Journey Up the River: An Interview With Francis Coppola (11/01/79)

A decade ago, Apocalypse Now was a screenplay by John Milius, based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s parable of imperialism and savagery, Heart of Darkness–the story, as it happens, that Orson Welles meant to film when he first arrived in Hollywood in 1939, the year Francis Coppola was born.Conrad’s tale was set in Africa in the late nineteenth century; Milius set his during the Vietnam War. Coppola bought rights to the script early on, when, in Hollywood, the notion of a movie about Vietnam was an anathema; George Lucas was to direct on a fairly low budget. In 1975, Coppola decided to make the movie himself. There were still no Vietnam movies; that the project was now backed by Coppola’s reputation, and by a budget of close to $12 million, likely opened the way for the Vietnam pictures that followed Apocalypse and, as things turned out, preceded it.

Coppola began reworking Milius’ script, and in 1976 took his crew and his family to the Philippines to shoot. Gossip and rumor have followed the production ever since; with the Godfather pictures, Coppola had emerged as this country’s most important and powerful filmmaker, and the question of how far he could go–and how far other filmmakers might go–would, it seemed, be answered by Apocalypse Now.

Coppola had already marked the trail for America’s younger, film-school-trained directors. Born in Detroit, he grew up on Long Island, the son of Italian immigrants; his father, Carmine Coppola, was for ten years a flautist with Toscanini’s NBC Symphony. A victim of polio as a child, Coppola began putting together films from home-movie footage before he was ten; he went to Hofstra University to study theater arts, graduated in 1959 and entered film school at UCLA, where he studied with Dorothy Arzner, one of the few women ever to make a career as a director in Hollywood. Still in school, Coppola shot nudies; in 1962, he went to work for Roger Corman, king of the exploitation picture. In Ireland with Cor­man, Coppola seized the chance to direct a quickie horror film; with $20,000 from Corman and $20,000 from a Britain-based producer, he shot Dementia 13, still a regular on late-night TV.

That same year, Coppola married Elea­nor Neil, whom he’d met in Ireland. Winner of the Samuel Goldwyn Award for a screenplay called PiIma, PiIma, he was hired as a writer by Seven-Arts and worked on scripts for Reflections in a Golden Eye, Is Paris Burn­ing? and This Property Is Condemned before directing his first major studio feature, You’re a Big Boy Now (1967), which he submitted as his master’s thesis. He followed with Finian’s Rainbow (1968), a Fred Astaire musical that died at the box office, and then made The Rain People (1969), a far more personal film about a married woman’s attempt to break through the constrictions of her life.

In 1969, following the advice of his friend George Lucas, whom he’d met on Finian’s Rainbow and worked with on The Rain Peo­ple, Coppola left Hollywood for San Fran­cisco; he opened the American Zoetrope Studio and made his first real stab at establishing his own base of operations. Pressed for capital, he agreed to direct Mario Puzo’s The Godfather; few expected more than a slick adaptation of a trash novel. Released in 1972, and mostly snubbed at the Oscar ceremonies (Marlon Brando was chosen Best Actor; Coppola, who’d shared an Academy Award in 1970 for the Patton script he’d written years earlier, shared the adapted-screenplay award with Puzo), the film was at once a record-breaking hit and a classic piece of American cinema. Suddenly, American Zoetrope was more than a headstrong director’s pipe dream.

In 1972, Coppola formed the Directors’ Company with Peter Bogdanovich and Wil­liam Friedkin, an attempt to set up independent financing and distribution; though it did not last, Coppola later became a co-owner of Cinema 5, a New York-based distribution company. Having earlier served as executive producer on Lucas’ first film, THX-1138, he co-produced American Graf­fiti, and got it released over the objections of Warner Brothers executives. In 1974, both Coppola’s own The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II were released. The latter won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Coppola again shared the award with Puzo), Best Original Score (Carmine Coppola, who with Francis composed the music for Apocalypse, shared the award with Nino Rota) and Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro). More importantly, as one of the darkest versions of American life ever to make it to the screen, it was, as Pauline Kael wrote, quoting Herman Melville on the imperatives of American art, “the first movie to say no in thunder.”

A lot of people looked to Coppola now: filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Lucas and Milius, and many other people with whom Coppola had not been closely associated, or even met. He was the great example of what an American filmmaker could do, with both his business and his art. He had created his own company and brought together artists whose talents were unmatched in the movies: men like production designer Dean Tavoularis, who was responsible for the stunning period sets and suggestive colors of the Godfather pictures, and sound editor Walter Murch, who functioned almost as a co-director on The Conversation. The best actors in the country–Brando, Al Pacino, De Niro, among others–owed him much.

Despite certain failures in his attempt to foster an artistic renaissance in San Francis­co (Coppola had taken over the Little Fox Theatre, which did not much affect the city; a bid to buy a radio station fell through; no amount of money could save the weekly magazine City), everything seemed possible: Coppola had great financial resources and great creative momentum. The next step was Apocalypse Now.

