This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Cannes debut of Francis Ford Coppola\'s Apocalypse Now. Peter Galvin reflects on what was a sensational press conference.
SBS Film

14 May 2009 - 6:19 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

It was Cannes, 1979. In those days most press conferences took place in upstairs rooms at the old Palais des Festivals, then Cannes' major venue. But the demand from the worldwide media was so great that the festival organisers decided to give the Palias auditorium itself over to the Apocalypse Now media launch.

Today the chaos of the making of Francis Coppola's Vietnam epic is a part of movie lore, thanks mostly to the 1991 Eleanor Coppola, Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper documentary Hearts of Darkness and Peter Cowie's The Apocalypse Now Book.

But 30 years ago rumours, exaggerations and an air of vindictiveness swirled around both the movie and Coppola, to the extent that the press conference news in itself. More than just an opportunity to shill his movie, Coppola used Cannes as a way to hit back at his critics, who had accused him of megalomania, indulgence, extravagance and pretentiousness. Instead of charming the journalists and 'spinning' them, Coppola did what still seems a remarkable and risky thing, he attacked: “American journalism is the most decadent, most unethical, most lying profession you can encounter,” he told the estimated 1,100 journalists. This was more than a director who was piqued by alleged mistreatment at the hands of media. To understand Coppola's words is to understand what was at stake for him. Coppola's ambition was to challenge the conventional structure of Hollywood filmmaking. He wasn't complying to the norm; he wanted independence and instead of being credited as an innovator (as he hoped he would be) he was pictured as a vain movie mogul, more interested in Power than Art.

Announced in 1975, the Apocalypse Now production began in 1976 with an original release date of April 1977 (though in truth it really began in the late 60's when filmmaker John Milius wrote the original screenplay and tried to set it up with a young George Lucas). The location shoot in the Philippines was dogged by bad luck, bad weather, with the crew, mostly Americans and Europeans, struggling with the heat and humidity and a bizarre screenplay that Coppola continued to develop to the point where he could not find an ending. After 238 shooting days there was 1.1million feet of film. On the last day of the production in the Philippines after the filming wrapped an assistant addressed the crew: ”I've never seen so many people so happy to be unemployed.”

Coppola spent a record two years in post-production.

All through this time press and TV issued accounts of the production and its various travails, including: star Martin Sheen's heart attack and break down; rumours of rampant drug use amongst cast and crew; Marlon Brando's alleged eccentricities on and off camera; and especially, the film's budget over-runs. The reports made a great deal of the fact that Coppola was spending his own money, with the cost by 1979, reaching $30 million. Though some estimates by then had climbed to $40 million.

Coppola felt he had been singled out when, as his biographer Michael Schumacher argues, there were a raft of big budget films that cost about the same or even eclipsed Apocalypse's spend, like The Wiz (1978), King Kong (1976) and Superman (1979).

“Why is it a crime that I, the first one to make a film about Vietnam,” Coppola told the Cannes media, “a film about morality, am so criticised when you can spend that much on a big gorilla, or on a fantasy, or about some jerk who flies around the sky?”

Aside from the doubts surrounding Apocalypse Now\'s commercial prospects – mostly to do with its Vietnam subject matter – perhaps what marked Coppola for special scrutiny was that unlike most filmmakers he basically went into business – which is to say – Big Business for him self. At the same time as he was preparing Apocalypse, Coppola used his considerable riches – derived from the success of his Godfather pictures, to buy into a domestic distribution company, and purchase interests in TV stations, a magazine and a radio station. He told the press that what was behind this dealing was the hope to resurrect his dream of a studio independent of the Hollywood leaders, all of which were ultimately controlled by conglomerates.

