Secondary school. Shit. I’m still only in secondary school.
I vividly remember where I was the first time I saw Apocalypse Now. It was in our school amphitheatre during a lull towards the end of term, when traditionally the big telly would be wheeled out and a film was put in the video top loader to keep the spotty hordes quiet for a few hours. I’d heard of it of course, but nothing could have prepared me for it. To quote Brando’s character Kurtz, it was “like I was shot with a diamond bullet, right through my forehead, and I thought “My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that.””
Apocalypse Now has stayed with me since then. It is an immensly quotable, brilliantly schizoid, mind-fuck of a rock n’roll war / anti-war movie, as entertaining for the tales of it’s creation as for the final flawed masterpiece it became. Here is a personal journey of my favourite anecdotes and moments from the making of Apocalypse Now. Join me on a trip up the Nung river, to appreciate, “with extreme prejudice”, Francis Ford Coppola’s own Heart Of Darkness.
“We were in the jungle, we had access to too much money..and little by little we went insane.” Francis Ford Coppola
Everyone involved in Apocalypse Now expected that shooting in the Phillipines would last no more than four months. Co-producer Fred Roos was even contracted to be paid $1500 a week for each week it ran over. It did do so, by 37 weeks. Late into 1976, things had spiralled out of control. A typhoon destroyed many sets and costumes, the leading man Harvey Keitel was let go, his replacement Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack, and Marlon Brando was totally unprepared. Coppola, meanwhile, was frantically re-writing whole chunks of the script on an almost daily basis. Original scriptwriter and mentor John Milius was dispatched to get him back on track.
“I felt like General Von Runstedt going to see Hitler in 1944 – I was going to be telling him there was no more gasoline on the Eastern Front and the whole thing was going to fold,” Milius said. However, even he was powerless in the face of Coppola’s fervour. “I came out an hour and a half later, and he had convinced me that this was the first film that would win the Nobel Prize. I came out of the room like Von Runstedt: “Ve can win! Ve don’t need gasoline!”
“Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker. And every moment Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.”
On Martin Sheen’s 36th birthday, he filmed one of his most raw scenes, awakening drunk in his Saigon hotel room. Only, he really was dead drunk, on a days long bender, and in a very dark place. “I had no business being on screen. Francis didn’t want me to do it, but I insisted, “Sheen said. Joe Lowery, a Vietnam veteran, had told Sheen that the best way to practise martial arts was using a mirror, because “nothing is faster than your own reflection”. Sheen was too close and smashed the mirror with his fist, blood pumping out. He insisted on keeping the camera rolling, saying “I want to explore this.” From the footage below I doubt he was that lucid. The very public exposure of his private torment contributed to Sheen straightening himself out.
“Outstanding Red Team, outstanding. Get you a case of beer for that one.”
Denied materiel by then Secretary Of State for Defence Donald Rumsfeld, Coppola secured the use of army helicopters from President Marcos’ Philippine forces. Unfortunately, they kept flying off to fight the real life rebels. Coppola later claimed some of them were flying high on heroin. The Air Cavalry attack on the coastal village was three weeks of intense, hairy filming. When the huge gasoline filled trench dug for the napalm drop sequence went up, the heat could be felt half a mile away. There was no aerial supervisor, so it was extremely difficult to get all the choppers in the shots.
Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer recalls: “When Robert Duvall was looking outside the helicopter, and down at the waves checking the surf, I was seated outside the machine on a piece of wooden board. I had just one belt holding me in place, and my key grip was holding me with the hand-held camera. I remember looking through the viewfinder, and I could see one machine behind me, so we could have something in the sky; I kept shouting to Dick (a Vietnam veteran pilot) “Can you come closer?” And he said “Are you crazy?” The rotors were almost touching.”
Other veteran pilots were hired to do authentic improvised microphone dialogue in post production. They viewed the footage with no sound other than authentic, ear-splitting Huey chopper sounds. After an hour, one wife came in to the control room to hear her husband, transported back to the war, say “I’m gonna get that dink bitch, and put the right skid right up her ass!” She started crying at the immediacy of his memories spewing forth.
“Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right.”
Martin Sheen and Frederick Forrest shared a scary encounter with a tiger in the preternaturally quiet jungle. The beast had been transported from L.A, then flown to location on a vintage DC3 prop plane. The cage wouldn’t fit through the door, so the tiger was walked on to the plane, freaking out the pilot and four Italian wives visiting their husbands on set. It took an hour to calm everyone down and get the animal settled. When shooting the scene, the tiger hadn’t been fed for a week, so Forrest literally ran for his life when it burst forth. A stuntman dragged a live pig by cord as bait, while the focus-puller scaled a nearby palm tree in seconds. Forrest said “To me, that was the essence of the whole film – that look in the tiger’s eyes, the madness – if that tiger wanted you, you were his.”
“Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast.”
The Playboy bunnies sequence was originally meant to be shot in daylight and had been built before Coppola had a change of mind about how he wanted to film it (at night, over water). As “luck” would have it, the typhoon destroyed the original set and he got his wish. The lights and lens flare really add to the impact of the scene. Coppola’s draft notes state “The playmates were never really meant to be sexy. They were always meant to represent home.” He didn’t count on the hormones of hundreds of pumped up extras, among them Larry Fishbourne, then only fifteen. he must have loved it!
“There are two of you. One that kills and one that loves.”
