Thursday, December 17, 2015

Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas: The Chaos and the Control

George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola

For movie fans the names Coppola and Lucas often trigger wistful nostalgia and quiet frustration. Both began their careers as cinematic revolutionaries determined to circumvent the studio system. They aspired to make “personal” films expressing their own unique visions like the French New Wave directors. 

Their early work displayed great promise.  Unfortunately they got caught up in the very system they despised. By the late 70s their early careers came to a dramatic culmination with Lucas’s epochal Star Wars and Coppola's surreal masterpiece Apocalypse Now.   

For a long time Lucas planned on directing Apocalypse Now, triggering an irresistible what if scenario.  In many ways Apocalypse Now is the Rosetta Stone of their filmography, the key to understanding their work.

They met during the making of Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Coppola first major Hollywood production.  Lucas, already a rising star at USC film school with several award winning films to his credit won an internship to assist Coppola. Like most film school graduates, Lucas had little interest in conventional Hollywood movies. Coppola took on Lucas as a protege, and gave him a job on his next film The Rain People.

They were alter egos from the get go.

The Master and the Apprentice  

Coppola grew up in a large Italian-American family of musicians and artists.  A lackluster student, he found his calling in the theater and went on to UCLA film school.  Not yet 30 when he made Finian’s Rainbow, Coppola was already a seasoned director of low budget films like Dementia 13 (1963) and You're A Big Boy Now (1966).  A highly sought after screenwriter as well, Coppola won an Oscar for writing Patton (1970).  

Lucas came from a  middle class background in Modesto, California.  Indifferent towards school until he almost perished in a car accident, Lucas took to film school, discovering his passion during an exciting moment in cinema history.  Movies from Asia and Europe were dramatically expanding the possibilities of the medium.  Lucas liked to the technical side film making: editing, sound, special effects, cinematography.  Shy and introverted by nature, Lucas earned a reputation through his strong work ethic and generosity.

Their creative endeavors would shape the 1970s.  Coppola was and still is devoted to the printed word, viewing film as an extension of literature, frequently alluding to modernists like Joyce and Woolf who revolutionized storytelling in ways film never explored.  And he loved the process of making movies: working with actors, improvising on the set, and letting a project evolve organically.        

But Lucas seemed more in tune with future course of cinema, one separate from literature, a pure visual medium with its own set of rules; one where the possibilities of technology were limitless in telling a story. Lucas’s early films used mostly montage and sound to tell stories, almost a throwback to silent cinema, yet modern at the same time.

The Rain People (1969) told the story of a middle class housewife who leaves her husband and drifts aimlessly on the road in a futile search for meaning. Coppola asked Lucas to do a “making of” feature documenting the challenges of being an independent director. The making of documentary Filmmaker remains a compelling time capsule of the era and a fascinating portrait of Coppola.  We  see him haggle with producers on the phone, argue with and inspire his cast, improvising on location, and grandiose monologues on putting everything on the line for his art.
Cast and Crew Photo of The Rain People.

Next Coppola launched Zoetrope Studios, San Francisco based film company conceived as an alternative to Hollywood. Coppola wanted to attract new directors and artists who were plentiful in the dynamic counterculture of the city.  Coppola decided Lucas's film THX-1138, based on his UCLA Master’s thesis,  would be be the first full length feature developed by Zoetrope.

By all accounts Lucas enjoyed filming THX-1138.  When Warner Brothers insisted on cutting five minutes Lucas swore to never relinquish final cut to a studio.  But THX-1138 lost money and met with mixed reviews.  Nevertheless,  it has aged remarkably well.  Although the look and tone of THX-1138 are unbearably alienating (that was the point) its themes of deadening technology, drugs, government repression, and mind control remain strikingly prescient.  

The Vietnam War shaped the consciousness of New Hollywood and they all aspired to make the definitive film on the defining moment of their generation. Lucas initially wanted to make a documentary about Vietnam, one that would blur the lines between reality and fiction along the lines of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969).  In 1967, Lucas asked film school pal John Milius to pen a screenplay for what became Apocalypse Now, originally titled The Psychedelic Soldier.  Inspired Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Milius completed a screenplay at some point in 1969 with Lucas set to direct.