Coppola's company American Zoetrope would develop film projects, finance them, shoot them (in a studio it owned), and release them, all independent of the major players. “In Hollywood they talk about deals. Here, we talk about films,” he said, summarising his ideals. But the press were sceptical. Coppola, who had a felicity for producing pull-quotes at will, had a track record of bombastic remarks, grand claims and making commitments only to suddenly reverse them. The scepticism hit critical mass in late 1977 when the US mag Esquire published an internal memo Coppola had written to his company staff. By turns heartfelt and hardboiled, paranoid and hand wringing, Coppola vented spleen over a range of issues – everything from his annoyance at the fact that staffers could not properly pronounce his name to a major shift in the company's aims as in dedicating its fortunes and efforts to films by Francis Coppola, rather than offering largesse to all comers. A disgruntled Zoetrope employee leaked it to Esquire and much to Coppola's embarrassment the mag ran the piece under the heading: 'Case Histories of Business Management: Hollywood Artistic Division.' Composed and sent to Zoetrope when the Apocalypse production was at a particularly low ebb, Coppola said later the memo was the work of a desperate guy, “who was trying to hold onto his company from 6,000 miles away.” The release for Apocalypse was put back to October 1978. It was postponed and the “Apocalypse When?” headlines started to appear more frequently.

Most, if not all, of the throng gathered at the Palais that day, knew of this history. They knew too, that Coppola had previewed the film extensively in the US in the months heading into Cannes and the advance word was that Apocalypse was strange, with dubious box office potential, spectacular, intellectual, with large chunks of it barely coherent. Most significantly of all, Coppola had attempted to solicit a promise from media not to review the film. Almost as if to admonish Coppola for his naiveté they did. Variety reviewed it. So did the then-powerful Rona Barrett of ABC-TV US who called it a “disappointing failure”. And all this took place just days before the Cannes screening. Coppola's pitch to United Artists (who was financing Coppola) was that the only way to shut up the naysayers was to show the film to the world media in Cannes. UA\'s publicity chief, Hy Smith, was against the move. He told Peter Cowie: “[The Cannes] jury loves to kill high budget, high profile films.” Thus, even before he had a chance to prove his point, Coppola's tactic seemed to have backfired.

But then the Apocalypse Cannes screening was a major success, which only emboldened Coppola. His now famous testament to the Cannes media to Apocalypse's shambolic production: “My film isn't about Vietnam, it is Vietnam, it is what it was really like…we had access to too much equipment, too much money and little by little we went insane…” was both a hype and admission of sorts that today, he says greatly embarrasses him.

Coppola has said in public and on the numerous special DVD editions of his films that Apocalypse in a sense shattered him and set him off the filmmaking track he really wanted to be on, (i.e. making small independent art movies). The single most popular history of this period – the 70s - when Coppola was at his most powerful, Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, paints a savage portrait of the filmmaker as a half-mad womaniser, and his dream for independence un-realistic and largely unattainable. Beverley Walker, a friend and former colleague of Coppola's says that Biskind got the story wrong. Interviewed in 1999 by this writer, Walker said: “Francis Coppola anticipated digital filmmaking and everyone thought he was crazy; the Indie movement came out of Zoetrope. The point is that Francis showed corporate Hollywood that it was possible to be independent and it scared them. They could have supported him and harnessed that but they didn't.”

In the end Coppola's almost but not quite finished cut of Apocalypse, a 'work in progress' he dubbed it, shared the Palm d'Or in 1979 with Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum. He got great reviews for the press conference too.

Ten years after Apocalypse Now Coppola made a film called Tucker (1988) about a wilful motor vehicle entrepreneur who wants to make cars, not in Detroit, but in California and the Big Guys go after him, destroying his plans and he has to start over again. But he makes the cars anyway.

This article draws on news sources and clippings from 1975-1979 as well as The Apocalypse Now Book by Peter Cowie, Faber and Faber, 2000 and Francis Ford Coppola, A Filmmaker's Life by Michael Schumacher, Bloomsbury, 1999 as well as the writer\'s interviews in 1999 with Beverley Walker, Peter Biskind, and Peter Bart.

Further reading: Coppola at Cannes 2009