The story line of the film is, on the surface, simple enough. In Vietnam, sometime during the war, Captain Benjamin Wil­lard, an army assassin, is ordered upriver into Cambodia to kill a Colonel Walter E. Kurtz: a Green Beret commander who, say Willard’s superiors, has gone mad, created his own renegade force of native tribesmen and American deserters, made himself into a god, and is fighting his own war. Along with a small navy boat crew–Chief, the black pilot (Albert Hall ); Lance, a surfer and acid head (Sam Bottoms); Clean, a black teenager from the Bronx (Larry Fishburne); and Chef, a cook from New Orleans (Fred­eric Forrest)–Willard sets out; after many adventures, he reaches his destination.

After Marlon Brando expressed disinterest in the part of Kurtz, Coppola offered the role–and, indeed, the role of Willard–to Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Jack Nichol­son and Robert Redford. All turned him down, or made demands that would have compromised the picture. The U.S. Defense Department refused the cooperation normally given to war pictures, forcing Coppola to rely on the unpredictable government of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines for helicopters and other material. Brando, having reconsidered, agreed to the part of Kurtz; finally, Coppola chose Harvey Keitel to play Willard. But Keitel was fired soon after shooting began and was replaced by Martin Sheen; from that point on, the trouble got worse.

The production was hit by a typhoon, floods, endless delays; there were enormous difficulties with the more spectacular effects. Coppola had financed the film himself, through American Zoetrope (since renamed Omni Zoetrope): he raised half of his original budget from advances from foreign distributors, and half from advances from United Artists, the American distributor. But the cost of the film exploded, ultimately passing $30 million–no longer a shocking sum, given inflation, but a near-scandal only two or three years ago. The overages were covered by bank loans, secured by UA and by Coppola’s personal property, which meant, in effect, that he had mortgaged his future. The film fell further behind schedule; with shooting mostly completed, Sheen suffered a heart attack. Inevitably, the film began to be compared to the endless war it meant to depict, and Coppola to the men who prosecuted that war–or to Kurtz himself.

The problems did not stop when the company returned from the Philippines. For a long time, the film did not seem to come together: there were repeated postponements of a final release. At least three possible endings were tried out before various preview audiences, and that became, in the press reports that dogged every permutation of Apocalypse, a miniscandal in and of itself.

(In its final form, Apocalypse Now does not have two different endings, as some news stories have said. On 70-mm prints, which will play in a small number of theaters, there are no credits; playbills are given out. This was deemed impractical for the much larger number of theaters that can only screen 35-mm prints; in those theaters, the print will include credits: about six minutes’ worth. Rather than run the credits against a black screen, it was decided to use infrared footage of explosions, shot when the Kurtz compound was blown up. This footage at one time was part of a possible ending to the picture; now it is, at the most, an unspecific coda: “a fantasy,” as Coppola puts it. In both the 70-mm and 35-mm prints, the actual ending of the film is exactly the same.)

When I spoke with Coppola on July 13th, in his office in San Francisco, the premiere of Apocalypse in New York and Los Angeles was about a month away, and the film was nearly finished. The ending had been decided upon–an ending different from that used when Coppola screened the film the month before in Cannes (where it shared the grand prize) as a “work-in-progress.” Coppola was very tired when we talked; he had gone into traction for back pain after returning from Cannes and would go back into traction the day after our interview. When I returned to ask a few more questions on September 12th, the movie had been out for almost a month; Coppola was in good health and in good spirits. Virtually all of what follows comes from our first conversation, which had less to do with the details of the production than with just how far Willard made it up the river. And unlike Apocalypse, this piece goes on the record with more than one ending. —G.M.

Would you do it all again?
I’m tempted to say no. I really think there’s a limit to what you ought to give a project you’re working on. It’s not worth it, it’s really not worth it. I don’t know that I would be able to avoid doing it again, but I’m forty years old instead of thirty-six-My leg hurts, my back hurts, my front hurts, my head hurts. I’ve got nothing but problems. I mean, I could be the head of KQED [San Francisco’s public-television station] and do interesting little experimental things and not be such a wreck.

There were times [Coppola said two months later] when I wished I was working for someone else, so I could quit—but I don’t think I ever thought of cutting my losses and coming home. There were a lot of troubles. Marty’s heart attack… severely traumatized my nervous system. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. If he’d gone to the U.S for treatment, he might not have come back–his family might not have let him. I was scared shitless. The shooting was three-quarters done: it was all him, what was left.

Firing my lead actor [Harvey Keitel] ­that was bad. It’s a terrible thing to do: sure, it jeopardizes the production, but it can also ruin an actor’s career, to be fired like that. It was a very, very hard decision. But I just pulled the plunger–I did that a lot on this movie. Still do it. I’ve done it before with people–but that’s another form of saying you’re going to really try to get it right.

Did making this movie change your idea of what it means to be a filmmaker?
It changed every idea I have on anything I might do or be. It enlarged my mind in terms of possibilities. It would be very hard for me to go and direct the new Paddy Chayefsky screenplay now. After Apocalypse Now and the Godfather pictures, especially the two of them together, I began to think in terms of the kind of movie that is impossible: movies that are… fourteen hours long, that really cover a piece of material in a way that justifies it, shown in some kind of format that makes sense.

You’re going to be releasing one of those movies: Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s seven-hour film, Our Hitler. (Shown in San Francisco and Berkeley in July, the film sold out three screenings.)
One of the reasons for releasing that movie is to prove that people will go see a seven-hour movie. But it’s partly selfish; I want to be able to make a seven-hour movie.

