Study Guide

Apocalypse Now Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Francis Ford Coppola

    Proving Murphy's Law

    Was the Force with Francis Ford Coppola when he made Apocalypse Now?

    At first, it didn't seem like it. Coppola had been nurturing John Milius, the screenwriter, paying him an initial fifteen thousand dollars to write the script, but he didn't plan to direct it himself. George Lucas, the real creator of "The Force" from Star Wars, planned to direct instead.

    Until the Force led him to direct, well, Star Wars.

    Film School Guy

    Coppola was a graduate of the prestigious UCLA Film School, where he met the prolific king of B movies, Roger Corman (Attack of the Giant Leeches, Slumber Party Massacre II, you get the idea), who saw something in the young Coppola. In 1963, he asked him to direct Dementia 13, which Coppola also wrote. Needless to say, it didn't exactly attract attention, but Coppola did better in 1968, when he directed the movie version of the musical Finian's Rainbow (source). Film critic legend Roger Ebert thought that Finian's Rainbow was the best-directed musical since West Side Story.

    That's saying something.

    In 1969, disillusioned by the traditional Hollywood studio system, Coppola founded his own studio in San Francisco with George Lucas. They called it Zoetrope Studios, after the zoetrope, an animation toy that moved a bunch of still pictures very quickly to give the illusion of motion. Lucas and Coppola were some of the first directors to experiment with digital film production. They wanted their studio to be an avant-garde haven for artists who wanted to do things differently, independent of the Hollywood movie machine.

    That '70s Show

    The 1970s started out pretty well for Coppola and Zoetrope, when the world got a look at his screenplay for Patton (1970). It earned the young filmmaker a screenwriting Oscar.

    And then there was The Godfather.

    With the release of The Godfather in 1972 (Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay) and the equally acclaimed 1974 The Godfather Part II (Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay), Coppola earned his place in the directing pantheon, totally transforming the gangster genre and making people all around the world look for opportunities to say "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" and "Leave the gun; take the cannoli."

    In between filming the Godfathers, Coppola found time to write, produce, and direct The Conversation, a psychological thriller that won him his first Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for Best Picture but had some stiff competition: The Godfather Part II, which took home the top prize.

    Along with his buddies George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese (the then-young directing geniuses known as the "Film School Generation"), Coppola owned the 1970s.

    Apocalypse When?

    George Lucas and John Milius had planned to shoot Apocalypse Now in Vietnam in the early 1970s while the war was actually still going on. Not too many people thought this was a good idea. Then Lucas got sidetracked by his whole Star Wars deal, and Coppola took over the project. Given his massive success with epics like The Godfather Parts I and II, he seemed to be just the man to complete such a large-scale project.

    How hard could it be?

    It would be three years before he finished (source). Check out our "Production Design" section for more about how Coppola's experience making Apocalypse Now proved Murphy's law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

    It did, big time.

    Despite all the obstacles, Coppola persisted. The dude had a vision. Of course, crazy people have visions too…. Would Coppola's work out?

    The answer was a resounding yes.

    After debuting the movie at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival in a somewhat unfinished version, Apocalypse Now received a standing ovation and won the film festival's highest honor, the Palme d'Or, sharing it with The Tin Drum. Unfortunately, Apocalypse Now was going to mark the end of the rock star phase of Coppola's career.

    Broken Heart

    After his wild critical and commercial successes of the 1970s, Coppola's next project was a musical romance called One from the Heart, which he financed himself. Like most Coppola films, the budget was ambitious: $26 million, including building a replica of an airport. Unlike most Coppola films, it was an epic financial flop, grossing about $650,000 at the box office. Let's see, give us a sec…$26 million minus $650,000…that's a problem. His Zoetrope Studios, which financed the production, was forced to declare bankruptcy.

    Coppola spent much of the 1980s trying to get out of debt with films like 1983's The Outsiders and Rumblefish (both based on the YA books by S.E. Hinton), and The Cotton Club (1984). They didn't help. It wasn't until 1990's The Godfather Part III (with his daughter Sofia as a Corleone daughter) that Zoetrope had a box office hit. Coppola went on to direct and produce throughout the '90s and onward, but never regained his star-power of the '70s.

