Apocalyptic Precision: A Look At Apocalypse Now

         When looking back over the countless adversities a director endured while shooting some of the greatest movies ever made, one cannot help but to mention Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now. Though this film was never about overcoming adversity, Coppola knew the only way to make his art was to destroy adversity.

         Influenced by Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, the original screenplay was penned by John Milius (member of Zoetrope) originally titled the "Psychedelic Soldier"; the revision soon became something that no one but Coppola could envision; and few film endeavors could ever survive it. Coppola endured every type of difficulty known in the film industry starting with the pitch itself. After the nation had just witnessed such a turbulent time many felt that revisiting the war era was not a tasteful choice. Orson Welles had recorded a radio drama of the work many years earlier but had little success with Conrad's work. Coppola felt something for the book and trusted his instinct and team.

         The original idea was for George Lucas to shoot a faux-documentary over a four-week period in the Philippines. Lucas was not much of an adventurous type and was notorious for flaring sinus problems. Coppola took hold of the reins and charged ahead to make the movie.

         Marlon Brando was given a million dollar advance before production to ensure he would be on board. Brando later threatened to not show unless schedule conflicts were ironed out to allow his participation in other occurring projects.

         Coppola pulled strings with the Philippine government to supply him helicopters during the shoot. During filming the helicopters would fly away randomly to fight and were replaced with novice pilots who each had to be hastily taught complicated flying maneuvers for the shots needed to make the picture. After one watches the film, one soon understands just how important those helicopter takes actually were.

         Coppola had no ending for his picture, and his rewrites were torturously overbearing. He slowly began to unravel as the project grew bigger and bigger in his head each day; he lost one hundred pounds during the shoot from the stress and overwhelming financial risks that hung over his head. There was no one else to accept his responsibilities nor his mistakes but himself. The story was in his head and his head alone; there was no option but to finish what he started. Coppola was consciously aware that he was digging his hole a bit too deep, and the only option available to him was to just keep digging.

         Martin Sheen had a heart attack on the set, which caused Coppola to be and afraid he might lose his already shaky backers; therefore, Coppola told executives that it was only a mild heat-stroke. Sheen was not a very healthy person during that time and was actually drunk (on his birthday) during the famous mirror sequence and later that night tried to attack Coppola.

         Marlon Brando arrived and had picked up the weight Coppola lost. He was eighty-odd pounds overweight. Brando had never read "Heart of Darkness" and knew none of his lines. Coppola sat and read the book aloud to Brando on set and some of Kurtz's haunting soliloquies were filmed over a three-day span of improvisation.

         The six-week shoot grew to sixteen. Coppola had shot nearly two hundred hours of footage, and it took Walter Murch nearly two years to edit. He put three million dollars of his own money into the project; and, if the film did not succeed, he knew his career would never survive. Although he threatened to commit suicide on several occasions, he knew there was no such thing as not making the film; there was no turning back. Benjamin Willard's (Sheen) journey up the river to kill the deranged Colonel Kurtz (Brando) began to strangely resemble Coppola's relationship to his film.

         There are excellent supporting performances, mainly by Robert Duvall as a crazy helicopter chief with an obsession for surfing. Dennis Hopper's role is also a pivotal performance to better understand and relate the madness Kurtz was spreading as a deranged, missing American photojournalist. The film likewise was Laurence Fishburne's debut at the age of fourteen (he had lied about his age) and also includes a cameo of Coppola himself as a war documentarian.

         There was a documentary filmed by Coppola's wife entitled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse. She and Francis's three children, Sofia, Roman, and Gio, were also on the set with their parents during most of the shoot. The documentary is a look behind the movie and Coppola's growing madness, interviews with the cast, and other tremendous footage of the entire production.

         After three years of blood, sweat, and tears, Coppola finally had his film finished and released. Apocalypse Now is a reminder of what can happen when a director loses control and also the occurrences that impact the lives that made the project worthwhile. I wonder what Coppola thinks as he looks over those three years and how he had handled each catastrophe or if he even wishes to remember the time that his art almost had almost broken him

        A film maker may watch and learn the shots and memorize each individual adversity, but no one can avoid each momentary mishaps. In a job that lives and dies by precision, each setback can seem monumental. A director may at sometime hate the very thing that keeps him/her going, but pressure is second nature to the position, and a good director finds a way to keep the pressure at bay. To me, that was the importance of Apocalypse Now.

Ben Huffman

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