Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an absorbing and unflinching look into the making of the classic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now.
The documentary is made up of behind the scenes footage shot by Eleanor Coppola, the wife of Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola, as well as secretly recorded conversations between Eleanor and her husband, and also interviews with George Lucas, John Milius, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, and Francis Ford Coppola.
Apocalypse Now was loosely based on the classic novel “Hearts of Darkness” written by Joseph Conrad, and this film quickly recounts the various attempts to adapt the novel on to the silver screen by filmmaker’s Orson Wells and George Lucas.
After Lucas left the project, Coppola took over, deciding to finance the movie himself, assuring creative control through his newly founded Zoetrobe Studios. With the Philippines chosen as their shooting location, Marlon Brando and Harvey Keitel signed on to star, and a deal struck with the Philippine government for the use of their military helicopters, Coppola and co. were ready to begin shooting a supposed 16 week shoot, beginning in February, 1976. The shoot ended up accumulating 238 days of principal photography.
Within those 238 days, Keitel was fired and replaced by Martin Sheen (whose poor health and alcoholism lead to a near fatal on set heart attack), numerous scenes were ruined when the government helicopters supposedly at Coppola’s disposal were ordered mid shoot to fight against rebel militia, a typhoon destroyed sets delaying filming for 2 months, Marlon Brando finally appears on the set grossly overweight and under prepared, and the erratic behaviour of the cast (especially Dennis Hopper) was driving Coppola mad.
As expected, press speculation back in America was ripe, portraying Coppola as a man gone crazy, which is actually not far from the truth.
What Hearts of Darkness really represents is the madness and genius of Francis Ford Coppola, the portly Italian American director of The Godfather, family man and movie geek, turned insane visionary in the jungles of the Philippines.
The way which he approaches his work is a sight to behold. An intuitive filmmaker, Coppola’s style of direction on Apocalypse Now is best described as both capricious and sagacious. He is extremely well researched and can work exceptionally well under pressure, but he also has a tendency to waffle about, continually changing the script back and forth, until there was no script to be had only newly written pages of dialogue each day.
Discipline is not his forte. Instead of taking control and directing the film in the more traditional sense, Coppola opts instead to let the film take him where needs to go. Throughout the journey, Coppola confronted his fears and almost lost his sanity in the process.
Along with Coppola, Martin Sheen was also exorcising his demons. A disturbing breakdown featuring a naked and bloodied Sheen was caught on camera (and implemented in the film). Later he would receive a heart attack so fatal, that last rites were given to him by a priest who could not speak English. But the most shocking aspect of this story was Coppola’s reaction to the news, a combination of cold blooded denial and resilience. He was going to finish this film no matter who or what stood in his way.
And finish it he did. Three years after filming began, Apocalypse Now finally was released to much anticipation and acclaim, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and also two Academy Awards.
For all of the hell Coppola went through making it, no amount of awards or box office receipts will be accolade enough. Just having finished it was the ultimate payoff.