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The Movie That Changed My Life:
DANNY BOYLE on Apocalypse Now!


Friday, May 29, 2009

By Robert K. Elder

Danny Boyle, Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later talks about Francis Ford Coppola’s mad masterpiece Apocalypse Now. This is the first installment of our series talking to directors about films inspired them to direct.

The full conversation will appear in the forthcoming book The Movies That Changed My Life (Spring 2010)

Rob Elder: The question we always begin with is: How would you describe this film to someone who’s never seen it before?

Danny Boyle: This movie is impossible to pigeonhole, really, I think. It’s the greatest war movie ever made. There are greater movies that condemn war, but no film captures our abhorrence of war and yet the pleasure we get from seeing it depicted in the movies. That’s what’s extraordinary about it. It’s not just a war movie, it’s about the nature of cinema and why we go and watch it — that journey we want to make in the cinema.

It’s summed up obviously by Coppola, who appears in it himself, screaming at the guys to “keep moving, keep moving!” so he can get better pictures.

RE: He plays a war documentarian and yells at the soldiers, “Don’t look at the camera!”

DB: [Laughs] And so it’s not just a war movie. People make war movies and you feel the horror and the pity, but this is also about moviemaking because he went through such an extraordinary passage in order to make the film. And so to encapsulate it is virtually self-defeating in a way. That’s what’s extraordinary about it.

It is a master film. It’s my own personal favorite, if I had to nail one film on my heart. This would the one. This would be it because it is unclassifiable, really, in a way.

RE: Let’s start with the basics then. Preliminary, it’s based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, and it’s about Willard, played by Martin Sheen, who is sent to hunt down a rogue colonel played by Marlon Brando. Existentially, it’s about a guy sent to kill his darker self. Is that simplifying it too much?

DB: I guess that’s it, yeah. That’s a good summation of it, really. My relationship with it is, and my relationship with most films that I love is not really an intellectual one at all. It’s a passionate, visceral one, emotional one and in a funny kind of way, I learned to value and appreciate that more as I go on, really, rather than try to ever understand the films.

RE: You saw this at what age?

DB: I come from a place, a very small town outside of Manchester. I came to London — I guess I was 21 — and I moved to London to start my work, my career, whatever it turned out to be. I remember there were huge, Anamorphic, black posters. [Laughs] They just seemed to be the biggest posters I had ever seen and there was nothing on them other than Apocalypse Now and of course, “A Francis Ford Coppola film,” I’m pretty sure that was there as well. But, um, and obviously, juggernaut publicity was really concerned about how overreaching the film was and the devastation that was caused by everyone who was involved with it. And it just had, again what I just said in the beginning, about what’s extraordinary about it is that he rides two horses in the film, that is what pulls you toward the film of course, immediately. It’s not just the sense you’re going to see a successful film, like a product. You’re going to see something that is beyond the film that has destroyed people’s lives. You know, that has bankrupted a genius. So it’s a celebration of the destruction as well a condemnation of its subject matter. It’s the war in Vietnam. And when you consider that nobody wanted to make films about Vietnam, that America turned its back on it, here was this great boy genius really. He was only 35, I think, when he made it.

RE: Sure, sure, but it was after he had won Best Picture twice already, for the first two Godfather films.

DB: It’s obviously made at the absolute Everest of megalomania, the absolute peek of, “I can do nothing wrong, and I must just push myself.” And that’s, of course, one of things celebrated in the film. You do see a film made at the absolute edge of sanity, really. In terms of the indulgence that movies can induce in people. But there’s a great side to it as well because it is his ambition and it is about bigness and I think that’s something that we have lost.

We now watch big films in terms of impacts and scale. I’m sure we’ll get it back, hopefully. But we really lost big films…these slightly overwhelming, overly ambitious big films. We’ve lost them, for whatever reason: confidence, marketing, whatever other factors you build into it. We do seem to have lost that ambitiousness, I think.

RE: But tell me about that very first time you saw it. And what was your mind like as you left the theater?