    In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award for his entire body of work—a kind of lifetime achievement award that the Academy only gives out when there's someone around who deserves it.

    We'd say Coppola is one of those someones.

    Films aren't the only art form that the director's pursued. Winemaking had been a family business since the 1920s, and Coppola had used some of the proceeds from the Godfather films to buy some wineries in California's wine country. He now owns several prestigious wineries in Napa and Sonoma Valley. If you visit the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, California, you can see a few of his Oscars along with props from some of his films. He's also opened high-end restaurants in California, Belize, and Italy.

    All in the Family

    We won't hold it against him that Coppola probably had artistic DNA on his side to give a boost to his own success. His grandfather was a composer and his father was a professional musician. His sister, Talia Shire, had a great film career, including portraying the battered Connie Corleone in The Godfather and Rocky Balboa's sweetie Adrian. (Yo, Adrian!) Nicolas Cage, born Nicolas Coppola, is his nephew. Cage wanted to make it on his own without being associated with his famous uncle. Honestly, if we were born a Coppola and planned on having a film career, we'd probably keep the name.

    Coppola's daughter, Sofia, inherited the family talent, directing The Virgin Suicides at the age of 28 and becoming, at 32, only the third woman to be nominated for Best Director, for Lost in Translation.

    The kids seemed to have enjoyed the winemaking biz, too.

  • Screenwriter

    John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola

    War's #1 Fan

    John Milius wanted to get his war on.

    A young surfer and aspiring screenwriter from St. Louis, he desired nothing more than to fight in Vietnam. He was rejected because of his asthma. Milius commented, "It was totally demoralizing. I missed going to my war. It probably caused me to be obsessed with war ever since" (source).

    Making lemons into hard lemonade, he decided to write an epic screenplay about the war, basing it on Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness. Originally titled "The Psychedelic Soldier," it billowed out to a thousand pages. Eventually, Milius changed the title to "Apocalypse Now," making fun of a hippie button he'd seen that read "Nirvana Now." Instead of peace and bliss, Milius' movie was going to be all about brutality and cataclysmic violence. (Source)

    Milius' original screenplay was a celebration of the savagery of war and what it does to the human spirit. Whereas for Conrad, Kurtz symbolized the moral hollowness and madness of imperialism, Milius actually claimed to agree with his own version Kurtz, saying that he was a man who "saw the truth," who recognized the necessity of conducting warfare with maximum ruthlessness and firepower. (Source)

    Like his character, Colonel Kilgore, Milius seemed to be the kind of dude who loved "the smell of napalm in the morning." (Here's a typical picture of him, striking a pose with a gun and a cigar.) His Cold War teen movie, Red Dawn—which he both wrote and directed—reinforces this viewpoint. At the time it was made, it had the highest body count in movie history.

    Tweaking the Script for Peace

    So, why does Apocalypse Now feel so…anti-war? The answer's easy: other people had a hand in writing the script.

    Captain Willard's voiceover narration was written by Michael Herr, a journalist best known for his non-fiction head-trip into the nightmare of Vietnam, Dispatches. If you compare those voiceover segments to the dialogue Milius wrote for Colonel Kilgore, you'll see how different in tone they are. Herr senses that something's seriously wrong with Vietnam.

    For instance, one of the voiceover parts Herr wrote reads, "It's a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies."

    And while Milius apparently approves of Colonel Kilgore's attitude, Herr's writing says, "If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for

    Coppola and Brando wrote most of the dialogue for Kurtz, which, even though it's supposed to be coming from the ultimate pro-war killing machine, starts to sound like hippie talk: "We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write 'f***' on their airplanes because it's obscene!"

    So, if you mix together Milius' tough-guy-warrior shtick with Herr's observations and Brando's improvised rambling, you come up with…a basically anti-war Palme d'Or-winning movie.

    You might've thought there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this one. But all the flavors came together in one memorable cinematic meal.

