Evolution of a Screenplay: ‘Apocalypse Now’

Last week I wrote about the screenplay for ‘The Birds’.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) was based on three things. The first was the novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, by Joseph Conrad. It tells the story of Marlowe, sent up the Congo River to bring back one of his company’s representatives who terrorizes the surrounding countryside looking for ivory. He is their best producer, but his methods, as our narrator discusses with his manager, are unsound.typewriter-726965_1280

These words are echoed, almost verbatim, in the screenplay written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, which serves as the second basis for the film.

Marlowe later learns that he was recommended by the same people who had recommended Mr. Kurtz, who he is being sent to retrieve.

Milius had been thinking about writing a screenplay about the war in Viet Nam for some time. One of his writing instructors had mentioned Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Milius read it. He decided that it would be the perfect basis for his film, about a colonel in Special Forces who violates chain of command by carrying out operations over the border in Cambodia without authorization, using an army of Montagnard villagers willing to do anything he orders.

The narrator of the screenplay is Captain Willard, sent up the Nong River to terminate the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz ‘with extreme prejudice’. He travels on a patrol boat with a crew of young men in an absurdist version of the military inspired in large part by Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964). As Willard gets closer to his destination, as he delves deeper into the Colonel’s dossier, he discovers how much he has in common with this man he’s being sent to kill.

As in the book, there is a strong connection between the two men. It is symbolized by the river, in what William Faulkner described as the ‘Geologic umbilical’ in ‘Absalom, Absalom!’. And in the Milius/Coppola screenplay, this connection is so strong that the two men bond together for a climatic battle against the Viet Cong.

Wait. What?

That is the film as Milius originally conceived it. Milius wanted to write a war movie as much as he wanted to make a statement about the war. His politics are well-known. He wrote and produced the film ‘Red Dawn’ (1984) about a Soviet invasion of the United States. It was basically an NRA commercial, demonstrating how the invaders would use the registration system to track down and confiscate all firearms.

The early drafts of ‘Apocalypse Now’ have all the major set pieces seen in the final film, but with Milius’ original ending. In some cases scenes appear as written, in others they take place either in different places geographically or in different times within the flow of the film itself. There are some startling changes in terms of key pieces of dialog – and many of those that have become the most quotable in film history – which were originally delivered by other characters. Willard himself utters the now famous ‘Charlie don’t surf’ and ‘Someday…this war is gonna end.’

It is the river itself that is the third basis for the film. The production had been fraught with problems. Actor Harvey Keitel, originally cast to play Captain Willard, was replaced a couple of weeks into shooting. And then Martin Sheen had a heart attack, shutting down production. And then there was a typhoon. They worked when they could. While Sheen was unavailable, the cast and crew shot scenes that would later be edited with shots of Sheen. There are even some long shots of the patrol boat featuring an unidentifiable Keitel used in the final film.

As Coppola describes it, he had no ending. Even though he had started production with the script as written, he hadn’t been happy with that final battle scene. They were going to the location and Marlon Brando would be flying in for a million dollar week. And there was no ending. According to Coppola, by this point he’d shot everything that could be shot in the script. He had taken to leaving the script in his hotel room and bringing his original paperback copy of ‘Heart of Darkness’ to the set every day.

Brando’s monologues were worked out in detail ahead of time with Coppola. But in front of the camera it was all Brando improvising, both solo and with Sheen and, only rarely, Dennis Hopper. It is one of these exchanges where the lines from ‘Heart of Darkness’ occur, when Col. Kurtz tells Willard the generals think his methods are unsound.

It was on the river that Coppola finally came to terms with what had to happen. Willard had to carry out his mission. He had to kill Kurtz. The entire scene where the villagers sacrifice a water buffalo by brutally hacking it to death with machetes was something Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, discovered while visiting a neighboring village (Her excellent documentary, ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’ (1991) covers this in detail). And this is how Willard came to hack Kurtz to death in one of the most amazing scenes in film history.

Willard is more present in the film because of his narration. This was added after the film was shot. There was narration in the script, which Coppola recorded himself for use in editing, but he wasn’t happy with it. He knew of Michael Herr’s writing from the research Milius had done writing the screenplay (Herr is also one of the screenwriters credited for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ [1987]). Coppola asked Herr to write his own narration, following the script but hewing more towards the film as it had evolved during the production.

Years after the film was released, Coppola approached editor Walter Murch about creating a new version of the film, utilizing footage that had been shot at the time but which, for various reasons, had not been used in the final film. There are a number of smaller changes, including the addition of transitions between the ‘episodes’ of the film.