Ten years ago, John Milius wrote a script: Apocalypse Now. You still share script credit with him. How has the movie changed?
I think the script, as I remember it, took a more comic-strip Vietnam War and moved it through a series of events that were also comic strip: a political comic strip. The events had points to them–I don’t say comic strip to denigrate them. The film continued through comic-strip episode and comic-strip episode until it came to a comic-strip resolution: Attila the Hun [i.e., Kurtz] with two bands of machine-gun bullets around him, taking the hero [Willard] by the hand saying, “Yes, yes, here! I have the power in my loins!” Willard converts to Kurtz’s side; in the end, he’s firing up at the helicopters that are coming to get him, crying out crazily. A movie comic.

I’ve read the comic.
Have you?

Well, I’ve read comics like that, sure.
That was the tone and the resolution. The first thing that happened, after my involvement, was a psychologization of Willard–which I worked on desperately. Willard in the original script was literally zero: nobody. I didn’t have a handle: that’s why I cast him with Steve McQueen at first. I thought, well, God, McQueen will give him a personality. But I began to delve more into Willard. I took Willard through many, many instances in which I tried to position him as a witness going on this trip–and yet give him some sort of personality you could feel comfortable with, and still believe he was there.

Marty approached an impossible character: he had to be an observer, a watcher. A lot of reading of dossiers, a totally introspective character. In no way could he get in the way of the audience’s view of what was happen­ing, of Vietnam. That wasn’t going to work with Keitel: his stock in trade is a series of tics–ways to make people look at him.

The first scene of the movie–Willard in his Saigon hotel room, waiting for a mission, drunk, losing control, finally attacking a mirror and cutting his hand open–is described in your wife’s book (Notes) almost as a breakdown on Sheen’s part, certainly not action that was planned.
Marty’s character was coming across as too bland; I tried to break through it. I always look for other levels, hidden levels, in the actor’s personality and in the personality of the character he plays. I conceived this all-night drunk; we’d see another side of the guy. So Marty got drunk. And I found out that sometimes, when he gets drunk, a lot comes out. He began to dance, he took off his clothes–it was ten minutes of the most incredible stuff–and then I asked him to look in the mirror. It was a way of focusing him on himself–to bring out the personality by creating a sense of vanity. And that’s what he punched: his vanity. I didn’t tell him to smash his hand into the mirror.

Many of the very best things in the movie–the helicopter attack, the surfing motifs–are from Milius: the Do Lung Bridge sequence–which came partly from one of Michael Herr’s Esquire articles–was from Milius. Many things were changed. The concept that the guys on the boat would get killed–that was new. From the bridge on, it’s pretty much Heart of Darkness and me.

Was the film based on Heart of Darkness in Milius’ script?
Very vaguely, then: a man was going up a river to find a man called “Kurtz .” There were few specific references beyond that. I decided to take the script much more strongly in the direction of Heart of Darkness–which was, I knew, opening a Pandora’s box.

Why is there no screen credit given to Conrad?
We had it. There was a big fight in the Writers Guild–it went into arbitration, and the credit came off.

What exactly happened?
Let’s just say… one of the writers wanted the credit off.

Michael Herr was brought in after the shooting in the Philippines was completed. Did he write all of the narration?
He dominated it; he determined the tone.

That hipster voice Willard is given–that’s Michael.

Was it from Dispatches, in which Herr makes such a point of Vietnam as “a rock & roll war,” that the idea came to use the Doors’ “The End”?
No. I knew Jim Morrison, in film school; he came to my house once–this was before he’d had a record out–with some acetates, demos, asking if I could help. I tried; I didn’t get anywhere. But the idea of using the Doors came from “Light My Fire.” That was from Milius: Kurtz people would play “Light My Fire” through their loud­speakers, to jazz themselves up. In the end, there’s a battle, and North Vietnamese regulars come charging in to “Light My Fire.” I went to the Philippines with that ending!

How did the characterization of Kurtz evolve?
Marlon arrived; he was terribly fat. As my wife says in her book, he hadn’t read the copy of Heart of Darkness I’d sent him; I gave him another copy, he read it, and we began to talk. There were a lot of notes that we compiled together: I’d give him some–he’d write a lot himself. I shot Marlon in a couple of weeks and then he left; everything else was shot around that footage, and what we had shot with Marlon wasn’t like a scene. It was hours and hours of him talking.

We had an idea: Kurtz as a Gauguin figure, with mangoes and babies, a guy who’d really gone all the way. It would have been great; Marlon wouldn’t go for it at all. Marlon’s first idea–which almost made me vomit–was to play Kurtz as a Daniel Berrigan: in black pajamas, in VC clothes. It would be all about the guilt [Kurtz] felt at what we’d done. I said, “Hey, Marlon, I may not know everything about this movie–but one thing I know it’s not about is ‘our guilt‘!” Yet Marlon has one of the finest minds around: thinking is what he does. To sit and talk with him about life and death–he’ll think about that stuff all day long.

Finally, he shaved his head–and that did it. We’d go for it–we’d get there. That terrible face. I think it’s wonderful that in this movie, the most terrifying moment is that image: just his face.