Of the footage restored for the Redux cut in 2001, the only element of any real interest is the French Plantation sequence. As Willard and the boat crew progress further up river it is as if they are slipping further back in time, from the French settlers still stuck in the 1950′s and stubbornly refusing to leave, to Colonel Kurtz, squatting and waiting in his primitive Montagnard camp. Some feel this interlude stops the film dead, I love it. The set, an old colonial style house, was a real labour of love, again, more extravagance that went way over the top. It was filled with antiques, glazed figurines and potted plants, oil paintings and trophies, persian rugs, fancy lamps and heavy mahogany and rattan furniture. Coppola took many pieces home since he stumped up the cash.
The dinner scene took five days to shoot, Coppola often waiting for exactly the right light. Vittorio Storraro shone a tiny pocket light through an expensive bottle of 1954 Latour wine, from Coppola’s own home. The lighting and bitter dialogue create a mood heavy with nostalgia and faded colonial frustration. When one of the French men grasps an egg and crushes it: “The white goes, the yellow stays!”, it had to be shot eight times to capture the egg white slither through his fingers. Willard and the widow Roxanne (Aurore Clement, who married Storarro) share a melancholy moment in her bedroom afterward, as she prepares an opium pipe for him. As she lowers the mosquito net around the bed, her sihouette pressing through the gauze fades into the river mist as the boat returns up river, as if the encounter was all a dream.
“The heads. You’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far. He’s the first to admit it.”
Dennis Hopper was originally intended to play Colby, the first soldier sent to “terminate” Kurtz (this tiny part was eventually played by Scott Glenn). Coppola became keen on creating the character of a photo-journalist, based on Sean Flynn, son of Errol Flynn, who disappeared on assignment in Vietnam. The character is also drawn from the Russian in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, the film’s inspiration. Hopper’s wired personality was a welcome comic relief, a foil and fool to Brando’s king. He had trouble remembering his lines though. It didn’t help that Coppola kept rewriting dialogue for him to learn, then improvise around. The scene where he greets the boat crew required fifty four takes. Despite his erratic nature, Hopper was a welcome addition to the crew, a great source of laughter on set and after hours, and a distraction from Coppola’s increasing mood swings.
“You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”
Marlon Brando was a notorious prankster and canny negotiator. Despite being paid $3 million and 11.5% of the picture’s adjusted gross profits, he arrived greatly overweight, nothing like a fit leader of men, and had not read Heart Of Darkness, as requested by the director. He and Coppola disappeared for three days to go over the source novella and discuss his part. Brando came up with Kurtz’s look, turning up with platform shoes for extra imposing height, his head completely shaven, recalling Joseph Conrad’s description. He conveniently forgot Conrad’s Kurtz was “withered” by the wilderness, which had “consumed his flesh.”
Eventually the appearance of Kurtz evolved as a shadowy figure, looming in and out of the temple blackness. His scenes were shot as long rambling improvised pieces, which were then cleverly edited. After he had left, Coppola decided he wanted a close up of him on the ground, saying “The horror!” Brando demanded and got $70,000 for one days work to do this. “I’m in the Marlon Brando business, I sell Marlon Brando” he said. Coppola got his revenge by relegating shooting to his D.P and choppered out, leaving his difficult star to it.
“What do you call it, when the assassins accuse the assassin?”
Coppola was desperate to come up with a suitable ending to his never-ending story. He didn’t want Milius’ original take, where Willard and Kurtz join forces against an NVA attack. Willard would have replaced the dead Kurtz, then turned on American forces who followed after him, blowing up the base. Instead, he found inspiration in weighty material such as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. He used these to interpret the Montagnards devotion to Kurtz as the belief of primitive people that their safety is tied to a man-God figure. This personage must be killed as soon as his power is failing, and his soul transferred to a more vigorous body, such as Willard. An apposite metaphor for this was stumbled upon by Eleanor Coppola when she witnessed the native Ifugao, who played Kurtz’s tribe, ritually slaughter a Carabao. Coppola filmed them doing this, and intercut the rite with the killing of Kurtz by Willard, brilliantly lit and photographed by Vittorio Storraro, and scored to the music of The Doors.
“God, he (Coppola) is tough. But I will sail with that son of a bitch anytime.” Martin Sheen.
At last, filming was completed and Coppola was ready for post-production. But the drama wasn’t over yet. During filming, he had multiple affairs on set (he and wife Eleanor have put this behind them), and rumour had it he and creative consultant Dennis Jacobs fell out over one such woman. Jacobs told film journalist Paul Cullum in 1996 that he took all thirteen reels of film home, and didn’t turn up for work at the editing studio for three days. The next week, he sent Coppola a bag full of ashes each day with a taunting note, pretending they were the burnt reels of film. On the fifth day, Coppola sent him a note saying “Even if you destroy the rest of it, I’ll finish my film somehow. But bring it all back, and we’ll all start together again and rebuild it.” That night, Jacobs sneaked back and left the reels where they belonged, and arrived the next day as if nothing happened.
Apocalypse Now went on to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes as a work in progress, and garnered several other awards, including Oscars for sound (which was innovative and groundbreaking), and cinematography. To have one film on his C.V as amazing as this, never mind The Godfather, The Godfather II, and The Conversation, confirms Francis Ford Coppola as one of the greatest directors of his generation. “ Nothing is so terrible as a pretentious movie“ Coppola worried. This kind of pretentiousness I can happily wallow in, Francis.
This is how the feature ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m outa here, Jack!