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Apocalypse Now: Martin Sheen's powerful acting exercise


Apocalypse Now: Martin Sheen's 'lookable-atable' eyes
Walter Murch Film-maker
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The other was an acting exercise that had been shot with Marty Sheen, early, early on in the process to help burn the character of Willard into Marty's psyche. Because the original person cast for Willard was Harvey Keitel and two or three weeks of material had been shot with Harvey. At the end of that two or three weeks, Francis [Ford Coppola] came to the conclusion that Harvey was not the correct person to play Captain Willard. The reasons for this go down to some of the imponderables about casting.

When I first heard, maybe six months earlier, that Harvey Keitel had been cast in the part, I thought great. Because Harvey Keitel is... can play an assassin or a nasty piece of work, and he can do it very well. What I didn't realise, and what Francis didn't really realise was that... even though he wrote the script, was that in fact, Willard doesn't really ever do anything in the film until the end. He's a passenger on a boat, and he sits there reading a dossier; he looks at things, but there's no action in it. And for an actor like Harvey Keitel, who wants this kind of action, or certainly did back in the late 1970s, this was frustrating for him as an actor. And the physiology of Harvey Keitel compared to Martin Sheen is very different. Which is that Harvey Keitel has very thin eyes, you know like tank slits, and Martin Sheen has these big searchlight eyes that are very visible. And if a character is going to be the lens through which you look at the story, one of the ways we human beings understand this is by looking in the character's eyes. And Martin Sheen's eyes are lookable-atable to coin a word, and Harvey Keitel's eyes aren't very lookable-atable. Anyway, the end result of all of this chemistry was, 'Harvey, I'm sorry, but we're going to find a new actor for it.' I don't know any of the other particulars about that because I wasn't around at the time and we never talked about it.

I did see some of that footage once. My assistant Steve Semel, at a certain point in the process of editing the film I said, 'Where is that Harvey Keitel footage?' And he said, 'You don't want to see it.' That made me want to see it even more, of course. And I said, 'Where is it?' 'No, no, don't look at it.' So finally he took me around the corner to a back alleyway of the editing suites where we were working, and there was a rack of boxes of this Harvey Keitel footage. I took one of the reels and threaded it up on my machine and within a few seconds I realised, I don't want to see this, not because it was bad, it was just so different. The DNA was such a different film and by that time I had already incorporated the film's DNA into myself, picking up the sensibilities of this film, and that was a different film. So I shut the machine down, rewound the film and I never looked at it again. It's somewhere; it does exist somewhere, but I haven't ever seen it since.

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, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel

Duration: 4 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017