As far as Hollywood's venerated filmmakers are concerned, Francis Ford Coppola is a force of nature. Gregarious and articulate, pragmatic and pretentious, his boundless energy is palpable in every word he utters, even in the wee hours of the morning, and he pulls no punches, whether he's making incisive observations about the movie industry or acknowledging the distance he's gone out on a limb to get his movies made. Because of his vast and accomplished body of work, it's difficult to stake a definitive claim as to which film is his crowning achievement; but in the interim, 'Apocalypse Now' is as suitable a choice as any, and its arrival on Blu-ray this week makes it a particularly worthy topic of conversation, if not celebration.
Navigating fuzzy reception and dropped calls, Coppola recently spoke to Cinematical via telephone in conjunction with the Blu-ray release of 'Apocalypse Now.' In addition to clarifying this collection's legitimate claim as the 'Total Disclosure' edition, Coppola reflected on the production and legacy of the film, and offered a few opinions on the future of the filmmaking industry, not to mention his place within it.
Cinematical: The previous versions of this were already very comprehensive in terms of bonus content. Does this Blu-ray release include everything you could say about 'Apocalypse Now,' or is there anything else you could examine beyond what's here?
Francis Ford Coppola: Well, my feeling is that there really was one version of 'Apocalypse Now' when we first edited it and we showed it to the distributors who, in some cases, risked early on to have it – the Japanese distributors or the French distributors – when we showed it to them back in the day when it opened. We were very aware that they thought, and I guess deep down I thought that the movie was very unusual and it wasn't like the kind of typical WWII film that we had sort of sold it as. Originally when we made the film, we had represented that we had Steve McQueen, and in fact he was extremely interested, but he wasn't able to go off and do it. He was ill at the time, so we showed this film, and people were kind of agape at how unusual it was, how many areas it went into, and how surreal it was. I also had my entire personal life up as collateral for the loan, so we went in there and we cut out, I don't know what it was, a half-hour, and we tried to make it as much [like] 'A Bridge Too Far' or some big war movie as we could. Because the idea at first was to try to make a movie in a genre that would be successful and make a lot of money and spend the rest of my life making little art films.
[But that] was what I wanted to do, and what most of my generation really in their heart wanted to do – they wanted to make personal films. So we did that and the film came out and of course it was controversial; we took it to Cannes just basically to show it to everyone so they'd get off my back and stop speculating what a disaster it was. We won the Cannes festival and the film came out and it was greeted by all sorts of tough criticism and ultimately as you know the big film of the year was 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' but 'Apocalypse Now' didn't go away. People kept going to the Pacific Dome Theatre in Los Angeles and the Ziegfield Theater, and they were getting something out of it that was sort of hard to put your finger on. We started getting reports, and I was despondent because I thought, oh God, I'm going to lose all of my money, and what am I going to do. But they said, no, no – people are getting something out of it! Over the years, it just never went away.
And the film has basically continued to become something that's interested people, and here we are 30 years or something later, and it's still of interest where the films that were successful when it came out are sort of forgotten. So I have to come to the conclusion that that's the real success you strive for, that your work is going to be considered relevant or interesting 30 or 40 years later or maybe more. So I have to be sort of sanguine about it and sort of shrug and go, what can I say – I thought I was ashamed of it at first when we first finished it because I thought, oh, it's just so unusual.
In this case, the Blu-ray, the picture was so beautifully photographed and the sound was so unusual. I'm not sure if you realize, but the sound of 'Apocalypse Now' became the basis for the 5.1 quadraphonic sound that Dolby [implemented] and now every movie uses. It originally came from 'Apocalypse,' because that is the first time a film was mixed in that way with that protocol, and then Dolby adopted it to be the theater standard. So all of that has retained, so people, when they have their beautiful expensive flat-screen 1080p high-quality picture and sound, they need to go buy this copy of 'Apocalypse' to see how it looks, because it's the big demo reel of what movie and picture and sound has become.
In terms of the content in 'Apocalypse Now,' I did a few things that rectified what I think were either technical limitations or mistakes in the previous DVD version. One was that to see the movie, you had to change in the middle of the movie and put another [disc] in to get the whole movie, and we thought that was a real dumb idea. I was against it at the time but was told that since we wanted them to have both versions, just at the push of a button, you can see the original 1979 movie or you can see the longer, full what we call 'Redux' version, and the compromise was that you had to switch the discs if you wanted to see that. Also, there was some – in those days, many people had televisions that were the classic square aspect ratio, and now everyone is in love with widescreen flat screen, so the aspect ration that we opted to do it in, the previous DVD, was a compromise to also be okay for people who had square televisions, where now it can be the really true aspect ratio that we shot it in. So that was a wonderful opportunity to improve, not to mention the extraordinary quality of Blu-ray itself; if you have the right equipment, Blu-ray is very impressive. That was a joy.
