NEW YORK — If filmmaking is a war, then “Apocalypse Now” was very nearly Francis Ford Coppola’s Waterloo.
The battles Coppola fought while making his 1979 epic nearly destroyed him. A typhoon wrecked a major set. Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen. Coppola searched desperately for an ending. He worked even harder to coax a few lines out of Marlon Brando.
But out of that tumult Coppola created a masterpiece. And 40 years later, “Apocalypse Now” has never looked so good.
Coppola has supervised a 4K restoration of the film and, for the second time, tweaked the cut. Having perhaps gone too far in his 2001 “Redux,” which added 53 minutes, “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” which opens in theaters Friday and on home video August 27, splits the difference at 183 minutes.
In its present and restored form, the majesty and madness of “Apocalypse Now” is more vivid and hallucinatory than ever. Coppola considers it the definitive version. It completes a four decade journey turning what was almost a mess into the masterwork he envisioned from the start.
In a recent interview, Coppola, 80, spoke about “Apocalypse Now” then and now, why he was “terrified” after making it and why he has trouble letting go of his films.
AP: Did you consciously want to put your stamp on the war movie?
Coppola: The Vietnam War was different than other American wars. It was a West Coast sensibility rather than an East Coast sensibility. In war movies before “Apocalypse,” there was always a sort of Brooklyn character, an East Coast and Midwest personality. In “Apocalypse Now,” it was LA and it was surfing and it was drugs and it was rock ‘n’ roll so it was more of a West Coast ambiance to the war. In addition, there were many sort of odd contradictions that related to the morality involved. There was a line I was once read that’s not in the film but to me it sums up the meaning of the movie. It was: “We teach the boys to drop fire on people yet we won’t let them write the word ‘f—‘ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”
AP: Eleanor Coppola, your wife, wrote in her “Notes” that you took on some of Kurtz’ megalomania while making “Apocalypse Now.”
Coppola: Whenever I made a movie, I was always personally compared to the main character. When I was doing “The Godfather,” I was Michael Corleone, Machiavellian and sly. When I made “Apocalypse Now,” I was the megalomaniac. When I made “Tucker,” I was the innovative entrepreneur. The truth of the matter is all my life if I have been anything I’ve been enthusiastic and imaginative. I don’t have talent that I wish I had. My talent was more enthusiasm and imagination and a kind of prescient sense, a sense of knowing what’s going to happens before it happens.
AP: Did you emerge from “Apocalypse Now” a different filmmaker?
Coppola: Yeah, but no more than I was after the extreme experience of the “Godfather” movie. Every film I have made has been a new sheet of paper. I rarely would repeat a style. Every movie I worked on, I came out of it being a different person.
AP: Is going back to your films to get them just right for you part of preserving your legacy? Do you think about how you want you and your work to be remembered?
Coppola: I’m not so crazy about my legacy. I want people to know that I liked little kids and I was a good camp counselor when I was a camp counselor in 1957, that I have a family with wonderful children that I find so fascinating and very talented. But ultimately, to me, the greatest legacy you can have is that someone somewhere saw one of the things you did and it inspired them to do something that goes and then inspired someone else in the future. In a way, it’s a form of immortality.
AP: Today, most directors would only have the opportunity of “Apocalypse Now”-like scale in a superhero film. Do you sympathize for them?
Coppola: Absolutely. I feel now we have this bifurcated cinema in our country being of independent films where we have the most wonderful wealth of talent and then the industry films which are pretty much superhero films. One has too much money — the studio, Marvel comic-type movies. They’re basically making the same movie over and over again, and seducing all of the talent. Everyone is hoping to get a small part in one of those movies because that’s where the money is. And as opposed, the wonderful, unusual, exotic, interesting, provocative and beautiful independent films have no money. The budget for the craft service of one of those superhero films could more than be a budget for some of these brilliant young — and not only young — filmmakers. That is a tragedy.
AP: The long life your films have had can lead to strange places. Prosecutors wanted to show “The Godfather” during Roger Stone’s trial. Donald Trump has cited “Godfather II” as one of his favorite films.
Coppola: The list of fans of the “Godfather” films not only includes of the gentleman you speak of but also Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Just go through all of the toughest dictators in the modern world and their favorite movie is “The Godfather.”
AP: What do you make of that?
Coppola: Because “The Godfather” is an American story of an immigrant family that ultimately finds success in America. Success is not a bad thing but it depends on how you define it. If you define success as wealth, influence, power and fame, you have to know that does not bring happiness. We could go through the famous top 1% who have all the things we just mentioned and you’ll find some of the most unhappy people on Earth. What brings happiness is friendship, learning, creativity. We know what brings happiness. But what are you going to do when every nation in the world is pointing its main objective toward something that does not add up?