My Life Is Not a Pat of Butter
The week I got my job as the film critic for the Tampa Tribune, in 1979, I got a call from a guy named Bob Oda (who would later become a friend) from United Artists. “Nice to meet you on the phone,” he said. “Would you like to come to New York to see ‘Apocalypse Now’ and interview Coppola and some of the cast?”
I would, indeed.
“Apocalypse Now” was the cause celebre of its day. It had cost some $60 million to make (in those days an astronomical sum. Today one could hardly make “Dumb and Dumber III” for less. Coppola’s film had been fraught with problems: Harvey Keitel, first cast as Capt. Willard, had freaked-out in the jungle and was replaced by Martin Sheen, who had a heart attack while running through the bush between shooting days, etc. Coppola’s wife made a good documentary on the subject, called “Hearts of Darkness,” but that was later.
Anyway, I arrived in New York and checked into my room in the Warwick Hotel, where the interviews with the director and cast members would be. That evening’s screening, across the street, at a Lowe’s Theater that is no doubt now long gone, the film was projected in 70mm, with surround sound. A real killer.
That night at dinner, I tried to keep my distance from a lot of the other critics, they were so petty in conversation about movies in general.
The next day, there was a the mass interview before dozens of film critics from around the world, with Coppola and many of the leading cast members seated on stage at microphones. More than a few critics took pot shots at the movie. I considered it (and still do) to be one of Coppola’s best works. When I told him so, before asking my question, he said, “Thank you.” I wasn’t kissing his considerable backside; I meant it.
Then some putz from the floor asked about the fact that there had been reports that Coppola and his wife had suffered marital troubles during the filming in the jungle. This journalist began asking prying, personal questions. “Look,” said Coppola, “I’m not going to answer those kinds of questions. I’m not going to have my life spread out like a pat of butter on a roll for your morbid curiosity.” Coppola got a small round of applause from some of the writers for that.
Then another idiot asked Coppola if he didn’t feel bad about flying all those helicopters around, burning all that fossil fuel just to make a movie. (This is what passes for a “controversial” question in American film criticism, by the way.) The director of “The Godfather” came back with another classic rejoinder. “I shot the film in the Philippines,” Coppola said. “And as long as I was flying those choppers for my make-believe movie, the real Army couldn’t be using them to kill people with. And I feel pretty good about that.” This brought a bigger round of applause from the assembled journalists.
I was already starting to think that this movie critic job was going to be pretty interesting. Then, I got the chance to have a one-on-one interview with Dennis Hopper, who had played the acid-burnout U.S. vet in “Apocalypse Now.” The interview I did with Hopper, and my subsequent success in getting him to go outside the hotel for a photo shoot (one fast picture before he had a near emotional meltdown), made the Coppola interview seem tame.