An Alternate Rise of the Blockbuster

My first proper timeline. I've written the first two updates and planned ahead for several more: here's the first one now. I hope it goes well...

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The main reason why George Lucas took the job of directing Apocalypse Now was as a distraction.

At the time, he had been working on his dream project, The Star Wars, for almost a year and a half. After the surprise success of his coming-of-age period film American Graffiti, Lucas had been paid a significant advance by Twentieth Century Fox to develop his concept of a modern space-fantasy epic into a real film. Alan Ladd Jr., the head of Twentieth Century Fox, hadn’t been entirely taken by the concept of The Star Wars itself but he had believed in Lucas, and Lucas didn’t want to disappoint.

But after a year of writing the first draft script (and then a revision a month later which changed all the names), the feedback he received was nearly unanimous: “There’s some great ideas in here, George, but it needs a lot of work.” It’s too long. There’s too many subplots and side characters. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and the lead characters are unsympathetic. The tone is too dark and grim – for a film that is meant to be heavily influenced by the old adventure serials of the 1940s, there’s not enough fun.

What followed was months of brainstorming and restructuring, as Lucas rebuilt the story from the ground up. The plot was heavily modified, to the point of becoming an entirely different story. Characters were altered, combined and renamed. An entirely new spiritual component was added to the film. But when the time came for Lucas to actually begin writing his second draft… he realised he was still nowhere. It was an improvement, but it still wasn’t good enough.

Actually sitting down at the typewriter and putting everything down in black and white was without a doubt the one part of the writing process that he hated – while he loved being able to dream up the broad ideas and the big picture, when it came down to the details it always seemed to fall flat and something of the magic of the original idea would be lost.

He felt utterly snowed under. He needed something to do – something else to occupy him so that he would be able to revisit The Star Wars with fresh eyes. Something that would itself be interesting and push him out of his comfort zone, so that he could carry that attitude with him to the typewriter.

Some months earlier, his friend Francis Ford Coppola had brought up John Milius’s unproduced script Apocalypse Now again, asking him if he’d be interested in directing. Apocalypse Now had been floating around for a few years now, and Lucas had in fact been ready and willing to direct after the release of THX-1138 several years before – he’d even gone so far as to scout for filming locations in California while his friend Gary Kurtz did the same in the Philippines – but he’d ultimately dropped out of the project to make American Graffiti. When Coppola had again asked him if he still wanted to direct, Lucas had declined in order to focus on The Star Wars. Coppola, who was in the middle of making The Godfather Part II and feeling a little on edge, hadn’t taken the rejection well and a frosty silence had since developed between the two.

It was consequently a bit of a surprise to Coppola when Lucas called him at home and sheepishly asked if the position of director for Apocalypse Now was still open. Of course, it was.

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Notes: almost everything in this update, except for Lucas's decision, is OTL. Well, I don't know if he really did feel so snowed under in September 1974 but it seems like he might have done. Anyway, there it is.
 
Update #2: The making of Apocalypse Now. (Updates will be vaguely linear, but not strictly so.)

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When George Lucas officially signed on to direct Apocalypse Now in late 1974, it would still be a couple of months before pre-production on the film could begin in earnest: Coppola was still heavily involved in the editing of The Godfather Part II, almost right down to the film’s release date. Lucas had time to refine his vision of the film, recalling many of his original ideas from a few years before. While he abandoned the idea of casting the film with real soldiers, he still liked the idea of shooting mostly hand-held and with 16mm-film cameras in order to give the film a look reminiscent of a documentary. Lucas realised that the low-quality film would paradoxically make the film feel like a recording of real events rather than a dramatisation, and would therefore give them more emotional impact.

Finally, after Godfather II’s release, pre-production began in early 1975. Lucas’s suggestion of filming in the Californian rice fields around Sacramento were rejected, as the production team thought they would not look suitably realistic. While Coppola and his two co-producers Fred Roos and Gray Frederickson (who had worked together on Godfather II and would do so again on Apocalypse) did take the opportunity to scout for locations in the jungles of far north Queensland while on a world tour promoting Godfather II, the decision was ultimately made to shoot the film on the island of Luzon in the Philippines (in part due to Roos’s existing contacts in that country).

However, the decision to film overseas would cause Steve McQueen, the filmmakers’ first choice for the part of Willard, to reject the role. With McQueen out, Coppola’s new first preference for the lead role was Martin Sheen, who had impressed him with his (unsuccessful) audition for the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Thankfully, Sheen was not yet committed to any other projects and signed on to the film.