  • Production Studio

    American Zoetrope (with United Artists)

    In 1969, Francis Ford Coppola decided to give a young, war-obsessed screenwriter named John Milius a shot. He paid him fifteen thousand bucks to write the definitive Vietnam War film. Milius stepped up and created a monumental, mammoth screenplay (source).

    The script sat around for years, collecting dust on the shelf.

    Eventually, Coppola secured financial backing, using his own company (American Zoetrope), United Artists, and producers Fred Roos and Gray Frederickson. Paramount, which had produced The Godfather films, also got on board. Dust off that screenplay, boys—we've got a Vietnam War epic. It was gonna be…well, epic.

    With the Philippines' jungle standing in for Vietnam, Apocalypse Now took three years to make, way longer than anyone expected. The money people were wringing their hands as the film ballooned over budget, and Coppola almost lost his mind. Martin Sheen had a heart attack; Brando showed up not knowing a word of the script; the set was destroyed by a typhoon. Everything went wrong, and Coppola and the other producers assumed it was going to be a massive failure and titanic waste of money (see the "Production Design" section for more details).

    In the end, the money people were free to calm down.

    Even at three times over budget at $31.5 million, the film managed to gross $150 million worldwide. Everyone went home happy (except for Marlon Brando, who thought he wasn't receiving his royalty checks or something).

  • Production Design

    35mm Film

    Apocalypse Now was shot in film—35mm. Digital wasn't a thing yet. The film was one of the first to use 70mm six-track Dolby Surround Sound.

    Bring Out Your Dead

    The problems involved in making Apocalypse Now are almost as legendary as the film itself. It took 238 days of principal photography and two years of post-production. Coppola said in his wife's book about the filming, "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. The way we made it is the way Americans were in Vietnam. We had too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane" (source).

    You know you've gone a little over-the-top when you start using actual dead bodies as props in a movie. It's a statement to the problems of the Apocalypse Now production that this probably wasn't the weirdest thing that happened during the making of the film. Among others:

    • Coppola fired his first leading man, Harvey Keitel, after two weeks of shooting.
    • The second leading man, Martin Sheen, who was having drinking problems at the time, had a heart attack and had to crawl a quarter of a mile to get help. Body doubles had to be brought in while he recovered.
    • A typhoon destroyed an important part of the set, which needed to be rebuilt.
    • A sequence set at a French plantation in Vietnam cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to film—and then was cut from the movie.
    • The budget exploded to over three times its initial cost.
    • Marlon Brando, who played Kurtz, had to be filmed in shadows and near darkness because he was too overweight for the character as written. Also, he hadn't read the script and had lied about having read Heart of Darkness (source).
    • The Philippines' government kept recalling the helicopters and pilots they'd loaned to Coppola, because they needed them to fight a real war (source).

    Consequently, Coppola started to feel mildly crazy, and his self-confidence cratered. In the making-of documentary, Hearts of Darkness, he says, "I tell you from the bottom of my heart that we are making a bad film." To console himself, he had pasta flown in from Italy and ordered hot dogs delivered from San Francisco. Hot dogs, yum. (Source)

    All of these problems could've bankrupted Coppola—he put up $30 million of his own money to finance the film. So he improvised. He let Brando come up with his own rambling lines, and then played those lines back to him through an earphone so Brando could improve his performance. Also, he stoked a drunk Martin Sheen into a freak-out, during which Sheen punched a mirror and bled all over the place, which you can see in the movie's opening scene. (Source)

    A Man With a Vision

    Luck was occasionally on Coppola's side. To create the movie's opening scene—a helicopter passing by in slo-mo as "The End" plays—Coppola picked a bunch of discarded footage out of the trash. He told an interviewer, "I said, 'Oh, wouldn't it be funny if we started the movie with 'This is the end' at the beginning?' So that's a case of destiny or just chance that helped make the beginning of the movie." Later, editor Walter Murch synced the sound of the helicopter blades with the ceiling fan in Capt. Willard's hotel room, a shot that lets us know how the war is haunting Willard's dreams. (Source)

    Even the corpse-procuring incident shows how insanely committed people were to making this movie. In another example, Coppola was even willing to use a real animal sacrifice (legal in the Philippines) in the movie, which enraged animal rights activists and which the American Humane Association officially deemed "unacceptable." (Source)

    Shmoop can totally understand that. And that puppy? We definitely heard him whimpering, too.

