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Oscar winning cinematographer of Apocalypse Now, Vittorio Storaro, tells Andrew L. Urban how he danced for Marlon Brando – and how he danced for joy at the chance to restore and complete the film for its Redux release.

In the temporary stillness on the set of Apocalypse Now as Marlon Brando prepared to shoot one of the final scenes, he beckoned to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. "He asked me if I remembered that business I had done with my hands to create shadows when we were making Last Tango in Paris," recalls Storaro now. "I was so happy he’d remembered that, and of course I did. It was just something that I made up for the12 minute close up in one shot in Last Tango, because I felt there was an emptiness without Maria Schneider there."

"to create shadows for Marlon Brando’s focus"

So there was Storaro waving his hands, virtually dancing, to create shadows for Marlon Brando’s focus. It’s one of many incidents recalled by the restoration of Francis Ford Coppola’s truly epic film of Joseph Conrad’s book. "The book," says Storaro, "dealt with the notion of one civilisation encroaching on another, and I tried to represent that by using natural light in contrast to artificial light."

Light, he says, represents consciousness; "Brando’s character represents darkness, the subconscious…"

But for the triple Oscar winning cinematographer (Apocalypse Now was the first), the greatest joy in restoring and salvaging the film was in being able to reinvest it with the original power of its colours. "It had already faded and it was really sad, but there this great process at Technicolour where we could restore it. Colour is part of a film’s power."

Storaro used "everything available" to push the concept of cultures clashing. One of the major scenes that was cut from the original release takes place in the home of the French plantation owner with his family hosting dinner for the American soldiers on their way to locate Colonel Kurtz.

(Brief story recap: Covert operations specialist Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is summoned by military chiefs and sent into deepest Vietnam – and beyond – to find and execute the highly decorated but now deranged Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has set up a fiefdom in the Cambodia jungle, outside the control of the US military.)

"symbolic for the end of an era"

"I was trying to visualise the entire scene during sunset; symbolic for the end of an era. While they talk over dinner, the sun is going down. And then it’s dusk – a limbo."

The scene is an extended political discussion over dinner that extends the film’s political context considerably. It begins with Willard’s boat landing at this extraordinary outpost, something between a hippy commune and a killing field. "We had to shoot the approach twice. The first time was too realistic, too naturalistic. So we shot it again with mist – now it was like moving through the mists of time…"

Ironically, it wasn’t Storaro but Gordon Willis, with whom Coppola made The Godfather, who was to shoot Apocalypse Now – but turned it down. He had different things to do. Co-producer Fred Roos asked Storaro to take it on. But Storaro needed convincing. Coppola rang him. In an interview published in the International Cinematographer’s Guild, Storaro tells the story: "We spoke for half an hour. He was trying to explain that there was nothing wrong between him and Gordon. They were good friends but they agreed this movie wasn’t his picture. I told him that I still needed to speak with Gordon first. He asked me to meet him in Australia to scout some locations, and then we would fly to Los Angeles and have dinner with Gordon. He said, ‘You speak to Gordon and after that you give me your answer.’ I went to Sydney and spent some time with the production designer Dean Tavoularis, Francis Coppola and Grey Frederickson. Afterwards, we flew to Los Angeles where Gordon was shooting All The President's Men. I cooked some pasta for all of us. We had a wonderful dinner. Gordon said, ‘Francis and I love each other but this is not my movie. That’s how I happened to shoot Apocalypse Now."

"...there is still more to come"

Storaro was "very happy" to be able to restore parts of the film that had been omitted. "When you make a film, it’s a part of your life, so I felt there were bits missing…it never felt totally complete. And there is still more to come; he hopes the DVD will contain the extraordinary 42 minutes single shot that makes up the final scene in which Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz utters those immortal words, "…the horror….the horror…."

Published: November 22, 2001

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Vittorio Storaro
Born 24/6/1940, Rome


Apocalypse Now (Oscar)

The Last Emperor (Oscar)

Reds (Oscar)

Last Tango in Paris

The Sheltering Sky
Little Buddha
One From the Heart

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