this is just a rough idea for the sequence; we’re going to do it much better when we really shoot it.” I watched that footage with my mouth open, and I whispered to Enrico, “Do you think we’ll be able to do that?” I thought there was no way I could meet those expectations, but I think Francis picked up on my concern, and he was very reassuring. Without his energy, we never would have been able to make Apocalypse Now.
Burum: I do remember that when I got to the Philippines, there was a general feeling that Apocalypse was going to be a great picture. I don’t think that anybody on the crew doubted that. I don’t think anybody knew how we were going to achieve that greatness, but there was definitely a sense that we were doing the best work we could do. To me, the whole project had an aura about it.
Storaro: Honestly, I never thought it would be great, because I was so scared to be working at that level! But Francis told me, “Vittorio, this is the first picture that I’ve really produced completely. I have total control, but I also have total responsibility. I have complete trust in your expertise with the camera, so please feel free to do anything you think is correct. We don’t need any go-ahead from anybody else, but please remember that all of the responsibility is on me personally.” I always take my work very seriously, but after Francis said that to me, I really tried to give a maximum effort with the minimum equipment that I needed.
Burum: The way Francis handles everyone on a set is worth discussing. For example, when I was shooting The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, he’d show me the scene and ask, “What do you want to do?” I’d tell him, “Well, we should do this, this and this.” If he liked what I said, he’d reply, “Okay, where do you want to start?” If he didn’t like what I was saying, he’d tell me some allegorical story! [Laughs.] At that point, I’d know enough to offer him an alternative, and he’d say, “I think that’s better.” But he always made me feel that I was really contributing, and that he valued my input. That type of director really knows how to get the best out of people.
Storaro: Francis is, without a doubt, the director who gave me the most freedom to express myself. But at the same time, he was also very clear about the main concepts for the film. The first day of any shoot is when you really begin to discover your relationship with the director, and what your contribution will be. On the first day of Apocalypse, Francis gave me an anamorphic viewfinder with my name on it, and he had one of his own. We were in this bar, preparing to shoot a scene that is no longer in the picture with Harvey Keitel, who was originally hired to play Martin Sheen’s part. We were both wandering around with these finders, and it probably looked a bit ridiculous. But he took me aside and told me his concept for that scene, and every morning after that, he would tell me his main idea for that day’s work, usually addressing things on a metaphorical level. I would then try to use my knowledge to figure out how to achieve those concepts technically. I would present my ideas, and if he didn’t think they would work, I would come up with something else. But once he was sure that I had come up with the best way to translate his concept onto film, he would give me total freedom to put together the entire sequence. He would sometimes make a few little changes to our plan while we were shooting, but usually we wouldn’t deviate much from the initial plan we had worked out in the morning.
What were some of your visual influences for the film?
Storaro: Just before I started Apocalypse, a very good filmmaker friend of mine wanted to do a movie about Tarzan. Unfortunately, that film was never made, but my friend showed me a book by a great illustrator named Burne Hogarth, who had drawn the Tarzan comic strip [in the 1930s and ’40s]. In 1972, just before we began working on Apocalypse, Hogarth had published two new books of his Tarzan art [Tarzan of the Apes and Jungle Tales of Tarzan], and they really focused on the principles of movement. I think Hogarth was very aware of an Italian style of painting known as Futurism, which is exemplified by the work of Giacomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni. The main aesthetic principles of Futurism are beauty and speed: Balla, for example, painted things like dogs with eight legs, in order to show their speed in one single image. A lot of comic-strip art was also influenced by studies done during the Italian Renaissance, particularly those by Michelangelo, who portrayed figures in a way that was very much like sculpture. The physical action of Tarzan in Hogarth’s art was unbelievably dynamic, and every color in the drawings was so strong and saturated that the overall impact became very surrealistic.
I became very fascinated with the images in Hogarth’s books, and I showed them to Francis during our early meetings. I told him that I wanted to portray the jungle in a similar way, with very aggressive colors. That style is really apparent in the sequence where the tiger jumps out at Martin Sheen and Frederic Forrest; I didn’t want the color of the jungle to be a naturalistic color. Francis and I were very much in sync on that concept; whenever he talked to me about the helicopter attack, the Do Lung Bridge sequence, or the explosion of the Kurtz compound, he would always say, “Vittorio, I don’t want to do something realistic. I want to create a big show, something that’s magnificent to see. Everywhere Americans go, they make a great show of things, and I want to create a conflict between beauty and horror.”
