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Francis Ford Coppola on How ‘Apocalypse Now’ Was Deemed a Failure — and Nearly Inventing Smartphones

The legendary filmmaker also explained why, despite some conflict in their friendship, Brando remains his hero.

Francis Ford CoppolaDorothy Arzner building dedication ceremony, Los Angeles, USA - 01 Mar 2018

Francis Ford Coppola

Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Francis Ford Coppola recently worked cinephiles into a frenzy by saying that, after an eight-year absence from filmmaking, he’d finally begun work on long-planned passion project “Megalopolis,” a film that’s always been dogged by funding issues. That followed his unspooling of “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut” at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, which cut certain scenes from 2001’s extended “Apocalypse Now Redux” while adding back some of the “weirder” elements lost from the 1979 theatrical cut. “Final Cut” will be released on Blu-ray in August.

“Apocalypse Now” — and what it says about how a work of art can shape-shift, in both its own form and in the minds of viewers and critics — was the reason for a wide-ranging new interview with Coppola conducted by Rolling Stone‘s David Fear. The whole Q&A is a reminder of what a forward-looking thinker the “Godfather” filmmaker is; he even almost kicked off the smartphone revolution years before Steve Jobs.

Fear asked Coppola about how “Apocalypse Now” was dinged by endless bad buzz leading up to its 1979 premiere and even upon its release was deemed by many to be a failure.

“The avant-garde of yesterday is the wallpaper design of today,” Coppola said about the negative reaction to his Vietnam War epic (which did tie for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture). “Some of the greatest artists of their day, we may have never heard of them. But the ‘failures’ like Van Gogh or Rousseau, who had to take his paintings around in a wheelbarrow — you’d give your eyeteeth now to have those paintings.”

Coppola also said, “The things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things you get Lifetime Achievements for when you’re old.”

The director famously clashed with Paramount executives when making “The Godfather,” an experience he regarded so negatively that he said he nearly passed on directing its sequel, “The Godfather Part II.” It was only when he realized that film could be the vehicle for another idea he had that he came on board as its director.

“Totally apart from anything having to do with the first ‘Godfather’ movie, I’d been toying with the idea of making a movie about a man and his son, and trying to compare their stories when both were at the same age. It was just this idea I had floating around. But I thought it might work for that. And it did.”

That sequel was racked with difficulties also: Al Pacino so disliked an early draft that he nearly refused to reprise his role as Michael Corleone, while Richard S. Castellano, who played Clemenza in the first movie, insisted he’d only return if he could write his own dialogue — Clemenza was thus said to have died before “The Godfather Part II” begins and a similar role was created for actor Michael V. Gazzo in the character of Frank Pentangeli. And, of course, Marlon Brando refused to appear for the final scene of “The Godfather Part II” altogether.

Brando would appear as Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” but, as vividly shown in the making-of documentary “Hearts of Darkness,” he was extremely difficult on set. That said, Coppola still regards Brando as his personal hero, according to the Rolling Stone interview.

“[Brando] could talk for hours about termites, or about the early Chinese settlers in America, or how shortwave radios worked,” Coppola said. “He just had this wonderful appetite to understand things.”

The challenges Coppola faced ultimately paid off: Both of the first two “Godfather” movies won the Oscar for Best Picture, while “Apocalypse Now” is now considered one of the greatest war films ever made.

The director was forward-looking in another way altogether, however. He claims he had the idea for smartphones years before they were actually invented.

“I was friends with Mr. [Akio] Morita at Sony,” he said. “So I showed him this thing I’d made with balsa wood, a little beta computer from England and a recording device, and told him, ‘This is the car of the future. Right now, if you want something, you have to drive to find it. But in the future, you’ll just reach in your pocket and order it from there.’ So he sent me to Sony’s telephone department. I quickly realized that they were still stuck in the Alexander 
Graham Bell era. And I laid out this thing for them, basically what would become a smartphone, and nope, no thank you, no interest.”

Alas. If Coppola had had that patent, he surely wouldn’t have had to put “Megalopolis” on the back-burner for decades while he waited for funding.

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