Apocalypse Now Re-Visited: Inside The Heart Of Darkness

We return Academy Award winning sound and visual editor Walter Murch to the heart of darkness, as he talks us through his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal mediation on war, and madness.
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In 1969 writer John Milius began work on a script – entitled Apocalypse Now - that relocated the action of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness to the jungles of Vietnam. George Lucas, a fellow graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, was originally attached as director and, informed by contemporaneous news footage from the war, had envisaged a movie shot in black and white. With no studio prepared to fund it however Lucas shot American Graffiti, before going on to make his billion grossing Star Wars franchise.

Francis Ford Coppola had a very different conception – his reaction to the script was to shoot on location in South East Asia, with crisp cinemascope images in full colour. The film was finally green lit in 1975 and four years, 32 million dollars, 236 miles of film, one heart attack and a typhoon later, it screened at Cannes. “We had two much money, too much equipment and little by little we went insane,” Coppola admitted, as critics bowed at his feet and rightfully celebrated his work as one of the greatest films ever committed to celluloid.

Whether through their scale, environments or characters, there are some films that demand the proportions of cinema screen. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, re-released earlier in May, and Apocalypse Now, released in a new print this week, are both such films. We’d even go as far as suggesting that, if you haven’t seen either of these seminal movies in the environment in which they were intended - on a big screen, in the company of an audience in a darkened theatre – you haven’t seen them at all.

The winner of three BAFTA’s and an equal number of Academy Awards for picture editing and sound mixing, Walter Murch was one of four editors originally attached to the film, a continuation of an approach to post-production that Coppola had first employed on The Godfather. “Working on the film you have a different relationship to the material,” says Murch. “Of course the film gets into a strange place where it ends not in a big battle but a more meditative place in the Kurtz compound; full of horrors, but not in any conventional way.”

Murch won an Academy Award for his work on the film, not for his visual editing but his striking sound design, as he explains. “Apocalypse was the first film to come out in 5.1 sound. It was part of Francis’ vision for the sound to surround the audience and there were a lot of artistic and technical barriers broken on that film where, for example, we had to collaborate with Dolby on reworking the six track format such as it was at the time. Something I’m very interested in, and one of the things that the format allowed us to explore, was ways of using silence that hadn’t been done before.”

“We had two much money, too much equipment and little by little we went insane,” Coppola admitted, as critics bowed at his feet and rightfully celebrated his work as one of the greatest films ever committed to celluloid.

“Francis had made the decision when shooting that when Robert Duvall was flying in helicopter he was flying in a real helicopter, and when the crew was going up river they weren’t being towed, so it was a real boat that’s a real boat with a real engine and the actors were really driving it. So much of the film takes place in helicopters or on the boat that 80 or 85% of the dialogue was not usable, and the actors had to come into the studio and rerecord their dialogue. We had this challenge of having to recreate this beach from individual grains of sand, where each sound was a little grain, but you have to amass so many of them in such a complex way that the audience would only see the beach. The wonderful thing about this particular line of work, is that its like a little R&D department where you’re trying to examine various aspects of human perception and figure out works and what doesn’t, and what you can and can’t get away with. It’s similar to what magicians do, working on this complicated dance between human perception, focus of attention and timing in order to produce an illusion.”

Perhaps significantly this new cut is of the original film, rather than the Redux, which was released in 2001 and added close to 50 minutes of new footage. Thankfully for completists, the forthcoming BluRay contains both versions supplemented with plenty of extras, including the astonishing behind the scenes documentary Hearts of Darkness.

“When you go back and alter it, as we did with Redux, you’re aware that you are tampering with something that is highly radioactive,” says Murch, who was tasked by Coppola to edit the new version. “I had mixed emotions, in that I was interested and excited to do it, but also apprehensive in that it was a very different experience. We had to get the negative from the caves in which had been stored for twenty years, which was archeologically very exciting, but one of the challenges was that the film itself had engaged with the culture at large. It’s a version of the film, and I can certainly see both sides, how some people preferred the original, while others liked the new version. I don’t know what the truth is, but I had a similar discussion for the work I did on the 1998 restoration of Touch of Evil. I’m in the room right now where I edited that film, and there’s an adjoining room with a sofa in there. Emotionally, I felt as though Orson Welles had come in, given me the film together with his 58 pages of notes, and gone next door and take a nap. Those notes were so full of his personality, together with the strategy of what he wanted to achieve. I’m only sad to say that when I went next door Welles was not there, and I really felt that he was very close to me as I was doing all this stuff, and I was sad that he wasn’t there to see what I’d done.”

“When we work together now, my relationship with Francis remains very similar, despite it being 40 years after we had first worked together. The difference is that we were both discovering things for the first time back then. The Conversation was the first feature motion picture that I had edited, and so it was all new to me and, although we’re still discovering things now, it’s perhaps without the same intensity or frequency that you have when you’re doing something for the very first time.”

“We didn’t have a dogma like programme but, in retrospect, I think what we as a group wanted to do was to bring into American cinema the sensibility of world cinema that had so gripped us as students. What we found when we looked at the world of American filmmaking was that it was highly industrialised. In film school, we were all doing as much as we could, in as many aspects of craft as possible. What we wanted to achieve was to personalise our films, the subject matter and the method with which we made them.”

Mission accomplished.

Apocalypse Now is released in selected cinemas 27 May. The three-disc Special Edition Bluray follows on 13 June.

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