Francis Ford Coppola
The first time around, the reaction to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now was schizoid, a split between those who found it an endlessly brilliant mind trip and those who thought it obnoxious and self-indulgent, especially in its dubious politics concerning the Vietnam War. The two sides clashed at a fractious New York press junket in Fall 1979, which featured as a sideshow distraction a long-unbathed, totally drug-bonkers Dennis Hopper (he's since cleaned up his act) shouting paranoid things at the air, replicating his insane yippy photojournalist from the movie.
I was at that press junket, and among those miffed by what I felt was Coppola's softness on American involvement in the War, him using the destruction of Vietnam as a backdrop for American military like Martin Sheen's Willard to be hung up and alienated. Poor Willard? Poor Southeast Asia! I got in a brief screaming match with Coppola over his Vietnam versus my Vietnam. But as I told him when we talked during a press luncheon at Cannes 2001, I don't remember exactly what I was so angry about, and I don't what he was so angry about back.
"I must have been sort of thin-skinned then," Coppola smiled. This time there was no quarreling. I was among the seemingly hundreds of journalists at Cannes who marveled at how much better we liked the new Apocalypse Now Redux, with its 53 never-before-seen minutes, than the 1979 version, especially with now a historic perspective about western involvement in Vietnam offered in a dinner conversation, when Willard visits a French colonialist plantation.
Staying clear of politics, I asked Coppola to comment on what seemed two filmic inspirations for Apocalypse Now: Skull Island in King Kong (1933) as a source for Kurtz's Cambodian fortress, and the fever-trip down the Amazon in Werner Herzog's Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972), repeated in Willard's mindbending river sojourn. "I saw King Kong when I was five, and many times after," Coppola replied. "King Kong is in our consciousness and culture. Perhaps it did influence me. Aguirre, with its incredible imagery, was a very strong influence. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it."
Could Coppola discuss the scene put back in the movie - it was one of the last cut out in 1979 - involving Marlon Brando? Brando's Kurtz approaches his prisoner, Willard, and reads aloud from an article in Time Magazine. In this gung-ho, pro-War essay, an American intelligence officer is quoted telling President Nixon, "Things felt much better, and smelled much better over there." Brando's Kurtz snears at this implication that America is winning the War.
Coppola: "I just gave Brando a pile of Time articles and said, 'Pick one and read it to Willard.' You see Kurtz for the first time in this scene in light. He's rational and logical, presenting this information about the War." Had he informed Brando that this scene has been restored? "I wrote him a letter because I didn't want to disturb him. He called, he was very nice, very interested in his new entrance. He knows that the Kurtz character has to be dished out in razor slices, that he's more mysterious the less he's shown. But I'd always wanted that scene in the movie. It was in, then out, and we were under the gun for a two-and-a-half hour movie. But this film proves much quicker now, at three hours and 17 minutes."
The expanded scene with Playboy bunnies? Coppola's great editor Walter Murch, employed on both versions, found a way to extend the little that was filmed through virtuoso playing with the footage. Coppola: "We shot in the middle of a typhoon, and we had to stop because of the rain, evacuating in one helicopter two people at a time. It was scary, and we thought we'd shoot more of this scene later, but we never did."
And the French sequence, excised completely from Apocalypse Now? "When we rehearsed it, the actors brought up many political issues which they argued about. I put them into the script, and the scene got longer and longer. Every time we made it shorter, it seemed to lose its point. Murch hadn't worked on this scene, and cut it all out. There's a theory that whatever you remove from a film makes the film better. But this sequence on the floor kept saying, 'Put me back in!'"
Final thoughts about Marlon Brando? "He's an extraordinary man, how his mind thinks. Also, he's shy, and gets stage fright. Every morning, I'd go to his houseboat and talk and talk. We did that for five days, he was stalling, he didn't know how to play the role. The fifth day, he'd cut off all his hair, the image of Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Through our talks, he'd learned how to do it."