Auditions began both in California and New York for various supporting roles – including for the role of “Mr Clean”, the 17-year-old black Gunnery’s Mate from the South Bronx. While many young actors were tested, many of whom had professional acting experience, the role ultimately went to a novice: an eighteen-year-old theatre student at USC by the name of Levardis Robert Martyn Burton Jr. – or, as he would become known professionally, LeVar Burton. Burton had greatly impressed Lucas and Coppola in his audition; all the more so for in real life being the polar opposite in personality to the brash and cocky Mr Clean.

Meanwhile, for the all-important role of the antagonist Colonel Kurtz, Coppola was unsuccessful in landing his first choice in Marlon Brando. Brando still had some resentment over a salary dispute from the original Godfather film, and did not trust Lucas as a director. When Brando demanded a payment of $4 million to play the part, Coppola at first appeared to consider the terms but Lucas firmly vetoed them as being far too expensive. The prospect of casting Brando was subsequently abandoned.

However, Lucas did make an important casting contribution in suggesting a replacement: a very well-known British actor who had most recently been seen as the latest James Bond villain. Christopher Lee was tremendously intrigued by the project and signed on to play Colonel Kurtz in short order, after showing that he could reliably affect an American accent.

Principal photography began in May 1975, with a planned three-month shooting schedule. The shoot subsequently became well-known for being a “troubled production”: the original script by John Milius was deemed unsatisfactory by Coppola and was continuously being rewritten, cast and crew alike were frequently falling ill, and the helicopters and other equipment hired from the military were recalled multiple times by the Marcos dictatorship for use against rebels. Additionally there were security problems, with money and equipment being stolen from the film sites. George Lucas’s direction also caused some conflict with the crew, due to Lucas’s independent-film background initially causing him to direct the crew too closely; this gave him the reputation of being a control freak.

Cast and crew alike began to act out due to the frustration, and lead actor Martin Sheen’s alcohol problems exacerbated to the point where he would turn up for work inebriated every day. This led to a shouting match on set between Sheen and Lucas that August, at which point filming was several weeks behind schedule and Lucas had been diagnosed with hypertension due to stress. Regretting that he had ever taken the job of director (though not officially resigning), Lucas flew back to the United States the following day.

Over the next month, filming was taken over by Coppola as an uncredited co-director while Lucas remained in the United States and immersed himself in writing and revising a new second draft of The Star Wars. One revision he made almost immediately was eliminating the description of Yavin as a “jungle planet”, instead making it into a bleak grey dusty moon reminiscent of the “fourth moon of Utapau” found in the first draft script. Although at the time Lucas repeatedly cursed himself for being so stupid as to take on a project like Apocalypse Now “as a distraction”, there’s no denying that it worked: after the stresses of directing the film, Lucas was glad to launch himself back into the project that had been so frustrating to him a year before.

Lucas finally returned to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Alice traversing the island of Luzon in late September. In the first piece of good luck Apocalypse Now had since filming began, the typhoon had passed by to the north of the filming location and none of the sets had been severely damaged by the storm. Having got his second wind, Lucas took over filming again and principal photography was completed five weeks later. The cast and crew would later cite those final five weeks as being the easiest in the entire shoot, with Lucas (having calmed down and had time to think about his own conduct) feeling conciliatory enough to be tactful with the still-volatile cast and crew – the exception being Martin Sheen, whose relationship with Lucas was thoroughly ruined and would not be repaired until the two reconciled after Sheen’s heart attack almost two years later.

The over-long shooting schedule meant that the film’s release date had to be pushed back from November 1976 to March 1977. The editing process was overseen by both Lucas and Coppola, but mainly controlled by the latter: Lucas for the most part deferred to Coppola’s judgment, perhaps remembering how he had once advised Coppola to eliminate the entire story of the young Vito Corleone from The Godfather Part II. Meanwhile, Lucas completed the second draft of The Star Wars, as well as a third draft which was very close to the final shooting script.

Upon its release, Apocalypse Now received generally favourable reviews and grossed approximately $65 million domestically, earning back over four times its final budget. While the direction was not especially lauded critically, the film was praised for its tone and documentary-like aesthetic, as well as for the performance of Christopher Lee as Kurtz. While some criticised the film for being “too soon”, others argued that it was a cathartic experience.