The main additions are a scene involving the crew of the patrol boat encountering the Playboy Bunnies from the show at a fuel depot, another in which the boat docks at a French rubber plantation, and one in which Willard steals Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) surfboard.

It’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t think it is necessarily a better movie. I found the scene in which Willard trades fuel for ‘time with the bunnies’ for the guys objectionable. It’s a scene straight out of the Milius screenplay though, as written, I found it not just objectionable, but totally missing the mark of the film in general.

Interestingly, Milius himself objects to the scene being restored to the film.

“The bunnies were like the Sirens in mythology,” he explained an interview. “Kilgore was the Cyclops, and the bunnies were the Sirens. To show less of them made them more mysterious.”

All three of the added scenes significantly alter our perception of Willard. The downright playfulness he exhibits stealing Kilgore’s board is unlike anything we’ve seen of him before. His sexual encounter with a beautiful French woman at the ghostly plantation and the pimping out of the bunnies shows a man who has needs beyond wanting a mission. The Willard of the original film was closed off. He even refuses the offer of a joint from the rest of the crew and then withdraws from them, literally drawing a curtain between them.

Five Films About Writers, Writing and Publishing

buster-keaton-396846_1280This list is by no means complete.  There are many other films about writing.  ‘The End of the Tour’ is a recent film about the late David Foster Wallace‘Adaptation’, written by Charlie Kaufman, portrays the process through which twin brothers adapt Susan Orleans‘ book ‘The Orchid Thief’ into a screenplay.  ‘Misery’, a film by Rob Reiner, is based on the novel by Stephen KingAlan Rudolph’s film ‘Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle’ is a feast of writers surrounding Dorothy Parker, from the golden age of acid wit.  ‘The Front’, and more recently ‘Trumbo’, confront the Hollywood blacklist, in which writers were identified by friends and colleagues as members of the Communist Party.  And there are many, many more..

If you haven’t seen the films in the following list, be advised that I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but there may be plot information revealed ahead..

 

The Shining

Stephen King didn’t care for the film that director Stanley Kubrick made from his book, ‘The Shining’ (1980).  The film stars Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a wannabe writer and his put-upon spouse.  Danny Lloyd played their son, Danny, whose psychic ability the hotel’s cook (Scatman Crothers) shares.

Jack Torrance is King’s most autobiographical character.  So it makes sense he would be particularly sensitive to changes in this material.

Jack Torrance has ideas.  He just needs to sit down and write them out. So Jack gets a job as the winter caretaker at a remote mountain hotel, where he’ll be able to use the ample down time to work on a book. Little Danny quickly discovers he is able to see things he’d rather not see in a place that seems to be the nexus of some dark passage to the underworld.

In addition to ideas, Jack has demons.  He is a recovering alcoholic with at least on episode of physical abuse against Danny on the record.  He descends into madness as the hotel exerts its supernatural forces on him.

Kubrick co-wrote the screenplay with novelist Diane Johnson.  They did depart from the book, but in doing so created some of the most frightening moments in screen history, not to mention several nuggets of popular culture.

In their book ‘Stanley Kubrick, Director’, Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti quote Kubrick:

“The perfect novel from which to make a movie is one which is mainly concerned with the inner life of its characters.  It will give the adaptor an absolute compass on which a character is thinking or feeling at any given moment.”

They also discuss the role of the screenplay once production began.

“For all its author’s concern with ‘control’, a Kubrick shooting script is no cut-and-dried affair. With each successive film, it seems increasingly to resemble a talisman rather than a set of imperatives; a prompt copy, so to speak, for a collaborative effort between himself and his stars.  It is used to incite Kubrick and his actors to respond to the spontaneity of the creative moment, to the inspiration, discoveries, and inventions that their creative partnership is able to generate, rehearse, and catch on film.”

Laura Miller, writing in Salon, observed: “The two men (Kubrick and King) represent diametrically opposed approaches to creating narrative art.  One is an aesthete and the other is a humanist.”

During the first two weeks of the film’s release, Kubrick ordered that the final scene in which the hotel manager meets with Wendy in her hospital room be cut out of the prints and returned to Warner Brothers.  All subsequent prints were struck without that final scene.

Dr. Sleep’, the sequel to ‘The Shining’, was published in 2015.

