Telluride kicks off with a tribute to a masterpiece

TELLURIDE – While press and patrons were hustling into gondolas and over to the Chuck Jones Cinema for the World Premiere of Jean-Marc Vallée's “Wild,” the 41st annual Telluride Film Festival was kicking off with a bang at an over-stuffed Werner Herzog Theater for the lead program of this year's schedule: a tribute to Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now.” The ticket was so hot that well over a hundred pass holders were turned away at the door.

In introducing a new DCP of the original theatrical cut of the film (supervised for Coppola himself), Telluride co-founder Tom Luddy said it was noteworthy the event was unfolding at the Herzog, as “Apocalypse Now” holds a fair share of homages to Herzog's “Aguirre the Wrath of God,” which screened at the fest last year to dedicate the new venue. A boat in a tree, a creeping vessel barraged by arrows, the general descent into madness, the parallels are there, and the moment felt special indeed.

The image was as beautiful as ever, the film, of course, one of the absolute masterpieces of the medium. It has always fascinated me for its ambiguities, right down to a deceptively “simple” narrative that is just stuffed with thematic substance and power. A Q&A following the screening featured the maestro himself, Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, film editor/sound editor Walter Murch, casting director Fred Roos and, as an unscheduled surprise, screenwriter John Milius (still in the process of recovering from a stroke he suffered three years ago).

Coppola recalled the climate of the industry into which the film was born, the project being one of a number of films Warner Bros. reneged on financing for American Zoetrope, he said. Of course, George Lucas was originally set to direct, but he went off to do “Star Wars” instead and the rest on that is history. But where Lucas was aiming for a modest 16mm shoot in Northern California, Coppola's vision took on epic proportions and a gargantuan film shoot in the Philippines that was documented brilliantly by Eleanor Coppola's “Hearts of Darkness” (playing elsewhere in the festival).

“In a nutshell, we were a group interested in making personal films or art films or experimental films, basically films we were inspired by in Europe,” Coppola said. “It was clear we needed money, so my thought was that since George wasn't available and John himself had launched a wonderful career, I said, 'Well, I guess it's me. But I'll do it sort of big Hollywood 'Guns of Navarone' kind of production and it'll make a lot of money and we'll have the money to make little art films.' So that's how I came to making the film.”

Obviously easier said than done. This ended up being a production of absolutely mythic proportions that possessed Coppola like no other project seemingly has. But this story is well-worn by now, captured on screen and on the page. When a film reaches the level of iconography that “Apocalypse Now” has – from “The End” over napalm blast to Wagner over death from above – few stones are left unturned in appreciating and documenting its very existence. But that just makes it all the more worthy of a retrospective, whatever the occasion.

Vittorio Storaro won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Cinematography, and truly, it's some of the absolute best work ever committed to celluloid. He spoke about initially feeling reluctant to take on the project, though, because he didn't feel he could fill the shoes of a hero.

“The work that Francis did with Gordon Willis [on “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II”] was so great that there was no way I thought he could continue to film without him,” he said. “My respect for Gordon was so strong.”