INTERVIEW: Shooting the "Apocalypse"; Vittorio Storaro's Journey into Light and Darkness
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 08.06.01) — “Creativity is the only cure for depression,” says Vittorio Storaro, one of the greatest living cinematographers, as we part ways after a recent interview in New York City. Judging from the pensive director of photography’s awe-inspiring creative output, it seems he’s been battling depression for a long time.
With three Academy Awards (for “Apocalypse Now,” “Reds,” and “The Last Emperor“) and an American Society of Cinematographer‘s Lifetime Achievement honor, few cinematographers elicit as much respect as the Italian luminary. Storaro’s repeat collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “1900“) and Carlos Saura (“Taxi,” “Tango,” “Flamenco“) are legendary; his contributions to the visual history of world cinema cannot be measured in words. You’ve got to see them to believe them.
During a visit to Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum to unveil scenes from the newly re-mastered and extended version of “Apocalypse Now” (which Miramax released last Friday), Storaro gave indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman a detailed account of the “Apocalypse Now” changes, the film’s impact on his life, his philosophical perspectives on light and shadow, and a trashing of digital video.
You can read more about Storaro’s activities, among others, his crusade for a standard aspect ratio, at www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/2072/. He is also working on a 3-volume project called “Writing with Light” (which focuses on light, color and the elements). He will then turn his attentions to a 4th component, and “understand how to visualize this new area,” he says. And what might that area be? “Let me understand myself, first,” he adds cryptically. “I’m not ready to talk about it yet.”
indieWIRE: So they’re calling this version of “Apocalypse Now” re-mastered. What exactly is re-mastered about it?
Vittorio Storaro: First of all, Francis spent around two years editing the picture. The reason was because the concept of the picture was so strong that he was probably not ready to deliver the picture. At that time, this is my guess, Francis came to the conclusion that the movie was too much, so he had to keep to the main concept. It was too much for himself, and too much for an audience. And so had to keep it straightforward: they’re going upriver and they’re looking for one character. Frederic Forest has a line, “Never get out of the boat.” So to keep this concept very clear and straightforward, Francis had to cut off the branches of this main story.
The branches were mainly two major sequences, the French plantation sequence, which goes into this idea of property that this French family believes that they have, because several generations have lived in Vietnam. The other sequence is the medic camp, coming after the Playboy girls sequence. After this scene, they land in one of the last American camps, and everything is in the mud, which is a visual representation of what the Vietnam War was at that time. They find a group of Playboy girls left behind, because the helicopter has no fuel. The sequence is about how this image of desire from 10 minutes before is now on sale for just one barrel of gasoline.
Plus, there is another sequence that builds the Larry Fishburne character at the beginning, so it’s more important when he dies. And the other sequence is Marlon Brando reading Life magazine to Martin Sheen‘s character. Those are the four main sections, apart from some bits and pieces.
And Francis decided to put back in all these segments, because now the movie can be more complete — the way that it was originally conceived. Then Francis began editing with Walter Murch. They were thinking of keeping the original negative intact and doing an inter-positive from the old material. But when I started timing this new material — and we’re talking about a negative that’s 26 years old — I realized, almost crying, that the color is fading so fast, and it would be very hard to present to an audience and say, this is a new print. So I went to Napa Valley to visit Francis and present to him my case that the negative was too old, and the normal process would not allow us to present a good quality print. My opinion was that the only chance we had was to cut the original negative — the new sequences with the old one — so we can have one piece of negative, and one master. They were worried about touching the original negative, but I said to Francis, “Let me know one single thing, in the future, in 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now, which version would you want the audience to see?” And he said, “This one.” So we cut the negative and this was the best solution.
We found problems, however, with very simple things like dust. Dust is your enemy. In any film that is stored not really well, dust gets into the emulsion and it’s very complicated to remove it. We went into restoring several roles of film at CineTech in Los Angeles.
iW: When it was finally done, what was your first reaction when you saw it?
Storaro: It was a great feeling to see so much energy and creativity, not only because it was a part of my own life experience, it was a pity that it was left in the editing room, because at the end of the day, you want to share it with someone, you want to express yourself.
iW: Did you think you were looking at the work of a young cinematographer?
Storaro: No, because I had done a lot.
iW: But you have also done a lot since.
Storaro: Every movie is part of your own life. Every movie reflects your life at that stage. What I tried to do was find a particular visual concept that I’m going to write with light the main concept of the picture. And usually, when I finish a project, I feel I did what it was possible for me to do. There is a major discussion today in restoring prints; critics say they shouldn’t be changed from the original. I think that if the artist is no longer alive, it should be kept the way it was, but if the artist is still alive, the artist should have the chance to continue to work on his own projects, the fact that you can re-edit it, or re-touch the soundtrack or re-print or add some more blue or black or red in some sequences, particularly using new technologies, can be great. You continue to refine your own work.
iW: What sort of emotional impact did shooting “Apocalypse Now” have on your life?
Storaro: Originally, I was not very happy to do the movie, because that section of my life was dealing with the confrontation between shadows and light. It was a journey from “The Conformist” to “Apocalypse Now.” I thought a Vietnam war movie would be very difficult to film as a cinematographer, because mainly you have to capture the main event: whenever the army is ready and the sun is up and the helicopter is ready. It was Francis who convinced me to read Joseph Conrad‘s “Hearts of Darkness” — there I understand it was the perfect concept to complete my study in the relationship between conscious and unconscious, light and shadows, because I was able to represent this visually in the conflict of cultures: the color of technology like the color of smoke, for example, upon natural color like the rice fields, or the sky or the sunset or the blue of dusk in the jungle. You have to respect both. There has to be a conversation between them.
It was also the first movie I did with a foreign director. I had never done a movie that was not in Italy. It was the longest, most expensive, the most difficult and the most dangerous, and at the same time, it was the most beautiful. Because no doubt, every movie is connected with your life; we changed ourselves day by day as the movie was progressing. After “Apocalypse Now,” I felt that I had to stop. It was impossible for me to do another assignment. I didn’t care. It was so strong that it was impossible for me to continue as I was before. Unless you are able to stop for a while and revitalize yourself, you keep doing the same things. Stopping gave me the perfect chance to do a kind of meditation, self-analysis and once again, become a student. Until then, I was expressing myself in an innocent way. So I understood that I had to know the meaning. You have to understand the meaning, not only emotionally, but rationally and that gave me the chance to start over from the beginning and open new doors, new colors.
iW: For this new version of the film, were you able to change the colors?
Storaro: Not changing, but pushing more in the direction of the concept that I originally had. Of colors and densities going up and down. The main concept remained the same. Unfortunately, the electronic image is not yet at the same level of the optical print.
iW: With film as it is now, as you said, only lasting a limited number of years, how do you feel about digital video?
Storaro: It’s much worse. The image is degrading much faster than color film. In fact, today, the more reliable material is still film, in terms of longevity. It’s a major confusion to think if it’s digital, it lasts forever. When the optical will be digital, yes, but this is still electronic. It’s digital information on electronic material. Electronic is still the problem. Even if it’s on DVD, the material itself is worse. It’s better than tape, but it’s not yet optical. What is the difference? When I say optical, I mean silver. Film is made up of silver. Silver is black; it doesn’t change. Why do we have color fading? Because in color images, we’re removing the black, so we’re left with the primary colors. That’s why black and white images last longer.
iW: What do you feeling about all those filmmakers shooting digital video? And you predate all of this when you worked with Coppola with video on “One for the Heart,” right?
Storaro: No, that’s another confusion. The proposal was only to use an electronic system, but I refused to do it, because I knew the technology was so poor. We used a lot of the electronic technology for pre-production and post-production, but we kept the film negative at that time. But I do think, no doubt, that this is the direction that we’re supposed to go. Because you can’t stop evolution. We did graffiti on a cave, then painting on wood, then wall, then canvas, then film, and now digital. This is part of our journey.
The main problem today being presented wrongly by companies is that digital is the same quality as film, which is not true. Just look at the numbers: any film, at minimum, has a resolution of 6k; today, the Cine-Alta, what they call the high definition 24p, is less than 2k, so it’s one third of the information. In film, from black to white, you can have hundreds of different tonalities, and on tape, you have one third. And as for color, film is able to release around 32 bits, and with the new digital technology, there’s a maximum of 8 to 10 bits. This is a major difference. When they show tests, they’re showing clips that usually don’t have good light. And they transfer film to tape, so they’re taking film quality to tape quality, and every video projector uses 8 bit. So you don’t see where you come from, so of course, they look the same.
iW: So is this evolution or de-evolution?
Storaro: We should use it. But we should be aware of it. Any film that is specific to television would be fine. If somebody would present to me something only for television, it’s good to use the Cine-Alta camera, because you can never read more information than that 2k. For intimate, psychological projects, done on low budgets, which will be presented in small screening rooms in a multiplex, they can definitely be done on digital video, because from the beginning, there is not the will to reach that kind of depth into the visual world.
But we should also be able to make epic pictures on film, like “2001” or “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Apocalypse Now” or “The Last Emperor.” Those projects need a big canvas, because the drama is also the conflict between something very intimate and something very epic.