The sun had set a couple of hours before, but the stones of the town square retained a lot of its heat, and thousands of sweaty people contributed their own. We all looked in the same direction, towards a row of 20-foot trees. A helicopter buzzed in front of them. Then another. And then… pzzzft, BOOM! The trees exploded into flame and smoke, searing our eyeballs and rattling our nerves.
This was not the scene of an atrocity, but the scene on the Friday night of this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, a film festival dedicated to recent restorations of old movies. We cinephiles had congregated in the city’s medieval Piazza Maggiore, in front of a supersized, outdoor screen, to watch a new cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnamathon Apocalypse Now. Its opening shot, that awesome fireball, is repeated from the other two versions of the film; the theatrical cut that was released in 1979, and the longer ‘Redux’ cut that Coppola made in 2001. The rest of the new cut is, in both length and content, somewhere between the two.
Coppola himself was there to introduce what’s being called Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut. He had, he explained, excised a lot of footage to make the original theatrical cut, after concerns that it would otherwise be too weird and sprawling for Joe Cinemagoer. He then added much of that footage back in – another 49 minutes – for Apocalypse Now Redux, before coming to regard that version as too sprawling, after all. And so, when the Tribeca Film Festival asked him about screening the film for its 40th anniversary, he thought: “Well, maybe, instead of showing the one that’s too short or the one that’s too long, I would make one that’s just right.”
BOOM! Another explosion. Coppola is no longer the tyrant who presided over the long, collective nervous breakdown that was the making of Apocalypse Now. His voice has since modulated towards the Kermit the Frog part of the register, and his clothes have that unfilled look that comes with skinny old age. Yet with those simple words on stage in Bologna – “I would make one that’s just right” – he revealed his undiminished authority. Cuts, and who gets to make them, are one of the surest signs of power in Hollywood. Coppola can do what he likes, when he likes.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the director of The Godfather (1972) and The Conversation (1974), as well as of Apocalypse Now, has a considerable amount of control over his movies. But other greats have not enjoyed the same pleasure.
A large part of Orson Welles’ career was a struggle against studio chiefs who descended on his movies with their scissors and their ideas. In 1957, when he travelled to Mexico to start on his (never completed) adaptation of Don Quixote, he left behind a rough cut of Touch of Evil (1958), with the intention of refining it later. Instead, Universal did the job in his absence. Over half-an-hour of celluloid was removed by their hands, and new scenes were shot by a different director. When he eventually saw this studio cut, Welles was incensed. He sent a 58-page memo full of corrections, which the studio basically ignored. Their version was the one that went into cinemas.
And yet, Welles eventually won the wrestling match – over a decade after his death. In 1998, Walter Murch (the original sound designer on Apocalypse Now, as it happens) worked with Universal to construct a version of Touch of Evil based on the director’s meticulous memo. That 111-minute cut is now readily accessible on DVD; you can probably even have it beamed to your phone. The times they are a-changed.
In a way, this change is partially explained by Coppola. In the 1970s, he and his fellow “movie brats” – film directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas – staged one of the greatest power grabs in Hollywood history. The old studios were, at the time, wilting in the face of new social trends and competition from television. The brats swept in and reinvigorated the whole system with their modern ideas and film-school nous, and there was no point arguing against the results: The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), Taxi Driver (1976) and Star Wars (1977). Suddenly, directors were venerated not victimised.
It’s no coincidence that the 1970s were also when the “director’s cut” first rose to prominence. The studios were suddenly happy to make concessions to the brats, just as Warner Bros. did when it returned Lucas’s first feature, THX 1138 (1971), to cinemas after the success of Star Wars, with several previously cut minutes added back in. In the decades that followed, Lucas would tinker again and again with his movies; and Spielberg would do similar, albeit to a lesser extent. They did it not just for their own art’s sake but because they could.
Another part of the change came in the 1980s and 1990s – home video. VHS, and then DVD, offered movies a second chance outside of cinemas; or perhaps, some executives thought, an entirely fresh chance.
And so, Blade Runner. There is barely enough space on the internet to describe all the versions and counter-versions of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi-noir. The short account is that the studio mutilated it for its US theatrical release, after a test audience turned against an early “workprint” cut in 1982. A flaccid voiceover narration was added. So too was an even more flaccid happy ending. But, as the years passed, and the cult of Blade Runner grew into a mass movement for Scott’s original version, the studio decided to release a director’s cut on to video in 1992. It was a new ecosystem for what amounted to a new movie. The thinking must have been: why not?