Although it was the first such film to be released, Apocalypse Now would ultimately be overshadowed in cinematic history by such Vietnam War-era films as The Deer Hunter (released in December 1978) and Platoon (released the following decade). But although it was not considered a masterpiece, Apocalypse Now was nevertheless a solid success upon release and typically remembered to be of similar calibre to the adaptation of David Morrell’s novel First Blood. And as American Graffiti had been a success only domestically, it also served to introduce George Lucas as a director to an international audience.

Additionally, Apocalypse Now was also the first collaboration between George Lucas and LeVar Burton something that would prove to be very important to the history of science fiction on film...

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Notes: This is where things really start to diverge.

An earlier shooting period means that they thankfully manage to avoid being hit by a typhoon. However, much of the problems that come from filming in the Philippines are unavoidable: there would be issues with illness, misbehaviour, security, and constant requisition of military hardware no matter when the filming took place. Still, because Lucas is less emotionally attached to the material than Coppola is, he's able to rein in some of Coppola's instinct to rewrite repeatedly and keep expanding the film -- hence why the period of principal photography is significantly shorter than OTL.

An earlier film shoot also means that Martin Sheen (who was top choice after Steve McQueen to play Willard, but was committed to other projects) can be cast right away, rather than Harvey Keitel being cast first before being fired. Additionally, it also necessitates someone new to play the role of Mr Clean: in OTL, the role was played by none other than Laurence Fishburne, who was only 14 at the time but lied about his age to get the part. In TTL, he'd be about 13 at the time and presumably wouldn't fool anyone. In OTL LeVar Burton wasn't a professional actor yet, but this was too good a suggestion not to take.

George Lucas's hypertension and how he reacts to the stress is right out of his OTL experience shooting Star Wars on location in Tunisia. The difference there is that the cast liked him, and he had some emotional attachment to the material and wanted to stick it out to the end -- here, he's dealing with a hostile cast & crew and a drunken lead actor in a film he's come to hate, so he has few qualms about fleeing for a while.

Martin Sheen's heart attack is delayed a few months, but not avoided. It was coming due to his alcohol problems, and the stressful shoot in OTL only hastened it.

The smaller, less "epic" scale of TTL's Apocalypse Now also results in it being slightly less successful than its OTL equivalent.
 
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Long story short: what does this alt-AN look like?

If Lucas were to ditch the Milius script and reject any Coppola rewrites, what does he have? I don't think FFC would want to have anything to do with a Vietnam War movie that had been totally neutured.

I'm thinking the best we could see would be something like a more polished version of Fuller's The Big Red One (ah, Cole, you must have seen Mark Hamill in his only decent non-Skywalker role.)

Apocalypse Now! as a lighthearted travesty, do not want.
 
If Lucas were to ditch the Milius script and reject any Coppola rewrites, what does he have? I don't think FFC would want to have anything to do with a Vietnam War movie that had been totally neutured.
I said "rein Coppola in", not "stop him entirely". Coppola does rewrite the script several times, but less than OTL. For instance, the whole sequence with the French family that cost a whole bunch and then ended up getting cut from the theatrical release but eventually got put in the Redux? Never written in TTL.

Frankly, I think you're overreacting to what I wrote.
 
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But FFC never had a single shooting script for the movie, not by any standard that Lucas would have accepted, IMO.

Okay, let's say Coppola not being director in the first place means he does what he did with his GF2 script--he turns in a genuine collaborative effort, and has it available in an (almost) complete form on day one of principle photography.

I raised the comparision of Samuel Fuller's Big Red One purely because it's the most creditable style of war movie I can imagine the director of American Graffiti coming close to replicating. Spielberg's serious WWII movies also come to mind. I'm not seeing Lucas making a truly nightmarish, surreal movie like Coppola's OT Vietnam War film.
 
But FFC never had a single shooting script for the movie, not by any standard that Lucas would have accepted, IMO.

Okay, let's say Coppola not being director in the first place means he does what he did with his GF2 script--he turns in a genuine collaborative effort, and has it available in an (almost) complete form on day one of principle photography.

I raised the comparision of Samuel Fuller's Big Red One purely because it's the most creditable style of war movie I can imagine the director of American Graffiti coming close to replicating. Spielberg's serious WWII movies also come to mind. I'm not seeing Lucas making a truly nightmarish, surreal movie like Coppola's OT Vietnam War film.
Before Lucas was all Ewoks and Jar-Jar, remember that he was a Californian film student who loved gritty and independent type things. If he sees the nightmare as a necessity (and knowing what I know about him being a typical Cold War kid at the time, I say it's likely) it will be in there, if only a little more self-important and epic feeling.
 