After THX-1138 failed to take with audiences, Coppola encouraged Lucas to write something more commercial, with more of a heart.  So he wrote American Graffiti, a semi-autobiographical film about his teenage years in Modesto, a nostalgia piece about early 60s teenage life. American Graffiti came out at just the right time. Audiences welcomed a return to a more innocent time.  It proved the box office smash of 1973, a coming of age story with shades of subtle melancholy, giving Lucas the cache to make an even more ambitious film.

Columbia Pictures bought the Milius script for Apocalypse Now. Lucas sent producer Gary Kurtz to scout locations in the Philippines. He envisioned a low budget film shot on 16mm with a cast of nonprofessional actors.  In interviews, Lucas spoke of a “satirical, comic book tone” exposing the insanity of the war.  
John Milius in the Middle, going over a script with Spielberg and Lucas.

According to Lucas biographer Dale Pollock, a bad business deal ended Lucas's involvement. Coppola agreed to produce the film, but the deal allowed him 25% of the gross box office, much to the chagrin of Lucas and Milius who were both obligated to split their 25% share.  The success of The Godfather made Coppola the hottest director in Hollywood and by all accounts his already outsized ego went into overdrive.  

By that time Lucas was already developing another project entitled The Star Wars.

A Tale of Two Movies

Many books have documented the genesis of Star Wars, in particular The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski and How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor.  Everything influenced Lucas: Silver Age Comics, Kurosawa, Flash Gordon, John Ford Westerns, and countless fairy tales.  Themes Lucas had wanted to explore in Apocalypse Now found their way into the story, namely, the idea of a committed group of revolutionaries defeating a technologically superior empire.

By the spring of 1976 Lucas began principal photography on Star Wars, a production beset by many problems. The sheer scale of the project nearly overwhelmed him.  Mild mannered by nature, Lucas seemed way out of his depth.  Post-Production was equally troublesome: disastrous rough cuts and special effects delays took Lucas to the brink of sanity. Only when a new editing team was brought in did Star Wars coalesce into something coherent.  The classical score by John Williams proved a last minute master stroke.
Lucas on the set of Star Wars

Almost simultaneously Coppola’s crew arrived in The Philippines to began Apocalypse Now in what became the most written about “troubled” production in movie history.  

Coppola made many revisions to the Milius script, drawing deeper inspiration from the novel Heart of Darkness, although many scenes from the Milius script survived.  The most substantial change involved Colonel Kurtz, who appears early in the script wearing a beret hat and a loin cloth surrounded by groupie natives as “Sunshine of Your Love” plays on the soundtrack.  The comic book Nietzsche of Milius gave way to Coppola's literary sensibility.
The shoot of Apocalypse Now dragged on for 16 months.

After an expensive and by all reports insane shoot, an agonizing post-production followed. One day towards the end of filming, Coppola collapsed into tears on the set and went into a seizure.  Believing he was dying, he allegedly said, “If I die, George will finish this.”  

But Lucas had already was devoting everything to his Star Wars trilogy.

When Apocalypse Now was finally released to the world it secured Coppola’s reputation as major international filmmaker, but he spent most of the 80s and 90s working as a director for hire after a series of flops.

Within and Without the Empire

Apocalypse Now tells the story from the perspective of those within the empire, while Star Wars highlights characters on the fringes of empire.  

Coppola emphasized the chaos, illogical, and mindless ego of the American war effort in Vietnam.  In the initial scene that sets up the story, Captain Willard’s superiors explain that a renegade Colonel must be killed with “extreme prejudice” for reasons they never really explain.  Basically, one of their went rogue.  The guardians of the empire want Colonel Kurtz eliminated, a Frankenstein of their own creation.

Being a loyal soldier, Willard wants his mission to succeed, yet the irony of assassinating a fellow officer is never lost on him.  As they journey up the river Willard becomes increasingly intrigued with Kurtz.  Here we get a slight divergence from the Milius and Coppola scripts: Milius imagined Kurtz as a desk bound officer who discovers the "superman" within himself. Coppola wrote Kurtz as a superior officer who develops a God complex.

