Notes From The Frontline: 1979 Rolling Stone Interview With Apocalypse Now Director Francis Ford Coppola

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It’s incredible to think how Apocalypse Now started out in the minds of  George Lucas, John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola as a cheap, verite, band on the run type feature. Sound designer Walter Murch recalled Coppola’s exhausted feelings after directing The Godfather PtII:

“Why do films always have to be this way for me? Why do I always have to reach down into my gut, and pull my intestines  out on to the table and chop at them in full view of the rest of humanity? Why can’t I just make an ordinary film the way I know lots of  directors do?”

Murch went on; “Within five days of saying that, he announced that he was going to be making 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.”

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. The following interview deals a lot with Coppola’s struggles to resolve the final section of the film, when Willard must finally confront Kurtz, steering the ending away from Milius’s “comic book” finish, and the critics response to his solution.


Would you do it all again?

I’m tempted to say no. I really think there’s a limit to what you ought to give a project you’re working on. It’s not worth it, it’s really not worth it. I don’t know that I would be able to avoid doing it again, but I’m forty years old instead of thirty-six. My leg hurts, my back hurts, my front hurts, my head hurts. I’ve got nothing but problems. I mean, I could be the head of KQED [San Francisco’s public television station] and do interesting little experimental things and not be such a wreck.

There were times when I wished I was working for someone else so I could quit – but I don’t think I ever thought of cutting my losses and coming home. There were a lot of troubles. Marty’s [Martin Sheen] heart attack [which delayed filming even further] . . . severely traumatized my nervous system. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. If he’d gone home to the U.S. for treatment, he might not have come back – his family might not have let him. I was scared shitless. The shooting was three-quarters done; it was all him, what was left.

Firing my [original] lead actor [Harvey Keitel] – that was bad. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do: sure, it jeopardizes the production, but it can also ruin an actor’s career, to be fired like that. It was a very, very hard decision. But I just pulled the plunger – I did that a lot on this movie. Still do it. I’ve done it before with people – but that’s another form of saying you’re going to really try to get it right.

Did making this movie change your idea of what it means to be a filmmaker?

It changed every idea I have on anything I might not do or be. It enlarged my mind in terms of possibilities. It would be very hard for me to go and direct the new Paddy Chayefsky screenplay now. After Apocalypse Now and the Godfather pictures, especially the two of them together, I began to think in terms of the kind of movie that is impossible: movies that are . . . fourteen hours long, that really cover a piece of material in a way that justifies it, shown in some kind of format that makes sense.

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Ten years ago, John Milius wrote a script: ‘Apocalypse Now.’ You still share script credit with him. How has the movie changed?

I think the script, as I remember it, took a more comic-strip Vietnam War and moved it through a series of events that were also comic strip: a political comic strip. The events had points to them – I don’t say comic strip to denigrate them. The film continued through comic-strip episode and comic-strip episode until it came to a comic-strip resolution. 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.

I’ve read the comic.

Have you?

Well, I’ve read comics like that one, sure.

That was the tone and the resolution. The first thing that happened, after my involvement, was the psychologization of Willard – which I worked on desperately. Willard in the original script was literally zero, nobody. I didn’t have a handle: that’s why I cast him with Steve McQueen at first. I thought, well, God, McQueen will give him a personality. But I began to delve more into Willard. 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.

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The first scene of the movie – Willard is in his Saigon hotel room, waiting for a mission, drunk, losing control, finally attacking a mirror and cutting his hand open – is described in your wife’s book (‘Notes’) almost as a breakdown on Sheen’s part, certainly not action that was planned.

Marty’s character is coming across as too bland; I tried to break through it. I always look for other levels, hidden levels, in the actor’s personality and in the personality of the character he plays. I conceived this all-night drunk; we’d see another side of that guy. So Marty got drunk. And I found that sometimes, when he gets drunk, a lot comes out. He began to dance, he took off his clothes – this was ten minutes of the most incredible stuff – and then I asked him to look in the mirror. It was a way of focusing him on himself – to bring out the personality by creating a sense of vanity. And that’s what he punched: his vanity. I didn’t tell him to smash his hand into the mirror.

