This film would make an interesting companion to Lost in La Mancha. Both films deal in essence with the wheels coming off of film production. While Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote died a quick death from sudden blunt force trauma, Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled production of Apocalypse Now seems to suffer the slow death of a thousand cuts. Originally budgeted at $13 million with a shooting schedule of sixteen weeks, it took more than a year and cost more than twice as much. The story of how this production went so wrong yet resulted in a film regarded as an enduring masterpiece is almost more interesting than the movie’s actual story.
The director’s wife, Eleanor, carried a sixteen-millimeter camera around, shooting documentary footage over the entire 238-day production schedule. She also made voice recordings of her husband, often without his knowledge, originally for the purposes of keeping a film diary. Taken together, these two elements give the movie a “fly-on-the-wall” quality that most “making-of” documentaries never attain.
The story actually begins in 1938 with Orson Welles’ failed effort to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the screen. After failing to get studio backing, Welles went ahead with a little picture called Citizen Kane. Hearts of Darkness also uses excerpts from Welles’ Mercury Theater radio version of the novel to highlight certain passages of the documentary.
We then jump forward to the Vietnam War era, when a film student named John Milius takes up a professor’s challenge to adapt the novel for film when several others of failed. His script would form the original basis for what would become Apocalypse Now. Milius’ original plan to film the movie in Vietnam as the war was going on was scuttled as saner heads prevailed, including those of Milius’ classmates, Coppola and George Lucas.
After the success of the first two Godfather movies, Coppola finally had the clout for his great experiment, Zeotrope Studios, a production company independent of the still-dominant studio system. The only property they owned ready for immediate production was John Milius’ Vietnam-themed adaptation of Heart of Darkness. They headed off to the Philippines to start filming. With no assistance from the U.S. military, Coppola cut a deal with dictator Ferdinand Marcos to supply helicopters for the movie.
Without a studio to restrain his impulsive filmmaking style, it begins to seem that Coppola gradually loses control of the production. Within a week of filming, he has already fired star Harvey Keitel and replaced him with Martin Sheen, who thought he was too old and too out of shape for the role.
As things grind slowly forward, the movie suffers one setback after another. The Philippine army routinely recalls its helicopters to fight communist rebels. A typhoon destroys most of their sets. Martin Sheen suffers a near-fatal heart attack. Marlon Brando threatens to pull out when the film falls behind schedule and then shows up fat and unfamiliar with his part. The film’s biggest obstacle may be Coppola’s own escalating self-doubt that the film can be finished and will be any good at all. In one of his wife’s tapes, he openly talks of shooting himself.
The film’s candid view of this massive enterprise seemingly taking on a life of its own, impervious to any human attempts to control it, is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. One of the most compelling and disturbing sequences comes in the form of outtakes from the Saigon hotel room scene early in the movie. Martin Sheen candidly admits he was drunk off his ass when shooting this scene and appears to be in the middle of a complete nervous breakdown. Coppola appears to goad him on, reveling in the emotional reality of the performance.
After years of being missing in action on home video, Hearts of Darkness has finally been released on DVD. While this is good news, it’s also true that we are paying separately for what really should have been an extra on the recent Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD, released in August of last year. Without it, the “complete dossier” wasn’t.
However, this film is too significant and too interesting in its own right to be quibbling too much about the circumstances of its release. I’m glad to have it in any form.