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That time Francis Ford Coppola wrote John Lennon about ‘Apocalypse Now’

The writer and director Cameron Crowe recently tweeted an impressive piece of pop culture history. It was a photograph of the correspondence between Francis Coppola and John Lennon, in regard of the former-Beatle hanging out with the famed director in the Philippines and maybe writing/contributing some music for Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now.

The pair had obviously met at some point and an idea had been suggested. What exactly this idea was, and how far or how seriously it was taken, well, we just don’t know. What seems apparent is that Coppola was feeling a tad lonely working and living 24/7 on location and the “rarified air” of the Philippines was having its own effect.

The letter starts off like a typical fan letter but Coppola probably lost Lennon at the line where he says he is living inside a volcano.

March 24, 1977

Mr. John Lennon
Lennon Music
1307 Avenue of the Americas
New York, New York 10019

Dear John:

We’ve never met but, of course, I’ve always enjoyed your work.

I am presently in the Philippines making “APOCALYPSE NOW”. I’ve been here eight months, expect to be here another several months. I live inside a volcano, which is a jungle paradise, where there are beautiful mineral springs; and thought of ever you were in the Far East or if ever you would enjoy spending a little time talking about things in general and some distant future projects that I have in mind, please, I would love to cook dinner for you and just talk, listen to music and talk about movies.

If coming to the Far East is difficult, then someday in the future, either in Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, I would like to meet you.


Francis Coppola

Coppola feeling the pressure during ‘Apocalypse Now.’ After the jump Lennon’s letter of reply ...

Posted by Paul Gallagher
11:43 am
‘Porklips Now’: Spoof of Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ sends up suburban barbecue culture, 1980

The strongest period for American film starts with Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate, which both came out in 1967, and, in my opinion, ends, 12 years later, with Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola had once been one of the main poster boys for the New American Cinema, having made the first two masterful Godfather movies and The Conversation in the early 1970s. When he chose to adapt Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness as a Vietnam movie—and spent several years and tens of millions of dollars to do it—the American public was made to focus on Coppola’s ego and excesses, which was certainly at least partly fair but, in a way, seemed to misdiagnose the problem. Coppola was being ridiculed for ... wanting to make an ambitious work of art on a socially relevant subject? The abuse seemed out of proportion to the crime. 

It’s difficult to reconstruct just how deep the mockery of Coppola ran at that time. I can remember quite clearly the accepted-by-everyone premise that Apocalypse Now “didn’t have an ending”—this claim that was supposed to be definitively argument-ending on the subject of Coppola’s lunacy but in retrospect seems fairly arbitrary. Coppola had trouble pinning down a final version in the editing room, true, and you can see the lengthier cut of the movie when you watch Apocolypse Now Redux, but it just wasn’t true that the ending was any special index of Coppola’s excesses or inability to make a decision (both of which were real factors for Coppola at that point). As Richard Beggs, who won an Oscar for Best Sound for his work on the movie, later said in defense of the movie: “There were never five endings, but just the one, even if there were differently edited versions.”

At any rate, the idea that Coppola was ripe for a comeuppance was inescapable in the culture. Case in point: Porklips Now, a short movie (16 minutes) directed by Ernie Fosselius to make fun of Coppola’s Vietnam epic. Fosselius’ main claim to fame at this point was certainly Hardware Wars, a parody of Star Wars that had become something of an indie sensation in 1977. Lifting its strategies directly from MAD Magazine, just as Hardware Wars had done, Porklips Now transforms the story of Willard seeking out Kurtz into the following:  “Dullard,” a barbecue practitioner of the suburbs, is sent into “Chinatown” to investigate the unorthodox practices of a rogue butcher named “Mertz” (as in Fred Mertz, from I Love Lucy).

I won’t ruin too many of the jokes but I will point out that Billy Gray, once best known for playing “Bud” on Father Knows Best, was extremely well cast as “Dullard”—the re-creation of Martin Sheen’s voiceover in Apocalypse Now is one of the best elements of the satire. Fosselius himself does the Brando turn as Mertz, and it’s only fair to say that he does a pretty excellent job in the role.

