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Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: 'Apocalypse Now'

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Mar 21, 2011 | 6:36am EDT

Apocalypse NowSince we’re doing a series on Francis Ford Coppola, it’s long past time we talk about what a director does. Before I read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, I had some vague notion that the director “made” a movie. That’s sort of true. But when one thinks of the specifics of making a movie – editing, design, cinematography – the director doesn’t do any of that. One of the reasons the “technical” categories in the Oscars won’t ever go away is because those “technical” categories honor the people who, you know, make movies. It would be like handing out awards for the best cars of the year, but only honoring the “professional drivers on a closed course.”

So if a director doesn’t shoot, cut, design or act, what does he do?

A director chooses a story to tell and outlines, to a greater or lesser degree of specificity, the vision for how that story will be told on screen. Then the director chooses collaborators. This is no mean feat. Choosing the right editor or cinematographer will make or break a film as much as choosing the right cast, and not everyone can match the right artist to the story he wants to tell. Once everyone’s been hired, the director conducts everyone in the realization of his vision.

Some directors, like David Lynch or Steven Spielberg, let the vision come together as they film. Other directors, like Stanley Kubrick or Douglas Sirk, are far more autocratic about the whole thing. Either way, realizing the vision of the movie, keeping everyone on the same page, moving from the micro- to the macro-, and pushing through to the end is really, really difficult.

A director must be a manager, a leader, a strategic organizer, a time manager, must have a rudimentary understanding of the jobs everyone around him is performing and be conscious of cash flow – all the while holding everyone involved to an artistic vision that perhaps only the director can see. On a shoestring budget with a cast of three shooting on DV in someone’s apartment, this can be difficult. Imagine what it’s like in the jungle with 300 people, millions of dollars, and no end in sight.

In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Francis Ford Coppola during the shooting of Apocalypse Now. Biskind outlines Coppola’s sexual dalliances, financial indulgences and artistic confusion. Apocalypse Now uses Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a starting point to create a morally responsible take on Vietnam. For real, without blinking. In the late '70s. That’s what Coppola wanted to do.

One of the big stories surrounding the production of Apocalypse Now is that all through shooting – which lasted over a year – Coppola didn’t have an ending. The original script by John Milius ended in a big battle, a traditional war story, good vs. evil ... that sort of thing. Coppola felt strongly that ending a movie about Vietnam like a conventional war story would be morally reprehensible and artistically corrupt, but he didn’t have an alternative – so he kept digging, exploring, searching, rewriting, and experimenting. Watch the movie and decide for yourself if he succeeded, but either way Coppola did what a director is supposed to do: stick to his vision and tell the truth.

A lot of the reportage on Coppola’s inability to find an ending during Apocalypse Now condemns him, but to me it shows him at his best as a director. He sticks to the vision. He sticks to what he feels like to be the artistic truth of the film, no matter what. He fights for the truth. In a cynical and decadent world, it sounds corny to say, but it is what gives his movies their individuality and strength – even the ones that don’t work for everyone.

At the end of Hearts of Darkness, a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, when the principle shooting’s done, there’s a cut to a title card that says “2 1/2 Years Later” and then we see the grand premier. It’s as if nothing happened in those two and a half years.

Apocalypse NowWell, what happened was something like four editors cut and re-cut the movie over and over and over again. They started out with 1.25 million feet of film. That’s 230 hours. All of that film got cut, re-cut, and cut again. And then Walter Murch went in and built the sound. None of the sound brought back from the jungle could be used, so Murch and his team had to invent the sound of the jungle, the river, the war scenes, and everything else from scratch. On top of that he layered synthetic effects, the music of The Doors, voiceover narration, and what would now be called ambient music. What Murch created was so in-depth, so complete, and contributed so much to the viewing experience of the film that it necessitated a new title for the credits: Sound Designer.

Between 1972 and 1979, Francis Ford Coppola made three major masterpieces and one minor one. He won five Academy Awards and the Palm d’Or twice. His movies made so much money and had such deep appeal that the studios had to redesign the way they distributed movies.

During post-production on Apocalypse Now, Coppola was so convinced that the movie would flop that he decided to make a romantic, happy movie about love that would help him make his money back. That movie was One From the Heart. You haven’t seen it, but it flopped so badly and bankrupted Coppola so deeply that it dictated Coppola’s artistic decisions for the next decade. What mistake did Coppola make with One From the Heart? The same mistake he had always made: he couldn’t help making a work of art.

Next week: One From the Heart.

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