There’s a long history in Hollywood of shelved projects, abandoned franchise dreams, stalled careers, and entire genres that lost favor or profitability. 9 times out 10 these problems and failures are the result of a myriad of complex issues and contributing factors. Sometimes though… Sometimes you can pretty much pin everything on one film that fucked it up for everyone. Whether it’s a movie that killed a rival project, destroyed a filmmaker’s career, squashed some brilliant idea, or took the shine off of an entire genre, this CHUD List will catalog the films that were just total, unapologetic Cockblocks.
Day 12 (George Lucas’ Apocalypse Now)
THE COCK: George Lucas’ Apocalypse Now.
As George Lucas envisioned it, Apocalypse Now was to be a small budget vérité film that recalled the realism of the documentary footage emerging from the Vietnam Conflict.
THE BLOCK: American Graffiti (1973)
Lucas’ career launching, nostalgia ode to golden oldies and gasoline consumption, about a wackily eventful and wistful night in the lives of four high school friends.
How it Went Down:
In the late 1960’s there was a major boom in film school enrollment, and the University of Southern California was top dog (for some people it still is). During this period there was a group of talented friends and classmates affectionately known as the “USC Mafia” or “the Dirty Dozen,” made up of such future notables as Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, Walter Murch, screenwriter Matthew Robbins (writer of a certain upcoming Nick Nunziata film), and most relevant here – George Lucas and John Milius. Lucas and Milius were close friends, likely sharing a common admiration for their respective beard densities. In 1968, Lucas was award a scholarship by Warnes Bros (based on the strength of his student film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB), to work on any WB film of his choosing. Lucas chose the Fred Astaire musical Finian’s Rainbow as a way to meet Francis Ford Coppola, a filmmaker Lucas admired as a film school success story. The two men hit it off, and within extremely short order founded the production company American Zoetrope (in 1968).
During the time that Coppola was directing Zoetrope’s first production, the James Caan drama, The Rain People, the Vietnam Conflict was raging hot and heavy. John Milius, the warrior poet that he is, had the kooky idea of adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a dark treatise on European colonization in Africa – as a modern day film about the madness of war. Lucas loved the idea and brought it to Coppola. Coppola loved it too, and promptly hired Milius to write the screenplay. (Though, director Carroll Ballard has claimed he was actually the one who originated the concept.)
Though Lucas acquired the rights to Conrad’s novel, Milius decided his story would work better if he simply used Heart of Darkness as spiritual inspiration. Much of the film’s tone Milius got from a friend who had served in Vietnam and had personally witnessed the horror story Kurtz (Marlon Brando) tells in the film, of the Viet Cong hacking off the arms of villagers. Milius had initially titled the script, The Psychedelic Soldier, but fell in love with a new title after seeing a counter-culture button featuring the hippie mantra “Nirvana Now.”
Lucas loved the finished script, and planned to make it his next directing project, after completing the film he was currently working on, THX-1138. Production was to start in 1971, with a modest budget of $2 million. Lucas initially envisioned shooting in the rice fields of central California, though friend and producing partner, Gary Kurtz, was soon sent to scout location in the Philippines. Lucas planned to shoot the whole film on 16mm, all done in a documentary style. At one point Lucas even toyed with the idea of actually shooting the film in Vietnam, starring real soldiers – though I have to assume this was never given much serious thought (cause that’s just crazy dumb).
But as fate would have it, Lucas became wrapped up with American Graffiti and Apocalypse Now was put on the back burner temporarily. But by the time Graffiti had been released and become a surprise smash, Lucas had lost interest in Vietnam, becoming significantly more intrigued by wars of a less terrestrial nature. Coppola offered Milius a chance to direct his script, but he was already committed to The Wind and the Lion. Unwilling to give up on the project, Coppola finally decided to helm the damn thing himself. A decision he would just barely live to regret. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Bullet Dodged, or Greatness Robbed:
Let’s just ignore the fact that Francis Ford Coppola is a significantly more talented director than Lucas, and that Coppola had just made three of the greatest films in the history of the medium in the span of two fucking years. Let’s just say Coppola and Lucas were different filmmakers. And let’s also give Lucas the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn’t actually have ended up shooting the film in California rice patties. Let’s just say the circumstances had worked out roughly the same, and that as a Zoetrope production, Coppola would still have been instrumental in certain primary decisions.
The master jedi’s filmography in the 70’s (short as it may be) did show that he wasn’t one to be pigeon-holed into a single genre. And he could handle broad action. But any way you slice it Lucas was still an ill-fitting suit for Milius’ special brand of philosophic verbiage and manly aesthetics. The idea of a docu-style Now just doesn’t seem appropriate for the surreal and theatrical nature of the script. Lucas is also bad with actors. Famously so. Now was not a film on which the director could simply say “louder and faster” from his director’s chair and hope to wind up with anything nearing the subtly and humanity the material deserves.
Then there is Now‘s legendary clusterfuck of a production (one that gave birth to a behind-the-scenes documentary even more horrifying than the film it recounts; Hearts of Darkness). Maybe Lucas would have been smarter than Coppola and would have listened to Roger Corman’s suggestion not to shoot in Southeast Asia during the rainy season. Though, Lucas never worked for Corman. In any case, unlike Coppola, Lucas was not a Ahab-like madman. Far from a perfectionist, Lucas has generally been known for his frustratingly vague communication skills, more than happy to say things like “make him look really scary,” and then choose the coolest looking design from a panel of several options. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that approach, but that attitude doesn’t drive you to wrestle an imploding production, inflating budget, typhoons, destroyed sets, and a fat uncooperative Marlon Brando for over a year. In all likelihood the film would never have been completed, potentially becoming one of Hollywood’s big “what if” stories.
Verdict: Bullet Dodged.
The Alternate Universe:
Nightmare Scenario #1:
Lucas decides never to ask us “where were you in ’62?” and makes Apocalypse Now instead of American Graffiti based along his original vision. Shot in the grainy, strobie shutter speed and choppy editing of the 16mm WWII documentaries that inspired Lucas, Apocalypse Now becomes a smash hit and influences an obnoxious new stylistic trend in filmmaking nearly 25 years before Steven Spielberg inadvertently ruined action film cinematography and editing with Saving Private Ryan. Every action movie you love made between 1973-1999 now looks like incomprehensible dick.
Nightmare Scenario #2:
Lucas somehow gets the greenlight to go shoot the movie in Vietnam with real soldiers. Four days into production he steps on a booby trap and dies. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Arc never exist.
Nightmare Scenario #3:
Coppola convinces Lucas that 16mm is commercially impractical. Lucas completes the film with roughly the same cast and without too much trouble. Not as darkly ethereal or dementedly brilliant as Coppola’s version, Lucas’s Apocalypse Now is decent and still features the killer Milius script. It is a box office hit and gets nominated for a few Oscars. People like it. In the late 90’s Lucas re-releases the film with a bunch of tweaked and digitally altered bullshit, revealing his “true vision” that was simply not technologically possible at the time – like making Kurtz a CG cyborg and adding Jawas performing retarded slapstick routines in the background of various scenes.
Just the frightening anecdotes of old men.
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