Then we took the chance, and the opportunity, to go in and I think it's long overdue, to show the role John Milius had. I personally interviewed John Milius about where the hell did these ideas come from, because they didn't come from me – and John is a wonderful person to hear him tell stories. And there's a terrific extra that we recently did where John Milius explains where this all came from and where he originated the screenplay. I worked on the screenplay too but I worked on the screenplay after he already wrote it, so that's not the same. And equally, a new thing that is interesting is a conversation with Martin Sheen, so there are those things, and there are other extras that I think are worthwhile.
And then, for the first time, there's the inclusion of my wife's film, 'Hearts of Darkness,' which at the time [the 'Apocalypse Now' DVD] came out last time, it had never been on home video, so it wasn't exactly possible for me to combine it. We had called that version 'The Complete Dossier,' and there were some DVD aficionados who said, "if this is the complete version, why don't you show 'Hearts of Darkness?'" I don't agree that a documentary about the making of the film necessarily is part of the film, but that is such a famous documentary and a good one in that my wife had total access to the kind of [process] that it was definitely a worthwhile thing, so we included it too. So this is, we call it 'Total Disclosure,' but it's as complete an edition of all of these materials as is possible; I mean, there's nothing left that I really have to add.
Cinematical: Since this film has sort of been vindicated over time, do you have any other films that you would like to revisit or reassemble that might have been maligned at the time of their release?
Coppola: Sure. I mean, some of these films, people aren't interested in, but I would love just for the hell of it, since I didn't do the final cut, I would love to take 20 minutes out of 'Finian's Rainbow' and give it the shape that I think would make it more enjoyable. But I think no one cares about 'Finian's Rainbow,' I go, my God, it's so long. For the final cut, I wasn't there, I went off to make 'The Rain People,'and I was just 22. But I would love to have someone give me that chance. There was a lot of material in 'The Cotton Club' that was taken out that I think was beautiful, the sort of back story, the African-American story that sort of got shrunk – that would be fun. But nothing that I feel is [major], just little stupid things. Like in the movie I made in 'New York Stories,' my little segment got way cut down because I was told by Jeff Katzenberg, who was the executive at the time, that for three films to fit in there, [it has to be shorter], but it did my film a great disservice because it had removed all of the dark parts of the story. But again, I don't think these are very important things, or anybody cares, so I don't think I'll get the opportunity. And it's not even a big thing; I could do the 'Finian's Rainbow' thing in two days.
Fortunately, Warner Brothers did allow me to do some changes and add some scenes back to 'The Outsiders,' which I was grateful for because what usually happens is when a movie opens, no one knows whether it's going to be a flop or a hit. It's a roll of the dice, it could go either way, so you tend to do things on that first opening edition that you cut things out, you try to make it shorter, and you're being pressured by the distributor to do that. Later on when it survives and it's over whether it's going to be a hit or a miss and it's whatever it is, then you sort of say, well gee, at least let it be in its original form and put the footage back, or in the case of 'Finian's Rainbow,' cut it out. But I don't think there's anything of importance; I certainly am more interested in making new films and to experiment with filmmaking. I think everyone realizes that it's gotten a bit boring, the movies, and maybe there are some things about the form itself that might change, and that would be fun.
Cinematical: Well, they just discovered the original negative of Stanley Kubrick's 'Fear and Desire,' and there's interest even though that film isn't very good. I bet there would be interest if you were to put together what you consider to be your definitive cut of these movies.
Coppola: Well, again, they're not important movies. It's costly, you've got to do the mix and blah blah blah, but if ever there was a chance, I would be willing to do it. I always let the companies who own them know that. But it's hard, because like with 'The Rain People,' there isn't even a DVD out, so you can't even buy it, and that I don't want to change, I like it the way it is, but I had to ask Warner Brothers if they would please sell it to me or could I have it back. But no, I think the cinema is ever exciting; between you and me, I'm going to start shooting a film in about five days, and it's such a privilege to finance it yourself – albeit, the budgets are low. But you gain a lot through not having a trailer and not having a lot of resources and not being able to get the best this guy and that guy, but the joy of being able to really make film that perhaps has never been done before, or pursue an idea that's never been tried out. That's a thrill.
Cinematical: Does that project have a name yet?
Coppola: Nope. No, as you can imagine, I just sort of do it because I pay for it. I don't ask anyone if I can, so I don't feel like I have to say anything about it (laughs). I have a very wacky idea of how to show it for the first time – I have a whole theory of how to avoid it being such a dead-on-arrival form.
Cinematical: At this point do you have any interest in studio filmmaking? Obviously so much of what's made is these sort of tentpole releases, but does, say, the mythmaking of comic book adaptations appeal to you? Particularly since that's sort of what you did with 'Apocalypse Now' – filter your ideas through a familiar genre.
Coppola: Well, I made 'Apocalypse Now' guaranteeing the budget with my own personal wealth and it was hard to get anyone to let me do it and I'd just come off a year of having made 'Godfather,' 'The Conversation' and 'The Godfather II,' and it was almost impossible for me to do it. So imagine today, in an era of such predigested committee filmmaking, from studios that are not even owned by the showmen who loved movies; they may have been vulgar and a pain in the neck, the showmen, but today the studios are just subsidiaries of telecom companies and cable companies and just considered to earn revenue so that the stock price goes up. I mean, I wouldn't work in that kind of an environment unless I had a gun against my head - and even then I might take the graceful way out.