When you edited the two Godfather pictures together for television, you put back a good deal of footage that had been left out of the films as released: whole scenes were added. Are there any thoughts of doing that with Apocalypse?
I’ll tell you–I don’t ever want this movie on television. It wasn’t made for television; it wasn’t designed to be seen that way. It was designed as a spectacle. We have lots of “footage”–we had four cameras on this, on that. We don’t have another hour of real stuff. What we have is there.

It seemed to me that that comic-strip tone you spoke of is still there, for the first hour or so–through the sequences with Colonel Kilgore, the helicopter attack, the USO show. Bizarre things are taking place–Vietnamese corpses are mixed in with Americans surfing, with Playboy Bunnies–and the two contexts, America and Vietnam, don’t fit. Willard seems to want to distance himself from the absurdity of it all, from the ugliness of that absurdity. But once we meet the sampan, the whole movie changes.
See, that wasn’t in the first script. The Milius script never had that scene. That’s the most important part of the movie.

Well, it’s the turning point. The boat meets a sampan; Chief wants to stop and search it. Willard says, no, we have to keep going. They stop the sampan; when a Vietnamese woman makes a sudden movement, Clean panics and machine-guns everybody on it. The woman sur­vives, barely; Chief wants to get her to a hospital, but Willard won’t delay the mission. He stands over her and shoots her dead.
Right there—this is the man who has to carry the movie–the audience cringes. They can no longer easily identify with Willard, if they ever could. You’re breaking a major rule of what to do with a main character. Was there ever thought of taking that scene out, just for that reason?
I heard that expressed to me… at first. But when people saw it in the context of the movie, I think they recognized–they felt it was powerful, that people would recognize this was beginning to be part of what the movie was about, and they had to look at that. That’s what the themes of the movie were going to be.

The opening, too, changed the movie a lot. That shot was a piece of junk film: napalm in the trees. When I saw it, I said, well, put the beginning against that. I began halfway through to really enjoy making-the movie that way: let it be this dream.

Unlike other Vietnam movies I’ve seen, there seems to be an intentional attempt to make it impossible for the audience to easily identify with any of the characters. Either we don’t know enough about them, or they’re not people we >would want to identify with.
No, I know I don’t have that. I did not feel that was what my mission was. I didn’t want to spend the time it takes to develop a real group of comrades–I didn’t think that was what it was about. I thought those kids on the boat, Lance and Clean, were just fellow travelers on the journey. I did it really by instinct; I just didn’t feel right about giving more than I did.

There also seems to be no conventional suspense in the movie. Even m the scene where Willard kills Kurtz: that’s an orchestrated scene, full of crosscutting and metaphors, like the killings that end The Godfather. Is that the way you wanted to make the movie?
Maybe I’m stupid, but I always wanted the film to be graceful. My very first notion when I began to think of the style of the film–of course, style was going to be the whole movie–I wanted it to sweep, not go chaaa! chaaa! I wanted it to have grace. I chose Vittorio Storaro [Bernardo Bertolucci’s cinematographer on The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and 1900 because I wanted the camera to float across the boat. That is always shot handheld, because there’s no building dolly tracks in the water. The music would be Tomita-like [a Japanese synthe­sizer composer] I for that reason.

I don’t understand what you mean when you say that style was going to be the whole movie.
When I first thought of doing Apocalypse Now, and I read Milius script, I was looking for a clue as to what kind of movie this was going to be. I was very concerned about style, because I knew it wouldn’t be a realistic style–I knew it would have some sort of what I’ll call extension to it, but I didn’t know what. People used to ask me, well, what’s this movie gonna be like? I said, well, it’s gonna be very stylized. And they said, well, like what? Like what director? And I would say, like Ken Russell. I wanted the movie to go as far as it would go. I was prepared to have to make an unusual, surrealist movie, and I even wanted to.

But you didn’t.
Well, surrealist. What do you call or what do you not call surrealist?

Watching the movie, I never had the feeling that I was partner to a dream–and that’s how I would define the experience of surrealism.
Well, then, What would you call the desire to extend the action so that it had another, different reality–or an extended reality, from just pure reality–that made use of what was going on?

The emergence of a different reality is raised as something that could happen–that could take over Willard, suck him in. There’s an interesting shot in Kurtz’s temple, of a copy of The Golden Bough–a book about the ancient myth and practice of ritual regicide. A man became king; after a year, if anyone could kill him, he became king. After Willard kills Kurtz, he emerges from the temple; Kurtz’s whole community is gathered there, and Willard is carrying the two symbols of kingship–this is how I saw it–“The Book,” Kurtz’s memoirs, and “The Scepter,” the weapon he throws down when he refuses the kingship. The community kneels before him, and it’s clear that if Willard wanted to take over, he could have. And he consciously rejects that choice. If he had not, then he, and maybe we. would have been swallowed by the extended realities you’re talking about. But he rejects that. That seemed very clear. Is that not what you meant?
No… when I finally got there, the best I could come up with was this: I’ve got this guy who’s gone up the river, he’s gonna go kill this other guy who’s been the head of all this. Life and death. Well, I have a friend, Dennis Jakob, we were talking–what to do?–and he said to me, “What about the myth of the Fisher King?” And I said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s The Golden Bough.” The Fisher King–I went and got the book, and I said, of course, that’s what I want. That’s what was meant by the animal sacrifices [that occur among Kurtz’s people as Willard murders Kurtz]. I had seen a real animal sacrifice, by the headhunters we had hired. I looked at the blood shoot up in the air, and I’m thinking–this is about something very basic. I’ve gone up this whole river trying to figure out this movie, and I don’t know what’s the matter: what do I have to express, what do I have to show to really show this war? There are millions of things you have to show. But what it really all comes down to is some sort of acceptance of the truth, or the struggle to accept the truth. And the truth has to do with good and evil, and life and death–and don’t forget that we see these things as opposites, or we want to see them as opposites, but they are one. It’s not so easy to define them–as good or evil. You must accept that you have the whole.

If that is the idea of the movie, then the absolute center of the movie is reached when Kurtz is talking with Willard: he gives an astonishing speech about a time, earlier in the war, when his company went into a village and inoculated all the children against polio. Then, later, they discovered that the Vietcong had come into the village, and cut off every inoculated arm, and made a pile of them–to say, this is what happens if you cooperate with the Americans. Kurtz describes how he wept, how horrified he was, and then he realizes, he says, “The genius of that. The purity. That’s when I knew they were stronger than us.” And then, Kurtz proceeds to talk about the necessity of being motivated by great feelings of love, and yet being able to kill without any feeling, drawing on primordial instincts…
That’s a compelling moment. He is very convincing. And it seems Willard is struggling madly not to accept that what Kurtz is saying is the truth, struggling not to deal with things on that level.
Willard looks [at Kurtz’s compound] and sees the people in cages, people being shot and killed, and he is preparing himself not to be worn down by whatever methods Kurtz wants to use on him–and the method is that he is left alone with Kurtz. He is exhausted–he was fucked with the army, he was through with the mission. He was just going up the river to go there, and find out what was there, so–he doesn’t come in with a hell of a lot of fiber. At this point, he is listening to Brando, and Brando asks him to do something for him: to go back to his home, and tell his son certain things, take his notes, and say that he wasn’t what the army is gonna make him out to be, and to, ah, incidentally–kill him.

Kurtz is consciously participating in the myth of the Golden Bough; he’s prepared that role for Willard, for him to take his place.
He wants Willard to kill him. So Willard thinks about this: he says, “Everyone wanted him dead. The army… and ultimately even the jungle; that’s where he took his orders from, anyway.” The notion is that Willard is moved to do it, to go once more into that primitive state, to go and kill.

He goes into the temple, and he goes through a quasi-ritual experience, and he kills the king. The native people there were acting out in dance what was happening. They understood, and they were acting out, with their icons, a ritual of life and death. Willard goes in, and he kills Kurtz, and as he comes out he flirts with the notion of being king, but something… does not lure him. He goes, he takes the kid back, and then he goes away, and then there’s the image of the green stone face again [the face of an ancient Cambodian goddess from Kurtz’s temple complex ]. He starts to go away, and then the moment when he flirted with being king is superimposed. And that’s the moment when we use “the horror, the horror.”

Kurtz talks about the need to be motivated by great feelings of love, to have the strength to commit an atrocity as horrible as the one he describes to Willard. It seems wry clear that in the first hour of the movie the Americans we’re seeing are not motivated by great feelings, pro­found feelings, of any kind. And 1 got the feeling that Kurtz was in revolt against the ability of the U.S. government, the U.S. Army, to trivialize the life-and-death situation that had been created. Kurtz wanted to find some way to fight that, and he did it, partly, through paganism. It’s as if all around him was the banality of evil, and he wanted to prove that evil was profound. He orchestrates it bodies hanging in trees, heads scattered around–to make that so. And it seemed to me, again, that Willard was struggling like hellnot to reach that level: as if to say, “No, I don’t want to know! “That’s what I saw–is that what’s going on?
You must understand that at this point I can take shots at talking about what I see in one of those scenes, but the process of arriving  at them implied my having seen them 15 billion times, and I can’t, I cannot see it as an audience anymore. I think the things we’re talking about are what’s in there. How do I see which part, what ending?

How do you see what Willard is going through at Kurtz’s compound?
I always tried to have it be implied in the movie that the notion of Willard going up the river to meet Kurtz was perhaps also a man looking at another aspect or projection of himself. I always had the idea of Willard and Kum being the same man—in terms of how I made my decisions to do whatever we did. And I feel that Willard arriving at the compound to meet Kurtz is like coming to the place that you don’t want to go–because it’s all your ghosts and all your demons.

Willard’s a murderer, an assassin, and no doubt when he’s alone in the bathroom, he’s had some moral thoughts about whether that’s good: to go kill people you don’t even know. So I’m thinking Willard has been involved–as maybe Kurtz has–on a moral quest, which is to say, “Is what I have done, or what I am doing, moral? Is it okay?” So when Willard gets to Kurtz’s place, it’s his nightmare. It’s his nightmare in that it’s the extreme of the issue that he has to deal with–bodies and heads and Kurtz is the extreme of him, because Willard’s a killer. Here, now, Kurtz–who has gone mad–has become the horror, the whole thing, which is no more than an extension of the horror that we’re looking at on every level. Willard has to come to terms with this–and what Brando really tells him, the way I see, it, is, I finally saw something so horrible… and then at the same time realized that the fact that it was horrible was what made it wonderful… and I went to some other place in my mind, in which I became Kurtz, who is nuts.

