“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.”
I had the unbelievably lucky chance to come across a documentary called “Hearts of Darkness” on Friday afternoon. The doc is about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s timeless war epic “Apocalypse Now”. Usually I can take a pass on a documentary about the making of a movie because it screams that the director is self indulgent and needs an additional film to explain the other ones brilliance but I’ll call this the mega exception.
The documentary was shot by Francis’ wife, Eleanor, who was brought out to the Philippines with her children to shoot behind the scenes footage. A small 4 year old Sofia Coppola makes a guest spot for all you “Virgin Suicides” fans. The film showcases a big time movie director (Godfather trilogy) shooting a war movie in a war torn place with a gigantic budget and an even bigger vision.
Everything that could go wrong did. The film was budgeted at $20 million,( a huge Transformers like budget for the late 70’s), once the production started to go over budget Coppola had to put up his own money to make it work. He basically invested every cent he had made. A few weeks into shooting he had a dream and came back to the set and fired Harvey Keitel, the lead actor. He flies out to LA, meet and hires Martin Sheen and they flew back to the Philippines to basically reshoot the last 3 weeks of filming. Martin Sheen gets to set, he’s 36 years old, smokes 3 packs a day and is pushed to his limits physically and emotionally during filming.
One day Sheen starts getting chest pains, crawls toward a bus stop and proceeds to have a massive heart attack. They hush up the set because if Hollywood finds out the lead actor in a $20+ million movie that’s 2 months into production is about to kick the bucket they will pull the plug. They try to shoot around Martin until he gets better, which proves impossible since he’s almost in every scene in the movie. Then the weather turns on them and a giant typhoon hits the area where they are shooting and destroys the set causing production to be shut down for 2 months while it is rebuilt.
This is where Coppola begins his descent into slight madness. The man’s lost 40 lbs in 2 months, is having psychic dreams, suicidal thoughts, then the future of his movie is questioned. Eleanor Coppola, ever the spy, set up recorders in their room to videotape Francis’ mini breakdowns. He’s heard saying how he thinks the movie is really bad, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that he is scared to death of the outcome.
Meanwhile the actors on set are smoking reefer, dropping acid, doing speed, and drinking excessively. For better or for worse they seemd to have become their characters. Then Mr. Marlon Brando arrives on the set. He promised Coppola he would lose weight because he is playing “Kurtz” a man who has fell from military grace and is living deep in the Cambodian jungle commanding his own army. Living in the Cambodian jungle would mean that one would have no access to cakes, pies, donuts, and bacon. Marlon, himself could not cut those things out to return to form. Coppola tries to compromise, telling Brando that maybe his character has decided to become a hedonistic glut, taking multiple ladies as lovers, and being fed rich fruits all day. Brando declined because he was shy about his weight and wanted no attention called to it. His only homework assignment was to read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” the book the movie was loosely based on. Due to his lack of discipline not only is he out of shape but he also doesn’t understand his character. Brando is charging Coppola $3 million for 3 weeks of work while using a great portion of that time to talk to Coppola about his character during precious shooting time.
He wouldn’t give Coppola time to rewrite the script, so Coppola decides to let him improvise his entire part. This leads to nonsensical spouting and days of wasted time. They film the meeting between Sheen and Brando but Coppola is left unsatisfied. Sheen’s character is sent to kill Brando’s but you get the feeling that Coppola never quite got the performance that he needed to illustrate the tension in that major scene. They shoot for a few more days and then the production wraps after 238 days of shooting.
2 years later the movie is released. It goes on to gross over $150 million and Francis Ford Coppola retains his title as one of the greatest directors of all time who makes a delicious Chardonnay. There is a scene where Martin Sheen is in his hotel room near the beginning of the movie and he is gone mad. He punches a mirror, it catches on his thumb and he begins to bleed. He asked for the cameras to keep rolling and you hear Coppola in the background telling him to think about his home and his family. Then Sheen has a complete breakdown. Coppola later explains that to watch a man go that deep into himself is scary and fascinating. Yet by the end of this documentary you get the feeling that Coppola was never satisfied with the outcome. He suffered greatly for a near perfect film. Madness, determination, desire and potential loss combined to make one of the most bizarre, accurate, and cutting war films of all time.
I got a few amazing things from this movie. Coppola is an intense and amazing director responsible for some of the best performances in our cinematic time, Brando was a bit of a flaky douche actor type as far as ths movie goes, and Martin Sheen is a great actor and a complete bad ass. Now I must smoke some peyote, throw on an old Doors album and watch this movie in it’s entirety. Thak you Mr. Coppola.