It was taken as just another film director resorting to hyperbole in an attempt to create a buzz around their movie. Coppola however had never been more serious in his life when reflecting over his ordeal in the Philippines jungle making the film.
‘My film is not about Vietnam, it IS Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. 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.’
It had been a project that had taken over an incredible 3 and a half years from the first day of shooting in 1976 until the opening night on August 19th 1979. A production that had seemed cursed from the very beginning and one that took the acclaimed Hollywood director to the very brink. Apocalypse Now was the planned screen adaptation of “Heart Of Darkness” from Joseph Conrad. With his stock at an all time high after his success with The Godfather parts 1 & 2. Coppola’s vision was one of bringing Hollywood it’s first big budget Vietnam story. The war having only ended less than year before shooting began in February 1976. With a United Artists $13 million budget behind them, the cast and crew pitched up in the Philippines to begin shooting, with no idea of the horrors that lay ahead for all involved.
Even before assembling the cast and crew Coppola had already and ominously ran into difficulties. After the previous success of working with Marlon Brando during The Godfathers he wanted him to take up the role of Colonel Kurtz, the off the grid Green Beret general who has went AWOL as well as crazy and assembled himself a mini army deep in the Vietnam jungles and no longer listening to instructions given to him by his own country. The actor who’d been his Vito Corleone was secured but in true Marlon Brando fashion this wasn’t an easy task. For a film that had been planned for 14 weeks of shooting. Brando agreed to the role that he would commit to 3 weeks shooting at $1 million a week with a $1 million advance. Agreeing to this Coppola’s only requirements were that Brando read Heart Of Darkness ahead of production and that he would also need to lose weight before shooting began.
Finding an actor willing to play the character Captain Willard, there in Vietnam with the mission to track down and kill Colonel Kurtz, wasn’t so easy. Coppola tried to secure Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and Steve McQueen with all three seemingly not that enamoured by the thought of 16 weeks in an Asian jungle during monsoon season. The determined director then moved onto Al Pacino who Coppola felt owed him one over the success he’d presented Pacino’s career through his role as Michael Corleone in both Godfathers. The knock back also came from him and as legend has it. Upon hearing the news of Pacino declining the offer. The Hollywood director, in a pique of frustration threw his 5 oscars out the window of his San Francisco home, only 1 of them actually being recovered. It was with that and where, by then an unconvinced Coppola turned to Harvey Keitel to play the lead role of Willard.
The first week of shooting started badly but for the cast and crew, unknown to them, it was as good as it was going to get. With the Vietnam war being barely over, there was some attitudes towards the film of “too soon.” None more so than from the American military themselves who were not willing to assist United Artists with any scenes in the movie, this leading to Coppola striking a deal with the Philippines president Fernand Marcos. In return for thousands of dollars per day, Marcos had agreed to provide helicopters belonging to the Phillipines army. One small detail that Marcos had neglected to mention to Coppola however was the fact that while they would be in the country shooting the film there would be raging and engaging civil war going on
In a taste of what was to come. The first week was occasionally and frustratingly ruined due to the military recalling their helicopters to head off to take out rebels that had been spotted. One of the films most famous of scenes where Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore has Wagner’s - Ride Of The Valkeries blaring out of his helicopter gunship was only afforded 1 take before half of the helicopters were pinched by the president. This was but one frustration for Coppola that first week but for him the undoubted major problem with the film in it’s infancy was Harvey Keitel. It had been clear that Coppola had only taken on Keitel for the role because he couldn’t get anyone else at the time to agree to it. Coppola knew this too though and had never been convinced that he had the right man for the job, a project that was without doubt the directors most ambitious yet.
After sitting down and going over the first weeks worth of scenes that had been completed. The unpredictable movie maker stunned tinseltown by taking the decision to fire Keitel. His face simply not fitting in with Coppola’s vision of Captain Willard. Keitel was sent packing, most likely not realising just how lucky he was. Losing it’s leading role, production stopped while Coppola flew back to Los Angeles on a mission to secure a known actor as soon as possible and get back over to the Philippines to resume shooting. He met with Martin Sheen, hiring him on the spot for the role. Looking back Sheen has admitted that he had major doubts that he was going to be able to keep up with such an intense schedule in the jungle. Battling demons of alcohol, smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day he’s the first to admit that he wasn’t in the best of shape. Accepting on the basis of it ‘only being a 16 week shoot.’
