Coppola terrified after Apocalypse Now

Director Francis Ford Coppola fought many battles making what is now regarded as a masterpiece and was unsure if it would survive

(From left) Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne and Francis Ford Coppola at the recent premiere of Apocalypse Now Final Cut in Hollywood, California. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • If film-making is a war, then Apocalypse Now was very nearly Francis Ford Coppola's Waterloo. The battles he fought while making his 1979 epic nearly destroyed him.

A typhoon wrecked a major set.

Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen. Coppola searched desperately for an ending. He worked even harder to coax a few lines out of Marlon Brando.

But out of that tumult, he created a masterpiece. And 40 years later, Apocalypse Now has never looked so good. In Apocalypse Now Final Cut, he has supervised a 4K restoration of the film and tweaked the cut.

In a recent interview, Coppola, 80, spoke about the movie, why he was "terrified" after making it and why he has trouble letting go.

You have talked before about the theatrical version of Apocalypse Now missing some of the "weirdness" you wanted. What did you mean?

In the 1979 version when it first opened, the various people who sponsored it and were distributing it felt that it was too long and too weird. So we went through a tough few evenings trying to make it shorter and appear more normal.

So we took some things out.

After it was clear the movie had survived - meaning, you never know when you make a movie if its opening is going to be the last you heard of it or it is going to have a life after that - I was looking at it on television and it did not seem so weird or surreal. For that reason, people kept saying to me: "Maybe you should have put back what you took out."

Martin Sheen starred in Apocalypse Now. PHOTO: SIFF

You have made changes to a number of your films. For you, is a film ever really finished?

The only reason I am in a position to go back and evaluate some of these decisions is because I own the film, which is the same reason George Lucas looks at some of his movies.

But the version you open with, you are very concerned that it will have some longevity. And so you may do things for the opening you would rather not do, but you do not want to risk a negative reception because a film that opens with a negative reception is dead.

If you can get it to be a positive reception or even a qualified positive reception, then it has a chance of surviving.

If you look at all the films I made, only The Godfather (1972) was just a runaway creative hit.

Most of the other films were highly qualified and that meant I was trying to nurse them into persisting and surviving. Later on, since I own them, I very often decided to undo things that were pushed on me by distributors or people at the time.

How did you feel after Apocalypse Now?

I was terrified. For one thing, I was on the hook for the whole budget personally - that is why I came to own it.

In addition, in those days, interest was over 25, 27 per cent. So it looked as though, especially given the controversy and all the bogus articles being written about a movie no one knew anything about but were predicting it was "the heralded mess" of that year, it looked as though I was never going to get out of the jeopardy I was in.

I had kids, I was young. I had no family fortune behind me.

It was no different after Godfather. Godfather was a project I was constantly about to be fired from, that the studio hated what I was doing looked like.

All those movies, which were these monumental attempts at art, left me in a different place when I finished than when I started.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2019, with the headline Coppola terrified after Apocalypse Now. Subscribe