Film scholar Audie Bock recalls Akira Kurosawa’s 1978 trip to California:
Coppola received us at his country place informally, clad in a rumpled pyjama-like white Indian outfit. He had just seen The Bad Sleep Well, and bubbled away about it to Kurosawa: “That wedding scene is absolutely perfect. I wish I could make something that good. It’s better than Shakespeare!” Kurosawa informed him that the Japanese critics had raked him over the coals for it, but Coppola insisted that they couldn’t have known what they were talking about. (Leftist critics took Kurosawa to task for not naming names in the film.) We spent the remainder of the day swimming, tasting the new wine from the Coppola vineyards, and consuming the feast the director himself cooked for us. Asked about the origin of the unfamiliar delicacies covering the table, Coppola dismissed them as “just simple Italian country cooking, with a few Filipino dishes thrown in.” It was nearly midnight when we left for San Francisco. We cancelled our hotel reservations since Coppola insisted that we stay at his city house.
The next day brought the curious event for which my interpreting services had originally been requested. One of Kurosawa’s associates works for an advertising agency in Japan and had somehow prevailed upon the director to appear, with Coppola, in a television commercial for a Japanese whisky. When everything was ready Coppola led us downstairs to his luxurious basement screening room to see a locked ten minutes of Apocalypse Now. While Kurosawa and Coppola watched and talked, floodlights beamed on us and the cameras started to roll. Kurosawa gently requested a rerun without all the obstruction, emphatically impressed with what he saw. “War films rarely look realistic to me, but this is the first truly frightening battle footage I’ve ever seen.”
Back upstairs in the living room Coppola and Kurosawa continued their discussion of the mammoth film of the Vietnam War as they were being blocked for the whisky-drinking scene. Someone warned Coppola not to be startled—the glasses contained no whisky, only tea. He objected, demanding truth in advertising: “If I’m going to plug this stuff, we’re going to drink it.” Kurosawa laughingly agreed to indulge, even though he’s officially quit drinking. The commercial, which concentrates on the two directors chatting while watching the film and then drinking (with a voice-over promo for the whisky), shows a few cutaways to the Apocalypse footage. (It will be shown only in Japan.)
Kurosawa next toured the American Zoetrope facilities with Coppola as guide. When we looked in on the dubbing of the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kurosawa expressed real envy: the computerized sound system at American Zoetrope is more advanced than anything in Hollywood, and Kurosawa often complains that filmmaking and projecting facilities in Japan are little better than they were 20 or 30 years ago. He also marveled at the video editing setup Coppola has in his private office. “With the press of a button I can do a wipe or a dissolve,” boasted Coppola. “It’s all on tape, so I don’t mess up the actual work print.” Kurosawa wanted to see the rest of Apocalypse Now, but Coppola explained that the sound was being mixed and the film consequently in pieces. “It’s been a very trying job to get 52 hours of perfectly good footage down to about three and a half to show in the movie theaters,” he confessed. Coppola’s stories of typhoon destruction and growing insanity during the shooting in the Philippines all sounded “familiar” to Kurosawa, who had nearly been killed with all his crew on several occasions in Japan as a result (usually) of natural catastrophes. Legend has it that a Japanese inn keeps a horribly damaged room carefully preserved; the owner likes to show it to favored guests, proudly proclaiming “Akira Kurosawa slept here.”
Coppola also talked at great length about his future projects; Kurosawa listened and gave occasional advise. When Coppola announced that he had been captivated by Japan on a visit there and would like to return for a year or so, I was surprised to hear Kurosawa offer to see to his needs. No young Japanese director has attained protégé status with Kurosawa, but he really does seem to respond to Coppola as to a son. (Kurosawa’s own son works in television in Japan, a medium his father despises.)
[ Part Two | Take One, vol. 7, no. 4 | March 1979 ]