Many of the best things in the movie – the helicopter attack, the surfing motifs – are from Milius. The Do Lung Bridge sequence – which came partly from one of Michael Herr’s Esquire articles – was from Milius. Many things were changed. The concept that the guys on the boat would get killed – that was new. From the bridge on, it’s pretty much Heart of Darkness and me.

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Was the film based on ‘Heart of Darkness’ in Milius’ script?

Very vaguely, then: A man was going up a river to find a man called Kurtz. There were few specific references beyond that. I decided to take the script much more strongly in the direction of Heart of Darkness – which was, I know, opening a Pandora’s box.

Michael Herr was brought in after the shooting in the Philippines was completed. Did he write all of the narration?

He dominated it; he dominated the tone. The hipster voice Willard is given – that’s Michael.

Was it from ‘Dispatches,’ in which Herr makes such a point of Vietnam as ‘a rock & roll war,’ that the idea came to use the Doors’ ‘The End’?

No. I knew Jim Morrison, in film school; he came to my house once – this was before he’d had a record out – with some acetates, demos, asking if I could help. I tried; I didn’t get anywhere. But the idea of using the Doors came from ‘Light My Fire.’ That was from Milius: Kurtz’ people would play ‘Light My Fire’ through their loudspeakers, to jazz themselves up. In the end, there’s a battle, and the North Vietnamese regulars come charging in to ‘Light My Fire.’ I went to the Philippines with that ending!

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How did the characterization of Kurtz evolve?

Marlon arrived; he was terribly fat. As my wife says in her book, he hadn’t read the copy of Heart of Darkness I’d sent him; I gave him another copy, he read it, and we began to talk. There were a lot of notes that we compiled together. I’d give him some – he’d write a lot himself. I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking.

We had an idea: 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.

Marlon’s first idea – which almost made me vomit – to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie – but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt’!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: Thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death – he’ll think about that stuff all day long.

Finally, he shaved his head – and that did it. We’d go for it – we’d get there. That terrible face. I think it’s wonderful that in this movie, the most terrifying moment is that image: just his face.

There seems to be no conventional suspense in the movie. Even in the scene where Willard kills Kurtz; that’s an orchestrated scene, full of crosscutting and metaphors, like the killings that end ‘The Godfather.’ Is that the way you wanted to make the movie?

Maybe I’m stupid, but I always wanted the film to be graceful. My very first notion when I began to think of thestyle of the film – of course, style was going to be the whole movie – I wanted to sweep, not go chaaa! chaaa! I wanted it to have grace. I chose Vittorio Storaro [Bernardo Bertolucci’s cinematographer in The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and 1900] because I wanted the camera to just float across the boat. That is always shot handheld, because there’s no building dolly tracks in the water. The music would be Tomita-like [a Japanese synthesizer composer] for that reason.

I don’t understand what you mean when you say that style was going to be the whole movie.

When I first thought of doing Apocalypse Now, and I read Milius’ script, I was looking for a clue as to what kind of movie this was going to be. I was very concerned about style, because I knew it wouldn’t be a realistic style – I knew it would have some sort of what I’ll call extension to it, but I didn’t know what. People used to ask me, well, what’s this movie gonna be like? I said, well, it’s gonna be very stylized. And they said, well, like what? Like what director? And I would say, like Ken Russell. I wanted the movie to go as far as it would go. I was prepared to have to make an unusual, surrealist movie, and I even wanted to.

But you didn’t.

Well, surrealist. What do you call or what do you not call surrealist?

Watching the movie, I never had the feeling that I was partner to a dream – and that’s how I would define the experience of surrealism.

Well, then, what would you call the desire to extend the action so that it had another, different reality –or an extended reality, from just pure reality – that made use of what was going on?

The emergence of a different reality is raised as something that could happen – that could take over Willard, suck him in. There’s an interesting shot in Kurtz’ temple, a copy of ‘The Golden Bough’– a book about ancient myth and practice of ritual regicide. A man became king; after a year, if anyone could kill him, he became king. After Willard kills Kurtz, he emerges from the temple. Kurtz’ whole community is gathered there, and Willard is carrying two symbols of kingship – this is how I saw it –the book, Kurtz’ memoirs, and the scepter, the weapon he throws down when he refuses the kingship. The community kneels before him, and it’s clear that if Willard wanted to take over, he could have. And then he consciously rejects that choice. If he had not, then he, and maybe we, would have been swallowed by the extended realities you’re talking about. But he rejects that. That seemed very clear. Is that not what you meant?

No . . . when I finally got there, the best I could come up with was this: I’ve got this guy who’s gone up the river, he’s gonna go kill this other guy who’s been the head of all this. Life and death. Well, I have a friend, Dennis Jakob, we were talking – what to do? – and he said to me, ‘What about the myth of the Fisher King?’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘It’s The Golden Bough.’ The Fisher King – I went and got the book, and I said, of course, that’s what I meant. That’s what was meant by the animal sacrifices [that occur among Kurtz’ people as Willard murders Kurtz]. I had seen a real animal sacrifice, by the headhunters we had hired. I looked at the blood shoot up in the air, and I’m thinking – this is about something very basic. I’ve gone up this whole river trying to figure out this movie, and I don’t know what’s the matter: What do I have to express, what do I have to show to really show this war? There are millions of things you have to show. But what it really all comes down to is some sort of acceptance of the truth, or the struggle to accept the truth. And the truth has to do with good and evil, and life and death – and don’t forget that we see these things as opposites, or we want to see them as opposites, but they are one. It’s not so easy to define them – as good or evil. You must accept that you have the whole.

Kurtz is consciously participating in the myth of the Golden Bough; he’s prepared that role for Willard, for him to take his place.

He wants Willard to kill him. So Willard thinks about this: he says, ‘Everyone wanted him dead. The army . . . and ultimately even the jungle; that’s where he took his orders from, anyway.’ The notion is that Willard is moved to do it, to go once more into that primitive state, to go and kill.

He goes into the temple, and he goes through a quasi-ritual experience, and he kills the king. The native people there were acting out in dance what was happening. They understood, and they were acting out, with their icons, the ritual of life and death. Willard goes in, and he kills Kurtz, and as he comes out he flirts with the notion of being king, but something . . . does not lure him. He goes, he takes the kid back, and then he goes away and there’s the image of the green stone face again [the face of an ancient Cambodian goddess from Kurtz’ temple complex]. He starts to go away, and then the moment when he flirted with being king is superimposed. And that’s the moment when we use ‘the horror, the horror.’

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How do you see what Willard is going through at Kurtz’ compound?

I always tried to have it be implied in the movie that the notion of Willard going up the river to meet Kurtz was perhaps also a man looking at another aspect or projection of himself. I always had the idea of Willard and Kurtz being the same man – in terms of how I made my decisions as to do whatever we did. And I feel that Willard arriving at the compound to meet Kurtz is like coming to the place that you don’t want to go – because it’s all your ghosts and all your demons.

Willard’s a murderer, an assassin, and no doubt when he’s alone in the bathroom, he’s had some moral thoughts about whether that’s good: to go kill people you don’t even know. So I’m thinking Willard has been involved – as maybe Kurtz has – on a moral quest, which is to ‘Is what I have done, or what I am doing, moral? Is it okay?’ So when Willard gets to Kurtz’ place, it’s his nightmare. It’s his nightmare in that it’s the extreme of the issue that he has to deal with – bodies and heads – and Kurtz is the extreme of him, because Willard’s a killer. Here, now, Kurtz – who has gone mad – has become the horror, the whole thing, which is no more than an extension of the horror that we’re looking at on every level. Willard has to come to terms with this – and what Brando really tells him, the way I see it, is, I finally saw something so horrible . . . and then at the same time realized that the fact that it was so horrible was what made it wonderful . . . and I went to some other place in my mind, in which I became Kurtz, who is nuts.

And pathetic. One of the most beautiful lines in Michael Herr’s narration is when he says, ‘Kurtz had driven himself so far away from his people at home’ – the idea that you could go so far that you couldn’t get back, even if you wanted to get back.