Barton Fink

The Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarrentino are two sides of the same coin in a way.  They are both great lovers of film in all its forms, and the bodies of work they have created are as much about films as they are the characters and situations within them.  Of the two coin sides I have to express a preference for the brothers Coen.

Barton Fink’ (1991) takes this to the extreme.  Barton (John Turturro) is a playwright with a critical and popular Broadway success and a ticket to Hollywood to work for $1000 a week writing scripts.  He rooms next door to an insurance salesman (John Goodman) in a run-down hotel.  This is contrasted with the opulent lifestyle of his producer, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner).

Fink makes the acquaintance of another writer, W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a successful novelist drawn to Hollywood by the money.  His career is on the brink as he drinks himself into a downward slide.  Many people see the two characters as representing Clifford Odets and William Faulkner, who both spent time as script writers in Hollywood, Faulkner on ‘To Have and Have Not’, and the classic noir film ‘The Big Sleep’ and Odets on ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’, among many others.

‘Barton Fink’ comments on the low/highbrow comparison between motion pictures and more ‘serious’ entertainment, like the theater. Fink wants to write important stuff, but Lipnick has him working on a wrestling picture.  Fink wants to maintain touch with ‘the common man’.  He selected his hotel because it is ‘less Hollywood’.

Fink is blocked, distracted by all manner of strange sounds coming from the insurance agent’s room next door.  He is unable to write a single line.  He runs out of time and enlists the aid of Mayhew’s assistant (Judy Davis).  She confesses to Fink that she wrote all of Mayhew’s screenplays, and she helps Fink write his wrestling picture.

Those aforementioned nods to old Hollywood aside, the film defies categorization.  It seems noir.  But it also has surreal qualities.

The project came into being while the Coen brothers were writing something they called ‘The Bighead’, Like Fink, they were stuck.  They took some time away and when they came back, they’d written ‘Barton Fink’, using their writer’s block in the script.
‘The Bighead’ was revisited, retitled, and began production as ‘Miller’s Crossing’.

Ronald Bergan, in his book ‘The Coen Brothers’, quotes the brothers jointly:  “Perhaps it was a relief from ‘Miller’s Crossing’, it came easily. Certain films come entirely in one’s head.  You know how it will look.  Even if you don’t know the ending. You have an intuition about the conclusion.  In contrast, other scenarios are like a voyage where you don’t know exactly where you’re going. We just sort of burped out ‘Barton Fink’.”

The Player

Michael Tolkin adapted his own novel for Robert Altman’s film.  This satirical comedy skewers the film industry, particularly in their treatment of writers.

The Player’ (1992) lives mostly with the suits.  Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) hears pitches from writers, deciding which projects get greenlighted.  The opening five minute shot roams around the studio offices as he hears pitches from a variety of writers, including Buck Henry, who wants to do a sequel to ‘The Graduate’.

Mill has been receiving threatening post cards from a writer he believes wrote a project he rejected.  Mill is convinced the writer is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and seeks him out at a local art house theater.  After the movie (Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece ‘Bicycle Thieves’), Mill and the writer go to a bar where Kahane gets drunk and berates Mill.

Mill follows the writer to the parking lot, where he knocks him down, and then kills him.  The next morning the head of studio security(Fred Ward) briefs Mill – the police know he was the last person to see Kahane alive.  And before Kahane’s body is cold Mill receives a FAX from the threatening writer, who is still very much alive.

Mill begins an affair with Kahane’s girlfriend, a frosty artist called June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi).

New exec Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) threatens Mill’s position at the studio.  Two writers pitch a project called Habeas Corpus to Mill, who sees an opportunity to kill Levy’s momentum by convincing him of the project’s merit and then having him shepherd the film into a mass career grave, with Mill showing up in the last reel to rescue the project.

A year after getting away with killing Kahane, Mill gets a call from Levy pitching a writer with a great idea.  Mill hears the pitch, from his old nemesis, about a studio exec who murders a writer and gets away with it. Mill agrees as long as the writer can guarantee a ‘happy ending’.

It’s a cynical film about a cynical business.  As Robert Altman described it, “It’s light satire.  Nobody gets hurt”.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times published in 1992, Tolkin knows the ‘business’. His mother was an entertainment lawyer at MGM and Paramount. His father was head writer on the old Sid Caesar TV shows–during the period when they boasted what many feel was TV’s all-time greatest writing staff. Among others, his father’s colleagues included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Lucille Kallen, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner and, toward the end, the young Woody Allen.