Early in the film Willard’s crew require helicopters to transport them, forcing them to confront Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall).  Kilgore is the ideal American warrior movies never stop glamorizing.  His air cavalry unit live by the ethos of the Old West, a set of values fabricated by Hollywood movies. An unhinged John Wayne.

Kilgore decides to bomb a village of peasants so his men can surf the waves.  After the successful raid Kilgore’s men build campfires, reflect on the triumphs of the day, drink beer, grill steaks, and of course surf. The Wagner music conjures visions of Nazi Germany, a fetishization of militaristic values, inviting the audience to participate in the orgasmic pleasure of war - and its madness.
Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore

Each sequence gets more surreal. During the Do Lung Bridge scene Coppola takes us to the very edges of the Vietnam War, where all the lines start to blur, as if the LSD the soldiers imbibe is working its magic on the audience.  The Americans rebuild the bridge only to have the Vietcong blow it up the next day. Here we get a trope on the absurdity of war: mindless fighting with no purpose, a staple of First World War war literature.  Kubrick’s Paths of Glory also comes to mind.
The Do Lung Bridge/Psychedelic War

Later Willard’s crew come upon a USO show featuring Playboy playmates.  Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine sold a cool masculinity that helped launch the sexual revolution.  During the mid-20th century Playboy introduced many American boys to sex, their first glimpse of a naked woman.  So something primal comes out during the scene, the ridiculousness of transporting American pop culture into a dangerous war zone, violent, sexy, terrifying.  As the show descends into chaos, the sexual excitement descends into something else entirely.
USO Show

Towards the end Willard comes upon a decaying French plantation, an example of the “colossal wreck” of empire, a foreshadowing of where America is going.  The remaining French are addicted to opium and engage in long winded debates on world politics.  Coppola included the scene in Apocalypse Now Redux and it sounds like something he wrote.  The scene holds more relevance in a post-9/11 America where subsequent administrations, regardless of their politics, remain committed to maintaining the American Empire. The use of drones, torture, and perpetual war in distant locales are passively taken as a given by the majority of Americans.
The Wreck of Empire

When they finally meet Kurtz, an imposing, but borderline comical Marlon Brando, we see the conflicted nature of humanity personified.  Kurtz has transcended notions of nationality and politics, just seeking power for it’s own sake.  Like most audiences, I find the final scenes of Apocalypse Now compelling, but anti-climactic.  We know Coppola agonized over the ending.  I'll defend it by asking, Does anyone remember the ending of On the Road?  It’s all about the journey.
Kurtz and Willard.

Star Wars: Toppling The Empire

Empires rise and fall. An ineluctable fact of history.  Star Wars thrusts the audience into a chapter of a very long history, not unlike Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune or Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking Foundation series of novels.  Lucas wanted to attempt something similar with Star Wars.

While the tone of Star Wars is a far cry from Apocalypse Now, they do share similarities in their political outlook.  Power, without the perspective of wisdom and compassion, will corrupt everyone.  Protagonist Luke Skywalker matures from naive farmer to messianic leader of a rebellion to restore old values, not necessarily to create new ones.  Darth Vader personifies the corrupt and evil empire.

When the story begins, Luke is a restless farmer on the remote planet of Tatooine.  After two droids land that are being pursued by the Empire, Luke finds himself involved in the wider world of galactic politics.  After storm troopers murder Luke’s aunt and uncle, a scene filmed in direct homage to John Ford’s The Searchers, he decides to join Obi-Wan Kenobi on a “damn, foolish idealistic crusade” against the empire.

The politics of the Star Wars universe, as they are presented in the original trilogy, are for the most part vague.  Empire bad.  Rebel Alliance good.  Scenes on the Death Star conference room resemble Axis powers planning their next campaign.  The Death Star itself has a cold, mechanical atmosphere, very similar to the world of THX-1138.  There’s no heart at the center of the Empire, a technological monstrosity using its power to control the galaxy.  But the rebels we meet are saintly. Simplistic, but powerful in their iconography.

Death Star Conference Room

So we get a Sci-Fi liberation epic, a triumph of of the will over technology. Revolutionaries continue to inspire, whether it be Che Guevera, Thomas Jefferson, or Joan of Arc.  Although its buried in special effects and b-movie dialogue, Star Wars remains deeply rooted in the political ethos of the New Hollywood: anti-materialistic, suspicious of authority, and idealistic.