It's absurd what they've done to the movie business. One day they will be condemned for it; I mean, imagine - a movie comes out and in all of the newspapers, they list what the box office was, and they're not required by law to list what they spent on the advertising. That's totally unacceptable. It never was done before; when did they start publishing how much the movie earned, as if the fact that the movie earned $30 million in 5,000 theaters was relevant when they spent $100 million to get that. I love Hollywood, I love the movie industry, I'm a product of it, I'm its child, but I greatly disagree [with that approach] and I couldn't imagine a scenario where I would want to make a film in that process. They're more controlling than they ever were; they've got it down, how to as they call it vet every single person is hired on the crew who is considered by the studio as to whether or not they're likely to conform to their wishes. They spend millions of dollars rewriting projects, getting a script in theory at each turn, and I can't admire that.
You know, and then you have real heroes like the Coen Brothers, who manage to make a film every time that you've never seen before. Or Steven Soderbergh, who will go and do a film in the system and then turns around and makes a film like 'The Informant' with Matt Damon that's really fascinating. So there are heroes who have managed to figure out how to operate within the given [boundaries] but it's not even a real business. If you knew about how all of the accounting works and stuff, you would be horrified.
Cinematical: At the 1979 Cannes press conference, you uttered the famous quote, "we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." Looking back, as much as that may have been a provocative statement at the time, do you feel like that is at all accurate in terms of your career or the industry at large?
Coppola: What I was referring to was the fact that I went there, and I always had a technique in making films of trying to suit the style of making the film and the imagery and the photography and all of the decisions according to what I thought was the theme of the movie. So that's why my films are different; it's not like I just made a lot of gangster films – and I made 'The Godfather' in a very classic style. And I made 'Apocalypse Now' in a totally overblown, electrocution style because those were all appropriate to what those films were about. So I always thought you have to give yourself to the movie, totally, and make it in the style and according to the truth of that subject matter. So in the case of 'Apocalypse Now,' what I meant is that we were sort of like the American Army: we had all of this equipment, we had lots of money, we had lots of personnel and boats and helicopters, and in a way I had put myself in a situation so like the role of these California style Americans that there had to be some truth.
Whenever I make a film, even now, I try to give myself 100 percent to the subject matter and the theme and trust that it's a good decision – that it will make something unique and different. No doubt, 'Apocalypse Now' was a trauma – it had all of my money at stake, at the same time we were going over budget, at the same time the press back at home was chronicling our folly. What was I – 33 years old? With three kids, it seemed like everything was at risk. But that was sort of, I felt, what was necessary to give into the themes and the story, and I've done it since then; I've asked myself, well, what's the theme, and then that's the style I'm going to make the movie in. Now as I'm older, I'm not totally in an experimental mode, but it's hard for my personality to not be in experimental mode.
Cinematical: Do you feel like the way that artists like yourself were given such free reign at the end of the 1970s ultimately reinforced the bottom-line mentality from the studios that you're talking about? It seems like the studios now exert more control than ever, and even if the end result is something as amazing as 'Apocalypse Now,' they might not consider the expenditure worthwhile.
Coppola: And the risk. Once a very important man and a famous man who worked at movie studios and had a lot of wisdom looked in my eyes and said, "Francis, how do you make a film like 'The Godfather' that is both an artistic success and a commercial success?" And I looked at him and I said, risk. Without risk, there can't be a great anything, because there's danger in going that route, to make a film that so connects with someone's personal life, their inner life, their outer life, that there's a chance it will be a failure. And the studios would rather make a film, well, I mean the financiers – and maybe me, if I had an investment – would rather make a film that has so little chance to lose... that it will probably lose (laughs). That's sort of what they do; most of the films that are made are big financial losses, and they really add up.
Cinematical: There was obviously so much passion that went into the making of 'Apocalypse Now.' Is it hard to preserve that fire in your belly throughout your career, or does it just different forms in the other films that you make?
Coppola: The cinema is just such a being and a magnificent art form that – you know, a lot of people ask me 'what's your favorite movie?' and I think, gee, I could tell you ten favorite movies before 1927, and I wonder how is it that the cinema is only 100 years old and yet it is so impressively shock full of masterpieces from all over the world – Japan, Italy and everywhere. The only answer I can come up with is that the cinema, mankind was waiting for it; it didn't have the technology to do it, but it had the yearning for an art form that combined poetry and visual imagery and sound and music and drama.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, they were just waiting for the cinema, and finally it was born at the turn of the century, and then just there was this rush of great work. That's the only way I can explain it, and that is the allure of the cinema; you're always passionate when you think about it, because you learn so much from it and it's so intriguing and so magical. And now I find that more than ever, although I have very infinitesimal budgets compared to what people have to work with in movies, is that it's more thrilling than ever because it can be more personal than I ever could consider before. But you know what I say? The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas.