Francis Ford Coppola Spills 'Apocalypse Now' Secrets on 35th Anniversary
By Tim Appelo
Apocalypse Now star Marlon Brando was “like a kid, very irresponsible,” said director Francis Ford Coppola at an Aug. 29 Telluride Film Festival panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of his Vietnam War classic, whose $31 million budget — $110 million in 2014 dollars — Coppola had to finance himself at 17 percent interest, which meant that Brando’s behavior could have bankrupted him. The panel, hosted by Scott Foundas, featured winners of a dozen Oscars: producer Fred Roos, editor Walter Murch, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and writer John Milius.
Since Brando — like costar Dennis Hopper, who shunned showers and reeked from cocaine abuse — couldn’t memorize a single line (yet did an immortal performance), Coppola recorded Brando improvising for five days, typed up Brando’s insightful ramblings along with snatches of Heart of Darkness, put the lines on tape and gave the 300-pound actor an earphone, so he could press a button and recite what he heard. “He didn’t have a good memory, that’s why he’d say, ‘Uh… uh…’ and push the button,” said Coppola.
Like Brando’s finale, the film’s famous opening was also a desperate improvisation. “I was hanging out with the four or five editors, just goofing off,” said Coppola. Another eyewitness (not on the Telluride panel) tells The Hollywood Reporter, “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 soundtrack. 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 opening scene was punctuated with an explosion in the jungle. “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.”
Coppola praised Murch for the brilliant segue from the opening explosion scene to one of Martin Sheen drunk in a Saigon hotel room whose ceiling fan rhymed with the helicopter blades in the first scene. “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.”