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How Francis Ford Coppola Struggled During the Making of ‘Apocalypse Now’

The making of “Apocalypse Now” wasn’t easy for director Francis Ford Coppola. In fact, it seemed doomed from the start.

During a talk on Sunday for the Tribeca Film Festival, Coppola sat down with director Steven Soderbergh for the film’s 40th anniversary to chat about the setbacks, which started with “everybody saying it was a bad idea.” Previously, no one had ever done a movie about the Vietnam War, and since he couldn’t find sources to finance the pic, he had to do it himself. Stylistically, “Apocalypse Now” and its surrealist undertone was also a departure from his previous “Godfather” films.

“’The Godfather’ was very formal and classical. The styles of my movies were very, very different,” he said. “So, basically, nobody wanted to do ‘Apocalypse Now,’ no actors wanted to go to the Philippines, and I was very confused about the situation. Ultimately, the deal I did had to guarantee a budget, and I used the money I had earned with ‘The Godfather,’ so in truth, what happened was that the movie was so uncertain.”

The deal with Paramount Pictures, originally a $12 million-dollar budget, ended up being $30 million, and when it premiered at Cannes in 1979, it was unfinished and he said many press stories called it “a disaster.”

“My thinking was ‘oh, we’re never going to be able to survive this,’” he said. “Interest rates in those days, you couldn’t imagine it today, it was over 26%, and I think I owed about $30 million. I didn’t have the kind of money like that at all, and I was just so scared. I had three kids and a family.”

During the filming, Coppola had to fire one of his main actors, rebuild his sets which were destroyed in a typhoon, and face the grim reality of lead actor Martin Sheen’s “very serious” heart attack. He described the firing, which he decided not to delve into, as something a director never wants to do. As for the typhoon, he joked that it actually helped him rebuild a set to get where he initially wanted it to be. In regards to Sheen’s heart attack, he feared that the film would have not been completed.

“The fact that he survived was wonderful news, but more importantly his wife had to decide if he was going to be pulled from the film,” he said. “She loved him more than anything and the fact that he loved acting more than anything, she just took him away for several months.”

One thing that surprised Soderbergh about Coppola’s said “misery” during the making was that actor Marlon Brando didn’t contribute to it. The director pulled Brando onto the set for the last three weeks of filming, and for five days, Coppola said he talked endlessly instead of filming and acted like “a big kid.” He showed up overweight when Coppola asked him to be thin for his role and refused to shave his head, but when asked if that angered Coppola, he said his intelligence made up for it.

“He was a wonderful man. In my lifetime, I got to meet a dozen geniuses and extraordinary people, but Brando, what he talked about was so fascinating. His perspective on life was interesting,” he said.

The movie has endured for 40 years, and the showing of “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut,” along with the following talk, received a standing ovation from the crowd at the Beacon Theater. Coppola’s surrealist take on the Vietnam War defeated the odds, and the director said he got there with “heart.”

“The point is that in filmmaking, extraordinary things happen to you and it’s up to you to make it positive because in this there is no hell, this is heaven, so make it be heaven. It’s up to you,” he said. “Terrible things happen and we had heart, and it’s really heart that gets you through these situations.”

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