“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”
Film buffs will probably at least be aware of how troubled the shooting of Apocalypse Now was. Filmed in the Philippines (like so many exploitation films around the same time), it was initially intended to be a six week shoot; principal photography eventually ended after sixteen months. Plagued with difficult actors, hurricanes, and political unrest that regularly forced Coppola to stop filming so that the government could use the helicopters that they had provided, not to mention copious amounts of drugs and the general day to day challenges of living in the jungle, what was meant to be a fairly quick, though ambitious, adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, became a monster that threatened to not only make everyone involved insane, but even almost killed its lead actor.
Today, Apocalypse Now is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, capturing the horrors of the Vietnam War, still fresh in people’s minds when it was released in 1979. I’ve not seen it, and my knowledge of it is limited to general trivia and quotes (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), and the references to it in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode (Restless). It didn’t really appeal to me, but Hearts of Darkness, which documents the problematic shoot and presents a fascinating insight into the heart and mind of a filmmaker determined to see his masterpiece come to life, instantly caught my attention, and did not disappoint. It’s a gripping documentary, with great on-set footage (shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor) and secretly recorded conversations between the director and his wife. Early in the film, we hear Coppola plaintively stating: “My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it. And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from… the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.” Yet despite the countless problems and issues, he refused to give up, and the results speak for themselves.
It’s hard not to be impressed, particularly today, at just how determined Coppola was. The money and time that was spent making his vision come to life, not to mention the amount of sheer man power (and explosives) is truly incredible – while a similar shoot today would no doubt substitute jungle life for green screens and napalm for CGI post-production effects, the 1970s were a notably different time for filmmaking, with the likes of Coppola, Scorcese, Kubrick, Lucas and Peckinpah paving the way as the creators of “New Hollywood.” Hearts of Darkness demonstrates how determined these new filmmakers were – no longer content with studio work, the 1970s saw a new kind of filmmaking, one that prided itself in realism and politics. It’s fascinating hearing Coppola talking about Apocalypse Now, and equally fascinating to hear his wife discuss her life as a result – the director dragged his whole family over to live in this troubled region. He is revealed to be dogged, obsessed even, and willing to do anything and everything to see his film completed. After Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack during shooting, Coppola responds by saying “If Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything’s okay, until I say, “Marty is dead,” perfectly capturing the dogmatic, ruthless supremacy of The Director.
This behind-the-scenes glimpse into Apocalypse Now, and the filmmaker(s) determined to bring a vision to life, is wonderfully honest, and filled with instantly recognisable faces – Marlon Brando, paid vast sums of money to appear in a small, though crucial role only to turn up on set tremendously overweight and sufficiently embarrassed about his physical condition that he refused to be portrayed as what he was; Dennis Hopper, clearly high as a kite during the shoot; George Lucas ruminating on Coppola’s vision and choosing to steer clear; a young Sofia Coppola suddenly relocated to the jungles while her father goes, as he himself admitted, insane. The stories told are evidence of the insanity, as the cast and crew remain isolated from the “civilised” world of Hollywood and the comforts of American living, as the money fritters away and the critics become more and more doubtful as to whether the film will ever see the light of day. It’s a true testament to Coppola’s determination that Apocalypse Now was finished – although one gets the feeling that, even had half his cast keeled over, if a hurricane had wiped out the country, if he had been declared bankrupt, he would have carried on, and even if it had killed him, his last breath would have been used to shoot that final image to see his movie completed.