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LAist Interview: George Hickenlooper

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Though hardly a mainsteam name, George Hickenlooper has managed to carve out a long filmmaking career full of varied and fascinating work. From documentaries (Mayor of the Sunset Strip, Monte Hellman: American Auteur) to narrative features (The Man from Elysian Fields, Factory Girl), Hickenlooper has always delivered unexpected and satisfying stories. Two of his best documentaries are also two of his first: Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City, Texas and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalpse.

The films almost work as companion pieces. In Picture This, Hickenlooper explores the life of Bogdanovich during the filming of The Last Picture Show, while in Hearts of Darkness we visit Coppola as he was making Apocalypse Now. In both films, we see a director struggling to make his movie in the face of profound spiritual and personal crisis. I had a chance to speak with Hickenlooper about the recent DVD release of Hearts of Darkness and the controversial decision by the Coppolas to present Eleanor Coppola as the film's author.

Hi, George. How are you doing today?

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Good, good. Busy doing all the strike stuff.

I can imagine. So Hearts of Darkness was the first big break you had. Can you talk about the lead-up to that? How it all came together.

I had directed a documentary called Picture This about Peter Bogdanovich and the making of the Last Picture Show. I was actually in post-production on that. That film is about Peter Bogdanovich and how he had a personal, visceral breakdown when making The Last Picture Show. His marriage had fallen apart. So it was really a story about a director struggling to make a movie with all kinds of personal issues going on. So thematically it was sort of the primer for Hearts of Darkness.

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The producer George Zaloom had seen Picture This and thought I would be good for Hearts of Darkness which at that point was a one-hour TV special that Showtime had in mind called Apocalypse Now Revisited. I don't think they had really high expectations for it other than it would be a kind of fascinating look at the making of Apocalypse Now thirteen years later. And then when George brought me on, I started culling through all this footage and discovered these audio tapes that were buried in a box and they were of Francis having these very intimate conversations with Eleanor. On top of that I had read--I don't think anyone was aware of Eleanor's book Notes which was out of print at that point. But I had received it as a sixteenth birthday present from my father so after I was hired I went back to George and Showtime. Steve Hewitt was running Showtime at that time--he was the son of Don Hewitt who started 60 Minutes. So I said, "Hey guys, we've got some really incredible conversations on these tapes. We really need to double our budget and make this a feature." So we cut it together with Michael Greer and Jay Miracle, all of us in the cutting room for about a year. We used all the footage Eleanor had shot. When we had a cut that was pretty close to finished we screened it for Eleanor and she signed off on it.

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How much footage were you sifting through?

It was over a hundred hours. About 60-80 hours of 16mm raw footage that she had shot and then we shot about 20-25 hours of interviews--a lot of which didn't end up in the film like Dennis (Hopper) and Bill Graham. We had a lot of interviews that didn't make the final cut. And we had God knows how many hours of audio that Eleanor had recorded.

Why was Eleanor recording her conversations with Francis?

I think she was documenting the making of a film. I think he was having a hard time and she was acting as a kind of confessor. He was struggling with the movie, was psychologically wound up about it and she was there to record it.

What were their intentions for it prior to your involvement?

I don't know what her intentions were. I asked her once but I don't remember what she said. My gut is that she said something like she was just documenting everything and didn't know what her intentions were. They may have been intended more for her book, I think.

It's funny, but it's hard for me to think of Apocalypse Now without looking at through the filter of your documentary.

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That's cool.

And now the DVD's coming out and there's some controversy.

Yeah. I was just disappointed that after I'd spent years talking to Francis about putting it out on DVD--New Criterion wanted to do it--he promised me he'd get in touch with me. He suggested that he wanted some editorial changes which I was willing to make even at my own expense. And he said he'd get back in touch with me and the next thing I know it's coming out and he didn't even call me or bother to ask me or (co-director) Fax Bahr to participate in the commentary. So that was very disappointing and slightly hypocritical. He (Coppola) portrays himself as this icon of artistic integrity who supports filmmakers and visions and he's condemning everyone for selling out. And yet he's completely ignoring the fact that we're the directors and writers of this documentary. We won the Emmys for it. I don't want to discount Eleanor's involvement. Her involvement is that she was the cinematographer. It's her story. There's no question it's from her point of view. But it's from her point of view because that was the choice that we as filmmakers made to tell the story. I mean, initially it wasn't going to be her point of view. In fact, I had a big battle initially with Showtime about making it her point of view. It wasn't like I went to Showtime and they said this is a great idea. It was a real battle.

It seems like they're almost treating you guys now like you were for hire.

Yeah, it's horseshit.

Have you spoken with Francis or anyone on that side since the news dropped about Hearts of Darkness?

He tried to call me, but I haven't had the time to call him back. But I plan to. I think he found out I was pissed off and, frankly, I don't know why he did it. I haven't seen a screening of it yet, but I'm curious to see if he made any editorial changes. I'll let you know.

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Are you going to be seeing it shortly?

I asked for a screener, but they still haven't sent it to me.

(I received an e-mail from George a few days later after he’d had a chance to see the DVD of his film, Hearts of Darkness).

I saw it and Francis didn't make any changes. I was also flattered by the kind words Francis and Ellie said about me in the commentary. Consequently, I felt a little guilty about being pissed off. Regardless, I wish I could have done my own commentary. It would have been very informative about what footage we used and didn't use. We had enough footage to make a mini-series out of it. Also, I don't love the transfer. It seems a little soft to me which indicates that they didn't retransfer the film but rather made copies from the original One Inch Analogue tape master (the technology back in 1991). Those tapes deteriorate and clearly that is evident in this DVD release.

(in a follow-up e-mail I asked him if he’d consider doing his own, guerilla-style commentary for the DVD. He said he would.)

Photos courtesy of American Zoetrope and The Weinstein Company