Monday, December 08, 2008

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) documents the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). For any admirer of the film, for anyone remotely interested in how films are made, this documentary is essential. Not only does it chronicle the production of the film—how Coppola decided to make it, the actors he hired (and fired), the script he helped write, his decision to shoot in the Philippines, the rapidly ballooning budget, the numerous pitfalls and hazards along the way—but it also records the gradual transformations of members of the cast and crew, especially of Martin Sheen, who played the intelligence officer Willard, ordered to hunt down and "terminate with extreme prejudice" the renegade Col. Kurtz, and of Coppola himself, who as the film began to careen out of control placed his career and personal resources at risk to get his project made. At the beginning of this film we see a Coppola who is enthusiastic and ambitious and a bit over-confident, who wants to make an epic film about a terrible war based on a favorite novel. By the end of the film he is convinced he has failed and cannot even decide how the film should end. Sheen was mainly known in 1977 for his roles in such small films as Badlands (also monument of the 1970s). He describes himself at the time of the making of Apocalypse Now as a heavy drinker and smoker, a man not in good health. In one scene, he portrays a drunken Willard in a Saigon hotel room. He was, in fact, actually drunk in the scene, in which he suffers what appears to be a emotional breakdown. He eventually suffers a major heart attack and has to leave the film for six weeks to recover.

Coppola's wife Eleanor is a frequent presence in the documentary. She accompanied her husband to the Philippines, with their two young children. She herself is a documentary film maker, and as her husband filmed Apocalypse Now she recorded (sometimes without his knowledge) interviews with him. His gradual descent into uncertainty, self-doubt, and despair is disturbing—he's not performing for a camera, for another director, he's talking directly to his wife, and the candor of his comments is compelling. The documentary shifts back and forth between the actual time of the film's production and fourteen years later, mainly through retrospective interviews with members of the cast and crew. Hearts of Darkness leaves one impressed that Apocalypse Now was completed in any form. For those who sometimes feel that Apocalypse Now on occasion strains more towards sensation than substance, it offers some evidence. For those who believe that works of art are the product of firm planning and deliberation, it provides much evidence to the contrary. For those who want to understand how a monumental film came to be, it offers explanations that in themselves are only partially satisfactory.

Dennis Hopper plays a reporter in Apocalypse Now whom Willard meets near the Kurtz encampment. Hopper himself at the time of the film was deeply involved in drugs and alcohol—as he says, he was at a low point in his career, and he was grateful that someone of Coppola's stature would hire him. Hopper was a method actor. He had to understand the motives and reasons for the lines he was asked to speak in the film. Coppola didn't always know the reasons and motives behind the dialogue, and it's funny to see Coppola grow increasingly frustrated as he tries to explain things to Hopper. In the film, Hopper' s character often seems to talk a stream of consciousness half-nonsense dialogue—it's exactly the way he talked in reality in 1979, as footage of Coppola trying to talk to the actor makes clear. Much of Hopper's dialogue in the film is his own drug-crazed improvisation.

Marlon Brando agreed to play the character of Kurtz in the film, for a fee of one million dollars per week. He proved difficult. When the production schedule had to be changed, he balked. When he arrived on set, he was significantly overweight—much heavier than Kurtz was supposed to be. Brando complained about various details of the story, and Coppola realized he hadn't read the script or the novel on which it was based. Brando too wanted to understand the reasons behind the lines he was to read.

For Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now became a personal apocalypse from which he never professionally recovered, although there is little doubt that Godfather I, Godfather II, and Apocalypse Now rank among the great films of the 20th century.

Apocalypse Now is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's 1898 novel Heart of Darkness. The novel is about the impact of imperialism on the African jungle. It's also, among other things, about obsession. Hearts of Darkness is about a director's obsession to make his greatest film.

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