You can’t take on Apocalypse Now without addressing the Doors, and sure enough, Fosselius comes up with a pretty amusing Doors pastiche under the title “Not the End—Yet” (a dig at the indecision surrounding the original movie), performed by “Scott Mathews and the Back Doors,” whoever that may be. Meanwhile, true to the times, the parody of the big helicopter scene is given a suitably cocaine-y gloss, with the Wagnerian “Disco Valkyries” performed by the Four Hoarsemen, har har.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider
12:29 pm
Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma have a conversion about ‘The Conversation,’ 1974

1966: Francis Ford Coppola was working as a scriptwriter when he had a conversation with director Irvin Kershner about spy movies. Espionage films were big bucks in the mid-sixties with the unequaled success of the James Bond franchise, the escalation of the so-called Cold War between the West and Soviet Russia, and the NY Times best-seller list filled with spy stories like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The IPCRESS File and A Dandy in Aspic.

Kershner was making A Fine Madness with Bond star Sean Connery. Coppola was learning his trade writing screenplays like This Property Is Condemned and Is Paris Burning?. As he later recounted in an interview with Brian De Palma for the magazine Filmmakers Newsletter in 1974, his chat with Kershner was the moment he first had the idea to write The Conversation:

We were talking about espionage, and he said that most people thought the safest way not to be bugged was to walk in a crowd. And I thought, Wow, that’s a great motif for a film—and it started there, around 1966. I actually started working on it around 1967, but it was an on-again, off-again project which I was just never able to beat until 1969 when I did the first draft.

The Conversation follows surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who is hired to monitor a young couple. From his covert recordings Caul thinks he may have uncovered a possible murder as the couple’s recorded dialog includes the phrase “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” Caul plays and replays the tape in his obsessive and paranoid attempt to decipher the dialog’s real meaning.

Coppola was influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) which used a similar plot device—in this case a young photographer (David Hemmings) thinks he may have captured evidence of a murder with his camera.

I got into THE CONVERSATION because I was reading [Hermann] Hesse and saw BLOW-UP at the same time. And I’m very open about its relevance to THE CONVERSATION because I think the two films are actually very different. What’s similar about them is obviously similar, and that’s where it ends. But it was my admiration for the moods and the way those things happened in that film which made me say, “I want to do something like that.”

Every young director goes through that.

Coppola and Hackman on location during filming for ‘The Conversation’ in 1973.
Coppola didn’t want to make a rehash of Blow-Up or a token movie version of Hesse’s cult novel Steppenwolf—though he did take some inspiration from the book’s central character Harry Haller—“a middle European who lives alone in a rooming house”—and his delusional fantasies. (The book also contains a significant role played by a saxophonist.) Coppola was more interested in approaching his script as a puzzle:

I have to say [The Conversation] began differently form other things I’ve done, because instead of stating to write it out of an emotional thing—the emotional identity of the people I knew—I started it as sort of a puzzle, which I’ve never done before and which I don’t think I’ll ever do again.

In other words, it started as a premise. I said, “I think I want to do a film about eavesdropping and privacy, and I want to make it about the guy who does it rather than about the people it’s being done to.” Then somewhere along the line I got the idea of using repetition, of exposing new levels of information not through exposition but by repetition. And not like RASHOMON where you present it in different ways each time—let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context.

In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently. That was the original idea.

De Palma is a good interviewer. He gets Coppola to open up on his filmmaking technique where many other interviewers may have failed. The whole interview was published (including a few spelling mistakes) in the seminal magazine Filmmakers Newsletter in May 1974 and has been uploaded by Cinephilia and Beyond. Click on the images below to read the whole conversation between De Palma and Coppola.
Read the whole interview between De Palma and Coppola, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
11:46 am
Is ‘The Tourist’ the ‘Greatest Screenplay Never Made’?

Hollywood is where writers go to watch their screenplays die.

If they’re lucky their scripts will have a short, painless life: They’ll get made, the writer will get paid and then the results will get quickly buried which will allow the writer to move on to something better. If they’re unlucky, then they’ll waste their lives writing screenplay after screenplay that will never get made and see their best ideas plundered by studio execs to make yet another Hollywood monstrosity. Whichever fate, no writer comes out unscathed from Hollywood and the damage done can destroy lives.

Yet every screenwriter is a deluded optimist who believes that they’re going to be the one who will buck the system and be the next Anita Loos or William Goldman or Paul Schrader or Nora Ephron or Robert Towne or Quentin Tarantino. Even the next Shane Black. Writers who create their own autonomy with powerful, original and unique screenplays. It rarely happens, as producers and Hollywood execs do not understand the value of writing and think of scripts as something to be bought off the shelf and used for whatever the hell purpose they like.