And pathetic. One of the most beautiful lines in Michael Herr’s narration is when he says, “Kurtz had driven himself so far away from his people at home”–the idea that you could go so far that you couldn’t get back, even if you wanted to get back.

That’s what I was trying to do with Willard in that last section. I always had this image, over and over again, of being able to stare at the something that was the truth and say, “Yes, that is the truth.” Somehow a face was always important to me, and that’s why I liked just looking at Brando’s face for ten minutes or whatever. Remember Portrait of Dorian Gray? I mean, it was like ripping back the curtain–ahhhhh! There it is. And that’s the way I felt about Vietnam. You just look at it, you open your eyes and you look at it, and you accept it if it’s the truth. And then you get past it.

Why can’t we–and we” might mean Willard, Kurtz, you, me or an audience–see the kind of horror the movie ultimately grabs hold of within the context of our own world? In other words, we go up the river, we reach Kurtz’s compound, and we are suddenly assaulted by an overwhelming number of images that are pagan–that are primordial, to use Kurtz’s word. This really is–or really looks and feels–much closer to the heart of things than the horror of Kilgore, who likes to stick playing cards on the bodies of dead Viet­namese.
Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Well, why do we need these pagan images? Why did you use them? Why are they “more horri­ble”?
From the bridge on, I started moving back in time, because I wanted to imply that the issues and the themes were timeless–this was all going on when guys were throwing spears. As you went further up the river, you went deeper into the origins of human na­ture, which was the heart of darkness: what we were really like.

A tribe attacks Willard’s boat with bows and arrows.
A spear! I mean, that’s totally kooky: in a Vietnam picture they get shot at with bows and arrows; Chief dies from a spear. At one time there was a French plantation scene, which took it back into the Fifties. My thinking was just to move back in time–and when you get to Kurtz’s compound, you’re at the beginning of time.

Unlike other Vietnam movies I’ve seen, Vietnam truly seems to be present in this movie: the momentum shifts, about halfway through, from what America is making happen in Vietnam, to what Vietnam is making happen, to what America cannot make happen. At the same time, once the sampan incident takes place, there’s a way in which the movie doesn’t have much to do with the Vietnam War at all–it seems to be about sanity and insanity, and how you decide to pursue one or the other.
I always thought of it as something to do with choice. I always said I was working on a film about morality, but that’s so close to being about sanity or insanity–the diffi­culty of balance. Brando says in the begin­ning, “I watched a snail sliding across a straight razor…” It’s that little walk between sanity and insanity, good and evil.

Does Willard keep his sanity?
I can’t imagine how he… no. None of them do.

He doesn’t?
Well, when you talk about such a thing as sanity.

Let’s define it this way: Kurtz cannot return to his world. Can Willard return to his?
Well–which ending did you see?

Willard kills Kurtz; he faces Kurtz’s followers. Then he leaves the temple, takes Lance out of the crowd, gets on the boat. The radio comes on, requesting a position for an air strike. Willard switches off the radio, and he and Lance sail back down the river.
Did you see the other one? Ending with Willard up on the steps, after killing Kurtz. He’s in front of the people: the people all bow. He looks, he looks back, he looks again–then it goes to the green face, and “the horror, the horror.”

That’s a very different ending.
Ahhh… See, I run this place very autocrati­cally, but then I don’t. If I feel that I’m a real lone opinion and I don’t feel disposed to really fight for it, I’ll go with what the bright people I have working with me are saying. If they’re all in agreement. And everyone wanted–even the computers wanted–the ending where Willard grabs the kid, goes down with the boat, leaves.

And you didn’t?
I personally felt that the ending where Wil­lard came out, he looked, and you realized that he was contemplating going down that river, and bringing [Kurtz’s memoirs] to Kurtz’s kid–and then he backed in [to the temple ] and then you said, well, was he thinking of being the king? And he oscillat­ed back and forth between that, caught in that dilemma of choice, and we went to the statue, the face. And then [you hear Kurtz’s voice say], “The horror, the horror.” I thought that’s what the movie was about.

All right. I understand. But it’s not what the movie’s about now.
No, it’s not.

Not with that kind of strength, anyway.
So what does the ending where he goes down in the boat mean? Aside from making people happy–that two people maybe got back. Everyone else really wanted it for that reason.

What did you mean by the ending the computers wanted?
Oh, we get lots of readouts. Most people [who filled out questionnaires at prerelease screenings] preferred the ending with the boat to the other.

