By TREVOR HOGG
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By TREVOR HOGG
Four decades after its original theatrical release, Apocalypse Now remains the gold standard for executing massive practical explosions. Originally helmed by George Lucas before his success with Star Wars, the misadventures of U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) as he embarks on a river trip to assassinate renegade Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) during the Vietnam War was supposed to have a small-scale newsreel quality rather than epic surreal imagery. “George Lucas wanted it to look like what you saw on television each evening – 16mm black and white,” recalls Academy Award-winning Film Editor and Sound Designer Walter Murch (The English Patient), who was a University of Southern California film school classmate of Lucas’.
The project was aborted because of bad timing. “The [Vietnam] war was still on,” Murch explains. “It was a hot topic. Nobody wanted to make Apocalypse Now.”
A year after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) revived the project and headed to the Philippines to shoot for 14 weeks. “The damn thing took two years to make!” laughs Academy Award-winning Special Effects Supervisor John Frazier (Spider-Man 2). “I was doing small shows and had rented equipment from Joe Lombardi’s shop, which was the go-to place for advice or help. At that time, it wasn’t a big-budget picture, but Joe needed some help and I said, ‘I’ll go over there for awhile and give you a hand.’ We only had five U.S. guys over there and the rest were Filipino.”
Contending with the natural elements in the Philippines was a major concern, explains Frazier. “Everything around there could kill you, and a lot of it ended up being comical. I remember shooting the scene when Lance B. Johnson (played by Sam Bottoms) is in some kind of trance on the bow of the patrol boat doing his little Ifugao moves. We would put everything that we were going to do that day in a dugout canoe and then go upriver. Francis wanted all of this in different colored smoke as the patrol boat is going upriver. You would get your duty station and always have a piece of plywood with you because the monkeys up on the top of the cliff would throw mangos at you and laugh.”
“We were making stuff right in the jungle with what we had,” notes Frazier. “We made smoke every day. What color do you want? If Francis wanted white, we would burn palm tree fronds. If Francis wanted black then we would burn rubber tires.” Destroyed helicopters needed to be built as well as an authentic PBR (Patrol Boat, Riverine), which was used from 1966 to 1971 during the Vietnam War by the U.S. Navy. “No help was provided from the U.S. government because they viewed the movie as being antiwar, so we rented a PBR from Thailand in order to make all of the boats.” The water level in the river kept on going down which made shooting difficult. “We had to keep cutting the boat off, so by the time we got the scene done it was floating on air tubes!” Frazier recalls.
“The [Vietnam] war was still on. It was a hot topic. Nobody wanted to make Apocalypse Now.”
—Walter Murch, Sound Designer and Sound Editor
He continues, “The other comical part was the mango and tiger scene. We all volunteered to go up to make smoke in the jungle. Francis blocked the scene with Martin Sheen and Frederic Forrest a couple of times without the tiger. Then the boys said, ‘Now I want to see where the tiger is actually going to go. Let’s make sure that the chain is right.’ The tiger comes out and the chain ends 10 feet before a piece of string. They say, ‘Okay, that’s cool.’ While Martin and Frederic go back down to the boat, Francis moves the tiger down 10 feet and makes the chain 10 feet longer. Now we’re rolling. When Martin and Frederic get near to the piece of string Francis let the tiger go, and it came within inches of them. That’s when the two of them took off running. When Frederic Forrest says, ‘Never get out of the boat,’ – that wasn’t scripted. He meant it. Oh my god! And we laughed!”
The production design by Dean Tavoularis (Rising Sun) was sometimes too convincing. “We would party up at the Pagsanjan Hotel, and there was a group of French people who had gone up to the world-famous rapids,” remarks Frazier. “They thought the temple set [which was part of the Kurtz compound] was real. I said, ‘We’re going to blow that up in a couple of days.’ They replied, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘It’s a movie set.’ They said, ‘You can’t blow that up. It’s like thousands of years old!’ The production shut down for a week while people came in to make sure it was a movie set.”