DB: [Laughs] It had eviscerated my brain, completely. I was an impressionable 21-year-old guy from the sticks. It had not been fed and watered with great culture, you know, as art is meant to do. It had been sandblasted by the power of cinema. And that’s why cinema, despite everything we try to do, it remains a young man’s medium, really, in terms of audience.

That’s why they are the loyal ones to go, because there’s about it that is particularly important to the intemperance, the impatience, of young men. And they want that feeling of their brains being sandblasted by the pure visceral power of cinema. At first, when you sort of discover that as a reflection, you kind of feel some shame about it. I don’t feel shame of that at all. It’s just: “That’s what the art form is.” And the much more reflective experience belongs to different art forms I think.

Well, there are some films that do that, obviously this is a wild generalization. But it’s true nonetheless it sums up why the economic power of movies lies where it lies — in chasing the audience of young men …and so much more or less interestingly these days.

RE: Well, briefly, I want to get these details. Do you remember what theater you saw it in London and what you did afterwards?

DB: I’m pretty sure it was on the Leicester Square Auditorium, which is the biggest cinema in Britain. I think I went to see it there because again that feeling. It was all built into it. If you’re going to see it — this thing with the biggest posters in the world — you’re going to see it in the biggest cinema in Britain.

RE: Did you see it with friends?

DB: Yes, whole gang of us, young men all about the same age. I can’t remember it all, but I was blown away. All the moments you think about, the famous sequences: the opening, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Never get out of the boat.” — I’m sure we just replayed those to each other. The film just has never left me.

I was so taken with it, after its initial run in London, that I took my dad. My dad came down to London and there was cinema called Prince Charles Cinema, which is a much smaller cinema. Actually, it was a porn cinema.

It showed porn there but Apocalypse Now had a late run there, a late run when it had left the main cinemas. I remember taken him and telling him about it. And this is, of course, strange because he was in a war. And I wanted to see it so much. I wanted to proselytize it to him. And I remember sitting there, before it began…I do remember them running the porn trailers for what was going to be on in the following weeks. I was so embarrassed, it was just really… [Laughs] But then of course the film began and all was forgiven and forgotten.

RE: And was your dad a World War II vet?

DB: He was.

RE: And what was his reaction?

DB: I don’t think he saw it in the way that I saw it. I think it’s a really different depiction of war. It is about modern pop culture as much as it is about war and that first excitement and stimulation, visceral stimulation. It’s as much about that as it is actually about war. So he would personally find Saving Private Ryan, a more appropriate picture of war, I think.

Whereas for us, I think, that’s why Apocalypse Now is so extraordinary really. It’s our war, really. The war we fight now, which is with a battle between ourselves — in ourselves, between stimulation and yet somehow feeling morally you must condemn it.

RE: Is there a particular scene or sequence that’s remained powerful for you?

DB: Well, I suppose, for any director, it’s got to be “Ride of the Valkyries.” Because it’s too well known in a way, it’s not the subtle one you should really point out. For me, it’s a great washing machine scene. I call it a washing machine because he just throws all these ingredients to it: the savagery of what the Americans did, American culture, the surfing.

The Vietcong are holding a beachhead and US air cavalry raid it with dozens of helicopters. Robert Duvall commands the unit and plays this Wagner music to intimidate the Vietcong — which is an extraordinary idea, this Fascist German composer being blasted out at the Vietcong as these 20th century machines ride in with destruction.

He (Duvall) does take the beach and he takes beach partly because it’s military imperative, but principally because on this beachhead the surf is really good and he loves to see his boys surf. Everybody is suddenly on the ground in the middle of the washing machine rather than protected by these swooping insects of destruction. Suddenly, when they are actually on the ground, they all look bewildered and scared. And he gives them two choices: You fight or you surf. Which one is it going to be?

Coppola just piles everything into it. I think that’s the sequence that Coppola appears in, and he just starts the washing machine, really. It’s insane.