When film critic Pauline Kael spent eighteen months working for Warren Beatty’s production company, she was shocked to discover that 98% of the best ideas never made it from page to screen but were thrown out like used Kleenex.

So let’s imagine what it would be like to write a screenplay that nearly every producer who reads it thinks it is the best script they’ve ever read. Now imagine those feral Hollywood execs fighting over it. And artist H. R. Giger creating designs for it—and let’s say Francis Ford Coppola optioning it with Hanna Schygulla or Kim Basinger or Kathleen Turner or even Madonna suggested as its star. Everyone loves your script. Everyone thinks it’s gonna be a hit. Then you realize these fuckers only want your script to cannibalize it into some other film. They’re too scared to make your movie because it’s too original, too clever, too damned good and too fucking weird. And then suddenly, the big hullabaloo stops. No one gives a shit about you or your script anymore. The calls stop. Hollywood is off after its next quick fix and you’re left wondering what the fuck that was all about?

This is kinda what happened to writer Clair Noto and her sci-fi screenplay The Tourist.

Everyone loved Noto’s screenplay—but no one had the guts to actually make it. Instead they wanted to make it into a “product” like every other homogenized piece of shit that comes out of Hollywood.
One of H. R. Giger’s alien designs for Noto’s ‘The Tourist.’
Begun in 1980, The Tourist tells the story of an alien who calls herself “Grace Ripley” stuck on Earth with a bunch of other extraterrestrials. Grace has morphed into human form and works by day as a high-powered business executive in New York.  By night she hangs out with her fellow aliens at a club called The Corridor where they have beautiful strange interplanetary sex and bemoan their lives exiled on this third rock from the Sun.

Noto’s inspiration for The Tourist came from fifties sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, the story of alien coming to Earth with an ultimatum. Noto liked the idea of an alien walking among us, as she later explained:

I loved the whole idea of a man who could walk around in a boarding house in Washington, who was from another planet and you didn’t recognize his alienness. The idea of a human being who wasn’t a human being had been in my mind for a long time.

Noto’s script was a grown-up science-fiction story with strong female characters.

Grace Ripley, the determined alien fighting her private battles on a male-oriented world; Spider O’Toole, the alienated New Wave human; and even the guards of the Corridor, depicted as strong yet sexy women whose sensuality belied not only their true purpose, but their underlying strength.

When the film was picked up by Hollywood, Brian Gibson was set to direct. Gibson had made his name directing BBC TV dramas like Dennis Potter‘s The Blue Remembered Hills and the Hazel O’Connor new wave movie Breaking Glass. Noto soon found she was to have no input in the film based on her screenplay:

When they took it away from me they were very nasty; like, ‘Fuck you. We’re going to put it together,’ and they couldn’t do it [Gibson] always looked like a jerk. To my face he was really nasty. I think he regretted it later on. I also think it damaged his career for along time. He couldn’t do anything.

Gibson went on direct Poltergeist II and The Juror. He died in 2004. As Noto later said:

The Tourist didn’t do anybody any good. It hurt me, it hurt a lot of people. [Producer] Renée Missel destroyed herself. You cannot do what people did with that material and not have some fallout. I couldn’t get Renée Missel on the phone. It was terrible, just terrible. She kept belittling the project saying, ‘Nobody’s even going to want to make this movie. Or if they would, it would be a cult movie that would play at midnight like Rocky Horror. Totally insulting about it. She would say things like, ‘I was the only person in town who didn’t like Star Wars.’ My feeling was that this is not a good situation.

Artist H. R. Giger—the man who created the xenomorph for Alien—was brought into design the exiled extraterrestrials. Giger produced a series of illustrations. But Noto wasn’t even allowed to see any of Giger’s suggestions for her characters. As the situation became untenable, Noto used a get-out clause in her contract to call a halt to the project.

The script was then picked up by Francis Ford Coppola and director Franc Roddam—best known for the films Quadrophenia, Lords of the Discipline and devising the TV series MasterChef—was called in to give his input. Roddam loved Noto’s script, but he also understood how “a producer will take a piece and just say, ‘I own it and I’m going to do what I like with it.’”

Sometimes people have bought scripts and just said, ‘We’ll do the Paul Robeson story, but does he have to be black?’ I’ve actually heard that before. The real story of this piece is Clair’s attempt to protect her vision.

Clair is an extraordinary person. I often think of Clair as being one of the greatest cinematic talents who one doesn’t hear of.