    In sum, it's a major miracle that the film even got made. But Coppola being able to do so much with the sound and footage in post-production wasn't a miracle at all—it was genius.

    The Sound and the Fury

    Coppola wanted an immersive sound experience to stand up to the epic, vivid visuals he planned to shoot. He tasked editor and sound guy Walter Murch, whom he'd worked with on The Godfather, with using the new Dolby surround technology. Coppola said he wanted a sound that reflected the mood of the Vietnam War, which he thought of as a drugs and rock-and-roll war with a psychedelic flavor. (Source)

    Murch thought he was doing something unique; he coined the now common term "sound design" to describe using a wide palette of sounds to create an immersive environment where the audience wouldn't even realize they were watching a movie. He synced up the sound with the music and action to make it seamless. The sound of the helicopters is pitched to the background music; the sound of the wind morphs into a chorus; the thunderclaps in the final scene become the drumbeats of the ritual sacrifice.

    And of course, there's that "Valkyries" scene, with helicopters swooping and firing and Wagner's opera blaring. There's a brief and sudden episode of silence as we see the peaceful village that's about to get cremated, then it's back to the earsplitting sound of the rotors and Wagner. Even the explosions seemed choreographed in rhythm with the music. The sounds are some of the most memorable effects in the film; you'll never watch another movie helicopter attack without thinking that something's missing. Murch told a reporter:

    The helicopters were the horses of the sky —the whole "Valkyrie" idea came out of that discussion. And, of course, we thought of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The cavalry-horsemen-Apocalypse thing was bred in the bones of the project. (Source)

    Because much of the film takes place at night in the jungle or on the river, the sound often precedes the visuals—in the dark, you hear things before you see them, and Willard's always listening. Even in the beginning, the sound of the helicopter blades plays for a few seconds over a black screen before the scene opens to the jungle.

    Murch's work paid off; he got a Best Sound Oscar for his troubles.

    Culture Clash in the Camera

    There was a lot more to producing Apocalypse Now than grave robbery and blood sacrifice. The basic approach to cinematography actually provided a metaphor for the movie's themes.

    Brando's scenes are mostly filmed in low light, with Kurtz's face half-hidden in darkness. Coppola's original intent may have been to hide Brando's unexpected girth, but the resulting effect adds to the mystery of this guy, whose actions are sinister and whose motives are unexplainable. Willard, a dark, mysterious force himself, is also frequently shot in shadow, especially once he arrives at Kurtz's compound.

    In fact, much of the movie is shot in very low light—appropriate for a film about the dark side of our nature. The dark and the fog and the smoke all add to the mysterious and hellish nature of the trip upriver.

    Kilgore, OTOH, is shot straight on, in daylight. He's confident, not at all mysterious. Crazy, maybe, but he is who he is and he loves what he's doing.

    According to The Hollywood Reporter, cinematographer Vittorio Storraro "realized Apocalypse Now was about the imposition of one civilization on another, which he expressed by using light and darkness, unnatural artificial colors imposed on natural colors." The filming technique was, in a subtle way, part of a pointed anti-war statement as well as a critique of the idea of "progress." (Source)

    Think about the Playboy playmate scene, when a brightly lit-up USO stage suddenly appears in a dark jungle clearing. The U.S. Army has set up a supply station with a stage, lights, drinks, scantily-clad girls, and other trappings of American life. It's disorienting at first—you don't know what all that light's for. But what happens? "Civilization" breaks down as the soldiers, at the mercy of their animal instincts after all, rush the stage and assault the playmates.

    Further up the river is the last Army outpost before Cambodia, and that bridge is also brightly lit up against the surrounding darkness. More signs of civilization, right? Not exactly: the battle at the bridge is chaotic and there's no commanding officer. It's a free-for-all.

