Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
Many films have an emotional impact on the audience, which is to be expected and is understood by all. What may not be as obvious is the amount of stress, emotional turmoil and financial hardship that can be involved in the making of a film. As the audience we normally only see the end product not the work involved. Much like meeting a new baby in the family for the first time, we may know there were labor pains but for the most part we don’t see them. Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" is one of the most emotional and perhaps bizarre films ever made. It has won almost universal critical acclaim and been a fan favorite since it was released in 1979. There has also been a lot of discussion and rumors about this film being a traumatic experience for the cast and crew; far beyond what is normal for a large scale film. The rumors around the production of Apocalypse Now are almost urban legend at this point. Fortunately, film makers Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper have created the ultimate behind the ultimate behind the scenes documentary. Director Francis Ford Coppola provided them with unpredicted access to the creating of his film. What came about was an unvarnished look at how the making of a film can almost destroy those involved. Forget about any other behind the scenes featurette you have ever seen. This is a full scale documentary that has a similar impact for the audience that the original film did.
The opening shot of the documentary is Coppola talking at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. He explains that his movie is "not about Viet Nam, it is Viet Nam, it’s what it was really like, it’s crazy." He goes on to explain that the cast and crew were very much like the Americans over there during the war. There was too many of them in the jungle with too much equipment and too little money. The result little by little they all went insane. The film was shot in the Philippines in 1976, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Heart of Darkness’. Most of the on set footage from the actual filming was done by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor. She had hoped to make a documentary of the experience herself but would abandon the project. She would later turn it over to Bahr and Hickenlooper for this documentary. Francis Ford Coppola was on a professional high after his hugely successful film, ‘The Godfather’. He had wanted to make a film about Viet Nam for years and this looked like the right time to get the project approved. He started with a budget of $13 million and a shooting schedule of 13 weeks. By the time the film was finished it was 36 weeks later and cost over $30 million. Every aspect of the filming seemed plagued even cursed. Even things like nature and governments appeared to conspire against the making of this film. If something could go wrong it inevitably did.
While many films have problems casting the leads this one was unprecedented in how bad it was to get the role of Willard filled. After several actors turned down the part Harvey Keitel was finally cast. Due to differences with Coppola he was fired only two weeks into the filming. He was replaced by Martin Sheen who had a serious heart attack shortly after taking on the part. Coppola, afraid that this would adversely affect the backing of the film had to hide the actor’s real condition and state that the hospital stay was for heat exhaustion. In the opening scene where Willard is drunk in a hotel room Sheen was really inebriated and the part where he cut his hand punching the mirror was real. Sheen then went off on a drunken argument with Coppola. Sheen was not the only actor who gave problems to the belabored director. Marlon Brando arrived on the set completely unprepared for the part. He had not read the novel and was grossly overweight. There were many fights between the actor and director over every tiny detail of the simplest lines. Finally Coppola was unable to deal with Brando any further and turned over the direction of his part to Jerry Ziesmer, the assistant director who had to frame each shot with Brando carefully to hid his true size.
Every film shot on location has difficulties but this one was overboard with what went on. In the Philippines there was a monsoon that shut down filming and destroyed most of the sets. There was also an insurrection in the country that prevented necessary supplies from coming in. Coppola went a bit power mad with the cheap labor having them build full size, elaborate sets. All the pyrotechnics had to be planed to the fraction of a second, not easy with a crew sick and tired of the working conditions. Coppola was extremely unhappy with the script. He produced daily re-writes, frequently while the scene was in the process of being shot. This resulted in a lot of improvisation just to keep the filming moving along. Many times the shooting schedule would have the words ‘scenes unknown’ indicating that no one knew for sure what was going to be shot. Even after the film finally wrapped it had an affect on Coppola. He dropped over one hundred pounds and his work after this film was never up to the success of the four films be made in the early seventies. He was depressed and now had a reputation for going over budget, not something that goes over well with the studios.
This documentary also includes interviews with the Coppolas as well as many of the cast and crew who endured these horrible conditions. They all seem to agree that they knew that this could be something special if only they could live through making it. It would take over a full year for Bahr and Hickenlooper to edit the original footage, unseen scenes and interviews into this work. The film would finally premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival to rave reviews and praise.
This is an incredible documentary about one of the most controversial films made. It truly captures the almost addictive sense that pervaded the filming. People were taken beyond any sense of reality and many found it difficult to hold on to their sanity. Through this documentary there is always respect for the people involved. These were unusual circumstances that the fact that such a great film came out of it is a testament to the cast and crew.
Paramount brings this film to DVD with the attention to detail it deserves. The film would stand alone in his power and drive but Paramount decided to give the audience more. There is a commentary track featuring Francis and Eleanor Coppola where they look back at the experience honestly sharing with the audience the intimate details of the filming. There is also a previously unseen new documentary, ‘CODA: Thirty Years Later’. This work is introduced by Eleanor Coppola and focuses on the aftermath of the film seen from a more recent perspective. This is a must have companion piece for the film. After seeing it you will never see Apocalypse Now in the same light again.