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Blog all bookmarked pages: Notes (on the Making of Apocalypse Now) by Eleanor Coppola

I’ve had it for something like 15 or 16 years now — the pound sign on the Hodges Figgis price sticker is a giveaway — and I was in the mood for a memoir/diary-type book to read, so I relieved this one from its tsundoku status in my bedside locker a few months ago.

Was it worth reading before seeing Apocalypse Now? I think so. I mean I’ve seen most of the film, in parts, and I know the gist of the story; it’s just that I’ve never sat down and watched the whole thing through. With perspective, I don’t think I was ready for it before — I certainly didn’t have the patience for a three-hour treatise on war and existentialism the night I first saw (some of) it — but I feel primed for it now, having read Eleanor Coppola’s thoughts on and around its making.

In fact, I think it was better that I read this book before seeing the film proper. After all, it was written before there ever was a finished film; Eleanor Coppola writes off-the-cuff about whatever’s happening on any given day’s shooting, or prep, or whatever else is going on in her life (that’s inevitably tied to the film’s production). It’s only in the final pages that she describes seeing anything resembling a final cut — all she’d seen till then was what she witnessed on set, or excerpts Francis had cut together in the edit room for exhibitors and whatnot — and even then it wasn’t the final, final cut that was released in 1979, or even the Redux in 2001 that restored a ream of excised footage.

So anyway, as I said, now I’m ready for it. I purchased the Blu-ray set online (including Hearts of Darkness, the documentary compiled from set footage Eleanor Coppola shot and directed) after failing to find it at a brick-and-mortar store near me. You can’t say I didn’t try.

While I procrastinate over sitting down to watch it some afternoon, here are my highlights from the book, mostly taken from the latter half, after the location shoot (not that the whole thing isn’t worth reading).

Also, there’s no overall theme to these excerpts; they’re just quotes, paragraphs or lines I felt worth remembering.

p13 — Telephone Calls–November 1975 to February 1976 (after Francis Ford Coppola is turned down by Steve McQueen, James Caan, Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford for the parts of Willard and Kurtz variously):

Francis is back from New York, having talked to Al [Pacino] about playing Kurtz, and rewriting the part for him. Al says the part isn’t right for him yet. Francis says that he needs a commitment before he can continue writing because the production date is closing in. Al says he can’t commit. Francis says, “Trust me, together we can make it great.” Al finally says he can’t commit.
Francis feels very frustrated. He gathers up his Oscars and throws them out the window. The children pick up the pieces in the backyard. Four of the five are broken.

p145 — October 17, Pagsanjan (1976):

I shot an interview with Dennis Hopper. One of the things he said that interested me the most was that he thought filmmaking was at the same phase of development that art was during the cathedral-building period. When they built those great cathedrals in Europe, they employed stonemasons, engineers, fresco painters, etc, and created the work through the combined talents of many. By the nineteenth century, art evolved to the point where the major work of the day as being done by individual artists working alone at an easel. Dennis was making the point that now filmmaking involves the talents of many departments and perhaps eventually major films will be made by one person with a video port-a-pack.

p168 — December 28, San Francisco (while visiting Japan on her homeward journey):

Kyoto felt wonderful in some way I can’t explain. As if I had been there before, or there was something there for me although I couldn’t quite define it. London, Paris, Rome, Madrid never felt like that. We went to some temples. It was like visiting a dream. I had seen those places in dark projection room slide slows of long-ago art history classes. It was all familiar but different. As we approached that famous sand and stone garden, I expected Zen serenity. There was a loud PA system making announcements. We visited wonderful wooden temples. We stopped outside at a little shop and had tea and round cookies make on old iron rollers. The man who served us ate Ritz crackers out of a box behind the counter.

p209 — September 22, Napa (1977):

Last week, Sofia said she wanted to go to a class after school with her best friend, Kristen. She said the class was “caterpillar kissing.” I checked it out. The class was catechism. She went for the first time today. When she came home she said, “God is the father of everybody, so Kristen is my sister.” She was very pleased. Later she said, “Katie is my sister too, but I hate her.”

p215 — October 16, Napa:

I realised that I have always been waiting. Waiting to be old enough to drive, waiting to go away to college, waiting to fall in love, waiting to lose my virginity, waiting to finish college, waiting to get a job, waiting to get married, waiting to have a baby, waiting for Francis to get a chance to direct, waiting for him to finish his film, waiting for the next one, waiting to go on location, waiting to go home. Waiting for the rough cut, waiting for the fine cut. Waiting for the kids to start school. In recent years, time got more compressed but it was basically the same. In the Philippines, I waiting for the light to change, waited for the lunch break, waited for the mail.

p222 — November 7, Washington, DC:

George was talking about film discs and cassettes. How filmmaking will be more focused on specific scenes, less concerned with the linear story. People will put on a video disc and play just the love scene or the chase scene or the sad scene for a certain emotional mood effect, like we put on certain music to feel a certain way. We talked about the film format changing.

p250 — April 1, Bolinas (1978):

Francis is still at the table with Walter, Carroll Ballard and Matthew Robbins. They are talking about the ending.

Trying to get a fix on it. As if, when they try to pin it down into something concrete, it slips away, goes out of focus. Francis is talking about the themes of the film. “We do things that contradict the way we define ourselves.”

I can see that statement etched in the air. That’s one of the elements that sent Francis into a tailspin of depression these past months.

p251 — April 3, Napa:

Driving out here today, we talked about the discrepancy between the experience of being out there making the film, and what you see on the screen. The film doesn’t convey the heat, the concussion of the explosions, the excitement of the helicopters, or shooing at 4:00am Being there, your eye and experience took in so much more than the camera. In the screening room, the film seemed more like a memory or a dream.

p252 — April 4, Napa:

…Star Wars won something. I was excited that Marcia won the editing award. Francis said today, “Since George didn’t win any of the major awards himself, he’ll be back. He won’t just retire into moguldom as he’s been saying. He’ll come back, he’ll make another film, he likes to win.”

As a bonus feature, here’s what I said in my Goodreads review:

Was it worth reading this book without having seen the movie (I’ve tried, but, y’know)? Actually, I think it’s better that way, because neither had anyone at the time Eleanor Coppola was writing these notes on the goings-on around its production, and indeed the notes end before the film is even completed and released. Now I feel like I’d have a better grasp on the film itself for when I sit down to watch it properly at some point. Because it’s more than just the film; people’s lives are lived over a number of years behind and around the scenes, as Coppola captures here like snapshots comprising a photo album of her experience, one telling much more than a thousand words.