More on the ‘greatest screenplay never made,’ after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
09:27 am
CGI versions of classic film trailers: ‘Grease,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ‘Alien’ & ‘The Big Lebowski’

A crack team of second year Character Animators and CG Artists at The Animation Workshop/VIA UC in Viborg, Denmark, were given the task of producing 30-second trailers inspired by classic movies. The animators produced a selection of beautifully executed work which included trailers for Francis Ford Coppola’s last great movie Apocalypse Now, Wim Wenders’ cult hit Paris Texas, everyone’s holiday season favorite Casablanca and the rock ‘n’ roll musical Grease—which has been made into an interesting hybrid using elements from Tron and Blade Runner.

Previous trailers made by the workshop include Alien and The Big Lebowski (which has hints of Kung Fu Panda in it)—all of these and others can be viewed here.

The Animation Workshop is considered to be “one of the most dedicated animation institutions in the world,” and you can have god look at their back catalog here.

Apocalypse Now

Paris Texas


Bonus trailer for ‘Alien’ and ‘The Big Lebowski,’ after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
10:54 am
‘The Junky’s Christmas’: The William S. Burroughs short film presented by Francis Ford Coppola
11:53 am

If you have even the most passing knowledge of the life and work of William S. Burroughs, nothing should seem more out of the ordinary than finding the author of surreal heroin tomes nodding pensively at the beginning of this 1993 Francis Ford Coppola-produced short film directed by Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel. I couldn’t help but chuckle watching Burroughs appear in a cozy, holiday-themed room complete with a roaring fireplace, tinsel and an amply lit Christmas tree. The film’s opening sequence reeks of an inappropriate wholesomeness, and the former bug powder purveyor looks as innocent as a kind old granddad ready to tell a bunch of rug rats to grab some hot cocoa and gather around for a tale of Christmas cheer. What, exactly, is going on here?

Then, Burroughs pulls a copy of his 1989 collection of short stories, Interzone off of a bookshelf and opens it to the piece called “The Junky’s Christmas.” As the black and white film cuts away to claymation, Burroughs begins to narrate the sad story of Danny, a heroin addicted hustler who finds himself being let out of New York City jail cell on Christmas morning with no cash and no immediate source for his much needed fix. Now we’re in familiar Burroughs territory. 

Well, sort of. If you’ve read it, you know the story, but now try to imagine the bleak, back-alley Christmas narrative read by Burroughs while classic holiday tunes and beats from the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy mingle with his monotone. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you entirely, but suffice it to say that Danny the fiending anti-hero shares a holiday gift with an ailing fellow tenant in a shitty rented room after spending the day being kicked around New York City looking to score. Helping the guy out proves to be an act of kindness for which Danny is supernaturally rewarded. 

Burroughs’ story itself is gritty, odd, sad, touching and revelatory in its way. But we’re talking about the short film as a whole here, and the ending, I think, is meant to add something. We cut back to the holiday scene from the beginning, the claymation goes away, Burroughs closes the book and walks into a previously unseen dining room filled with smiling partygoers surrounding a classic holiday dinner spread. In the closing sequence that follows, Burroughs joins the other Christmas revelers in raising a toast. He also helps carve the turkey. The whole thing comes off as kind of silly, but the juxtaposition is perhaps meant a reminder to think about how lucky some of us are. Or, on second thought, maybe it’s just supposed to add a layer of weirdness. Either way, check it out below.

Notably, James Grauerholz, bibliographer and literary executor of Burroughs’ estate, is listed in the credits as one of the Christmas guests.

A different version of this story appeared in Burroughs’ Exterminator! originally published in 1973 as “The “Priest” They Called Him” which itself was read by Burroughs over Kurt Cobain guitar noise and released in 1993.

Posted by Jason Schafer
11:53 am
Francis Ford Coppola’s original cast list for ‘The Godfather’

Francis Ford Coppola was not the first choice to direct The Godfather, Paramount Studios wanted Sergio Leone, but he turned it down to concentrate on his own gangster movie Once Upon A Time in America. Next up was Peter Bogdanovich but he also knocked it back as he was working on What’s Up, Doc?. Coppola was eventually approached by producer Robert Evans, who wanted an Italian-American to direct the film.

As Coppola later recalled in an interview:

The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie when we were making it. They were very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast. They didn’t like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired. So it was an extremely nightmarish experience. I had two little kids, and the third one was born during that. We lived in a little apartment, and I was basically frightened that they didn’t like it. They had as much as said that, so when it was all over I wasn’t at all confident that it was going to be successful, and that I’d ever get another job.

