Francis Ford Coppola: The RT Interview

The great director reflects upon his masterpiece Apocalypse Now.

by | October 15, 2010 | Comments

Francis Ford Coppola

For Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now capped one of the finest four-picture streaks in the history of cinema. With The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather Part II, Coppola solidified his status as one of the New Hollywood’s leading lights. However, the story behind the making of Apocalypse Now is almost as legendary as the film itself — plagued by bad weather, casting changes and negative buzz, the movie seemed cursed, and many at the time doubted that Coppola would be able to pull off his haunting vision of the Vietnam War (loosely based upon Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness). But pull it off he did, and the result was critically acclaimed upon its release and treasured by film buffs in the years since.

On Tuesday, Lionsgate will release the Apocalypse Now Three-Disc Full Disclosure Edition on Blu-ray; along with oodles of special features, the set contains the original theatrical release of the film, plus the extended 2001 “Redux” edition and Hearts of Darkness, a 1991 feature-length documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. Now 71, Coppola still has plenty to keep him busy. Thanks to the profits from his Napa Valley winery, he’s been able to make films on his own terms — notably, the well-received 2009 release Tetro. In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Coppola revisited the making of Apocalypse Now, and also discussed the benefits of self-financed pictures, his favorite films, and the similarities between making movies and wine.

Rotten Tomatoes: What continues to inspire you to go back to this movie?

FFC: The truth is that, when the film was originally made, when we showed it to all the distributors, we realized that, for its time, it was pretty unusual. It was supposed to be sort of a war movie in their minds, and what they got was strange; it was surreal, it was long. And of course, I was very concerned. When a movie first comes out, you have no idea which way it’s going to go. And so we did a lot of work, we kind of pulled out — I don’t know what it was — 20, 25 minutes; we tried to sort of make it more conventional. When it did come out, even in this form, it was controversial; people didn’t totally know what to make of it. It got some Academy nominations, but it lost to a picture most people don’t remember so well [Editor’s note: Kramer vs. Kramer]. At first I was quite worried, but little by little, people just kept going to see it in LA and in New York. Little by little, I started to realize [audiences] found it stimulating.

Anyway, years later, I was sitting in a little hotel room with a little 17-inch television in London, and it came on, and I always liked the beginning of the picture, so I started watching it, and I was planning to see the whole thing. But I watched the whole thing, and my reaction was, “Gee, this is nowhere near as far out or as unusual as we thought at the time.” And you know, as often happens, art or work that everyone finds controversial, 15 years later… You know, I always like to say the abstract art of one period becomes the wallpaper a few years later. And I thought, gee, that original version had a lot of stuff that we liked but we took out. And really, people had said, “What happened to the French plantation?” So we just basically put it back. And the “Redux” version was nothing more than the original version as it had been before we shortened it for the release.

When you were putting together the “Redux” version, or even now when you see it, do you think to yourself, “Knowing what I know now, I would have done this or that?” Or are the circumstances of its making what makes it what it is?

FFC: I think you’re right. You know, in those days especially, when I made a film, I always tried to make it in a style appropriate to what I felt was the theme, so my films really are quite different, one to the other, because each one was a kind of experiment. Godfather was very classical, the way it was shot, the style, the whole driving force of it was more classical, almost Shakespearean. Apocalypse Now kind of took on the format of the essence of the war, which was big and sort of twice as many volts as is appropriate. I always try to give myself to whatever the subject matter was and be guided by that experience. So it’s true, Apocalypse was very much created out of my impression of the war, modified by the Joseph Conrad book, and with the experience of ourselves in making it, as what guided the style.


When the film first screened at Cannes in 1979, you famously said, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” What did you mean by that?

FFC: That sentence was said at the Cannes Film Festival, and when it happened… The film was being made in the Philippines, far away from the center of anything, and the reporting on the film was, “Oh, this crazy guy. He’s out of control,” and they used to call it “Apocalypse When.” It was just being portrayed as this wild, irresponsible picture, and no one really ever said, at the time, “Well gee, the guy is financing it himself. It’s not as though he’s just running away with the studio’s money or anything.” Even when it was finished and we had come back, you know, with all the controversy related to typhoons and Marty’s [Martin Sheen’s] heart attack, so I was really sick of the way it was being portrayed.

