"APOCALYPSE Now" was a movie about Vietnam made on location in the Philippines that ended up costing at least $31 million and survived one actor's heart attack, a typhoon that destroyed the sets and a variety of other disasters that have given it the aura of a legend.
"Geniuses" is a play about a group of Americans stuck in a Philippine jungle making a movie called "Parabola of Death," which is way over budget and threatened by a typhoon that disables the tanks and the helicopters. In it, the director is an egomaniacal but brilliant man not unlike Francis Ford Coppola, and the current scriptwriter in the play bears a resemblance to the playwright, Jonathan Reynolds.
Despite these circumstantial resemblances, "Geniuses" is not about the making of "Apocalypse Now," although it is certainly a product of Reynolds' six months in the Philippines working as writer (one of many), neophyte assistant director and diarist on the film. He began the play six months after he left the film, abandoning his original project to write a book about the filming.
"My agreement was that I would write the book without anyone seeing it before publication but my editor. Not that I was intending to do a hatchet job. But after the typhoon when the sets were destroyed and everything was really going crazy, they said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we'd better see what this guy's been writing.' At that point I had about 200 pages of a diary. I said forget it. Anyway, at that point I could see it was going to be another year in the Philippines . . .
"About six months after I'd left I thought: I should write a play about this. The events had so much to do with the movie business, but I hoped to generalize from those specifics . . . It's about the relationship of men and women, about the coasts--East and West--and their rivalry. It's about the way we view each other and the sociological jargon we use."
It's also about the unreal reality of a mammoth movie like that, where directors order up armies and construct towns that are built to look solid but dissolve after the last take. That sense of power, exercised in a self-created universe, and its often pernicious and immoral repercussions, are very much a part of "Geniuses."
During the "Apocalypse Now" typhoon Reynolds and 10 other people sought refuge in an abandoned house for five days, but nothing occurred that was as dramatic as the events that happen in the play. "At first I thought it was too much like "Rain" or other plays where people are trapped in a place together," he said.
The process of writing a creative work that has its roots in fact is hard to define. On the real location, for example, helicopters and tanks were put out of operation over a period of a week; in the play it happens in one day. There were, at one point, a few Playboy playmates cast in the movie; the only female in the play is a former playmate. But that fact is not the focus of her character.
Actually, Reynolds said, the play is modeled more on George Bernard Shaw than any other influence. "I had just read 'The Devil's Disciple,' " he said. "And I was entranced with the character of General Johnny Burgoyne, who shows up in the third act and steals the show. I wanted the character of the director to be like that.
"Francis is not that character. It's really more about my father than him. My father hates unions--he's a self-made man. Those things started coming out of the character and I realized where they came from . . . Before I went I thought that any director or eccentric genius operates better with some sort of control . . . Not bad control, of course. Then when I was watching Francis I thought he really didn't need that. I viewed the studio as the enemy, as he did. Now I'm back to what I thought at first."
The character of the screenwriter, he discovered, bore a certain resemblance to him. "It didn't occur to me that the writer was like me until friends said, 'Isn't it embarrassing to write such an autobiographical play?' I said, 'What do you mean? It's just a writer.' I was too stupid to see it. I don't have his bias against L.A.; I've never lived there. But his lack of success and torment over what he should do with his life is similar to the way I felt at that time."
The Shavian influence is stylistic rather than thematic: "The characters speechify, and the play is not realistic. Nobody talks about their past. I hate it when characters do that . . . They talk about ideas . . . What I really hate in the theater are plays that take place in living rooms that are just talk about somebody's problems."