“We did everything in-camera. At that time there were only a few special effects people, like Joe Lombardi, who could have pulled that [napalm explosion] off and had the stamina to keep up with Francis. These guys set the bar. I was a young guy and they were like mentors to me. I learned a lot about life.”
—John Frazier, Special Effects Supervisor
Then there was the matter with the military helicopters supplied by the Philippine Army. “The government was fighting the Muslims down in Mindanao, so at any time the army could say, ‘Come on down.’ When they would go in to shoot up the camps most of the time blanks were in the guns. When the helicopters came back, we had to go through all of the ammo to make sure there were no live rounds in the guns. It was like a scene out of Tropic Thunder where the guys are firing blanks and the bad guys are going, ‘They’re not hitting anything!’”
“We did an explosion every night seven days a week,” remarks Frazier. “We got to go in early and prep, and then blow it that night.” Nowadays, the famous napalm explosion would seem ordinary. “We did bigger shots than that in Transformers. But back then it was unique. We used a six-inch PVC pipe that was about 200 feet long, filled it up with gasoline, tied explosives underneath it, and set it off that way. That was the first time it had been done. I’ve since used it on several movies. It’s the way you do it if you want a napalm run. Nobody has come up with anything better.” The fire was kept under control for the most part. “You could never put that napalm fire out if you had to. It’s too much. You let it burn out.
“We never did two takes of anything,” states Frazier. “You were right on or it didn’t make the movie.” Sometimes miscommunication took place. “When we did one explosion it blew me 25 feet. I was following another guy on his explosions and he went early, which meant I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Other practical effects were the decapitated head of Jay ‘Chef’ Hicks (Frederic Forrest) and the thrown spear that impales George ‘Chief’ Phillips (Albert Hall). “All you saw was the thud when it went into his chest,” explains Frazier. “Albert put on a chest plate of some balsa wood, put his shirt back on, and a guy stabbed him off camera with a spear.” Thousands of arrows were made with rubber tips. “We would put them into these mortars and blast them off [at the patrol boat]. All of that stuff was in-camera. For the firefight, we were shooting flares at that boat. We were timing it so we didn’t hit anybody. The river rose 19 feet in a couple of hours, and we were stuck in the temple for days. We found a couple cases of beer floating by, and we drank beer for two days until the water went down!”
A not-so-funny event occurred when the biggest typhoon to hit the Philippines since 1932 wrecked the sets situated at Iba, causing the production to shutdown for six weeks. “Everybody who worked on Apocalypse Now got there at least a week early,” remarks Scott Glenn (The Silence of the Lambs), who at the time was a former U.S. Marine and struggling actor. “I was going to do a scene as a soldier with a handheld grenade launcher at the Do Lung Bridge. The production office was in small tourist hotel on the beach that originally was a Japanese bunker during World War II. Francis, [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro [The Last Emperor], and most of the cast and crew went back to Manila for the weekend. I decided to stay there along with Martin Sheen, his wife Janet and Doug Claybourne, who was a PA. Late Friday night we got hit by Typhoon Didang. It turned the isthmus that we were living on into an island. Doug is also a Marine, so even though we were low men on the totem pole the two of us knew how to deal with those kinds of situations. We took over the place and set up the bathrooms. The people in Manila weren’t even sure we were alive at that point.”
Another dangerous situation arose after the bulk of the storm was over. “The helicopter pilot didn’t know if he could fly Francis back to Manila,” recounts Glenn. “The rain was coming down so hard and it was so windy that they were afraid that water would get mixed in with the jet fuel when refueling the helicopter. I’ve been around that more times than I would like to remember. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll fill it up.’ Later, Francis took me aside and said, ‘I want to reward you for your behavior. I can write you a better part anywhere in this movie.’ I thought about it and said, ‘I want to be in the end of the film.’ He said, ‘Scott, that’s the one part of the film that I can’t bring in a new character. You could play the part of Lieutenant Richard Colby [who was sent upriver ahead of Willard to kill Kurtz], but you’d be like a glorified extra.’ I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I got to be around Dennis Hopper and the greatest American actor who ever lived, Marlon Brando.”