So many of the questions I’ve asked you–about Willard’s struggle with what Kurtz tells him, about sanity and insanity–have been predicated on the ending I saw, which is the ending: Willard chooses to leave, and then he makes another choice–does he let the air force blow up the compound, or does he turn off the radio and refuse to give his position? He says, no, I’ll leave it there. But the ending you wanted demands a far deeper, more interesting choice.
One can interpret what the hell it all means, but it’s implied that he’ll do what Kurtz asked him to do, he’s gotta go back…

I’m stunned. In your mind, the movie still ends with Willard on the steps of the temple.
I felt that in the end, the movie was always about choice. He was deciding, he was eval­uating the mission. The tone of it was, well, this guy is American, can I kill him? He’s looking at the USO, almost as though he’s saying, “Is this appropriate?” In the light of guys up there getting shot? Is this all right? Is this correct? All the way through. So I thought the film should end with a choice, which was: “Should I be Kurtz? Or should I be Willard?” But I think what happened is that it was abrupt, that maybe I didn’t have enough material to really extend it, as I would have had I known that was where the movie was going to end. And maybe his going down, and taking Lance by the hand, getting in the boat and going–

It’s not the same, though. At the end, when the face comes on and you hear, “The horror, the horror,” that’s an echo of a warning rather than a real choice. Oh, fuck.

You didn’t want to deal with this again?
Oh, it’s not that. But the ending of this movie has tortured me for five fucking years. I know this ending is a more popular ending, but that was my ending. But I can’t fool around. If the picture doesn’t get some form of popular support–I mean, the first couple of weeks it’ll do very well, but if it doesn’t begin to attract people… although I think it will.

This goddamn Apocalypse… ah, it’s a lot of money. It’s going to be done, though. It’ll be interesting to see.

One line that seems to be coming out, following the L.A. screening in May and the Cannes screenings–and I’m speaking of the American press, since that’s all I’ve seen–is, “The movie is terrific for the first hour or so: it’s exciting, it’s well done, spectacular, it looks as if it were worth the money that was spent, you can see the money on the screen.” And then, “When the picture gets to _Kurtz, it becomes muddled and philosophical and pretentious–it falls apart.” That line is remarkably consistent. (And has remained so in most of the reviews that have appeared since the film was officially released.)
Audiences, and therefore certain writers, really know the rules of the different kinds of movies–and whether they want to admit it, in the first hour and a half of this movie, they’re locked into a formula. It’s a formula movie: you just get locked into the slot and it’ll take you up the river. And then, at a certain point, it doesn’t develop into the action adventure that it had set you up for. In my mind, the movie had made a turn I wouldn’t alter–it curved up the river. I chose to go with a stylized treatment, up the river into primitive times–and I eliminated everything in the script that didn’t take you there. It now takes you into various difficult areas, which you have to engage with a little. They’re riding down a big sled on a very formula movie, and they want it to resolve, and kick ’em off, just like movies are supposed to do, and it doesn’t do it. It’s like someone takes them off the slide and says, okay, now walk up the steps, and they don’t want to do it.

I’m not saying they are wrong in feeling that. I think some do and some don’t. But they would have preferred that it just went easy, without any difficulties–let the movie do it all. And I couldn’t do it in the end.

Couldn’t or wouldn’t?
I couldn’t, I don’t think–I tried. I mean, I couldn’t give them an ending better than I did. I tried, and I’ve been trying and trying and trying. And if I ever could imagine how to do it, I would get out the goddamn film and I’d do it.

You say that if you could produce an ending that did everything for the person who is watching, that could solve all the problems the movie raises, answer all the questions, you would do it; yet earlier, you were very emphatic about how the movie was about choice, and you liked leaving Willard on the verge of a choice.
I think we live our lives hoping–impatient–­for a time when things are resolved. I think that time will never come for any of us–and that’s part of the irony, even in this movie. Although there seems to be a resolution of some kind: that the healthy devour the sickly, and there is some sort of life/death, night-becomes-morning cycle taking place–to me the irony is that we stand on the edge, on the razor blade, all the time, and that’s why Willard looks to the left, looks to the right, and you hear, “The horror, the horror.” “The horror, the horror” is precise­ly that we are never really comfortable un­derstanding what we should do, what is right and what is wrong, what is rational behavior, what is irrational: that we’re always on the brink.

“The horror, the horror” at the end; the fact that I wanted to end it on choice, because I think that’s the truthful ending–We hope for some sort of moral resolution about Vietnam and about our part in it, our participation in it. At the [true] end, you don’t have a resolution. You’re in a choice, still, between deciding to be powerful or to be weak. In a way, that’s how wars start. The United States chose: it wanted to be power­ful, wanted to be Kurtz, in Southeast Asia. It chose not to stay home. But choice was just the only way I thought it could end.

Heart of Darkness ends with a lie. After Kurtz’s death, Marlow goes to Kurtz’s girl­friend, the intended, and she says, “What did he say before he died?” And Marlow says, “He mentioned your name,” when in fact what Kurtz said was, “The horror, the horror.” So I feel all lousy because I think the ending I had on the movie was the truth, but this ending that I’m going to put on it now is a lie–and I justify it to myself because Conrad ended with a lie, too.

Francis laughed when he said that in July; he was clearly exhausted, in a good deal of physical pain, and it was one of the few laughs our talk had produced–certainly, it was the best of them. In September, Francis was full of energy: monumentally displeased by the shallowness of the critical reaction to Apocalypse, and just as happy about how the picture was doing in New York, Los An­geles and Toronto, the three cities where it had already opened. He’d recently taken the picture to the Moscow Film Festival; I asked about the reception there.

