After the formative, yet rather simplistic approach of The Making of Star Wars (discussed last time) it is time for a more complex, ambitious and cinematic example as we look at Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which covers the troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Comprised of footage mainly shot by the filmmaker’s wife Eleanor the credited directors are actually (then) students Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper who became the lucky recipients of the footage (and audio recordings, many from very private conversations between Coppola and her husband) chronicling the principle location photography in the Philippines which expanded from an optimistic five months to a full year from Spring 1976 to early Summer the next year. Whilst the documentary would not be released until 1991 (and would include ‘recent’ interview with the principles to provide additional context) the stories regarding the insanity of the huge production were already mythic.
The documentary’s title paraphrases that of Joseph Conrad’s source material Heart of Darkness, that detailed the physical and metaphorical journey of its protagonist Marlow, an English employee of a Belgian trading company, as he heads further up the river towards the seemingly insane Kurtz, one of the companies best men. It is these themes as much as the transposition of the Vietnam War that seemed to fascinate Coppola. Whilst many of the key cosmetic and political elements of Conrad’s prose are lost in the shuffle, the themes of man’s darkness, fear of the unknown, the consequences of colonialism and the inevitability of human wildness are loud and clear but in many cases they are equally, if not more present in this documentary. This is not a Making of.. in the traditional sense of the word, it is an examination of what really happens when large groups of modern westerners take their toys and money into the wild, where they do not control, understand or belong. It validates the thesis of the film by presenting the cast and crew ‘going up the river’ as Willard/Marlowe did.
We open up on the straight talking Coppola in full intense raconteur mode, speaking to this notion of the craziness of Vietnam with too many people and too much money. There is a key shot early in Apocalypse of a cow being lifted off the ground in a harness by a helicopter. The almost hilarious incongruity of this image is often overlooked but is key to understand this idea, one that will ultimately play out self out in the documentary. The image demonstrates that modernity has no place here; it simply does not make sense and is offensive and absurd. There are many cases of this offensive absurdity In Hearts of Darkness.
Once we leave the safe confines of the press conference we are re-introduced to Coppola as a shirtless edgy character, far from being a cheerleader, he is all doom and gloom and is convinced he will fail. At numerous points (particularly in the audio recordings made by his wife) we get the sense that the film-maker is suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and feels that the Godfather films were perhaps a fluke. The sense of responsibility he feels due to the importance and (then) currency of the Vietnam conflict that he might inadvertently trivialise the conflict. In the early Milius draft (then to be shot by George Lucas on 16mm, somewhat improbably actually in Vietnam during the back end of the war) the film culminated in a rather traditional action adventure sequence of a fire fight in and around Kurtz’s complex. His wife seems concerned about her husband’s success but is equally concerned in his sanity, particularly when he repeatedly mentions considering suicide due to his unflinching conviction that the film will fail.
It becomes apparent that the self-funding Coppola is becoming less and less interest in traditional narrative and story, and finds himself adapting to a more collaborative and improvisational style. In the same way that Marlowe/Willard becomes less certain of himself, and feels the immense portentous weight of an indefinable ‘other’ in the trees, the film-maker becomes more experimental and less certain he has a handle on the sub textual elements he is fascinated with the further ‘up the river’ he progresses.
Coppola is explicit on this, while Milius would eventually be called back into the shoot (he would be won over and indeed become a zealot for Coppola’s brave/crazed approach) the director explains that he is more interested in answering the ‘questions’ asked by Conrad’s story, than the narrative itself. One of the ironies here is that Coppola ultimately fails to do this, he asks the question (which is enough) but it is in this ‘Making of’ that the answers really begin to become apparent. It’s what we take with us that defines what manifests when we are in these ‘dark places’.
The issue of cheap labour (many of the local production staff were paid a Dollar a day) is addressed, as is the rather terrifying fact that there was a civil war raging in the Philippines and that the hired helicopters and pilots had the frustrating habit of flying off mid take to fight real-life aerial battles. Harvey Keitel’s sudden departure from the lead role is handled quickly, and we never see Keitel on screen. His replacement, Martin Sheen’s physical and mental breakdowns are more well documented and we see raw footage of the improvised opening scenes of him going crazy in a hotel room as well as the emotionally raw after effects of it. Coppola’s (I’m being generous here) pragmatic response is telling, and the pressure of self-financing becomes truly apparent when he realises that he can’t quit as he is ultimately responsible for the film’s completion. The ever present pressure of the media who seemed to be willing failure on the project is represented at all of the key crisis points and Coppola is keenly aware of these expectations but by this point is so lost in the process that it is the least of his problems.
The lunatics running the asylum feel is compounded when a frustrated director has to deal with both a crazed Dennis Hopper and a difficult Brando who seem to be subconsciously conspiring towards the projects failure. Coppola ultimately surrenders himself to tricking performances out of the troublesome twosome by filming two improve scenes a day in the hope that meaning will be found.
It is interesting watching the (then) contemporary cast and crew and seeing not only how they have aged, but the wry ‘what were we thinking’ exasperation on their faces. Theses sequences are conventionally shot and do not jar with the cinematic aesthetic of the location footage. The content and impressive visual style of this footage in many ways means that Hearts of Darkness transcends the mandate of this series of articles. This is not a Making of.. as much as it is a further explanation of the themes of the source material(s). Little time is taken up with the technical elements of the film’s construction, and it is right to do so. The journey into the unknown that the cast and crew go on is far more fascinating and chips away at the big questions Conrad explored in his enigmatic prose.