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It didn’t seem like too difficult a task. A group of well-trained experts would go into the jungle and, with their superior technology, pull off a difficult job. Once finished, they would tidy up and go home on schedule. It was an act of hubris. In 1979, at the Cannes Film Festival, Francis Ford Coppola copped to it. “My film is not about Viet Nam. My film is Viet Nam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And they way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Viet Nam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
If for only that footage, Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola‘s 1991 documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, is an essential companion piece to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now. But that scene is only the film’s first minute.
Based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart Of Darkness, the film Apocalypse Now is a psychedelic meditation on the madness of war. Based on the making of Apocalypse Now, Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is a meditation on the madness of filmmaking. The two compliment each other beautifully. Far from cheeky, behind-the-scenes footage and “here’s how they do it” Hollywood magic, Hearts Of Darkness begins with Coppola suffering a crisis of confidence on set. “This script, about four guys going up to kill a guy, that was the story. But the questions that that story kept putting to me, I couldn’t answer. Yet I knew that I had constructed the film in such a way that to not answer them would be to fail.”
Not the realization you want to have halfway through shooting. In an eerie parallel to the war itself, unsure how to succeed, the filmmakers could only keep going in the hope that at some point, miraculously, “victory” would reveal itself.
Eleanor Coppola, Francis’ wife, says in a beautifully frank and insightful journal entry. “The film Francis is making is a metaphor for a journey into self. He has made that journey and is still making it. It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the center of himself and confront his fears. Fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane.”
Again, there is SO much more going here than just, “Movie blood is made out of corn syrup and food coloring. Hooray for Hollywood!”
As in the Viet Nam War, as in any war, you can’t plan for every contingency. The minute you leave the gate, events take on a life and direction of their own. The same is true of film production. Apocalypse Now started shooting in the Philippines in the spring of 1976. Almost immediately, Typhoon Olga destroyed the sets. Six weeks into shooting, Coppola replaced the film’s star, Harvey Keitel, wanting a more “introspective” performance for the lead role of Willard. After reviewing several weeks’ footage, he released Keitel and reached out to Martin Sheen, who had previously auditioned to play Michael in the Godfather. Sheen agreed to take over the role. All the footage with Keitel now had to be reshot.
in another eerie parallel to the war in which it was set, there were times when the participants felt there was no end in sight. Apocalypse Now’s original fourteen week shooting schedule stretched out to over a year. Twelve months into shooting, Sheen suffered a heart attack and had to be flown to Los Angeles. He eventually returned. Marlon Brando arrived, out of shape and unprepared, forcing Coppola to rethink the film’s conclusion. Which he had been rethinking anyway. Therein lies the most exquisitely painful parallel between the war and the movie about the war. In both cases, no one knew how to finish what they started. What would define "The End"? In that regard, Coppola was right. His film was Viet Nam.
Hearts Of Darkness, A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, takes us inside the mind of a brilliant director facing unprecedented adversity, and, in the end, turning it into art. It is so much more than just, “Here’s how they made this movie.” It is an essential companion to Coppola’s nightmare jungle epic.
Next week, a brilliant movie about the making of a bad movie. The story of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr. Moreau.