29 April 2019 | Jason Bailey | The Playlist
When Francis Ford Coppola was finishing “Apocalypse Now,” he explained at the Tribeca Film Festival Sunday night, “we were very unsure, and the distributors were unsure, so we kept cutting it, and trying to make it shorter and less weird.” So to accomplish that— and, hopefully, to recoup some of the personal assets he’d used to finance the picture—“we made it as short and normal as we could.
“And then years later, we realized well maybe we could put everything back and let it be as weird as it was, and that was a film called ‘Apocalypse Now Redux.’ Very long. And for this occasion, I felt the first one was too short and cut down, and ‘Redux’ was too long, and I wanted to do the version that was the way I thought would be best for this— and all— audiences.”
The result is “Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut,” which Coppola unveiled for a full house at New York’s Beacon Theater in celebration of the film’s fortieth anniversary.
Running about 183 minutes (minus the lengthy closing credits), it’s closer to ‘Redux’ than the theatrical cut, with Coppola and his team retaining the extra Col. Kilgore material, a couple of brief scenes on the boat, and most of the notorious “French Plantation” sequence.
The latter is the only misstep— it still just doesn’t fully work, slowing the movie to a crawl too late in the narrative, and garnering unintentional snickers with the soapy cutaways of Willard and Madame Sarrault making eyes at each other. (Gone, again, are the extended scenes of the crew reuniting with the Playmates, and of Col. Kurtz reading from Time magazine.)
But the other material incorporates into the picture splendidly, and the new restoration is astonishing.
Even better, the Tribeca audience was treated to a lengthy post-film discussion between Coppola and director Steven Soderbergh, who recalled seeing the film on opening day (with the help of two friends, who bought his ticket and held his place on line while he served an after-school detention), and then “17 times over the next several weeks.”
The pairing of the moderator and subject proved an ingenious one, allowing Soderbergh to frame the discussion through the lens of day-to-day, on-the-set moviemaking, and get some new material in addition to Coppola’s oft-told “greatest hits” stories, enjoyable though they may be.
Despite the fact that his three previous films were either Best Picture winners or nominees (both parts of the “The Godfather“, and “The Conversation“) “nobody, absolutely at all, wanted to back ‘Apocalypse Now,’” Coppola explained to an incredulous Soderbergh. “And I realized that it’s not so much that you have success as a Hollywood film director, but that the next film you ask to do should be similar to the ones you had the success with.”
“Apocalypse” certainly was not that. Writer/director John Milius’s script, a Vietnam-era riff on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” had been knocking around since the Vietnam era proper, initially earmarked for Coppola’s protégé George Lucas. “George wanted to do it in 16 millimeter, black-and-white, shooting it up in Stockton,” Coppola recalled, “and if he had made it would’ve been very good, it would’ve been that style of movie. I had this idea to do it like ‘The Guns of Navarone’ or some extraordinary, big World War II movie—thinking, Oh, if I could do a big exciting war movie, it would be successful and we’d have money, and then we could keep making personal films. Which was always my thinking: how to make enough money in the established film industry, to be able to subsidize the more personal.”
But then, he said, the funniest thing happened. “I didn’t realize that ‘Apocalypse Now’ was going to turn out to be such a personal movie, even though it was a big scale movie. And of course, that’s the irony of it is that when you go on those adventures, you think you’re doing a big commercial project, but if you follow your nose and follow the theme of the film, it could be extremely not.”
Coppola’s troubles on the picture have become the stuff of legend, much of it confirmed to Soderbergh: the big casting change shortly into production (with Martin Sheen taking over the leading role from Harvey Keitel, though Coppola still to this day refuses to elaborate much on the why), the typhoons that wiped out their sets, the heart attack that wiped out Sheen for weeks, and the helicopters borrowed from Ferdinand Marcos’s army. “I know a lot of people went, oh my god, you went to the Philippines and you dealt with this autocrat, but there wasn’t any other move,” Soderbergh said. “You needed American equipment to make this movie.”