The Wonder Boys

The Wonder Boys’ (2000) was Curtis Hanson’s follow up to ‘L.A. Confidential’Steve Kloves adapted Michael Chabon’s second novel, published in 1995.  I have to admit to being in Mr. Chabon’s thrall – I’ve read almost everything he’s written.

The eponymous wonder boys are Michael Douglas and Tobey McGuire, teacher and student at a small eastern college.  McGuire is the young rising star, mentored by Douglas, whose own wildly successful and award-winning first novel is still awaiting it’s follow up years later.

The characters gather for the college’s annual writer’s conference.  ‘The Wonder Boys’ is about the whole magilla – the dream of getting published and the fear, once published, of having to do it all over again.  It’s an ensemble cast without peer.  Robert Downey Jr. steals this one, but he has to fight McGuire for it. Douglas plays the novelist whose new book has been years in the making, leaving his agent the laughing stock of the publishing industry.  His marriage is over and his affair with the college chancellor, Frances McDormand, just took a turn as she informs him of her pregnancy by him.  Richard Thomas, the dean of the English department, is the engine behind the conference.

Also, Rip Torn is fantastic as the acerbic Quentin ‘Q’ Morewood.

In his article ‘Screenwriters Find it Hard to Adapt’, Sean Mitchell, writing in the Chicago Tribune, quotes screenwriter Kloves on adapting Chabon’s book into a screenplay.

“I think it’s fair to say that no one at Paramount was overjoyed to be buying the book in the first place and certainly not overjoyed to learn that I would be the one adapting it,” says Kloves, the humorous, self-deprecating writer-director of ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ and ‘Flesh and Bone’.”

“The danger of a good book is that it is the voice of the author, and the language and his or her craft is what’s making it evocative, and, absent that, when you put it on the screen it just won’t work. So you have to find a way to bring that voice into the screenplay and onto the screen.”

Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder wanted to do a movie about Hollywood.  In Cameron Crowe’s excellent book ‘Conversations with Wilder’, he describes his inspiration.

“I wanted to make things a little harder for myself, I wanted to do that thing which never quite works—a picture about Hollywood.  Originally it was a comedy.”

Former Life magazine writer D. W. Marshman Jr. came up with the idea of Joe Gillis (William Holden), an unsuccessful screenwriter, drawn into the fantasy world of former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).  Wilder and his writing partner, Charles Brackett, then wrote the screenplay.  ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) skewers Hollywood in a manner not unlike ‘The Player’.

By casting Swanson, Wilder was able to make use of footage from an unseen silent film of hers that was produced by Joseph Kennedy Sr.

Norma plots her comeback.  Her faithful valet, Max (Eric Von Stroheim), basks in her light.  He was once her husband, and also the director who discovered her. The cast includes a number of actors and Hollywood notables playing themselves, including Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille, and columnist Hedda Hopper.

The film begins with the narrator floating face down in a swimming pool, dead.  He begins to explain how he got into this predicament.  He is Joe Gillis, who tries to write screenplays but is not successful.  He makes the acquaintance of Miss Desmond, who hires him as a script doctor on her comeback screenplay, Salome.  She convinces him to come live with her in her decaying mansion filled with the tattered ruins of her career. Gillis comes to find she is deluded in thinking she can resuscitate her career.  Her script for a new SALOME is awful.  She is also deluded into thinking he might be interested in her romantically, when he discovers he is the only guest at a party she’s thrown.

The more time Joe spends with her in her mansion, the more he comes to see that she has “slipped the slivery bonds”.  She watches prints of her old films screened by Max.  One of the benefits of using Swanson was that Von Stroheim, who played Max the valet and her former husband, had directed the film Kennedy Sr. produced and was, in fact, fired by Kennedy from the production.

Norma delivers a draft of the script to her former director, DeMille, who indulges her because of their shared history. She has been putting off a studio executive, thinking he is calling about her project.  When she finally takes his call she finds he is simply trying to rent her unusual Italian limousine for a film.

Joe meets and falls in love with the girlfriend of a friend.  They begin to collaborate in more ways than one.  When Norma finds a screenplay with both of their by-lines on it, she loses control and goes on a rampage.  Joe finally tells her the truth about everything and starts to walk out on her. Norma shoots him three times, sending him sprawling into the swimming pool where we met him.

Mae West supposedly turned the role of Norma Desmond down.  Wilder claims Mary Pickford did as well. It almost went to Pola Negri. And, as Cameron Crowe writes in his book, “Almost fifty years later, there are few stars as famous as Wilder’s fictional one”.