When we sit in a dark movie theater expecting to be entertained, moved to tears, changed, or struck by some sort of emotion, we’re basically reverted to being little kids waiting for a bedtime story. We care about how this story will affect us at the moment. Regardless of whether a second viewing might change our minds, it’s all about being in the moment and expecting a rush of sensations.
With all these expectations, we don’t think about what happened during filming. We’re so immersed in the moment to the point where we forget about budgets, the actors behind the characters, and all the hoops that the crew had to jump to get there. All that matters is whether the film grabs us or not. The other stuff is just extra details and information we’ll consider for another time.
Most of us were not around when Apocalypse Now came out in 1979. We have seen it on our older brother’s VHS copy, on the TV, or Netflix. We observe this interpretation of the Vietnam War through the filter of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with awe and a slight nostalgia. There is something quite monumental about the film. It feels like a big movie. In an age where every other movie costs at least over 150 million dollars to make, most of these lack the “This is a movie you will remember for the rest of your life” presentation. Between the soundtrack, story, performances, and visuals, you can understand why, when presenting the film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, Francis Ford Coppola said “My film is not a movie; it's not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.”
However, Coppola wasn’t just talking about the finished product. He was referring to the tortuous experience that extended a 6 week shoot into 238 days over a period of two years. In fact, the next part of the quote explains it quite well, “It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. And the way we made, it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.”
We hear stories about how a particular film set was a total nightmare, how so and so couldn’t stand each other, how the lead walked off the set and disappeared for a week before returning to film. We’re told fragments and anecdotal tales. But they remain a folkloric sort of legend. There’s no physical evidence that it happened. It’s not that we don’t believe it; we just can’t picture it when we see such a great film that came out of it. In the case of Apocalypse Now, there’s plenty of proof of the insanity that occurred between March, 1976 and August, 1977.
Two women proved to be the unexpected documentarians. Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, known for her work of capturing the behind-the-scenes of films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Manhattan, and Sleepy Hollow, found herself on this tumultuous shoot, not knowing that it would become one of the most infamous production stories in film history. As for Eleanor Coppola, the director’s wife, she became the reluctant documentarian of this disaster.
In 2011, during the Women Who Frame the World Symposium, Eleanor explained how she came to record 60 hours’ worth of footage that would later serve as the basis for the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse: “I found myself in the Philippines with my husband as he was making Apocalypse Now. The production company wanted 5 minutes of documentary footage for a television promotion that they did in those days. And everybody else had a job but me. So my husband said, ‘Well here, Ellie, you can do this.’”
The footage, accompanied by Eleanor’s diary entries, tells a story of a film that seemed cursed or doomed. Shot in the Philippines due to the landscape's similarity to Vietnam, the budget restraints forced the crew to ask the country’s government permission to use their military helicopters. What they didn’t expect was that the nation was undergoing a civil war, so at times the choppers would fly off without notice of when they’d returned.
A typhoon swooped in through the coast and flooded the sets, took entire tents full of props and equipment. Martin Sheen, who played Willard, the protagonist, suffered a heart attack mid-shoot. Plenty of the cast and crew were constantly under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Then Marlon Brando showed up to set without having even read the script.
Coppola suffered several breakdowns during these two years; perhaps it was a two-year-long nervous breakdown. Eleanor remembers trying to help her husband cope with the stress during post-production, as the film entered the editing phase and faced other issues, such as the soundtrack people not having the right sounds for the machinery and weapons used in the movie: “You are not your film. If other people think that it is great, you are not God. If others think that it is rubbish, you are not stupid. You are a human that has given to this film all that you had.”
It was a nightmare, and it can be felt in the final result. Luckily for Coppola, it was meant to be this terrifying acid trip of a war movie. It gave us a glimpse into the psyche of soldiers going to war sponsored by capitalism and excess. It might be fiction, but it’s more honest in its depictions than most historical examples.
The documentary based on Eleanor’s diary and recordings is actually just as impressive as the film itself. It shows a passionate filmmaker attempting to do the impossible: make a movie about one of the most controversial moments in recent history without being another form of propaganda but, instead, a portrait of the madness that is war and conflict. Perhaps that is why the making of the feature resulted in two years of insanity: to truly capture Hell you need to go there yourself.
There are plenty of behind the scenes horror stories within the film world, one particular shoot left a young actress emotionally scarred for the rest of her life. Another filmmaker took images before and during the shoot of his controversial film trying to capture the reality of American teens.