“All of those helicopters, all of that hardware was because the Philippine army had it,” Coppola shrugged. “But they were fighting an insurrection… So often, when we were shooting, we’d have 20 to 25 helicopters just get up and leave.”
Many of the legends surrounding the production come from “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” the acclaimed 1991 documentary built from wife Eleanor Coppola’s footage from the shoot. “I wanted my wife to stay because I wanted her company,” Coppola explained. “So I gave her a camera, an Eclair 16mm camera, and said, why don’t you just shoot all the behind-the-scenes? And she did really well, she’s a very good handheld cameraperson, but it was a little bit of a trick on my part to try and have my wife stay with me. And if you see her film, I would come back from the shoot, and I would say, Oh, this is the worst film ever made, I’m going to get an F for this movie, I’m never going to survive this. And I was hoping she’d say, Oh no dear, it’s going to be wonderful, you see. And instead she would say, Oh, let me get that microphone…”
“Hearts of Darkness” also documented Coppola’s struggle to find the right ending for the film, after it became clear that Milius’s original rah-rah shoot-out conclusion would not do. “Let’s be clear,” Soderbergh offered. “It seems to me entirely appropriate for you to be struggling with a way to land this movie about a war that didn’t have a landing, that didn’t have an ending. That seems totally organic.” But with those troubles in mind, Marlon Brando’s appearance at the end of the shoot—overweight, unprepared, and insistent on spending hours talking about motivation—must have been difficult. Soderbergh put a finer point on it: “Were you frustrated by Brando?”
“I read things, me saying things that appear that I didn’t like Brando,” Coppola said. “Brando was a wonderful man… But he was like a big kid, and sometimes a big kid is casual with friendship or doesn’t do what they said they were doing.” So they did, indeed, spend the first week of his contracted three weeks (for $1 million a week) talking and talking in his trailer. “Fascinating, fascinating stuff,” Coppola noted, “but he was basically assuming that I was going to go over five weeks, which means I was going to owe him $2 million. And so finally after the fifth day, we hadn’t shot anything, and I only had two weeks left with him.” And yet, once they worked through that initial hesitation, “He was incredibly contributing actor. There are so many things that are wonderful about either of those movies that were totally his invention.”
Looking back on all of the accumulated madness of the production, Soderbergh asked a wonderful, pointed question. “I look at that,” he told Coppola, “and go, wow, you know, you weren’t just flying close to the sun. You are flying at the sun with intention. You, you… I don’t know how to ask this. Was it harder than it needed to be?”
“That’s a good question,” Coppola replied, “Because a lot of times I’ve thought, what if someone had come to me in that period, when I was making ‘The Godfather’ and was sure I was going to get fired and I was so miserable… And if someone had said to me, these movies are going to be okay, people going to see them 40 years later… I could have saved so much misery. But I wonder, had they done that, if I would’ve just said, ah to hell with it, it’s going to be a success? But I kept going and staying up all night and trying another ending and trying another version and I just kept trying.
“I have a lot of energy and good imagination,” he continued. “That’s about the limit of what I have. And I did keep going back and… maybe there was an easy way to get out of this, with some degree of honor. But I don’t know, maybe I had an instinct that if I could really get the beauty and the power of Conrad, that beautiful novella in this extraordinary setting of Vietnam, with the surfers and the drugs and the Doors and the blue, yellow, green smoking stuff, maybe it will be extraordinary. Maybe I sensed that.”
He sensed right. Whatever the questions about what Coppola kept and what he tossed, the visceral experience— and it is an experience—of seeing “Apocalypse Now” on a big screen, with big sound, is undeniable. Forty years may have passed, but the film has lost none of its considerable power, and Soderbergh summed it up best at the conclusion of their talk. “I don’t know what else to say,” he told Coppola. “You gambled, and you won.”
“Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut” will play in theaters on August 15, in advance to its release on 4K Ultra HD disc on August 27. Coppola’s Tribeca talk with Soderbergh is among the disc’s special features.
*All photos by Jason Bailey.