That approach is completely apparent in the Wagnerian helicopter attack and the subsequent scene in which Robert Duvall’s character says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like… victory.” It doesn’t matter to him how many people are dying; he’s somehow enchanted by the beauty of napalm. This is the point of view that Kurtz is denouncing.
Was your use of dramatic silhouettes in the film also inspired by comic-book art?
Storaro: Yes. In that regard, Burne Hogarth was really my guide. However, the silhouettes were also inspired by the French naive painter Henri Rousseau. He did some paintings set in the jungle that had very aggressive colors, and in one that I remember there was a man in silhouette with a woman and a tiger behind him.
Burum: While I was shooting pass-bys on the patrol boat, Vittorio said to me, “We should see nature before we see man.” I would therefore compose those shots so that the boat was hidden in silhouette, and the first thing you saw was the wake of the boat—this little silver ripple. When the ripple broke the surface of the water, it symbolized man disturbing the natural environment.
Storaro: We always strove to show the conflict between the soldiers and both the jungle and the native people. That concept is conveyed very well in the shot where Martin Sheen is in the boat examining the confidential dossier about Kurtz. Larry Fishburne is dancing to the Rolling Stones song “Satisfaction” on the radio, and Sam Bottoms is surfing behind the boat. As he’s surfing, he’s spraying water on the natives, which reinforces that idea that the Americans are imposing themselves upon this culture in a rather arrogant manner. To me, the most important and powerful moment in the movie occurs just before the helicopter attack on the village, right after Colonel Kilgore turns on the Wagner music. We suddenly cut to a quiet shot of a teacher leading this group of children out of their school, and as a viewer you say to yourself, “Oh my God, are they going to attack those little children?” In most previous war movies, you always saw the cavalry arriving to save the day by attacking the bad guys.
Let’s talk a bit about the explosion of the Kurtz compound, which was only shown over the end credits of the initial 35mm release prints. That footage never appeared in the 70mm prints, and Mr. Coppola has acknowledged that its inclusion in the 35mm credits caused some confusion about the film’s ending.
Burum: Everybody tried to make a big deal out of that footage, but the only reason Francis included it in the 35mm prints was because Joe Lombardi got really upset when it was removed from the original cut. Francis arranged this work-in-progress screening for the cast and crew at the Bruin Theater in Westwood, and when it was over, Joe grabbed Francis in the lobby and jumped all over him: “Damnit, I had my effects guys all over the jungle to shoot that scene!” So in order to placate Joe, Francis put the footage over the credits, which led to all of this speculation about the film’s ending.
Of course, that footage was definitely a challenge to shoot. What do you remember about working on that sequence, Vittorio?
Storaro: It took nine nights to shoot that scene, and we set up about 10 cameras—a VistaVision camera, an infrared camera, a high-speed camera and normal cameras. Before we began shooting, I had constant nightmares that someone was going to get hurt. I kept asking Joe where we should put the crew members and the cameras to keep them safe, and at first, he couldn’t say for sure—the temple was built out of real stone, and he was planning to use real dynamite to blow it all up! He finally gave us the minimum distances where we’d be safe from the explosions, and we also built these moveable metal bunkers to protect the cameras and the operators. When the explosions went off, all of these big stone blocks were flying around, so you couldn’t even look through the camera.
Why was the temple set built with real stone?
Storaro: Dean Tavoularis wanted it to look authentic, of course, but I think it was simply easier to use real materials in that particular location rather than shipping materials in.
Burum: That temple was well-built, too. When we first attempted those shots, it simply wouldn’t go down! Finally, we attached these cables to both heavy-duty tractors and the set, and when the explosion happened we just pulled the temple down. I’ll tell you, when those explosions went off, they were so powerful they would lift you right off the ground. All of the air would be sucked away from you, and then this rush of hot air would come back at you. Joe also warned us, “Keep under cover, because once the blast goes off it’s gonna be raining snakes.” And it was! [Laughter all around.]
Storaro: In the end, not one person was hurt, which was a real testament to Joe and his crew. They kept everybody informed about what was going to happen every step of the way. All of the camera operators and effects guys were communicating with walkie-talkies, and I can still remember hearing the explosions going off in my ears.
Vittorio, can you tell us about the lab work and the special processes used on Apocalypse Now?
Well, I had several problems in that regard. For the first two weeks of shooting, the dailies were being sent to Technicolor Rome, which was just what I wanted. But then Gray Frederickson, the co-producer, said to me, “We only have one airplane a week that can go to Rome, but we have two or three that can go to Los Angeles, so we’re going to have to do the dailies at Technicolor L.A. from now on. Who do you want to deal with there?” Francis was very nervous, because he wanted to see dailies sooner than one week afterwards. But I told Gray, “Well, tell me who your next cinematographer is going to be, because I’m leaving. How can I have the same collaboration with the people at the lab [in Los Angeles] if I don’t know anybody there? They don’t know me, and they won’t know what to do.” Ernesto Novelli [of Technicolor Rome] had done The Spider’s Stratagem , The Conformist , Last Tango in Paris , 1900  and several other pictures with me, so he knew exactly what kind of look I wanted. Fortunately, after I threatened to leave, they continued to let me send the dailies to Rome.
Also, around that time, Kodak had just introduced its new color negative stock . I did some tests with the new stock for 1900, but I didn’t really like it. When I did Scandal  just before Apocalypse Now, Kodak Italy told me, “You have to use the new stock, because there’s none of the old stock left.” I therefore refused to buy the film in Rome, and we called Kodak in Rochester, New York. They had enough of the previous stock for us, so we bought it from them instead for Scandal. By the time I was doing Apocalypse, there was no way I could use the older stock again, because the [change to the new stock] was almost complete. I wasn’t happy with the contrast of the new stock, and when I did some tests in Rome with Ernesto Novelli, we decided to flash the negative of Apocalypse Now. After exposing the negative, we would sent it to Rome, where they would flash it before developing. Frankly, I don’t know how many other producers or directors would have allowed me to do something like that—Francis gave me his complete support.
After I came back from the Apocalypse shoot, we did the first timing of the film in Los Angeles with Ernesto Novelli and Larry Rovetti supervising the work. Later, in Rome, I told Ernesto that I was unhappy with the blacks in the film, because black was one of the most important colors in terms of the visual strategy. Black represented the unconscious, particularly in the sequences where we discover the true meaning of Kurtz; we were trying to show some portions of the truth emerging from the depths of the unconscious. Those scenes were designed to come together like the final pieces of the puzzle, we had created, and if the blacks weren’t black enough, that aspect of the story would not make as strong an impact visually.
When I told Ernesto I wasn’t happy with the blacks, he reminded me of an incident that had occurred several years earlier, during the filming of 1900. On that picture, we had used an original matrix dye-transfer system was the only way I could accomplish that strategy, and it looked wonderful. At one point, we were shooting in Parma, Italy, and every day we were sending dailies to Ernesto in Rome; occasionally, he would visit me on the set so we could discuss things. One day he came to me with a roll of film, and he said that it had been treated with a new process that he’d invented. I told him I didn’t want to see it, though, because I had settled on my approach for 1900 and I felt that this new process would distract me.
Well, later on, when I was having my problems with the blacks on Apocalypse, he finally showed me an example of this new process he had developed. He had me look at some images from Cadavari eccellenti [1976, a.k.a. The Context or The Illustrious Corpses], a film directed by Francesco Rosi and shot by Pasqualino De Santis. The movie was a crime thriller that required strong blacks and a very dramatic look, so Rosi and De Santis used Ernesto’s new system for all of the dailies; unfortunately, for the usual distribution reasons, they didn’t use the system on the release prints—they only used it for the dailies. It looked great, so I performed some tests during [the postproduction of] Apocalypse Now, and the dense blacks we got were exactly what I’d had in mind for the scenes with Kurtz. That process, of course, was what came to be known as ENR [in honor of its inventor, whose full name is Ernesto Novelli-Raimond]. While I couldn’t apply ENR to the first release prints of Apocalypse, I later used the process on Reds .
What can you tell us about the current restoration of Apocalypse Now for theatrical re-release?
Storaro: This new version is being supervised by the film’s sound editor, Walter Murch, and it will have 55 minutes of footage that was cut from the original picture.
Burum: I’ll be glad to see that footage back in the film—especially the key sequence in which the soldiers get off the boat and stumble across a French plantation, where they have dinner with the people who live there. I was so ticked off when that was cut out of the picture, because it really addressed the central philosophical concept that Vittorio mentioned earlier—one culture imposing itself upon another. During the dinner, the French tell the Americans, “We’re not afraid of the Vietcong. These are our people.” A big philosophical discussion ensues, during which the French essentially denounce the Americans as colonialists.
Storaro: I think that scene was cut because of the line in the script that says, “Never get out of the boat.” When the men do get out of the patrol boat, they run into trouble, and after the scene with the tiger, Francis wanted them to stay on the boat. In my experience, that’s still a very good piece of advice! [Hearty laughter around the table.]
A marvelous documentary about legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, one of history’s ten most influential cinematographers (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, Reds, Il Confimista, 1900). Vittorio Storaro talks about his work, along with collaborators like Francis Ford Coppola, Warren Beatty, Bernardo Bertolucci and peers like Nestor Almendros. On-set footage from Dick Tracy and The Sheltering Sky. Storaro explains his zany theories about light and colour, and gives a potted history of lighting in the cinema.
By Sven Mikulec
After the Camerimage international film festival’s special screening of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella’s wonderful and haunting 1999 film with Matt Damon in the starring role, I had the unique pleasure and honor of seeing and listening to probably the greatest film editor and sound designer of the last half a century. Walter Murch, the living legend of the filmmaking business whose career was built on films such as Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and The Godfather trilogy, was invited to Bydgoszcz, Poland to receive the festival’s Special Award to Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity. This is the first time I’ve ever had the chance to see him in person and, besides coming off as a very nice and humble human being, to listen to him talk about filmmaking, editing and the history of film was incredibly inspiring and satisfying.
Sitting at a small table on stage, with a glass of water at his side, Walter Murch engaged the audience and the crowded theater—mind you, many of the audience are filmmakers themselves—bombarded him with questions, seeking his advice and wanting to soak up as much wisdom as possible. Murch briefly discussed his relationship with Minghella, calling him an extremely collaborative director who wanted and accepted input from his crew (but “still had strong vision and ideas”), recalling how they met and how Minghella explained to him that, when he found a perfect T-shirt, he’d buy hundreds of them, never to have to set out on the risky task of finding new clothes. The message was clear—if Murch proved to be a capable editor, Minghella would want to work with him for the rest of his life. They did three films together (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), and would definitely collaborate again had it not been for the director’s tragic death in 2008.
One of the most interesting parts of the conversation was when Murch explained one the things that inevitably changed with the rise of digital technology and its use in filmmaking. Back in the good old days, after a hard day’s work on set, the crew would gather and watch the ‘dailies,’ the material they filmed that specific day. With minds clear and concentrated on the film, they would immerse in their footage and have discussions on the material. Dailies became a part of history, as there’s no need for them when the crew can monitor what’s being filmed on set simultaneously on their screens. Since during filming people have tons of things on their mind and can hardly relax in front of the screen, Murch believes dailies should be brought back into practice, as they proved very useful in the past.
On the unsurprising question of what you need to have to be a good editor, Murch said you needed to be ready to spend 16 hours a day in a small, stuffy room with no windows, being repeated the same things over and over again like torture. Furthermore, a good editor has to have a good sense of rhythm because, after all, editing is basically choreographing a line of images. The other important thing is to be able to anticipate the audience’s reaction. According to Murch, the editor is the only representative of the audience in a film crew: his job is to predict how the viewer will respond to the movie, and to do so, he has to place himself in their shoes. Therefore, Murch tends to avoid seeing any part of filming, he visits the set only if really necessary, believing too much information would prove to be a burden, as it will distance him from the position of the viewer, who will see the film without any knowledge of the size of the set or the sort of sandwiches served in breaks. The editor, Murch continues, is one of the few people on set with great effect on the film who can completely isolate himself if he wants to.
What I did not know was that Murch had some influence on the script for The Talented Mr. Ripley. As he was sent the screenplay six months prior to filming, he made a couple of suggestions regarding the way the film should open and how it should end, and Minghella listened. But it’s not strange, Murch says, that editors get the screenplay months, or even a year, in advance: it’s actually common practice nowadays.
Needless to say, I left the theater impressed like a school boy, as I should be in the presence of a professional of such caliber. This made me a little more nervous during our interview, but it turned out there was no need whatsoever to feel uncomfortable. That’s who Murch is—an editing genius capable of making you feel as if he’s your friend from elementary school.
In an interesting interview you recently gave to Indiewire, you said that films are called motion pictures, but that they could be easily called emotion pictures since the point of every film should be to cause an emotional response in the audience. Do you think this should be top priority in any film?
Yes, with the proviso that it should be the correct emotion. Films are very good at stirring up emotion but you have to be careful about which emotion you’re stirring up. So in a sense the filmmakers, from the directors to anybody else, have to really say—what emotion are we going for here and why are we going for it? And how does that emotion relate to what we had in the previous and will have in the following scene? And can we also track not only the emotion but the logic of everything that’s happening, basically is the story understandable? So this dance between intellect and emotion, which is kind of basic to what human beings are, is something that we have to be very careful about. In a film, for instance, you could stage a murder in a very brutal way which would stir up emotions in the audience, but is that going to confuse things later on in the story?
You also talked about over-intentionality in movies, how it’s easy for the audience to feel manipulated into feeling something if things are edited in a certain way. How difficult is it for you not to cross that border, to cause an organic feeling in a viewer rather than a manipulated one?
It’s very difficult. Because films are evolving under our fingers, so to speak. And we want to communicate certain things and we’re anxious that the audience understands what we’re trying to say. And so many things are uncertain in a making of a film that you can sometimes hold on to a scene as being important, but you can learn later that, in fact, by removing that scene in a strange, sometimes mystifying way the whole film relaxes, and the audience gets everything you’re saying even without this very definite moment. I remember many years ago working on a film with Fred Zinnemann called Julia. These arrows began to point at one scene in particular at the beginning of the film. Maybe we should lose this scene, because again, there was this over-intentionality to it. And so we, meaning Fred and I, said let’s take it out. So I was undoing the splices, back in the day when we made physical splices, and he observed, you know, when I read the script of this project, when I read this scene, I knew that I should do this film. In other words, the very scene he connected with was the scene we are now taking out. So I asked myself, am I removing the heart of the movie? Or am I removing the umbilical cord of the movie? This scene was important to connect Fred with the film, but let’s say, once the nutrients have flowed into the whole film, not only now can you remove the umbilical cord, you have to remove it. We walk around with the belly button, but not with the umbilical cord. So there are scenes like that that deliver their message very particularly, but you should be suspicious of those very scenes and wonder if this film can ride the bike without these training wheels.
A lot of big American movies these days treat the viewers as if they are incapable of connecting the dots, explaining far too much in the process. Do you see that trend in American cinema today?
Yeah, I think so. I think that’s partly down to everything we’ve just been talking about. It’s also that, in quotes, American cinema is also global cinema, in that American cinema is more than Chinese cinema, more than Indian cinema, more than European cinema. It’s the one cinema that goes all the way around the world so it has to be understandable by the Chinese, Africans, South-Americans, Europeans. Inevitably, there is a coarsening of the message there because of trying to adapt to all these different sensibilities and different ways of thinking on the different continents of the globe. But very often it’s simply lazy filmmaking. It’s hard to make it the other way because of the uncertainty of it all, because it’s risky. I find it much more interesting to make things this way precisely because it does involve the audience in the film. And really the last creative act of any film is viewing by the audience. The audience are really the ones who are creating the film, it doesn’t really exist on the screen, it exists in a kind of penumbra between the audience and the screen, the interaction of those two things. And exactly what you’re saying allows that interaction to take place. Otherwise, the audience is just blasted by the things coming from the screen, and they just have to sit there and take it.
Since Return to Oz wasn’t a critical or commercial success, the film practically blocked your potential directorial path. But it must be nice to see what happened to the film in the decades that followed. How do you feel about the project now?
I’m very happy that it has this afterlife. The film was made in the early 1980s, really at the dawn of home cinema. VHS had just come in at that point, I think. So I made it not knowing everything that was going to happen in the next thirty years with DVDs, Blu-rays, streaming and all of these other things that allowed people to see the film in a variety of different circumstances. On the other hand, it has to be good enough for the people to want to see it. So I’m very pleased to see it has this afterlife to it. Ironically, one of the things that happened is that the studio, Disney, at the time of the release of the film had changed management, and the new management really had no interest in Return to Oz at all, really. It was kind of abandoned, but that meant ironically that I had more control over it because if they hadn’t abandoned it, they would have been far more aggressive with me, trying to bend it this way or that, kind of like what happened with Orson Welles on The Touch of Evil. The finished film is as much as any film pretty much as I wanted to make it.
But you said you had some projects you wanted to make, but you were force to abandon it. You stated one of the movies you wanted to make was about Nikola Tesla. Why him?
I’m just fascinated with him as a character. I discovered him in the process of doing research for Return to Oz because the inspiration for the Emerald City, this fantastic place, was the Columbia World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. And that was the fair that Tesla appeared at, and he was the one that electrified the fairs. This was the first World’s Fair to be electrified with Tesla’s alternating current, and he was at the fair giving demonstrations. So he was arguably the living wizard of that festival, and he was called The Wizard. So I think L. Frank Baum, the author, who lived in Chicago, went to the fair and saw Tesla and Tesla was the wizard. But the more I learned about Tesla and his story, the more fascinated I became. I wanted to do a kind of Mozart-Salieri story on the tension between Tesla and Edison, who were two very, very different personalities, both competing in the same territory.
This story might have made for a great film.
You’ve worked with a lot of great filmmakers in your career. Which collaboration holds a special place in your heart?
It has to be Francis Coppola because the first feature film I’ve worked on was his film, The Rain People in 1969. And I worked with him in 2009 on Tetro, the last film. Which is… how many? Four decades of working together? And on some remarkable films. There’s a gap between Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux. But he and I share many sensibilities and he gives a great deal of control to the people who work with him. Working with Francis, I was astonished how much control he gave. We was, like, just go and do something.
A lot of trust.
Yes, a lot of trust, but the surprising thing about trust is, if you’re given all of this trust, you repay it, you know how much he has given you and so you are anxious to fulfill and more the trust he has given you. And that works in opposite way with directors who are always controlling everything, did you do this, I want this, I want that… At a certain point you say, OK, let’s all do what you want. But this other way of working, the Francis way, is a wonderful way of working.
When we compare what editing used to be to editing today, with the development of technology and the trend that movies resemble music videos, what would you say about contemporary, modern editing?
There is a shift. On the other hand, also if you look at the decades, the fastest editing ever in a motion picture was Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov’s film from 1929. Well, not the whole film, but there’s a section of the film that’s so rapidly cut that you just kind of had to stand back the way you look at fireworks. We, meaning in the larger sense, are investigating the borderline between effect and comprehensibility. And it’s clear that, to achieve a certain effect, this kind of fireworks in editing—you can do that, but you lose comprehensibility. Things are happening on the screen and maybe you’ll capture a thing here or there. For briefs periods of time this is fine in any film. But as a general principle, it’s something to be wary of. Without question, music videos and commercials and even videos you see in clothing stores on video-screens, have all affected the way we see edited images, and they’ve worked their way into the theaters. And we’re looking at films on very different mediums, on iPhones or 20-meter screens in a movie palace, or on virtual reality goggles. So all of those are very different formats, and yet at the moment we have to edit as if they are all the same. This creates dissonances with the rate of cutting.
For example, the videos on screens in clothing stores. They are rapidly cut with lots of moving, so as to make you look at them. So you’re in a store that’s mostly static, people moving fairly slowly, and yet over here there’s a screen going like this (waves his hand frantically), forcing you to look at it. Taking that sensibility though and transposing it into a movie palace, where that’s the only thing we’re looking at and the screen is sixty feet wide, can create undesirable side effects, people get sick looking at it. In the long term, we’ll figure all this out, and it does change from decade to decade. Dialogue, for instance, in the 1930s and 1940s was said much quicker than it is today. The cutting was slower, but people talked much faster, quick, quick, quick. His Girl Friday, for instance. Films just don’t sound like that today. That’s the dialogue equivalent to quick cutting. You can’t see that today. The closest thing would probably be The Social Network, those scenes very quickly paced in terms of dialogue.
The experience of watching feature motion pictures in theaters is barely one hundred years old. Birth of a Nation came out in 1915, and it’s 2015. And I’ve been working in films for half that time. (laughs) We’re still learning how to do this, and adapting to different circumstances, so it’s natural for the pendulum to swing far in one direction, and then far in the opposite direction. Inarritu’s film last year had no edits in it, at all, there were technically concealed edits in there, but the experience of watching it was that there were no cuts whatsoever.
Would you say that The Apocalypse Now was the most troublesome project you ever worked on?
It was troubled, but in a good way. Meaning, it’s a very contentious subject matter, especially at that time. And we were investigating all the possible ways to tell this story. It was turbulent and maybe troublesome, but in a good, creative way. In any film you’re working on, there’s a great deal of uncertainty. Can we do this, is this going to work, do we have time to do this… Everyone is wondering how it is going to work. But it was certainly the longest postproduction of any film I worked on, I was on it for two years, Richie Marx was on it even a year longer. It was a long period and you have to also gage your own energy level and focus on something that lasts that long. That was another kind of an invisible challenge for all of us involved.
You mean coming back to ordinary life?
Sure, that’s an occupational hazard of any film, it completely occupies a great deal of real estate in your brain as you’re working on it, and then suddenly it’s over and all of that real estate is available, empty, and now you have to re-program your brain to get to normal. It’s the equivalent, I think, to a kind of sea sickness. You know you’re finished objectively, but you’re body is still working on something, but there’s nothing to work on. The collision between those two things, what you objectively know and what you feel… it usually takes from two or three weeks to two or three months for these things to come back in alignment.
How long a pause did you have to take after Apocalypse Now?
After that, I started writing a screenplay, one of the projects I was going to direct. So… six months. But at the end of those six months I started writing, which is different than making films, a different rhythm. So after Apocalypse, the next thing I did was Return to Oz. We began preproduction in 1983, so it was almost four years since Apocalypse. So, first I wrote an unproduced screenplay, then Return to Oz.
What was the screenplay about?
It was about an archaeologist in Egypt, a kind of a ghost story, but more along the lines of what you were talking about earlier, one that was ambiguous. There were not a lot of special effects in it, it was about a personality change. Was that down to an accident that happened, or did something spiritual happen to this person? But it ended up in a drawer somewhere.
Mr. Murch, thanks for your time. It was a pleasure.
Flashback 1980: Apocalypse Now, Neon Magazine.
The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of Apocalypse Now was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war. I tried to illustrate as many of its different facets as possible. And yet I wanted it to go further, to the moral issues that are behind all wars. [In making the film,] I, like Captain Willard, was moving up a river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis. —Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now program notes, 1979
I have a lot of mixed feelings about Francis. I am very fond of him personally. The thing I love about him most is that he never, like a good general, asked you to do anything he wouldn’t do. He was right there with us, lived there in the shit and mud up to his ass, suffered the same diseases, ate the same food. I don’t think he realizes how tough he is to work for. God, is he tough. But I will sail with that son of a bitch anytime. There is only one other director I would go that far with, and that’s Terry Malick. You bet your ass. I won’t get to work with a Malick or a Coppola too many times in my life and, my God, I consider it an honor. I took some bumps. I just wish I had been about ten years younger. Eventually everyone has to eat some shit, and Francis, if he’s going to eat shit, at least it is going to be of his own making. He has such tenacity and I love that about the guy. I hope he breaks the bank on this one. Why the hell not? You’d rather give the money to some special-effects shark or some asshole swatting planes in the sky or some guy who flies? No. I’d rather deal with a moral question any day. This is the first war movie made that is a trip inside a man’s head. We have such a short period of time here, and there are two things I have accomplished in my professional life: Badlands and Apocalypse Now. If my grandchildren get interested in what I did, I’ll show them these. —Martin Sheen: Heart of Darkness Heart of Gold
A conversation with Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola.
Roger Ebert interviews Francis Ford Coppola for 40 minutes at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival for Apocalypse Now.
The below cut is a mix of Orson Welles’ reading of Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now and the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Joseph Conrad’s story is about a boat captain named Marlow who travels along a river deep into “the heart of an immense darkness” in order to find a man named Kurtz. One of the many themes of Heart of Darkness is the idea that a person can lose their mind the further they travel away from civilization into the unknown. This theme is paralleled in Apocalypse Now and by Coppola’s own journey in completing his most personal film. The documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is a compilation of Eleanor Coppola’s interviews, on-the-set footage and secret audio recordings of her husband at his most exposed moments. Coppola’s many struggles included an unfinished script, Marlon Brando showing up overweight, typhoons destroying entire sets and Martin Sheen having a heart attack during production. —Brian Carroll
Here’s a fascinating compilation of photographs taken behind-the-scenes during production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Photographed by Chas Gerretsen, Josh Weiner, David Jones, Dick White & Mary Ellen Mark © Zoetrope, Zoetrope Studios, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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