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.”

But he also felt trepidation about working on a war film, trepidation that was assuaged when Coppola said to him, in so many words, “it's not a war film.” He encouraged Storaro to read Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” to better understand what kind of story he wanted to tell.

“In reading Joseph Conrad, I realized this was a universal concept: it was about civilization,” Storaro said. And it was about one culture imposing itself over another, which suddenly took a story about a very American calamity and made it one about something primal and elemental. That was also why he felt it was important to have an Italian cinematographer and a Greek production designer (Dean Tavoularis), because of Europe's extensive history of civilization and its social complexities over the millennia. That idea was also, he explained, one of the reasons the French plantation scene was put back into the film for the “Apocalypse Now Redux” release from 2001, to further make that point.

Murch, another industry legend, was one of a number of editors who worked on the film, though his main responsibility was the beginning. That first sequence, so drunk on misery (see the stunning behind the scenes footage of Coppola drawing that crazed performance out of actor Martin Sheen in “Hearts of Darkness”), is a veritable film school education in a few precious minutes. Coppola told the story of how he just happened upon the slow-motion napalm explosion accompanied by The Doors' “The End” by digging into containers full of film and playing with them on a Moviola.

Murch, meanwhile, was responsible for that eerie motif marrying the sound of helicopter blades to a spinning ceiling fan in sweltering Saigon. It's so simple that its brilliance is absolutely pure, and to be honest, watching the film for the umpteenth time, I was more enamored than ever with the sound mix. There are so many evocative layers on that track. It's so immaculate. He and his team won the film's only other Oscar, for Best Sound.

An hour or so after the tribute screening, the film received a bit of added celebration and dissection with a special “close-up” presentation at the Sheridan Opera House. It was, in fact, the very same venue that played host to Coppola's own tribute at the inaugural Telluride fest in 1974. This particular program was sponsored by The Burns Family, as in frequent Telluride attendee Ken Burns. In fact, Burns, who is currently working on a massive 18-part documentary about the history of the Vietnam conflict, introduced the event himself. Filmmaker James Gray was on hand to speak with each of the gentlemen from the Q&A one on one following a few clip presentations. Milius, in a clip, talked of how he came to the idea of soldiers surfing “Charlie's” beach head as an ultimate symbol of ownership. Roos showed some audition footage that included a young Nick Nolte trying out for a part. Etc.

Gray, meanwhile, is a huge admirer of “Apocalypse Now,” which he credits for sparking his desire to become a filmmaker when he was 10 years old. He recently wrote a piece for Rolling Stone magazine celebrating the film's 35th anniversary. He was in giddy awe of being surrounded by the people responsible for that seminal moment.

It's funny, “Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore joked to me at the Patron Brunch Friday morning that one would be setting the bar pretty high to start a festival off with a screening of “Apocalypse Now,” but this stuff is truly the heart of Telluride. And I couldn't think of a more invigorating way to kick things off. Coppola's vision – and Milius' script, which the filmmaker frequently defers to as the essence of “Apocalypse Now” – was so crystalline just a few short years removed from the Vietnam conflict that it's staggering. And it remains vital today, for it's not just a story of a war, it is, again, a study of primal urge. We could always do with a reminder of that, particularly while in a majestic valley, steeped in privilege.