Behind-the-scenes location footage of APOCALYPSE NOW which was shot by Coppola's wife Eleanor, and recordings she made of private conversations with her husband for her diary, are combined with 1990 interviews with cast members and production personnel as they discuss their work on the film. John
Milius talks about his original screenplay from the late 60s which Coppola was going to produce and George Lucas was to direct on location in 16mm., but the project was shelved when all of the major studios declined to finance it. After Coppola's enormous success with THE GODFATHER (1972), he
raised $13 million and used his personal assets as collateral to make the film himself, with Marlon Brando agreeing to star for $3 million (for three weeks work).
The production starts shooting in the Philippines in 1977, but after a week, Harvey Keitel is fired and replaced by Martin Sheen. Coppola makes a deal with the Marcos government for military assistance but has to endure the frequent diversion of helicopters in the middle of scenes so that they can
fight rebel troops. Sheen has an on-camera breakdown, then suffers a near fatal heart attack. A typhoon destroys numerous sets and shuts down production for two months. Sam Bottoms talks about how he and many of the other cast members were under the influence of drugs while shooting scenes. Dennis
Hopper has fights with Coppola over not learning his lines. Brando arrives on location overweight and unprepared, failing to have read Conrad's book, and Coppola indulges him with countless improvisations. The budget balloons to over $30 million and Coppola begins to doubt himself and fears that
the film will be a disaster, but after 238 days, principal photography is completed and the film has a successful world premiere at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
The Cannes press conference which begins HEARTS OF DARKNESS, in which Coppola states that "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam," is self-aggrandizing in a spuriously self-deprecating way, mirroring exactly both the strengths and the weaknesses of APOCALYPSE NOW. As HEARTS makes clear,
Coppola's statements that he had access to too much money and equipment, and little by little, went insane, is not an exaggeration, but it's also clear that he was a willing participant in his own "destruction." Footage of him on location and talking to his wife, in which he threatens to shoot
himself, show how he got sucked into his own heart of darkness in a self-fulfilling prophecy to confront his fears of death and artistic failure. Thus, the film is less about the Vietnam War than it is an allegory for Coppola's battles with his own demons and the Hollywood studio system in his
desire to make a personal film.
The interviews with Milius, Lucas, and Coppola demonstrate how they all saw the project differently and reveal their divergent filmmaking philosophies. While Milius viewed Vietnam as the first "psychedelic, rock 'n' roll war" and conceived of the story in "Odyssey"-like terms, Lucas speaks about
his ideas for a low- budget cinema-verite style film, and offers a veiled criticism of his "mentor" Coppola by suggesting that "Francis's intuitive style sometimes results in films that are overlong and don't have a strong narrative line." Coppola, meanwhile, viewed the story as a pop-culture
metaphor for the Americanization of the world, and talks about how he wants the film to be not like a "David Lean movie, but in the tradition of an Irwin Allen movie, filled with sex, violence, and vulgarity."
Given that HEARTS is Zoetrope's "official" version of APOCALYPSE, it does a good job of painting an honest portrait of out-of-control egos and the excess of Hollywood in the '70s, while also being informative and entertaining. All of the people interviewed are frank (Sheen admitting that he was in
a "chaotic spiritual state" at the time, Hopper's hilarious understatement that he "was not in the greatest of shape"), and though Brando is conspicuously absent, glimpses of him dancing with native children and reading off cue-cards speak volumes about his notorious reputation. The ultimate irony
HEARTS highlights is that the 1970s, the so-called "last great decade" of personal American films, merely resulted in a Hollywood backlash in which it became even more commercial and superficial, with the sad reality being that Coppola, who once risked all, both creatively and financially, to put
his "vision" on the screen, later became more interested in wine-making than filmmaking, and finally resigned himself to being a director-for-hire on such studio- produced junk as JACK (1996). (Profanity, violence.) leave a comment
The making of APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), and the unmaking of Francis Ford Coppola's sanity, are vividly chronicled in the candid and fascinating documentary HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE.