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Things I Learned at Telluride’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ Anniversary Screening

Things I Learned at Telluride's 'Apocalypse Now' Anniversary Screening

On the opening day of the 41st Telluride Film Festival, it was possible to spend several hours immersed in “Apocalypse Now”, which received a special tribute, 35 years after its initial release in 1979.  

The 650-seat Werner Herzog Theatre was sold out. So many were turned away that a request I’d never heard before was made, and obeyed, for City Lights passholders (a special program for high school students and teachers) to vacate their seats, leading one of my seatmates to observe that there went the most likely candidates in the audience who had never seen “Apocalypse Now” on the big screen.  I said I’d probably have hidden my pass and scrunched down in my seat.  Luckily another screening was already scheduled in the 500-seat Chuck Jones Cinema for the following morning at 8:30 a.m.

The movie has never looked better — nor sounded better, thanks to the amazing Meyer Sound system — than it did on the Herzog’s huge screen.  The Telluride Film Festival’s co-founder and director Tom Luddy had said in his introduction that it was singularly appropriate to screen it there, because when he had brought Werner Herzog to the Pacific Film Archive and screened “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” there, Francis Coppola had been so impressed with the movie that he had filmed two homages to it in “Apocalypse”: a scene of a boat mysteriously stuck high up in a tree, and another when a spear is thrown threw a conquistador.  Then moderator Scott Foundas introduced the film: “one of the true masterpieces of contemporary world cinema.”

The most striking thing about the movie today: made long before CGI, if there are 11 helicopters hovering in the frame, there ARE 11 helicopters hovering in the frame.  The famous slow-motion shot of exposing napalm that both opens the film and is used later in the famous Colonel Kilgore (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning… smelled like victory”) sequence was the largest single special effects explosion ever made.

Afterwards an all-too-brief onstage colloquy was held, among director Francis Ford Coppola; producer and casting director Fred Roos; editor Walter Murch; cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; and the semi-surprise appearance of screenwriter John Milius, teased as “unannounced” before the screening by Foundas, but not a surprise to those of us who’d read the essay written by James Gray that was handed out to the audience upon entry. (I therefore assumed that Martin Sheen was going to show up, or perhaps Laurence Fishburne, then billed as “Larry” and 14 years old at the time of filming.)  

Milius, still recovering from a massive stroke suffered 3 years ago, has only partially recovered his powers of speech, but seemed overjoyed to be there and beamed at the audience.  Francis generously gave him credit for creating the script, written for American Zoetrope on Warner Brothers’ dime, and intended for George Lucas to direct (“in 16mm, in Northern California”).  But in any event, Lucas was off directing “Star Wars” and Milius working on “Dillinger.”  So Francis took the reins, hoping to make, he said, a “Guns of Navarone”-like action film that would make lots of money and enable him and his Zoetrope colleagues to make small, personal, art films influenced by the European directors they revered, since Warner Bros. had not only pulled the plug on Zoetrope’s projects, but also forced Coppola to repay the money they’d spent on developing his slate of films.

Roos related how he, along with producer Gray Frederickson and production designer Dean Tavoularis, did location scouting all over Asia “on Paramount’s dime when they sent us to Hawaii, Vietnam, Australia…” on a press junket for “The Godfather.”  “Australia would have been the best, but Australian SAG insisted that all the actors would be Australian.” The many disasters — Martin Sheen’s heart attack, a typhoon that destroyed expensive sets, the Philippine Air Force pulling out their fleet of helicopters without notice — unfolded gradually.  “This was the most expensive military film made without the co-operation of the American government.”  

Coppola said they met with Marcos early on, and he gave it his blessing.  Guilelessly, Coppola continued, “I don’t remember bribes or anything…they were fighting a guerrilla insurrection, so very so often the helicopters would just disappear.  Not to fight, just because they were all in the same place and easy to hurt.”

Vittorio Storaro was amazingly articulate and poetic in a language not his own — he says he scarcely spoke English when asked to do the film, his first not in Italy. “The work that Francis did with Gordon Willis was so great. How could he work without him?  And Gordon Willis had wanted to meet with me, to congratulate me on ‘The Conformist’…I was used to work only in Italy, with Bertolucci, on psychological films…to do a war movie, I was really surprised. I was out of context. I tried to explain to Francis, who said, ‘if you don’t want to do it, Gordon still won’t.  Don’t worry, ‘Apocalypse Now’ is not a war movie.  Please read ‘Heart of Darkness.”  At that moment I understood my chance: the relationship between good and evil, darkness and light…one civilization, if it goes on top of another civilization, is an act of violence.” Storaro wanted to juxtapose artificial light against nature, and with the special effects team, devised canisters of colored smoke used throughout the film to amazing effect.

Walter Murch was one of 3, 4, even 5 editors working simultaneously; when he joined the team, others had been working for years.  He came from working on Fred Zinneman’s  “Julia,” where the film ratio was 15 or 20 to 1 (film shot to film used); on “Apocalypse,” it was something like 100 to 1 — Coppola pointed out that on an action movie, as many as six cameras can be shooting at the same time.  

Coppola revealed that the beginning of the film came about accidentally, when at a going-away party in the editing room for editor Barry Malkin, Coppola plucked a trim from a trim bin and paired it with The Doors’ “The End” that turned out to be the shot with the helicopter struts coming in and out just before the slow-mo napalm explosion: a happy accident. “That’s a case of destiny — or just chance.”  He also said that where the movie came from was Eugene Jones’ 1968 Vietnam War documentary “A Face of War,” Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre,” and, as the journey started to become more and more surreal — not “The Guns of Navarone” anymore  — he felt “How am I going to end this? ”  Not with the big battle scene that was at the end of Milius’ original script.  “I asked everyone to help me with the ending. ..Dennis Jakob told me to read ‘The Myth of the Fisher King’ and Frasier’s ‘The Golden Bough.’ He said ‘He’s sent to kill the guy.  Have him kill him!'”

When Scott Foundas, at the signal of the theatre manager, attempted to wrap things up, with no time for questions from the audience, Coppola said, “We don’t have to do anything!  I want one guy to ask a question!”  Unfortunately the questioner chosen, after complimenting Coppola on his socks, asked “Are you guided more by emotion or thought?,” to which Coppola responded, anticlimactically, that he tried to put those things together.

230 or so of the 650 that had filled the Herzog to bursting made it over to the Sheridan Opera House an hour later to attend a follow-up program with the same participants entitled “A Close-Up on Apocalypse Now.”  It was introduced gracefully by Ken Burns, who is currently working on a 10-part, 18 1/2 hour history of the war in Vietnam: “This is a compound fracture — not just a fracture — in American society.”  It was hosted by director James Gray (“The Immigrant”), who said that his father had taken him to see “Apocalypse Now” at the age of 10 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York –“I knew at that moment I wanted to make films, a schmuck from Queens.”  A clip of Coppola interviewing Milius revealed that, since “Apocalypse,” various American invading armies felt the need to use Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which he had invented (there had been psy-ops that blared rock’n’roll).

Fred Roos showed a fascinating clip of a group casting session, unique to Coppola, in which a number of actors read a variety of parts, trading them off, including Nick Nolte, Sam Bottoms, and Fishburne, who was only 14 (“he lied about his age”).  Reflecting on some of the chaotic conditions that caused unexpected delays — “You can’t predict a typhoon, you can’t predict a heart attack [Martin Sheen’s]” — Roos said “We used to call it ‘Apocalypse Never.'”

Storaro chose to show a clip of Brando’s mysterious introduction, with his huge shaved head coming in and out of darkness into brief glimpses of light.  “So much darkness — since this was before digital, did you ever worry about dailies the next day?,” Gray asked.  Storaro revealed that they sent the “dailies” to his usual Technicolor lab in Rome, who returned the film to them two weeks later: “We were looking at weeklies, not dailies!” Storaro spoke of going to a church in Rome with his wife (who he pointed out in the audience), St. Luigi die Francesi, where he was struck by a painting of Caravaggio’s, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” a square picture divided by a beam of light, which he said divided humanity and divinity, conscious and unconscious, light and darkness.  This kind of dichotomy between two elements influenced his work from then on.  In “Apocalypse,” he wanted to juxtapose the artificial, such as the colored smokes, against the beauty of nature.  

Murch showed the opening six or seven minutes, the introduction of Sheen as Willard, which he said showed that you can be much more experimental with sound and image than you think you can.  “The relationship of sound to image is completely malleable.”  An example was using the sound of the helicopter rotor over the shots of the room fan.  Another was the use of Morrison master tapes while Willard was breaking the mirror in his hotel room: the isolated tape of Morrison revealed a rant using the word “fuck.”  “When Willard is at his booziest, Jim is at his fuckiest.”  Murch said that when NBC played “Apocalypse,” the censors replaced Willard saying “I’m fine,” lest the public thought he was saying “fuck,” “but Jim’s oratorios of fucks went out over the air.”

When Coppola took the stage, I could see the socks commented upon at the earlier screening:  one red, one turquoise blue.  He showed a clip to honor the work of Dean Tavoularis: the sequence of Willard’s boat stopping at the supply depot and sticking around to watch the Playboy Bunnies perform on a USO stage built over the river and ringed with phallic-shaped bullet-like lights. Another example of chance becoming destiny: that unforeseen typhoon had destroyed a $250,000 set of the supply depot that Tavoularis had designed and built inland — a mistake, Coppola decided.  It should have been on the river, and it was rebuilt there afterwards.

“Any regrets?” Gray asked him.  “I did everything I wanted to do.  I have only one regret, and I won’t say what it is…by now I thought we’d be building utopias together, but we’re still brutalizing each other.  We make the same mistakes again and again.”  After referring to “twenty wonderful young filmmakers” (in which he included Woody Allen), he conclude “In three or four years the world of cinema will be drastically different.”

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