    Another great example: the scene where Willard stands for a moment in front of Kurtz's lair before killing him. Fires from the animal sacrifice are blazing in the background and The Doors is playing on the soundtrack as Willard collects himself with some tai chi moves. He's silhouetted in the dark against the fire, covered in river mud and slime, writhing, looking every inch the beast and killer. At this moment, the lines between the savage and the civilized totally disappear.

    It's the use of light and dark that makes all this happen. But when color explodes onto the scene, it's intense, saturated color. It's almost psychedelic at times. An acid-tripping Lance stares in wonder at the firefight; he thinks it's a light show.


    For newer audiences used to action films with quick cuts that almost make you dizzy, the camerawork in Apocalypse Now might take some getting used to. Storraro uses lots of slow pans, slow dissolves, and long tracking shots. (That single opening shot of the jungle holds the camera steady for about two minutes.) That's totally appropriate to the story; as one film analyst said, "There is not much that is exciting about a slow journey through the jungle." Still, Storraro keeps the tension high. He keeps the camera close in on the boat, with plenty of tight shots on Willard. It gets us more engaged in his perspective on the action and makes us feel as trapped on that boat as he must feel.

    Even the battle scenes are filmed with more long tracking shots than you'd see in a film made today. Maybe audiences had longer attention spans back then. At least the cinematographer did.

    Most of you won't get the opportunity to see this film on the big screen, with all the stunning cinematography and surround sound, unless there's a theatrical re-release on its 40th anniversary or Coppola decides to produce a Double Redux version using some of the other 300+ hours of film he has lying around. If you're not lucky enough to catch it in 2019, just watch it on the biggest, HD-est TV you can find.

  • Music (Score)

    Francis Ford Coppola and Carmine Coppola

    "The End"… at the Beginning

    Arranging the music for Apocalypse Now was a father and son job: Francis Ford Coppola worked at it with his dad, Carmine. They used lots of songs from other sources, but threw in some interesting and eerie electronic ambient noises as well. You can hear some of those strange tracks here.

    But the musical focus in the movie is really on the non-original compositions. The Doors' track "The End" plays at the beginning of the movie and creates an instantly ominous mood. It's the beginning. It's the end. It's the beginning of the end.

    "The End" is something tour soldiers actually listened to. The Doors were huge in the 1960s—and they weren't bubblegum pop. They had a really dark side, as all the F-words and Oedipus incest references in "The End" can attest. Lead singer Jim Morrison added to the dark myth by dying at age 27. Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone—who directed the classic war film Platoon—would later direct Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors. So The Doors-Vietnam connection runs deep.

    The movie's soundtrack also features a bunch of other classic songs from the era—like The Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" and The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."

    Music of the '70s

    The 1870s, that is.

    "Ride of the Valkyries" is a section of Richard Wagner's operatic series Der Ring des Nibelungen, during which eight Valkyries (Norse mythological warrior goddess-women who decide whose gonna die in battle and then bring them back to heaven) ride back from battle to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers. In one of the movie's most famous scenes, Colonel Kilgore blasts the song to amp up his soldiers as their helicopters swoop in on a Viet Cong encampment. The musical piece has a total "it's raining death from above" vibe.

    Sometimes a piece of music can give a scene instant epic status, like "Thus Spake Zarathustra" in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the screeching violins from the shower scene in Psycho. The Valkyrie scene is one of those iconic cinematic moments.

  • Fandoms

    People who like deep, thought-provoking cinema love Apocalypse Now. So do people who love violence. Apocalypse Now caters to both the sophisticated cinephile and the lover of explosions and severed heads. In other words, it has something for everybody (except for a prominent female character). There are random fan sites like this one testifying to the intense feelings people have about the film.

    Directors like the movie, too. Wes Anderson, a director dear to all hipsters, is clearly a fan. In his movie Rushmore, the main character, Max Fischer, puts on a high school play based on the Vietnam War, which features references to Apocalypse Now—particularly, soldiers carrying surfboards.

    The movie makes almost every "Best Films of All Time" list, so you're obligated by law to love it. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" was #12 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Movie Quotes, and Apocalypse Now was #30 on its 100 Greatest Movies list.

    Deal with that #31, The Maltese Falcon.