When I got back, people said, “Oh, this film’s a disaster, it’s unreleasable.” We weren’t really quite finished with it, but I thought the only way to protect myself was to take it to Cannes unfinished and just show it, and try to let the film speak for itself. It was the only way I knew how to stop the constant trashing of the movie. So of course, at the press conference in Cannes, it was an extremely… You know, after several years of making and cutting it; I had everything at stake. The other movies that were big were movies like Superman and these comic book stories, and here’s a guy who goes and makes really what was the first film about Vietnam, which was a taboo subject, even though [The Deer Hunter] came out sooner, because they got their film edited quicker, but we sort of broke the ice. And instead of saying, “This is sort of a courageous thing to do,” it was put down. So at Cannes, I tried to explain the experience itself, my going there, putting everything on the line, mortgaging my house, making this film, going through countless difficulties, was an experience almost like Vietnam. My experience making it was a metaphor for the war itself, which was, after all, kind of the first “Californian” war. Whereas, before that, always there were guys from the East, and there was always a character from Brooklyn. You know, for the first time, you had a California sensibility, with rock ‘n’ roll; you had The Doors, you had surfing, drugs. So my feeling was that our experience in going there, in a jungle, with our technology and our American sensibilities, for me, the film really was made with the guts of a Vietnam. And that’s what I meant by that sentence.

One of the things that struck me as I rewatched Apocalypse Now was that you watch The Godfather and there’s not a sense that what these guys are doing is wrong; there’s a sort of moral ambiguity to what’s going on. And in The Conversation, Harry Caul tries to avoid thinking about the consequences of his actions. But Kurtz says it himself that in the jungle, morality goes out the window. Is that what initially attracted you to make this variation on Heart of Darkness?

FFC: I guess that I feel, of all the human evils, of which we have thousands of years of record and our own contemporary experiences, the most horrible evil of all is hypocrisy. It’s this idea that there are those who do bad and there are those who do good, when, in fact, even the people who supposedly do good are saying they do good to mask the fact that they do evil. I think, if anything, hypocrisy was at the heart of the Conrad novel, because he says at one point, I think, “I hate the stench of a lie.” Without thinking about it in terms of the things I might be interested in, I’m constantly struck with how do-gooders are, in the end, doing evil, and it’s masked by the fact that they lie about it. Pro-lifers, people who love life, who believe in the sanctity of the life of a child, they’ll go and murder a man, or that people devoted to religion and goodliness can abuse children, that our politicians who say one thing are really doing another. So this human aspect of hypocrisy fascinates me because if one could eliminate the lie, and one could eliminate hypocrisy, then you could be on the road to eliminating so many terrible things that plague people.


You’ve said at this stage in your career you’re making the movies you want to make. With something like Apocalypse Now, there was obviously a lot of pressure on you from the studios, but now that you’re self-financing, are you in a happier place?

FFC: Totally. I have a lot of my colleagues of that era who got into [the movie business] because they wanted to make cinema. They didn’t want to get into some sort of predigested business just to make money and to have the grosses published every week in the newspaper. That would have appeared to me, as it does now, as an absurdity. With Apocalypse Now, it was, “Wow, we have this incredible script and we’ll make a great big picture like A Bridge Too Far or The Guns of Navarone, and it will make a lot of money, and then we’ll have money to make little personal art films.” Look, the whole reason one wants to do lower budget films is because the lower the budget, the bigger the ideas, the bigger the themes, the more interesting the art. Otherwise, when the films gross so much, they’re just super controlled by a group of people — and today, they have it down more than ever how to control a film. They’ll replace the director, or they’ll choose the director on his ability come across with this preconceived project.

I gladly, I voluntarily gave up the kind of commercial film career I had going as soon as I had enough money to finance my own films. I didn’t make that money necessarily from the film business, but I eventually made a lot of money and that’s what I do. Of course, I consider myself unbelievably fortunate, and I’m pretty content with my life.

And you make a fine bottle of wine.

FFC: Well, that’s partly what helps me.

Next, Coppola talks about the modern YouTube era, some of his favorite films, and how winemaking is like filmmaking.

At the end of Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, you said something that was very interesting. I think it’s the last shot when you said, “To me, the great hope is that these little 8mm video recorders will come out, and people who don’t normally make movies are gonna be making them. For once, the so-called professionalism of movies will be destroyed.” That film was made 30 years ago, and now we’re in the YouTube era, and people have cameras that are really small but technologically more advanced than a lot of state-of-the-art cameras back then. Are you encouraged by this new style of making movies?

