NEW YORK (AP) — If filmmaking is a war, then “Apocalypse Now” was very nearly Francis Ford Coppola’s Waterloo.
The battles Coppola 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 Coppola created a masterpiece. And 40 years later, “Apocalypse Now” has never looked so good.
Coppola has supervised a 4K restoration of the film and, for the second time, tweaked the cut. Having perhaps gone too far in his 2001 “Redux,” which added 53 minutes, “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” which opens in theaters Friday and on home video August 27, splits the difference at 183 minutes.
In its present and restored form, the majesty and madness of “Apocalypse Now” is more vivid and hallucinatory than ever. Coppola considers it the definitive version. It completes a four decade journey turning what was almost a mess into the masterwork he envisioned from the start.
Coppola, 80, has lately been busy with equally audacious plans.
In 2017, he published a book, “Live Cinema and its Techniques,” about his experiments and hopes for a new art form that combines cinema, television and theater in a live experience. He’s also recently returned to a long delayed passion project, “Megalopolis,” a sprawling sci-fi, New York-set epic. Coppola has been working on the script and casting, and searching for production partners. “Or maybe now it’s at the stage I can do it by myself, I don’t know,” he says.
In a recent interview, Coppola spoke about “Apocalypse Now” then and now, why he was “terrified” after making it and why he has so much trouble letting go.
AP: You’ve talked before about the theatrical version of “Apocalypse Now” missing some of the “weirdness” you wanted. What did you mean?
Coppola: In the 1979 version when it first opened, the various people who had 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 trying to make it appear more normal as opposed to “weird.” So we took some things out. Some of them were just 30 seconds long or a minute long but generally we were trying to make it shorter and less weird, which I guess is another word for “surreal.” 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’s going to have a life after that — I was looking at it on television and it didn’t seem so weird or surreal. It stuck out less as something unusual. For that reason, people kept saying to me, “Maybe you should have put back what you took out.”
AP: Did you consciously want to put your stamp on the war movie ?
Coppola: The Vietnam War was different than other American wars. It was a West Coast sensibility rather than an East Coast sensibility. In war movies before “Apocalypse,” there was always a sort of Brooklyn character, an East Coast and Midwest personality. In “Apocalypse Now,” it was LA and it was surfing and it was drugs and it was rock ‘n’ roll so it was more of a West Coast ambiance to the war. In addition, there were many sort of odd contradictions that related to the morality involved.
AP: You’ve gone back and made changes to a number of your films. For you, is a film ever really finished?
Coppola: The only reason I’m 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. Obviously most filmmakers don’t own their films and would not be permitted to change a cut. But the version that you open with, you’re very concerned that it will have some longevity. And so you may do things for the opening that you’d rather not do but you don’t 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” was just a runaway creative hit. Most of the other films were highly qualified and that meant that 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, and do what I wanted to do.
AP: Eleanor Coppola, your wife, wrote in her “Notes” that you took on some of Kurtz’ megalomania while making “Apocalypse Now.”
Coppola: Whenever I made a movie, I was always personally compared to the main character. When I was doing “The Godfather,” I was Michael Corleone, Machiavellian and sly. When I made “Apocalypse Now,” I was the megalomaniac. When I made “Tucker,” I was the innovative entrepreneur. The truth of the matter is all my life if I have been anything I’ve been enthusiastic and imaginative. I don’t have talent that I wish I had. My talent was more enthusiasm and imagination and a kind of prescient sense, a sense of knowing what’s going to happens before it happens. Other than that, my talent is limited.
AP: How did you feel after “Apocalypse Now”?
Coppola: I was terrified. For one thing, I was on the hook for the whole budget personally — that’s why I came to own it. In addition, in those days interest was over 25, 27%. So it looked as though, especially given the controversy and all the bogus articles being written about a movie that 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. I was scared stiff. 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. I didn’t think I was going to survive that. All of those movies, which were these monumental attempts at art, left me in a different place when I finished than when I started. But then it was followed by another one that was a similar challenge. I’m 80 now but from age 25 to 60, my life was one crisis after another.