“The reaction,” Francis said, “was very much the same as here–and the Russians, I think, are very much like us. At the first screening, when the lights went on, the audience was totally quiet, stunned, then there was a little applause, just like in America. Then I’d hear, ‘Great, great,’ and then, ‘Well …,’ and then, Vassily doesn’t like it at all…’ No different. I think half the people thought it was a masterpiece, and half the people thought it was a piece of shit”

I asked how the North Vietnamese in Moscow reacted; for the first time in either of our talks, Francis pretty well closed off a question. “They were,” he said with a long pause, “favorably impressed.” “You don’t want to talk about that?” I asked. “No,” Francis answered. “There’s no mystery, no secret. But I just don’t think it would be right for me to characterize it beyond that.”

When we’d talked in July, Coppola was, as they say, philosophical about his own financial stake in the picture. If Apocalypse failed at the box office, he said, “It would prevent me from helping a lot of other people… I can always get a job directing another movie, so it would just mean that my plans would be stopped. I’d live the same–I’d have a lot less employees. It might he the best thing that ever happened to me.” If the movie succeeded, he said, “I’d get the freedom to start a whole studio and make twelve movies a year.

The studio had already been bought–the old Hollywood General Studios in Los Angeles, “a beautiful Thirties studio, nine stages”–and even in July, Francis was eager to talk about his plans. There were, he said, many projects in various stages of development, from Carroll Ballard’s recently completed The Black Stallion to sketched-out proposals: “Ten that could happen, five or six long shots that look promising.” If the studio worked, it would mean an economically self-reliant, artistically self-sustaining group–directors, writers, editors, composers, sound designers, students–that could take chances without risking ruin every time: “We could have a horror-film program, or a Roger Corman division–because you’ve got to have a Roger Corman divi­sion!” The goal would be to enlarge the resources of film outside of the major studios, while at the same time cutting down “the baggage of individual pictures: to make them more quickly, with less waste, less indulgence, in a context of common endeavor–to make pictures, Francis said, less of an “ever-covering shroud.”

In September, Francis discussed the future of Omni Zoetrope not as a possibility, but as a fact. “It’s big,” he said of Apocalypse. “It could make a lot of money–and getting out of hock is in the bag. Everything will stay intact–people won’t be fired, I won’t have to give up my car.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Francis said. “It might he the Tucker* movie.” That will be much more outrageous than Apocalypse. It’s in the style–it’s always in the style. There are a lot of ways to show people things: and there are two ways of making it I’ve thought about. It could be treated as if Preston Sturges** were making that movie, and it would be wonderful. A comedy, nicely paced–I thought of Burt Reynolds. But I thought–no, that’s not my way. What is it? And I’m thinking about that.

“The Japanese project is even more outrageous. It will be about love and sex, romance, Japan and America as lovers–it treats cultures as if they were sexual elements. It’s based on Goethe’s Elective Affinities.

“Goethe is my idol… if I have an idol. He was a great poet, a physicist, a thinker. He was interested in painting. He’d devote five years of his life to studying something like the psychology of color; he was part of the Weimar government. And he kept falling in love–he was always in love. He had mistresses and mistresses. German schoolchil­dren hate them, because they have to memorize all their names, the dates of the births and deaths–because this poem was about that woman, that poem about this one…” As I got up to leave after our second conversation, I mentioned our earlier talk about the choice between endings for Apoc­alypse Now; given the choice that had been made, and a couple of months to live with it, I asked Francis if he was satisfied.

“I am,” he said. “I have no regrets. And I’ll tell you how I finally bought it. It was when I saw it with the music–that music was so strange, so heroic, so sad. The rain. Wil­lard walking down the steps, taking the kid–it came together for me. I went for the warmth of his taking the kid away. I liked that.

“Too much, way too much, has been made of this business of the endings. We went through the same thing with Godfather II; it just wasn’t publicized. The same with Godfather I. Don’t they know by now I wouldn’t have put on an ending I didn’t feel was right?”

I mentioned to Francis that when we had talked before, he’d spoken of the ending as a lie–in the sense that Heart of Darkness ended with a lie: in the sense of a comfort. “There may be… there may be a little bit of a lie, about what I think about human nature: the idea that he would throw down the weapon, refuse the power. I don’t know if someone would. In terms of what I’d like to think of human nature–well, I like to think human nature isn’t necessarily what I might at times think it is.”

We shrugged off the conversation and walked down the stairs from Francis’ office. “Ahhh,” he said, with no little satisfaction. “I was always afraid I’d be the guy with ‘The Godfather’ printed after his name.”

* Preston Tucker, 1903-1956, was a businessman and inventor who after the Second World War opened a factory in the Detroit area to produce the Tucker, a new car he claimed was revolutionary in terms of design, safety and longevity. Denounced as a fraud and a charlatan, he was quickly driven out of business by other automakers, elements of the press, and the government; only a few Tuckers were ever made.

** Preston Sturges, 1898-1959, at once madly in love with the myths of American capitalism and American heroism, and their great subverter, was writer-director of such For­ties classics as Christmas in July, The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.

Rolling Stone, November 1, 1979

One thought on “Journey Up the River: An Interview With Francis Coppola (11/01/79)

  1. Pingback: Once Upon a Time… In the Philippines: Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ Is a Three-Time Prime Cut of Film-Making Largesse • Cinephilia & Beyond

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s