Darth Vader, the Kurtz like character in Star Wars, symbolizes the ethos of Empire, strong on the surface but pathetically weak on the inside.  He depends on life support, but can also kill at a moment's notice.

The most direct allusion (and it's an awkward one) to the Vietnam War in Star Wars appears in Return of the Jedi in the unlikely form of the Ewoks.  A primitive society defeats a technological superpower, just as North Vietnam, “a raggedy ass fourth rate country” in the words of LBJ, were able to defeat technology with primitive weapons.  

Luke, a full fledged Jedi Knight by the end, vanquishes and redeems his father and stands poised to fulfill his destiny.
The circle is complete.

Underwhelming Second Acts

Lucas and Coppola began their careers as cinematic mavericks. At times their life struggle intertwined with their art.  As Francis’s wife Eleanor pointed out, he became Kurtz during the making of Apocalypse Now: caught up his own madness and ego. A series of misfires like One From the Heart forced him to work as a director for hire throughout the 80s and 90s.

Meanwhile Lucas became a CEO of Lucasfilm and stopped directing altogether.  They changed the movie industry, but not in the way he intended.  All the merchandising, massive box office receipts, and momentum to create sequel after sequel set off a tidal wave that continues to dominate thinking into the current age of comic book extravaganzas. Lucas got caught in the maelstrom of his own creation. Those experimental films never materialized.
Cultural Phenomenon=Cash Bonanza

Alternative Paths

Imagine an alternate scenario.  At some point in mid 1975 Coppola and Lucas decided to switch projects.  With Lucas unhappy with his script, Coppola offers him the chance to direct Apocalypse Now.  In return Coppola asks to direct Star Wars.   At first reluctant, George agrees and hands over his story to Francis.  How would things have gone differently?
So Lucas went off and made Apocalypse Now, finishing the film after a fast 40 day shoot.  The style and feel of the film combined elements of THX-1138 and American Graffiti, a war movie alienating and humanistic at the same time.  The tone combined Dr. Strangelove with Catch-22.  Lucas included a controversial subplot following a band of Vietcong who are fighting the Americans.  Critics hailed the film.  Although Lucas’s Apocalypse Now flopped at the box office, it proved influential and ahead of its time.
Meanwhile Coppola took over pre-production of Star Wars, excited to create something fresh and innovative after the droll Godfather movies.  In a last minute script change, inspired by an earlier draft Lucas wrote, Coppola decided to make Princess Leia the protagonist of the story.  And he expanded the role of Darth Vader into a more complex and troubled villain, with shades of Michael Corleone and hints of a mind blowing back story.  
Ralph McQuarrie's original concept art for Star Wars.

Coppola crafted parallel stories of an empire falling apart and a rebellion taking shape under a charismatic heroine. Shakespearean subplots abound throughout the film. Unlike Lucas, who wanted to focus on universal themes of storytelling for a new generation, Coppola made a space opera/character study.
Coppola’s Star Wars proved a moderate success.  It ran over three hours and went much darker than Lucas ever intended. Feeling revitalized, he also crafted the sequels, with each installment getting darker and more philosophical, including experimental narrative constructions with leaps back and forth in time.

After completing his trilogy, Coppola pledged to stop making big budget films and go back to guerrilla film making.  

To finalize his promise, he sold over the rights to George Lucas, who pledged to someday reveal the backstory of Darth Vader.

The End

Just a thought experiment.

Coppola continues to view cinema as an evolving medium with unlimited possibilities.  While Lucas envisions technology as pointing the way towards the future.  

As artists they make for an excellent study in contrasts.  Lucas continues to be more influential than Coppola, as special effects and non-stop action continues to be a staple of Hollywood blockbusters, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Star Wars remains a highly profitable brand.

For the past decade Coppola has returned to making his own films with mixed results.  His long talked about Sc-Fi project Megalopolis will probably not get made. 

Today’s climate frowns upon exuberant filmmakers. Quite possibly history will repeat itself in some form and the current system will crash and auteur will rise once again.  Irregardless, the careers of Coppola and Lucas will long be remembered for their struggle to overcome a system and the visions they did give to the world.
Circa late 60s