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Putting Sanity At Stake: Coppola Interviews John Milius About Writing 'Apocalypse Now'

Sheen 3Apocalypse Now, which was inspired by Polish author Joseph Conrad’s short novel Heart of Darkness, is a singular war film and a singular viewing experience. Moved from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic production in the jungle, fraught with delays, illness and insanity, is almost as legendary as the film itself. Filmmaker IQ has shared a video of an interview with the film’s screenwriter, John Milius, by none other than Coppola himself. Click below and enter the heart of darkness.


The film’s inspiration, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 short novel Heart of Darknessis a highly symbolic and enigmatic work about an ivory trader who is sent on a journey up the Congo river to discover what has happened to one of his employers’ most important stations and its chief, Mr. Kurtz.

There were several abortive adaptations over the years, though Orson Welles did produce a version for the radio in 1938, and CBS aired a version on its famous live theatre program, Playhouse 90, in the late 50s. Coppola’s adaptation, however, deviates significantly from Conrad’s novella.

In this interview, Milius discusses being a student at USC film school during the height of the war (where his classmates and friends included George Lucas,) when he expected to be drafted as soon as his student deferment ran out. He was thinking about what sort of movies would be made about Vietnam, and wanted to write his own take on the conflict.

His eventual screenplay for Apocalypse Now would, almost a decade later, serve as the blueprint for an iconic war film and classic piece of cinema:

The script went through at least ten drafts and a thousand pages before production, and the title comes from a popular button worn by hippies that said, “Nirvana Now” (its original title was The Psychedelic Soldier). Milius was also influenced by an article by Michael Herr, whose writing on Vietnam later inspired Stanley Kubrick when he was working on Full Metal Jacket.

Once filming in the jungles of the Philippines finally got underway, things got more than a little weird, with Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack, Brando insisting on writing his own lines, pasta chefs being flown in from Italy, and Coppola having to put up substantial amounts of his own money to get the film finished (one can see Kubrick’s wisdom in making his own Vietnam movie in England, though Coppola is the sort of filmmaker who thrives on chaos, and Kubrick made the vast majority of his films in the U.K.)

The script was rewritten over the course of the epic production, which stretched from a budgeted five months to over two years. The documentary Coppola’s ex-wife Eleanor made of the making of the film, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, shows how the movie veered out of control and eventually mirrored many of themes that made it into the movie:

This interview is a must-see for fans of Coppola, Apocalypse Now, and Milius, without his original, brilliant screenplay, the film would not exist. Milius is a controversial figure in Hollywood by his own admission, and has a filmography that includes writing and directing Red Dawn and Conan The Barbarian

Of course no screenplay is ever set in stone, but do you think a director has an obligation to “stick to the script”? As indie filmmakers what lessons do you think can we learn from Apocalypse Now about striking a balance between letting a film develop “organically” and the rigors of on-location shooting?

[via Filmmaker IQ]

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  • I think the interview reveals more about Milius’s thought process on what a general screenplay ought to be rather than this particular film – the allegories, the underlying themes, the commentary on the Zeitgeist, etc. Great stuff.
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    Now onto “Dirty Harry”.

  • That is an enjoyable interview. It deals with a lot of aspects of film making. In case you cannot get your film right, this interview gives you the right spirit. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  • this is one of the best films ever the whole movie and with the great vittorio Storaro behind the lens the set location and acting lineup and dont forget the score and subject matter this is the real deal you have to buy the complete dossier version extras behind the scenes interviews yes film junkie stuff

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