Francis Ford Coppola Reveals Little Known Secrets About Apocalypse Now

Posted: September 1, 2014 in Movies

Apocalypse Now is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Francis Ford Coppola and other members of the film’s technical crew (editor Walter Murch, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro , screenwriter John Milius and producer Fred Roos) were part of a panel at the Telluride Film Festival that talked about the making of the cinema classic on August 29th. Some of the horror, the horror of making the film slipped through, as well as an inordinate amount of trivia, facts and secrets.

Here are the most interesting reveals from that panel. All quotes are from The Hollywood Reporter.

  • The film cost $31 million and was entirely financed by Coppola at an interest rate of 17 percent.
  • Both Marlon Brando and costar Dennis Hopper shunned taking showers. Hopper reeked of the smell of cocaine. Brando reported to the set so grossly over-weight that he couldn’t walk very far, forcing Coppola to shoot most of Brando’s scene while sitting down and in silhouette.
  • Brando could never memorize any of his character’s lines. Coppola would trail behind with a tape recorder as Brando started to improvise. After five days Coppola gave Brando a tape that contained the actor’s mutterings and some snatches of prose lifted from the source novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Brando would wear headphones and just push a button on the cassette player to do a line reading. “He didn’t have a good memory, that’s why he’d say, ‘Uh… uh…’ and push the button,” Coppola noted.

Opening scene of Apocalypse Now

  • The famous opening scene was literally pulled from the trash.

“Francis was drunk, desperate, and rummaging around in garbage cans of film saying, ‘I’ve gotta find an opening scene for my movie!’ ” Said Coppola, “The ‘trim’ barrels were filled with film you threw away. Garbage, basically, thrown-away film turned upside down and used to space out the sound on the sound track. I reached into a barrel of this film and at random pulled out a piece of film and put it on the Moviola. It was a lot of smoke, occasionally you’d see a helicopter skid go by, just very abstract. For the hell of it, I looked at another bin of trim and one said ‘The End,’ The Doors music. I said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if we started the movie with ‘This is the end’ at the beginning?’ So that’s a case of destiny or just chance that helped make the beginning of the movie.”

  • The explosions in that opening scene were record breaking for the time.

“That was the biggest practical explosion ever done on film,” said editor Murch. “It was the largest, most expensive military film that was made without any cooperation from the government.” Added Coppola, “[Then] Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld [who later ignited the Vietnam-like Iraq debacle] categorically refused to allow us [military equipment and personnel].” However, said Murch, “A lot of ex-soldiers [from Vietnam] came to advise us, so in a sense it had a different point of view, rather than the POV of the established military.”

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now
Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

Coppola credits editor Murch for one of the great visual rhymes in all of film history: helicopter blades flowing into fan blades showing Sheen drunk in bed in a Saigon hotel room.

“I just made it a fan; Walter ingeniously made it a helicopter,” said Coppola. “Francis said, ‘The film needs to get crazier and crazier as it goes along, and if you work on it for any time, you become crazier,’ ” said Murch. “So you have the most normal scene, the beginning, because you haven’t worked on it yet. The irony is that the beginning is arguably more crazy than anything else in the film.”

  • Coppola relied on a dream to give Martin Sheen motivation for his character.

“I had a dream that somehow the key to getting the actor to disclose all that was in him was his vanity. Because Martin was a low-key person, such a good person, a handsome guy, very open, but you sensed that maybe there was a lot more to him. So I started goading him on his vanity. ‘Look at yourself in the mirror, you’re so handsome, look at your face, look at how beautiful you are,’ ” said Coppola. “He started to get really weird. He punched his own image in the mirror, and all this poured out of him.”
“Including his blood,” noted Scott Foundas, the Tellurida panel moderator.

The gory scene was needed to explain Sheen’s character state of mind to the audience.

“This isn’t just an ordinary guy, this is a complicated man who’s seen things, has stuff in his soul and heart that isn’t easy to understand,” noted Coppola.

  • Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, famous for his collaborations with Bernado Bertolucci, was reluctant to shoot what he initially thought was just a war movie.

“I said, ‘Don’t worry, this is not a war movie,’ ” said Coppola. Storaro realized Apocalypse Now was about the imposition of one civilization on another, which he expressed by using light and darkness, unnatural artificial colors imposed on natural colors. “It was supposed to be like The Guns of Navarone, but all of a sudden it was about colored smoke and all this weirdness,” said Coppola. “I knew it was my chance to take all my principles and put it in this incredible fresco that was Apocalypse Now, good and evil, darkness and light, one culture imposing itself on another.”

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