FFC: I have all the admiration for the new generation that I do for youth in general, because, you know, it’s true that every generation, the kids can run the mile faster, they can play the French horn with more dexterity. That’s the whole idea of our generation. My only heartbreak is the [lack of] opportunities in terms of what they make those films with, the video cameras, the less expensive technology. The issue of distribution is worse than ever, and of course, YouTube is an opportunity to get a short film out there, and it’s become a cultural phenomenon. But everything today still competes for the attention of an audience. And it’s not just film or theater or those art forms, it’s news — cable news is entertainment, all politics to me is entertainment. Everybody is trying to get the attention of this audience — as they call it, “eyeballs.” The problem still remains for cinema as an ever-experimental form. And then to get people to see it — the studios have totally been brought up by telecom companies so that all they want to do is make money to make the big companies’ stock price go up. A lot of the young people make beautiful films or big films or are able to finance them, but they can’t get anyone to distribute them, they can’t get anyone to see them, so they go to these thousands of film festivals. So I still believe that even though a young kid might be able to make a masterpiece or something that changes the direction of cinema, the issue of how to get it to people is still not solved.

Indeed, the entire so-called business model of the film industry is now in flux. I mean, with the DVD and Blockbuster going out of business, and even Amazon and in a state of confusion, no one knows how it’s going to really evolve, how this video on demand is going to, in fact, deliver these films. I’m always waiting for some young person to make a film that changes the rules of filming, because it’s become so predigested and so controlled. You go to a movie, and unless it’s a Coen brothers movie or the like, you’re going to see something you already saw before.


So what are you working on next?

FFC: Well, as always, I’m always kind of looking for what it might be that becomes some new form of cinema, and I’m always weeks away from starting a new film. I am now, in fact — and it’s the same formula in that I’m going to finance it myself so the budget won’t be very good. I have a whole new angle on what I think may be a form of cinema that’s never been tried before, and I’m going to try it. It makes my life always interesting, always busy.

What are some of your favorite films?

FFC: When you start talking about the greatest films ever made, there’s such a big collection of them despite the only 100 years that we’ve been making movies. There were five of the greatest movies ever made before 1927 if you think about it. I don’t have one all-time favorite, but some films that I hold in great esteem, are a few films from the silent era that I just think are so beautiful. You know, F. W. Murnau had a wonderful quote once; he said, “We knew that sound was inevitable, and that films would have sound, and it was right that they did. But it came too soon.” And that’s because they were really creating, they were discovering cinema in those days, so films around that time [are fascinating] — you know, The Joyless Street, Murnau’s Sunrise.

But then throughout the international cinema, films like the Polish film Ashes and Diamonds, then Fellini, two great films — well, he made 12 great films — but Fellini’s 8 ½ and, to a degree, La Dolce Vita really nails the era — people could see La Dolce Vita 1,000 years from now and get a real clear idea of what the culture was going through in that period. Of course, any number of films from [Akira] Kurosawa; you know, you could say Seven Samurai, but he is a giant in that he made a dozen masterpieces. And [Yasujirō] Ozu, and I mean, you go through the different nations and you get these unbelievable films. Of course, the Americans, films like The Best Years of Our Lives or any number of William Wyler films or King Vidor movies… There’s such an abundance of great films that were made in 100 years that we have had cinema that I almost think that the world, or civilization, was waiting for the technology so that there could be a cinema, and then, when finally it became possible through technology, suddenly there was this rush that had been saved up for hundreds, maybe thousands of years of films that made up Goethe didn’t make or that the masters of the past… It’s remarkable to me how, in 100 years, so much great work was done. It amazes me.


One last question: what are the similarities between winemaking and filmmaking?

FFC: Well, I think there’s a lot of similarities. I mean, basically both begin with the gathering of things; [with wine] you gather the grapes, and in filmmaking you’re gathering the result of 60 days or 30 days or 50 days of harvesting the work of actors and other colleagues. And then you get into a second phase with the grapes, in which you sort them and begin to select and blend and try to improve upon what nature gave you. And of course in a film you have editing, in which you go through 60 days or 40 days and pick out what you think are the best moments that you had. And then you move into a finishing phase where, in the film, you would refine and add the music and the sound effects and the final color balance and ultimately put it into its package, and you have the same thing in wine with the preparation and the oak barrels and the finishing and refining and then ultimately the bottle of packaging itself. So maybe all art forms have those three phases.

Apocalypse Now Three-Disc Full Disclosure Edition is released October 19. Click here to explore Coppola’s full filmography.