The guy’s a genius, of course. When the girl runs out and puts the grenade in the helicopter — that punctuation of the grand opera — those kind of observations are a great director at work. The guy sitting on his helmet because he doesn’t want his balls blown off… those punctuation marks. You're watching a grand opera, but it’s not Brian De Palma; it’s not Michael Bay. It’s a genuine, genuine artist, inhabiting a butcher’s abattoir of resources. But he’s aware. He’s aware he’s in the abattoir because that’s where we want him to be…

It’s the boldness of the concept, the conception of it — that you will take part in this stunning physical attack, use the energy and the violence and cinema, and you play it to grand opera. That, itself, has become a type of pornography in a way.

There’s a whole strand of cinema that inhabits that….you think of the films of Michael Bay. But Coppola is a filmmaker before all those guys existed, he is a filmmaker who knew that and anticipated it. He’s not using it ironically. He’s using it to give you intense pleasure, sheer physical pleasure as it streams across yours irises. I think he knew that’s what we were basically going to become. That’s where visual stimulation in the cinema was taking us. I don’t know if he knew it or not, but in his dementia, that’s what he gave us. I’m sure he that he knew it, that’s why he gave it to us. That’s why the film lasts for so long in a way. You watch any film, especially films that are about impact — visual, physical impact, aggressive energy — they date very, very quickly. This doesn’t date. I can’t think of a bit of this film that dates.

Oh, and the other sequence I like, which is a much more subtle sequence, is when they get out of the boat and they go for mangos. It’s an extraordinary sequence of cinematography, just where he lights the jungle in these strips, like kind of photographic strips of light…and they’re eventually jumped by a tiger.

RE: That’s a great metaphor from Conrad, which is, “Never get off the boat.” Sheen repeats it in voiceover. In Conrad, the river is a symbolic route of sanity and the jungle is the unknown, insanity.

DB: The film’s use of voiceover is probably the greatest use of voiceover I’ve ever experienced. Because voiceover is normally criminal in a film, in a way, because it actually robs you of what you’re meant to do. You’re meant to be experiencing a visual journey. But it’s so perfect, “Never get out of the boat, goddamn right, never get out of the boat. Never get out of the goddamn boat.”

It’s the greatest use of voiceover.

RE: Yeah, it does remain fairly current, I have to admit. I wanted to take a moment to step back and talk about a little bit of the history. The film was originally called The Psychedelic Solider and written by John Milius for George Lucas to direct.

DB: Really?

RE: Yes. Lucas abandoned it to go off and do Star Wars.

DB: Yeah, in the Biskind book [Easy Riders, Raging Bulls], Lucas is a bit pissed off about that. [Laughs] If George actually ended up directing it, what would have happened?

It is the peak and the end of director’s cinema, without a doubt. All that flush of it that was the Seventies. That’s an obvious thing to say and it’s so true because Star Wars introduced producer cinema. That’s a role that George obviously took upon himself. That last Star Wars just opened — and here we still are, in a way, with product.

I was about to say that Apocalypse is the opposite of product but it’s not, that’s what’s extraordinary about it. It is product and it’s the opposite of product as well because it is unclassifiable. It is about delivering certain feelings to the audience just as certainly as George was delivering them in Star Wars. And yet, it’s also its antithesis as well. Jung says that doesn’t he? The two-face thing?

RE: Duality is very much what this film is about. Much has been made about this. There was a whole documentary called Hearts of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now.

DB: My favorite moment in that is when Coppola just starts ranting about how terrible the thing is and how he doesn’t know what he’s doing. [Laughs]

RE: The subtitle, I believe is “A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.” We alluded to it before, but let’s talk about it now. It went 37 weeks over shooting, he mortgaged his house, Martin Sheen had a heart attack…

DB: I heard about them in the run up to the opening of the film because those were the baggage that accompanied the film. I think it made it more attractive to go and see rather than buried it. Because normally, that kind of reputation would bury a film, but actually — ironically — made it more attractive.

Read the entire interview in the book The Movies That Changed My Life (Spring 2010, from Chicago Review Press).




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