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‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 17, 1992


Fax Bahr;
George Hickenlooper
language, violence and references to drug use

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"Apocalypse Now" began as the pipe dream of a radical group of young California filmmakers who, in the late '60s, wanted to revolutionize the medium. But, at the time, the war in Vietnam was too inflammatory a subject to obtain studio backing for, and the project was shelved. Still, the dream would not die, and, fresh off the success of his "Godfather" films, Francis Ford Coppola announced that it would be his next project.

If he had only known.

What followed would go down as one of the greatest public fiascoes in movie history, a monumental struggle against a conspiracy of bureaucracy, nature and self that would drive its creator to the brink of bankruptcy and madness, leaving him forever changed. Forever diminished. "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" is a documentary record of that pitched creative battle; it's also the most engrossing, most revealing film about the making of a movie ever produced.

Dramatically, the film -- which Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper have pieced together out of post-production interviews and footage both from "Apocalypse" itself and a never-before-seen backstage documentary that Coppola's wife, Eleanor, was supposedly shooting for the studio's publicity department -- is more coherent, more fully formed than its subject. Also, its central character -- Coppola -- has a self-dramatizing, tragic grandeur that verges on the Shakespearean. The Coppola we see here is a mass of competing impulses and traits -- a hustler, a visionary and a fool all at once. Both genius and brat, he's capable, it seems, of nearly anything, from childish fits of temper to egomania and grandiose self-pity. At one point, he's ruthlessly decisive, replacing his original lead, Harvey Keitel, with Martin Sheen after shooting is well underway. Later, when Sheen is forced off the picture with a heart attack, he's happy to play God, telling his staff that "if Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything is all right, until I say that Marty is dead."

From the start, the heavens seemed to have it in for the film, transforming Coppola from a cocky, Academy Award-winning director into a kind of whining Job. First, right in the middle of shooting the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence, the Marcos government took back the helicopters it had lent him, to help turn back the rebels in the Filipino civil war. Then, a typhoon hit the Philippines near where it was being shot, destroying sets and forcing the production to shut down for two months until they could be rebuilt. Then Marlon Brando, who, as the renegade Col. Kurtz, was to get $3 million for three weeks' work, threatened to pull out, taking his $1 million advance with him.

As the portrait of an artist in crisis, "Hearts of Darkness" is unparalleled. When the price tag for the picture grows from $13 million to at least triple that amount, Coppola becomes nearly crippled with self-doubt. "This film is a $20 million disaster," he cries. "Why won't anyone believe me? I'm thinking of shooting myself." Nonsense, his wife says: So you turn in your paper and you get a B instead of an A. "But I'm going to get an F!" he insists.

His greatest fear, Coppola says, is that he will make an "embarrassing, pompous film" on an important subject. "And I am doing it." Part of the problem was that Coppola could never come up with an ending. For weeks, with the meter running, Coppola fretted about what to shoot, giving his actors call sheets that read, "Scenes Unknown." To make matters worse, because he had put up his own holdings as collateral to make the film, every wasted minute pushed him closer to bankruptcy. When asked if he ever thought of quitting, he answered, "How could I? It was my money. How could I quit from myself?"

From the evidence presented here, "Apocalypse" was as much about its creator's own struggles as it was about Joseph Conrad's book or Vietnam. As a result, the production becomes the filmmaker's journey upriver into the dark waters of the self. By this equation, Coppola places himself at the dead center of a grand metaphor.

"My film is not about Vietnam," he says at a press conference shortly after its release. "It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like. ... There were too many of us. We had access to too much money. Too much equipment. And little by little we went insane."

In this regard, the filmmakers have bought into Coppola's view of himself as a high-rolling daredevil driven to risk everything to get at the truth. That Coppola is a genius confronting the existential abyss and that his struggles are all in the service of art is a given. Throughout the film, there are bits from the radio production of Conrad's novel staged and narrated by Orson Welles, who had intended to tackle "Heart of Darkness" as his first film. And by alluding to Welles, the filmmakers are placing Coppola in the company of angels.

Still, the film doesn't attempt to immunize the audience against the possibility that the filmmaker's problems were -- with the possible exception of typhoons -- largely of his own making. This was due partly to his own whopping hubris and partly to his work methods. As a director, Coppola likes to leave himself open to the inspiration of the moment. And, as Coppola's old friend George Lucas observes, flying by the seat of the pants is almost always an invitation to disaster. But what's so remarkable here is not that Coppola courted disaster, but that he was so willing to take everyone else, including his family, down with him.

Few films have ever taken us this far into the filmmaking process, and the exposure is both agonizing and revelatory. The director and his team are seen in intimate detail. Actor Sam Bottoms confesses that he was high on either LSD, pot or speed during much of the shooting. ("We were bad boys.") And Martin Sheen talks about his "chaotic" inner state during the shooting of the film's opening hotel room scenes, and how he was so drunk that he didn't even realize he had punched a mirror, slicing open his hand. We also get to see an elephantine Brando -- who, Coppola discovered, had never bothered to read "Heart of Darkness" -- improvise his way out onto a limb, and then give up. "I can't think of any more dialogue today."

Seeing all this, you wonder how the damn thing got made at all. And that this epic folly eventually turned out to be an epic accomplishment, deeply flawed but shot through with brilliance and audacity -- and that it went on to make around $150 million worldwide -- boggles the mind. Perhaps Coppola is right to think that the gods have their eye on him. To have his youthful dream realized not only with "Apocalypse Now" but with this engrossing new film as well seems close to miraculous.

"Hearts of Darkness" is rated R for language, violence and references to drug use.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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