Before Lucas was all Ewoks and Jar-Jar, remember that he was a Californian film student who loved gritty and independent type things. If he sees the nightmare as a necessity (and knowing what I know about him being a typical Cold War kid at the time, I say it's likely) it will be in there, if only a little more self-important and epic feeling.
Yes, I have caught bits of THX 1138. But gritty doesn't really describe Coppola's Vietnam War movie; it's more like a bad acid trip.
 
So here we are, with the timeline beginning in earnest!

Actually sitting down at the typewriter and putting everything down in black and white was without a doubt the one part of the writing process that he hated – while he loved being able to dream up the broad ideas and the big picture, when it came down to the details it always seemed to fall flat and something of the magic of the original idea would be lost.
It's interesting that, even IOTL, back in the 1970s, Lucas seemed acutely aware of his flaws; but when the time came to make the prequel films, he ignored those very same flaws and decided to soldier on at any rate. Perhaps he's learned something from the Apocalypse Now experience ITTL - something that will resonate with him in the future.

ColeMercury said:
While he abandoned the idea of casting the film with real soldiers, he still liked the idea of shooting mostly hand-held and with 16mm-film cameras in order to give the film a look reminiscent of a documentary. Lucas realised that the low-quality film would paradoxically make the film feel like a recording of real events rather than a dramatisation, and would therefore give them more emotional impact.
I like this classic "New Hollywood" touch, though obviously from an OTL perspective it won't look nearly as good as our Apocalypse Now; the cinematography being one of the most heavily praised aspects of the film. That said, I do wonder what Lucas' view on the soundtrack would be. The synthesizers are about as strongly criticized as the filming style is praised IOTL, and Lucas (ironically enough) may well prefer to use the old-fashioned method over the new technology. (Even for the prequels IOTL, he stuck to an actual orchestral score, though presumably that would have been at Williams' insistence). I take it "The Ride of the Valkyries" sequence is butterflied away, alas.

ColeMercury said:
While many young actors were tested, many of whom had professional acting experience, the role ultimately went to a novice: an eighteen-year-old theatre student at USC by the name of Levardis Robert Martyn Burton Jr. – or, as he would become known professionally, LeVar Burton. Burton had greatly impressed Lucas and Coppola in his audition; all the more so for in real life being the polar opposite in personality to the brash and cocky Mr Clean.
And so, Burton gets his breakout role, though technically behind schedule from OTL (Roots aired in January, 1977 IOTL; obviously the role of Kunta Kinte is re-cast ITTL). But he does have a clear launchpad to a movie career, which should be interesting to see.

ColeMercury said:
Christopher Lee was tremendously intrigued by the project and signed on to play Colonel Kurtz in short order, after showing that he could reliably affect an American accent.
An excellent choice for the role. Lee deserves to have a bigger career at a younger age, not that I have anything but praise for OTL Lee's remarkable work ethic.

ColeMercury said:
Although it was the first such film to be released, Apocalypse Now would ultimately be overshadowed in cinematic history by such Vietnam War-era films as The Deer Hunter (released in December 1978) and Platoon (released the following decade).
Are we to assume that Apocalypse Now got a Best Picture nomination? It does still seem like Oscar material, and there has been a slot freed up for it. At the very least, it would make Annie Hall's win a good deal less contentious.

ColeMercury said:
Additionally, Apocalypse Now was also the first collaboration between George Lucas and LeVar Burton something that would prove to be very important to the history of science fiction on film...
This should be a lot of fun to see. I won't speculate as to which role Burton will take, because who knows how different *Star Wars is from the OTL finished product, but that's definitely a great hook to end the story on. Looking forward to more!

I'm thinking the best we could see would be something like a more polished version of Fuller's The Big Red One (ah, Cole, you must have seen Mark Hamill in his only decent non-Skywalker role.)
I'll assume that you mean only decent live-action role. You'd still be wrong, of course, but at least you wouldn't be woefully misguided ;)

As for decent live-action roles: He was quite good as Col. Christopher Blair in the Wing Commander games.