“When the typhoon disaster hit Apocalypse Now in the summer of 1976, Francis came back to San Francisco for six weeks and showed me some of the dailies that had been shot up to that point,” remarks Murch. “I wondered, how is this all going to come together?’ Then we talked about the story and the script. He asked, ‘Do you have any suggestions?’ I said, ‘First of all, it’s a little weird that Willard is taken upriver in a boat to do this thing. They could have airdropped him 10 miles below Kurtz [Marlon Brando] and he would have gotten up there.’ The boat is a device to allow us to see the war, which you wouldn’t if it was a helicopter. They stop occasionally to look for mangos or at Playboy Bunnies, but nothing really happens. They’re tourists. I told him, ‘What it needs is a scene where the patrol boat does something it’s supposed to be doing. They’re supposed to stop other boats and inspect them.’ Francis said, ‘Okay, then write it.’ I sat down in his office for a week and wrote the puppy sampan scene. It’s like a mini My Lai Massacre where something bad happens accidentally.”
“The beginning of Apocalypse Now was too flatfooted for Francis and he got excited by two accidental things – the slow-motion shots of the napalm exploding with the helicopters and Marty Sheen freaking out in his hotel room, which was shot as an acting exercise,” reveals Murch, who co-won an Oscar for Best Sound Mixing and received a co-nomination for Best Film Editing for Apocalypse Now. “Francis had shot some additional material, like the famous shot of the fan and some upside-down shots of Marty under more controlled circumstances. Francis also said to me, ‘Ransack the film for other images.’ I pulled the Cambodian head and the big close-up of Marty’s eye with flames flickering on it. Those all come from the end of the film.”
It was predetermined that the opening sequence would feature “The End” by the Doors. “There was a period where we were going to have nothing but songs by Jim Morrison,” Murch says. “The idea collapsed quickly, because no matter where you were in the story and what Jim Morrison song you used, it was like Jim was looking at the movie and describing what he was looking at. It was too on the nose.”
“There was a group of French people who had gone up to the world-famous rapids. They thought the temple set [which was part of the Kurtz compound] was real. I said, ‘We’re going to blow that up in a couple of days.’ They replied, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘It’s a movie set.’ They said, ‘You can’t blow that up. It’s like thousands of years old!’”
—John Frazier, Special Effects Supervisor
“[The opening sequence featured “The End” by the Doors.] There was a period where we were going to have nothing but songs by Jim Morrison. The idea collapsed quickly, because no matter where you were in the story and what Jim Morrison song you used, it was like Jim was looking at the movie and describing what he was looking at. It was too on the nose.”
—Walter Murch, Sound Designer and Sound Engineer
The napalm explosion remains one of the largest practical explosions ever ignited for a movie. “Today, we would not do that,” admits Murch. “We might shoot some seed explosions to begin the process and then digital would takeover from that. That’s the origin of the material that you see at the beginning of the film. The slow-motion is a sixth camera that [Special Effects Coordinator] A.D. Flowers wanted in order to get a record of the explosion. Everything is real. Robert Duvall is really in a helicopter flying through the air.”
Working on Apocalypse Now for Frazier was special effects 101. “We did everything in-camera. At that time there were only a few special effects people, like Joe Lombardi, who could have pulled that off and had the stamina to keep up with Francis. These guys set the bar. I was a young guy and they were like mentors to me. I learned a lot about life.”
The special effects have not become dated. “For some of the stuff, like the napalm run, nobody has come up with anything better than putting the gasoline in a PVC pipe,” adds Frazier. “That’s what makes those movies so great – there’s no CGI in them. It’s real. I remember one time sitting down in the water when we were doing the firefight. I nodded off, woke up, and there’s a cobra looking at me! Apocalypse Now had a big impact on me. Not so much in techniques, but in how you make movies.”