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That’s what I was trying to do with Willard in that last section. I always had this image, over and over again, of being able to stare at the something that was the truth and say, ‘Yes, that is the truth.’ Somehow a face was always important to me, and that’s why I liked just looking at Brando’s face for ten minutes or whatever. Remember Portrait of Dorian Gray? I mean, it was like ripping back the curtain – ahhhhh! There it is. And that’s the way I felt about Vietnam. You just look at it, you open your eyes and you look at it, and you accept it if it’s the truth. And then you get past it.

One line that seems to be coming out, following the L.A. screening in May and the Cannes screenings – and I’m speaking of the American press, since that’s all I’ve seen – is ‘The movie is terrific for the first hour or so: it’s so exciting, it’s well done, spectacular, it looks as if it were worth the money that was spent, you can see the money on the screen.’ And then, ‘When the picture get to Kurtz, it becomes muddled and philosophical and pretentious – it falls apart.’ That line is remarkably consistent. (And has remained so in most of the reviews that have appeared since the film was officially released.)

Audiences, and therefore certain writers, really know the rules of the different kinds of movies – and whether they want to admit it, in the first hour and a half of this movie, they’re locked into a formula. It’s a formula movie; you just get locked into the slot and it’ll take you up the river. And then, at a certain point, it doesn’t develop into the action adventure that it had set you up for. In my mind, the movie had made a turn I wouldn’t alter – it curved up the river. I chose to go with a stylized treatment, up the river into primitive times – and I eliminated everything in the script that didn’t take you there. It now takes you into various difficult areas, which you have to engage with a little. They’re riding down a big sled on a very formula movie, and they want it to resolve, and kick ’em off, just like movies are supposed to do, and it doesn’t do it. It’s like someone takes them off the slide and says, okay, now walk up the steps, and they don’t want to do it.

I’m not saying they are wrong in feeling that. I think some do and some don’t. But they would have preferred that it just went easy, without any difficulties – let the movie do it all. And I couldn’t do it in the end.

Couldn’t, or wouldn’t?

I couldn’t, I don’t think – I tried. I mean, I couldn’t give them an ending better than I did. I tried, and I’ve been trying and trying and trying. And if I could ever imagine how to do it, I would get out the goddamn film and I’d do it.

I think we live our lives hoping – impatient – for a time when things are resolved. I think that time will never come for any of us – and that’s part of the irony, even in this movie. Although there seems to be a resolution of some kind: that the healthy devour the sickly, and there is some sort of life/death, night-becomes-morning cycle taking place – to me the irony is that we stand on the edge, on the razor blade, all the time, and that’s why Willard looks to the left, looks to the right, and you hear, ‘The horror, the horror.’ ‘The horror, the horror’ is precisely that we are never really comfortable understanding what we should do, what is right and what is wrong, what is rational behavior, what is irrational: that we’re always on the brink.

‘The horror, the horror’ at the end, the fact that I wanted to end it on choice, because I think that’s the truthful ending – We hope for some sort of moral resolution about Vietnam and about our part in it, our participation in it. At the [true] end, you don’t have a resolution. You’re in a choice, still, between deciding to be powerful or to be weak. In a way, that’s how wars start. The United States chose: It wanted to be powerful, wanted to be Kurtz, in Southeast Asia. It chose not to stay home. But choice was just the only way I thought it could end.

Heart of Darkness ends with a lie. After Kurtz’ death, Marlow goes to Kurtz’ girlfriend, the intended, and she says, ‘What did he say before he died?’ And Marlow says, ‘He mentioned your name,’ when in fact what Kurtz said was, ‘The horror, the horror.’ So I feel all lousy because I think the ending I had on the movie was the truth, but this ending that I’m going to put on it now is a lie – and I justify it to myself because Conrad would have ended with a lie, too.

Francis Ford Coppola interviewed by Greil Marcus. Rolling Stone, November 1, 1979

This interview was previously posted here.

Originally posted 2013-11-17 11:22:03. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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