Another addition to the pop culture family. I love it.:D
Agreed. Consider me subscribed! I love getting in on the ground floor of a really promising timeline :)
 
Apocalypse Now was also the first collaboration between George Lucas and LeVar Burton something that would prove to be very important to the history of science fiction on film..
A black Luke Skywalker?

James Earl Jones as the real face of Darth/Anakin?


Would. be. awesome.
 
A black Luke Skywalker?

James Earl Jones as the real face of Darth/Anakin?


Would. be. awesome.
I think the studio would not allow it, not unless he'd already had a big film to his name and if Apocalypse Now is critically liked (not loved) but is overshadowed....

That said I really like the idea! :)
 
A black Luke Skywalker?

James Earl Jones as the real face of Darth/Anakin?


Would. be. awesome.
Well, we have one problem. If we change Luke, we have to change Leia to match. If we change Leia to match, the ending of Empire Strikes Back is a lot less of a Shocking Swerve and more of an Untwist. To say nothing of possible Unfortunate Implications.

Assuming the screwdriver of Burton as Skywalker, who will be cast as Leia?

Then there is the issue later of who gets to play Aninkin and/or Padme in the Prequels, since I know for certain that there will be prequels, and possibly sequels too. (Which may mean no Thrawn Trilogy, Dark/Crimson Empire, Jedi Academy Trilogy, Black Fleet Crisis, New Jedi Order/Yuzhan Vong, Legacy of the Force, or Star Wars: Legacy as we know them.)
 
Well, we have one problem. If we change Luke, we have to change Leia to match. If we change Leia to match, the ending of Empire Strikes Back is a lot less of a Shocking Swerve and more of an Untwist. To say nothing of possible Unfortunate Implications.

Assuming the screwdriver of Burton as Skywalker, who will be cast as Leia?

Then there is the issue later of who gets to play Aninkin and/or Padme in the Prequels, since I know for certain that there will be prequels, and possibly sequels too. (Which may mean no Thrawn Trilogy, Dark/Crimson Empire, Jedi Academy Trilogy, Black Fleet Crisis, New Jedi Order/Yuzhan Vong, Legacy of the Force, or Star Wars: Legacy as we know them.)
Bear in mind that, official story aside, it's probable that Lucas didn't really imagine Leia as Luke's sister until the last film (otherwise, we probably wouldn't have gotten the kiss in Episode V). Had that element been taken out, it probably wouldn't have changed the trilogy very much.
 
Wait... LeVar Burton is black?

Anyway, someone mentioned Ride of the Valkyrie above and, seeing as how Lucas was a Wagner fan (as, obviously, was John Williams) I'd say the Wagner is still in.
 
Bear in mind that, official story aside, it's probable that Lucas didn't really imagine Leia as Luke's sister until the last film (otherwise, we probably wouldn't have gotten the kiss in Episode V). Had that element been taken out, it probably wouldn't have changed the trilogy very much.
But it would change the EU like crazy.

(Sorry for the double post, I just saw this...)
 
Bear in mind that, official story aside, it's probable that Lucas didn't really imagine Leia as Luke's sister until the last film (otherwise, we probably wouldn't have gotten the kiss in Episode V). Had that element been taken out, it probably wouldn't have changed the trilogy very much.
But then, how did Leia know Luke was still alive and clinging to the bottom of Cloud City? And would Yoda's "No, there is another" have made a lick of sense to the plot? Those things were definitely not put in for the Special Editions.
 
Anyway, someone mentioned Ride of the Valkyrie above and, seeing as how Lucas was a Wagner fan (as, obviously, was John Williams) I'd say the Wagner is still in.
Fair enough. I guess it's something you can justify keeping or removing, depending on your mood. That particular sequence was arguably the most influential in the film, with regards to popular culture, so ColeMercury can take that into account when he makes that decision.

But then, how did Leia know Luke was still alive and clinging to the bottom of Cloud City? And would Yoda's "No, there is another" have made a lick of sense to the plot? Those things were definitely not put in for the Special Editions.
True, but we can always assume that Brackett or Kasdan added those scenes, and Lucas merely took credit for them after the fact.
 
But then, how did Leia know Luke was still alive and clinging to the bottom of Cloud City? And would Yoda's "No, there is another" have made a lick of sense to the plot? Those things were definitely not put in for the Special Editions.
I'd just like to point out that neither of those things depend on Leia being Luke's sister. She could have rudimentary Jedi powers and also not be his sister.
 
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