“You always want to make a movie no one wants to make” Francis Ford Coppola explains, “if you want to make art you have to take a risk and be comfortable that you know best.” With five Oscars in hand and The Godfather released to much acclaim the studios wanted to focus on a sequel immediately, but in 1979 Coppola want to make Apocalypse Now, a film no one wanted to pay for and no one wanted to act in. 40 years later it was gamble worth taking.
Filmed at the 2019 Tribeca Festival, this 50-minute interview accompanied an anniversary screening of the now seminal war movie, examining the process of creation, the film’s legacy and Coppola’s working ethos. Interviewed by fellow director Steven Soderbergh, who ran from detention to make the film’s first screening in his Louisiana town and saw it 17 times in the following weeks, Coppola gives a very honest yet modest account of his experience making the first Vietnam film.
Success breeds success and in 1979 directors were expected to keep working within the same genre, but Coppola was keen to explore different styles in order to find his voice. You make established movies within the film industry in order to make the personal movies, Coppola explains, not realising that Apocalypse Now would become such a personal movie for him, especially having to finance much of it using money he had made from The Godfather. Not even the American government would cooperate with most of the equipment including the helicopters provided by the Philippines which kept having to fly away to participate in operations.
Even on the shoot, being behind the camera was often “miserable” for Coppola, saddled with the financial risk plus responsibilities to provide for his family. He talks with great respect about the arrival of Marlon Brando for three weeks towards the end of the filming schedule but having to coax him in front of the camera. On a $1 million per week, Brando spent five days distracted and rejecting ideas for his character before finally responding to ideas from Coppola’s annotated paperback of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which he referred to throughout filming.
Directors, Coppola insists, don’t get great performances from actors, they are just the coach and in telling a story as complicated as the Vietnam experience, he looked for something alive in the actors, in the moment or emerging from the movie as it took shape. So, while films are scripted and storyboarded in advance, Coppola insists that movies must evolve as they are created, that they are “trying to talk to you” in a way that determines its final shape.
The months following the shoot were equally rough with press reports suggesting the film was a dud that would never be finished, and to quell these additional pressures Coppola entered Apocalypse Now at Cannes where he jointly won the top prize which gave it momentum for a wider opening. Terrible things can happen on films, he states, but you have to make the best of it.
Even when you get the Oscar, Coppola jokes the statues are not quite as hardy as you would hope, and he tells a great story about throwing his out of the window in a rage where they became mangled and fell to bits like the Maltese Falcon. They were reissued by the Academy after a white lie about a cleaner dropping them.
No amount of success, he concludes, can get pictures automatically green-lit by the studio and while Apocalypse Now was a huge gamble, the determination to make a film about a conflict in which the US had too much money and too much time, where their choice of weaponry proved they were no longer the good guys, was certainly worth the risk.
Available here until 12 June 2020