Study Guide

Apocalypse Now Production Design

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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.

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