Coppola was considered a risk. He had made five movies, only one of which was a hit. He was also in debt to Warner Brothers from an overspend while producing THX 1138.

Paramount were still skeptical about Coppola’s ability and kept a standby director ready to replace him. The first argument between director and studio came over casting. Coppola had drawn up his own list of possible contenders, which the studio was also set against, in particular they did not like Coppola’s suggestion of Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier for Vito Corleone.
Coppola wanted the world’s greatest actors for the main role, but the studio didn’t want Brando because he had a bad reputation for delaying film productions; while Olivier was supposedly too ill to film and turned the offer down.

Who the studio wanted was Ernest Borgnine, as he had the mix of rough-and-ready, and seemed like the kind of “family man” an audience would identify with.
For Michael Corleone, Coppola wanted (then mainly unknown) Al Pacino, but the studio wanted a name, a hit name like Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal.

Michael was a good, strong role, and it attracted Martin Sheen, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and James Caan to audition for the role, but Coppola threatened to quit unless Pacino was given it. The studio eventually conceded on the agreement that James Caan was cast as Sonny Corleone.

Again the lure of box office names led to considering Paul Newman and Steve McQueen for the role of lawyer Tom Hagen, but that eventually went to Robert Duvall.
Other stars who went up for roles include Anthony Perkins who auditioned for Sonny, while Mia Farrow auditioned for Kay. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro tried out for Michael, Sonny, Carlo, and Paulie. He eventually played the young Vito in The Godfather Part II.

This is Coppola’s original cast list, which contains many of the names who eventually appeared in the film.
Via Retronaut, FuckyeahDonCorleone and Julia Segal

Posted by Paul Gallagher
03:38 pm
Conversation piece: Francis Ford Coppola’s bizarre Fuji commercial
04:02 pm

This must have been the easiest money Francis Ford Coppola ever made: an advert for FUJI cassette tapes, in which the hirsute director of The Conversation is filmed in medium close-up, dreamily caressing the C60. It’s kind of weird and bizarre and I can almost hear the ad director prompting, “Now, rub it in your beard, Francis, rub it in your beard. Make love to it with your chin.”

In a comparative terms of time and effort, the money Coppola made for this 1980 FUJI advert (and who knows he may have given all the earnings to charity?) was as easy (if not easier) as the extra half-a-million-dollars Marlon Brando was said to have earned during the making of Apocalypse now, when the beefy actor supposedly spent a week listening to Coppola read him the film’s source story, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

H/T Indiewire, with thanks to Bessie Graham!

Posted by Paul Gallagher
04:02 pm
William S. Burroughs ‘The Junky’s Christmas’

It’s that time of year when stories once were told around a roaring open-fire, as snow flakes left their prints upon the windows. Now, continuing in that spirit, here is a tale of redemption and hope to enjoy around the flickering laptops and computer screens of our winter time.

Francis Ford Coppola produced this short Claymation film based on William S. Burroughs excellent story The Junky’s Christmas. Directed by Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel, it opens with live action footage of Burroughs as he begins his tale:

It was Christmas Day and Danny the Car Wiper hit the street junksick and broke after seventy-two hours in the precinct jail. It was a clear bright day, but there was warmth in the sun. Danny shivered with an inner cold. He turned up the collar of his worn, greasy black overcoat.
This beat benny wouldn’t pawn for a deuce, he thought.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
05:03 pm
Walter Murch’s THX 1138

George Lucas could hardly have been luckier when he secured the talents of the mighty Walter Murch for his first feature film, THX 1138.  Renown for both his sound design and editing chops, Murch’s resume reads as long as it is Coppola-impressive: Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation.  In that last film in particular, Murch’s wizardry conjures up a sonic landscape that’s as dense and bewildering as Gene Hackman’s San Francisco.

Murch co-authored with Lucas THX 1138, and engineered its complex, way ahead of its time sound design.  You can now hear it for yourself over at Egg City Radio, who’ve assembled a great compilation of THX 1138 audio highlights.  Here’s what AllMovie says about the ‘71 film:

In a 1984-esque white-washed future underground dystopia where sexuality is banned, all humans sport shaved heads and the same shapeless outfits as they go about their work in a mandated state of sedation, listening to exhortations to ?

Posted by Bradley Novicoff
01:59 pm