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Hearts of Darkness: The Horror, The Horror of Filmmaking

Contrary to popular belief, making movies isn’t fun. It can be, but it’s all dependent on the type of production. More often than not, it’s an agonizing slog through sleepless nights spent in an unfamiliar location where your only comfort is the vices laid in front of you. Being a former set grunt, I have an idea of what it’s like to be in the sh*t. But never could I imagine the pain everyone must have endured throughout Apocalypse Now’s production, documented in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

The journey to the creation of Apocalypse Now is forged in hell. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel had been attempted before—most famously by Orson Welles—but failed. Any dramatization of the material is met with the challenge of its being impossible to adapt. Francis Ford Coppola set out to change that notion. With the assistance of screenwriter John Milius the duo would transform the novella into a contemporary piece set in Vietnam.

Unable to film in Vietnam for obvious reasons, production for Apocalypse Now was held in the Philippines due to its jungle’s similarity to ‘Nam’s. However things aren’t safe in the Philippines either. A civil conflict had broken out between government forces and Maoist rebels. During the scene where the helicopters are massacring village of civilians, and the “napalm in the morning sequence” the Philippine military were yanking helicopters from Coppola between takes so they could fight the rebels. Every day, Coppolas’ life was at risk on set. Against George Lucas’ wishes–he’d stated “Francis, if you go down there, they’re going to kill you”—Coppola put his health on the line for his art.

Production Hell

A Vietnam village is shown on fire

Coppola can’t say he didn’t know any better. He knew exactly what he signed up for when being nonempty with filming in the Philippines during an ongoing civil conflict. How much pain he had to further endure may have been beyond his comprehension. The original Captain Benjamin L. Willard was the wrong choice. Watching the dailies from Harvey Keitel’s first footage, Francis informed his wife Eleanor, that he’s recasting the role. Thankfully, Martin Sheen came onto the production like a champ—one of the few things that work in the production’s favor.

The relief of Sheen’s casting was short lived and the production of Apocalypse grueling. Not only was the eternal shoot wearing on its crew, but the press began to take notice. Continually Coppola was scrutinized by the latest publications, questioning his competency. Secondly, the budget was inflating itself to the point of blowing—a budget which Coppola put 20 million dollars of his money towards. If the project failed, he could lose everything. Thirdly, while most feature-film shoots only last 106 days, Apocalypse Now’s principal photography midway through production had already gone over 200.

By the end of production Apocalypse Now was in principal photography for 400 days. The typical shooting day on any set is twelve hours. How often the filming finishes on twelve is hit or miss. Commonly, it’s smart to plan on working for fifteen hours. Most of the time on set you’ll spend it standing around, waiting for all the necessary pieces to be put in place for the next setup. During long moments of waiting, you’ll do anything to fight the suffocating boredom.

Anything To Get Through The Day

A shirtless Capt. Willard cries in a hotel room, his face streaked with blood.
Martin Sheen has a drunken existential crisis on set

Drugs exist for a reason in Hollywood. Not just because of the afterparties, but the work demand. Apocalypse Now’s cast wasn’t exactly hiding the supply they were taking. From Sam Bottoms’ interview in the movie, there’s no illusion that every substance ran rampant from weed to psychedelic. All one has to do is put Dennis Hopper in front of the camera and start rolling. Still, no drug unleashes the demons in one quite the way booze does.

Sheen’s naked, alcohol-laced tantrum wasn’t acting. On his birthday, Sheen fought his ghosts to the demand of the director. The goal is to get Willard in his most vulnerable moment for an audience to see a broken man, barely able to push forward. Punching the mirror in front of him, Sheen split his thumb open. Instead of being taken care of by the medical team, Sheen requested he have it out with himself for the scene. The production may have been too costly on Sheen’s health who had a near-fatal heart attack, once more placing doubts on the production through tabloid gossip.

Such negative press continually places Francis on a spiral of privately recorded tangents with his wife. The negative publicity even begins to hinder Francis’ grasp on reality, not accepting the fact that his lead’s suffered a near death experiencing. However, one must stand in awe at the woes Marlon Brando places on a production.

The Eccentric Colonel Kurtz

Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is depicted in a shadowy close-up
Marlon Brando doesn’t know his lines, requests three million dollars, and shows up even more out of shape than expected.

Brando and Coppola’s relationship was toxic. In The Godfather, Marlon had actors strap his lines to their chest, or on parts of the set. Notice when Don Vito looks down at his desk. In The Godfather Part II, during a flashback sequence Vito Corleone is surprised by his family on his birthday. However, Brando didn’t show up to set. As a consequence for his absence, the scene had to be rewritten. For Apocalypse Now, Brando demanded three million dollars for four weeks’ worth of work. For the first four scheduled days in classic Brando fashion, he was a no-show.

Anyone who’s seen Apocalypse Now can make an educated guess that Brando was improvising a majority of his lines. He’d shown up to set even more out of shape than anticipated. The interpretation of Kurtz put everything on hold until Brando decided how he wanted to play the character along with Coppola. In its final moments, cross cutting between Willard’s murder of Kurtz to the unstimulated slaughter of a buffalo, Apocalypse Now captures the horror of a production riddled with a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants mentality surely to spell a picture’s doom.

Finishing a Film Is a Miracle

Against all odds and the press rooting for the picture to fail, Apocalypse Now debuted on August 19, 1979 to the tune of 150 million dollars worldwide, winning three Golden Globe, two Oscars, and the Cannes Film Festival’s Palm D’Or. Now resting as number thirty among AFI’s top 100, Apocalypse Now’s pain might have been worth enduring—at least for the primary artists involved.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Francis’ wife Eleanor. The behind-the-scenes footage was shot, narrated, and edited by Eleanor Coppola, with the assistance of Bahr and Hickenlooper. It may be dry in its style, rendering what could be more exhilarating as dull, but it’s a test of anyone’s dedication towards filmmaking and Francis’ own prediction of modern filmmaking. “One day some little fat girl from Ohio is gonna be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder and for once the so called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever and it will really will become an art form.”

Too true, Francis. Too true.

Written by Mike Crowley

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