One of the things that hits you smack in the middle of the noggin about Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier (2006) is that Coppola didn’t know WTF he was into when he set out to make this film. Yeah, he had a cast, more or less, a budget, mostly his own money, and a John Milius script. But all that was more or less in jeopardy as soon as Coppola & Co. set up camp in the Philippines to shoot the thing.
As Coppola tells it in his director’s commentary, they shot the Col. Kilgore Valkyrie Chopper Assault scene early in the process. That was in the Milius script: the cowboy colonel, the surfing, and the Wagner. All there. They ran 100,000 feet of film through the cameras to get it, sweated blood over the napalm shots, couldn’t depend on the choppers to be on set when they were needed, and just generally found themselves in hell without the hand basket.
But what footage!
It was during that process that Coppola realized the script’s final scene – a battle extravaganza – wouldn’t cut it. That was out. And if that was out, what was in?
That question plagued Coppola, presumably, until the sucker was more or less edited into watchable shape. How to end the film? Coppola says he “must have written 500 endings.” 500? That’s a good number, more or less synonymous with "lots and lots".
He also says, over and over – it’s a motif of his commentary – that he’s a director who likes to be “available” (his word) to whatever happens in the process. And was he ever available.
Example: the opening, with the lush jungle trees at the beach and The Doors on the soundtrack. An accident. Coppola was rummaging though out-takes from the napalm scene and saw some footage he liked. Hmmm, this is pretty, maybe we put it at the beginning, with The End, yeah, that’s it, start the film with a song about the end of it all, and we got an opening. And so it was done, with the help of a brilliant montage by Walter Murch.
Example: Lance the surfer-dude gunner spends much of the last quarter of the film with an arrow rig on his head. You know, the kind Steve Martin built an act on; it looks like there’s an arrow through your head. Well, Sam Bottoms came up with that bit of business on set. And it totally rocked.
Example: The photo-journalist, the character played by Dennis Hopper. Hopper was hired to play some character who was in the script. The first day he showed up on set, all jazzed up, Coppola tossed another chunk of the script out the window. He created a character fit to the actor before him. Based this new character on “the Russian” from Heart of Darkness (which, BTW, I haven’t read). Hopper’s dialogue: He made it up.
Example: Brando, Marlon “too heavy to play the part we wrote for him” Brando. So they chatted about this and that, Brando shaved his head, read Eliot, and somehow made himself into the heart of the heart of darkness at the heart of this jungle cruise to nowhere somewhere.
Example: The ending, the ‘freakin’ ending, about which more later. But here’s symmetry. It began with The Doors “The End” and it ended with it. The End.
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Sometimes you treat your initial idea as the point of arrival: When it’s all over, this is where I’ll be. Lots and lots of movies are made that way. From concept to pitch to treatment to script to shooting script to final on the screen film. One more or less coherent line of development. Seems logical and sensible.
Heck, it seems necessary. Movies are expensive. Someone’s got to pay, and that someone wants to get their money back, plus interest, lots of interest, the more the better. They’re not going to fork over the benjamins unless they know what they’re buying. So the process more or less demands that you know what you’re going to do, step by step by step, when you set out to make a film.
Furthermore, the logistics demand it. Most films are not shot in sequence. You do all the dining room scenes on the dining room set. You do all the assembly line scenes on the factory set. You do all the battlefield scenes on the battlefield somewhere in the middle of Slovenia. You do all the cave scenes deep down in the cave. And you do all dark side of the moon scenes on the dark side of the moon set. You can’t work that kind of schedule unless you know every scene ahead of time and can plan it out, ahead of time.
Still, however compelling the money and logistics of movie-making are, that’s not the only way to do it. You can improvise. You can treat your initial idea, the script, as the starting point of an exploration.
That’s what Coppola did. That may not be what he intended. But that’s what he did.
Because, you see, he made himself available. In this case he made himself available, available to the Philippines, the beach, the typhoon, the military, Sheen’s heart attack, Brando’s Brando, the jungle jungle, not the Tarzan movie jungle, but the jungle jungle. The dark jungle, the green jungle, the blue jungle, the jungle mist, the light.
And he figured out where to go by figuring out how, step by step, to keep movin’ forward. And when the motion stopped, he was there. In the words of Buckaroo Banzai, “Wherever you go, there you are.”