Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, 1991.
Directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper.
Starring Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando, Eleanor Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford and George Lucas.
A documentary detailing the difficult production of Apocalypse Now.
“My film is not a movie,” a passionate Francis Ford Coppola tells a press conference at Cannes in 1979, a beard so thick you’d mistake him as half-crazy. “My film is not about Vietnam,” he enlightens further, a translator beside him repeating his words in French. “It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy.”
Hearts of Darkness is a documentary about the making of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The documentary lifts its title from the Joseph Conrad book on which that film was based, Heart of Darkness. ‘Heart’ is pluralised, accommodating for all those who have lost parts of their soul trying to adapt that doomed book.
It was a feat Orson Welles once attempted. It was to be his first film, but the movie studios backed out as the project began to spiral beyond their control. He made Citizen Kane instead, which was pretty good.
Welles lingers throughout Hearts of Darkness like a ghost. His reading of a radio play version of Heart of Darkness acts as a narration of sorts for scenes in the documentary. They sound like his lost, tormented diary entries from a project that was never finished. It’s a reminder that many have struggled to sail down the river before Coppola, and how very few ever succeeded.
The filming of Apocalypse Now began with excitement. This was the first project of American Zoetrope, a production company founded by Coppola to make films without the major studios. They were shooting in the Philippines where crew would work for a dollar a day – back home they would charge many times that – and the government lent them a fleet of helicopters at a very small fee.
But there was a Communist uprising in the South, to where the helicopters were often called away, sometimes in the middle of a shoot. And then a ferocious storm hit, delaying production two months as the sets were reconstructed. And three weeks into shooting, Coppola replaced his leading man, Harvey Keitel, with Martin Sheen. Everything they had filmed with him in thus far needed reshooting. The jungle was starting to take their minds.
The documentary footage is extraordinarily intimate. Eleanor Coppola, Francis’ wife, shot most of it, and she was granted a higher access than your average documentary crew would. As a result, the camera captures Francis at his darkest, angrily murmuring how he’s a failure, how he’s made an awful, pretentious film; that he’s ruined himself.
Francis was struggling with the script as well as the pitfalls of circumstance. He became increasingly responsive to what was occurring on set instead of sticking to a shot list. Most of the time he wouldn’t even have that, the actors receiving their call sheets for the next day with “SCENES UNKNOWN” typed at the top.
The group of actors who were sailing down the river with him – Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest – were also being driven slowly insane. Most of the time they were on drugs, Forrest later reflecting how “the crew became our guests,” so lost they were in their own minds.
The chaos peaked when filming Sheen in a hotel, the scene that opens Apocalypse Now. It was the day of Sheen’s 36th birthday and he was so drunk he could barely stand. Francis let the camera roll on him, seeing what he would do next. Sheen lashed out a fist at the mirror in which he was staring, shattering it to a pile of shards. He had become Willard. Everyone had become Willard, all on a journey into his or her self.
Shortly after, Sheen suffered a serious heart attack overnight. He received his Last Rites from a Priest who didn’t speak English. It set production back a further five weeks, trapping them longer in the jungle and fuelling the rumours of anarchy and madness back home. You think it can’t descend any further into madness; that the limit has been reached. Then Marlon Brando flies in.
After a while, near the end, both you and Francis begin to realise that he may no longer be Willard, journeying down the river. He has become the mad man, Colonel Kurtz; his beard now having both regained and surpassed its former bushiness, his temper even quicker to rise.
“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane,” Francis observes in an interview shot a decade after Apocalypse Now finished filming. Close your eyes as he says it and you can imagine him running his hand over his head, half cast in shadow, sombre and distant. “The horror,” you add in for him. “The horror.”
365 Days, 100 Films