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Remedial work on Apocalypse Now with Harrison Ford


Marlon Brando – the film editor's nightmare
Walter Murch Film-maker
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When we were shooting Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando who played Colonel Kurtz in the film, read an early version of the screenplay and in conference with Francis, said, 'Okay, I will do this film, but I don't like the name Kurtz. American Generals don't have that kind of a name. They have flowery names, because they all come from the South', Brando said. And Francis thought, 'Okay, well Marlon, what name do you want?' And he thought, in a Marlon Brando way and said, 'Colonel Leighley'. So Francis wrote down Leighley, and in the next version of the script, Kurtz was gone and Leighley was in. And the entire film, up to a certain point, 80% was shot with this person being called Colonel Leighley. When it came time for Marlon to shoot the scenes, his scenes, I think he had a 2-week window of shooting, he and Francis got into another tussle about the screenplay and what it was going to say, and production shut down for days while Francis and Marlon discussed this. And Francis kept saying, 'Just, what you're asking me', whatever it was, 'it's in Heart of Darkness. Just read it. Conrad does a much better job than I could ever do. Just read it'. And Brando would say, 'I've read it, I don't like it, I hate that book'. And Francis would be like, 'What? Now what?'

Anyway, at some point in this process, Brando emerged from his house boat where he was staying on one of those Philippine rivers, and he had shaved his head which it wasn't shaved before, and everyone was astonished. And then he astonished them even more by saying, 'And now I want to be Colonel Kurtz'. 'Why?' Francis asked. 'Well, Heart of Darkness, I picked it up and I read it'. 'But you said you hadn't read it!' 'I lied', said Brando. 'I read it, and it's a great book. And forget Colonel Leighley, I want to be Colonel Kurtz, just like the book'. So costumes were changed, Leighley became Kurtz, things were shot, the whole ending of the film was shot with him as Colonel Kurtz.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness, Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola, Colonel Kurtz

Duration: 2 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017