Back in Asia accompanied by his new leading actor. Coppola got back to work on his masterpiece which even in it’s early stages was now behind schedule and hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate. This is when the real chaos began. Soon it would become apparent to Coppola that the 16 week shoot was proving to be completely unrealistic with all the barriers that were being placed in his way. Self doubt soon followed which saw him changing his idea for some for the script and completely rewriting the ending. As the weeks and months passed it looked like Coppola was even less sure what he wanted to do with the movie than he was when they first set foot in Asia and at times appeared to be writing it as he went along. Apart from his own personal demons that he was facing, there were various other disturbing factors to contend with on this production that appeared to be hexed.
As the weeks and months passed for the production it eventually ran into monsoon on the island. This something Coppola had already anticipated and had planned to use it to his advantage. Reasoning that the intense weather would add to what he was trying to create. In what was storms that were to go on and claim the lives of over 200 people throughout the country. Coppola attempted to shoot a scene deep in the jungle, attempted being the operative word. Quickly descending into a farce, filming had to be stopped after the elements had destroyed 80% of the set, leaving the actors up to their knees in mud. Once again, like when Keitlel had been fired, shooting would have to stop all together.
Unfortunately for Coppola and his United Artists paymasters. When production stopped that’s when the parties started for the cast and crew. Already going through cabin fever syndrome through being stuck thousands of miles from home on a job that was taking much longer than they’d been initially told. The cast and crew, with access to more drugs and alcohol than you could shake an M16 at, would hold nightly parties where they would display that the could party every bit as hard as they worked out in the jungle. Narcotic consumption was not something that was limited to the night time parties however. Several of the actors involved, years later admitted to frequent drug use on set with copious amounts of Marijuana, Speed, Cocaine & Acid available for them to dip into. Doug Claybourne, who worked on Apocalypse as a Production Assistant, and who was one of the few staff who had actually served in Vietnam with the United States Military on describing the scenes each night - ‘At the hotel where the crew were based, it was party heaven. We’d have a hundred beers lined up around the swimming pool so we didn’t need to get out the water. There were people drunk and diving off the roofs, it was crazy. Then a typhoon hit and the whole production was temporarily shut down’
With typhoon’s raging in the Philippines, Coppola took stock back home in San Francisco. Returning to he Philippines a month later hoping that some of the new idea’s he’d formed while re-strategizing would get him out of this personal and professional mess he’d found himself embroiled in. He returned to find that some of the crew hadn’t, some had mutinied and elected to stay in America. Crucially, Martin Sheen did return, all be it gingerly and tentatively. Telling friends ‘I don’t know if I’m going to live through this’
It was to prove a chilling prophesy of sorts, Sheen going onto having a heart attack in March of 77 once shooting recommenced. On hearing the news of his leading actor’s heart attack, and a very serious one at that. Sheen had been read his last rites by a local priest. Coppola, convinced that this was his fault through what he was putting his actor through, had an epileptic seizure. The director was a man on the edge while falling deeper and deeper into a mess that he was playing the starring role in as opposed to any actor he had working for him. With more than just his reputation at stake with the production. Coppola, was seeing the millions that were being squandered daily. Helicopters that were being stolen again and again, sets that were being destroyed due to the weather, even the mass quantities of drugs that were for the cast and crew. Seeing the money that was being sucked into this big black hole while realising that several million of his own money was being squandered while knowing that if the film wasn’t completed he would be facing financial ruin. During the production he suffered a nervous breakdown and has admitted to on three separate times intending to kill himself out there in the jungle. With the making of Apocalypse Now he wasn’t just risking his money or his reputation. He was risking everything.
Due to losing Sheen from the heart attack, production slowly ground to a halt. Initially Coppola and crew were able to shoot action scenes using a body double to pass for Sheen’s character from behind but they all knew that after a month or so of these tactics they were going to run out of scenes to shoot. It was during Sheen’s recuperation that Coppola received the next in his series of crushing blows when being informed by United Artists that the film was now $3 million over budget and they were threatening to shut the production down. A frantic Coppola managing to negotiate a deal where the company would put up the funds on the condition that he agreed to pay the $3 million back himself if the film made less than $40 million at the box office. No pressure there then Francis Ford eh?! The $3 million dollars being in the scheme of things actually something of a moot point through the very real possibility that Martin Sheen would not not be fit enough to resume his role of Captain Willard and with that the production being cancelled completely. Part Two Coming Soon