Francis Ford Coppola on New Apocalypse Now, Influencing Tropic Thunder and the Downside of CGI
"My movie is not about Vietnam," Francis Coppola once famously noted about his epic Apocalypse Now. "My movie is Vietnam." And now you, too, can have Vietnam -- or, rather, Apocalypse Now -- in your own home with more bells and whistles than ever thanks to this week's new three-disc Full Disclosure Edition, which boasts stunning Blu-ray presentations of both the movie and its longer "Redux" re-release, the feature documentary Hearts of Darkness, new interviews with actor Martin Sheen and screenwriter John Milius, a never-before-seen Roger Ebert interview with Coppola from the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, the 1938 Orson Welles Mercury Theatre radio production of Heart of Darkness, and scads more goodies. On the eve of this new set's release, Coppola spoke with Movieline about making movies like Apocalypse Now in the pre-CGI era -- and packaging them today for home video.
What's your take on how your films and projects have translated to home video over the years?
My term of my activity in my profession included the creation of the home video market, which is what it was called in those days, and I recall touring with some fellow who was the head of this new department at Paramount when they made the first Godfather collection, when I saw the beginning of the deluxe video market. And DVD was the next step in that. I think Blu-ray is a stunning level of quality, so I've seen it go from Betamax to VHS to laser disc, all of these technological revolutions. But with DVD has come this notion of extras and commentaries and many other things which the public seems to expect.
There are some filmmakers - Woody Allen, at least - who still refuse to record commentaries, and other filmmakers wrestle with whether or not they want to do any kind of digital clean-up on their films when they go to DVD. How do you approach it?
Obviously, the commentary notion is almost a fact of life, and it is a pleasure if you're on the other side. At first when it all happened, I thought, What are all these activities, why would I want to sit there for three hours and go through it again? But I think this idea was pioneered by the Criterion Collection, and since then I've seen the value of it and now it's just part of the job of bringing it to the public. In addition, the folks who have invested in these beautiful wide-screen televisions, the 1080p true high-definition, a film like Apocalypse Now, I feel, is really for them an opportunity to try out their system and really see what the picture can really look like and extraordinary sound can sound like on their systems. I'm really optimistic about this new edition of Apocalypse on Blu-Ray, it's really stunning.
I watched it with a tech-geek friend who has a souped-up home theater, and he was really impressed. I think this DVD pushed some limits he hadn't seen yet on his set-up. What are some of your favorite commentaries from other filmmakers?
I haven't really listened to a lot of commentaries at this point. Unfortunately, a couple of the commentaries I'd really like to listen to are from filmmakers that are long gone. And instead you have commentaries from professional commentary-makers, the whole collection of historians and journalists who comment on the film. But I'm interested in any of the documentaries they have about [Henri-Georges] Clouzot or any of these great figures, and although it's not specifically made for that edition... Actually, I'm always struck by the fact that some of these masterpieces that you think just came down from heaven all perfectly made, and you realize what doubts and struggles they went through, and how they were hanging on by their fingernails. It's sort of heartening to realize that that's just part of the process.
The struggles of the process of making Apocalypse Now are very much a part of the film's legend -- whereas if you could have faked a lot of the things they can fake now, it would have been a very different shoot.
Well, the struggle is part of it. And in the case of my movies, I always try to identify early on what I thought the theme was, preferably in one word, and let that be my guiding light for what the style was. And in the case of Apocalypse, I think the process of throwing myself into such a difficult production scheme without the benefit of the modern effects... But then, you know, people who see a lot of extraordinary things on CGI, they know the difference, and there's a big difference. You could have faked a lot on Apocalypse Now, and in fact that was the film that made me think long and hard about the fact that there's got to be a better way to do this. A lot of our efforts brought about the revolution in digital filmmaking. You know, I saw recently saw Patton, because they asked me, oddly enough, to do a commentary because everyone else was dead, and that was filmmaking where they really did it all, and there is a big difference.
As one director told me, "I'd rather have one Chewbacca than a thousand clone armies."
I am totally convinced that the CGI technique can be used in a way that doesn't just get written off by the audience, that does extraordinary things but in a way because it's true cinema, which is to say using metaphor or direction. [...] It's not the tool that's dangerous, it's the way that it's used, and that all goes back to the mentality of why the movie was made. I believe that if a movie is made, number one, to make money, it's not of much interest to me. Basically, the other happens, but I believe films have to be made because they're personal or because you are searching for an answer to some question in your life that you can only arrive at through the making of that film.
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