In a conversation at the Tribeca Film Festival with Steven Soderbergh, who said he saw Apocalypse Now 17 times as a teenager in Baton Rouge, LA, Francis Ford Coppola reminisced about working with Marlon Brando and managing though chaos.
“The fuse had been blown on the circuit,” Coppola said of the 1979 film, whose 40th anniversary “Final Cut” is being celebrated at Tribeca. (A theatrical, on-demand and Blu-ray release is set for August, with newly enhanced sound and 20 minutes shaved from the “Redux” edition of several years ago.)
“In filmmaking as in life, bad things are going to happen,” Coppola told Soderbergh during the conversation at the Beacon Theatre, alluding to the biblical series of events that hit the production, including a typhoon and Martin Sheen’s heart attack. “The good news is that there is no hell. But the quasi-good news is, this is heaven.”
Soderbergh noted the extensive record of the film, including the noted documentary Hearts of Darkness, directed by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor. “Everything was documented. I was stunned,” Soderbergh said. “I would never let people do that. … Telling people what I’m trying to do is my worst nightmare.”
Asked by Soderbergh about whether there were an easier way – “You were not just flying close to the sun — you were flying at the sun, with intention” – Coppola said it was a matter of finding a new expression for war through film. “I didn’t want to just do a Bridge on the River Kwai … although that’s a great film,” Coppola said. “I also thought the movie was about morality. … We teach the boys to drop fire about people but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘f*ck’ on their airplanes because it’s immoral.”
The Apocalypse director recalled a distribution screening for international rights holders who had bought key territories. “When they saw it, the film was long and strange,” Coppola said. He and his crew quickly trimmed 12 minutes from it, but when he was confronted by the downside and backers threatened to pull out, Coppola said he sang the song from Broadway staple Damn Yankees, “You Gotta Have Heart.”
The filmmaker elicited a warm ovation when he offered a proclamation borne of many challenges. “What good is success if you still can’t make the movie you want to make that no one wants you to make?” he said. “I still feel like that at age 80.”
Another applause line: “You can’t make art without risk, any more than you can make babies without sex.”
In terms of working with actors, Coppola observed, “People say, ‘You got such a great performance out of the actor,’ but directors don’t do that. You’re just the coach. You’re there to say a useful thing at the right time or say that one thing that makes something click for the actor.”
Marlon Brando, playing Kurtz in Apocalypse, was one such actor.
Coppola said that while he met Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini, among a dozen other “geniuses” in his life, “Brando is in a class of his own. What he talked about was fascinating … But he was like a big kid.”
When the actor arrived on set considerably overweight, Coppola said, “He was like an irresponsible kid.” He described the delicate working relationship with the actor, who was getting $1 million a week (in 1970s dollars) for three weeks of work.
Soderbergh asked if on some level Brando may have been afraid of the task at hand. “Marlon was too interesting a man to be scared,” Coppola replied. As to the actor’s bald head and shadowy appearance, the director said that came about once Brando finally read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness novella. “All of that was Marlon’s genius, to just give us little portions of Kurtz at a time,” Coppola said.
Soderbergh asked Coppola about his affect during the 1979 press conference for the film in Cannes, when it was screened as a work in progress but went on to share the Palme d’Or with The Tin Drum. “You were so raw, and so candid,” Soderbergh said. “Do you look back on it and wish you had dialed it back a little bit?”
Coppola shrugged, “My whole life, I look back and say, ‘I wish I had dialed it back a little bit.’”