Scott has since become a sort of patron saint for director’s cuts in the comfort of your own home. Almost all of his films have different cuts on home video, and many have been improved in the process. The 45-minute-longer version of his Kingdom of Heaven (2005) feels like an actual movie rather than a fragment of one. The Counselor (2013) goes from being a sloppy mess to a sloppy masterpiece. And as of 2007 there has also been a Final Cut of Blade Runner, which is the best of the lot.
This is the great hope with director’s cuts: that they allow filmmakers to exhibit their preferred version of their own work, and that that version is superior to what we’ve seen before. But even when they fail in the second regard, the exercise is often still a valuable one. I have now seen Apocalypse Now in three different cuts, each with its own rhythm, and my favourite is still the theatrical cut, not least because it omits the laboured and expository “French Plantation” sequence that’s in both the Redux and the new Final Cut. I know more about my admiration for Apocalypse Now precisely because I’ve had to compare it to itself.
Yet there are problems with director’s cuts. One of the most under-acknowledged is in the name. A director’s cut implies that it is a director’s film, when actually many hundreds of people work on the average Hollywood movie. Does it matter if changes end up cutting down the composer’s soundtrack? Or if a restoration alters the cinematographer’s original colour palette? In some cases, these crew members might be involved in the putting the new cut together. In others, they might not even be alive to be asked.
Perhaps, then, it is for the best that the next power grab in movies is currently happening – away from studios, away even from filmmakers, and towards viewers. To some extent, we have always had the power to create our own cuts of movies. That’s what shutting your eyes during a particularly scary scene does; it creates your own personal “tame cut” of a film.
But that power is being reinforced and formalised more each day. Social media helps people to demand a particular version of a film or television series in a way that they couldn’t in the past, as demonstrated by the current campaign to have HBO #ReleaseTheArnoldCut of season two of Big Little Lies. Computer software allows people to easily tear up existing films and put them back together however they see fit. Want to mix the original version of Psycho (1960) with Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake? Steven Soderbergh did just that on his website, a few years ago.
And that’s before we consider the possibilities of virtual reality. Much like many video games, VR films offer 360 degrees and never commit their viewers to just one. Where last time you looked to the left; next time you can look to the right. You are a co-director of the experience.
We might even get the chance to play within Coppola’s world. Imagine being even closer to those trees, being able to look around, as they explode into flame and smoke. And as The Doors song ‘The End’ wafts on to the soundtrack – “This is the end, beautiful friend…” – you’ll be able to shout back, “Nah, there is no end.” No final cut.
The director’s cut
Francis Ford Coppola’s full remarks at Il Cinema Ritrovato
“When this film was first released, in 1979, the distributors saw it first and they were shocked. They said, ‘Well, it’s much too long and it’s much too weird.’ Come si dice ‘weird’ in italiano? [Strano.] We were desperate. We didn’t know what to do. Because when a film first comes out, its destiny is decided at that moment. So I met with all my team and I said we have to make it shorter and we have to make it less strano. We worked and worked, and we took out, I don’t know, maybe 20, 30 minutes, and we tried to make it more like a normal war film.
“So it came out, and many people thought that it was interesting and many people thought it was too long and too weird. The film had one surprising effect – the audience kept going to see it, month after month, they kept going. And, finally, it was clear that we had something of interest that people wanted to see.
“About two years later, I was in a little hotel in London and I noticed on the small television that they were going to show Apocalypse Now. And I always liked the beginning of Apocalypse Now, and so I thought I would see it. But I ended up seeing the entire film. And I was very surprised because the film to me didn’t seen weird – strano – at all. I seemed very normal. And that’s because, of course, when something is avant garde or a little unusual, in time that becomes very normal.
“And so I decided that the film wasn’t really so strange. And many people said, ‘Why don’t you put back what you cut out?’ Even the distributors said, ‘Put it back!’ So we decided to take everything we had cut out and, in fact, many, many other scenes, and put it back in. This version we called Apocalypse Now Redux – which is like reborn – and it was very long. About 54 minutes longer.
“So when the [Tribeca Film] festival in New York said, ‘We would like to show the film to commemorate 40 years,’ they asked me which version they should show. ‘Should we show the first version? Or should we show Apocalypse Redux?’ And I thought to myself, well, the first version not only was too short, but it had many extra things that we did to make it shorter. And the second version, Apocalypse Redux, was really very long.
“And so I thought, well, maybe instead of showing the one that’s too short or the one that’s too long, I would make one that’s just right; the perfect length; that serves the themes of the movie. And that’s what you’re going to see tonight.”
Photography by Getty Images and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna
• Peter will write an extended version of this article in 2029