Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker‘s Apocalypse


I’m not sure when and where I first saw Apocalypse Now, but it immediately became one of my favorite films and had a huge impact on me as a burgeoning filmmaker.

I was in awe of the spectacle itself, and could feel its episodic quality going from one exciting scene to the next. Most films do not lay claim to such a wide and memorable array of characters from Colonel Kilgore to Mr. Clean, from Dennis Hopper’s riveting portrayal of a drugged-out photographer to Colonel Kurtz himself. All those characters and the many more that populate Apocalypse Now have never left my mind. Truly remarkable.

So, what a blessing it was, when, in the early nineties, Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker‘s Apocalypse came out. I, along with so many others in love with the medium of film, devoured every frame.

It was such a compelling piece of evidence of what perseverance and vision can accomplish. It was also a strong cautionary tale echoing Captain Willard’s sentiment itself: “Never get off the boat, unless you’re going to go all the way.” Regardless of the mega-pitfalls one can encounter in the filmmaking process, sometimes it’s the only chance you’ve got. And as a young filmmaker, I took it all to heart, both the pros and cons.

Hearts Of Darkness is a remarkable documentary about a “man” and his “movie.” Said “man” is director Francis Ford Coppola and said “movie” is Apocalypse Now. The director of the documentary itself is Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, commissioned by United Artists to produce a behind-the-scenes publicity piece—who ultimately rewarded us all with a feature-length testament to unyielding perseverance in the heart of a very harrowing, but ultimately fulfilling, journey to create an epic film.

I use the term “movie” (which can have a sophomoric intonation) for effect because in this case it fits—verified by Coppola because he unapologetically makes no bones about what he wants Apocalypse Now to be: a no-holds-barred, bombastic spectacle of violence, sex and explosions. He desires a perennial entertainment and that‘s what “movie” stands for. Yet it is also very much a “film,” a connotation of art. He went for—and undeniably got—both.

Joseph Conrad's Hearts of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness

Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart Of Darkness, which follows the tenuous journey of a captain manning a commercial boat up the dangerous Congo River to investigate the condition of the company’s Mr. Kurtz, who is suspected of malevolently running amok at the end of the road. The suspicions are confirmed; Kurtz, it turns out, has lost all contact with the civilized world, both geographically and psychologically, and has set up his own self-serving kingdom of dread at water’s end.

An adaptation of Heart of Darkness was to be Orson Welles’s first project in Hollywood, but was ultimately deemed too financially unwieldy a project to be undertaken by the studio. In consequence, we got Citizen Kane. Decades later, Hearts of Darkness was realized as a TV movie starring John Malkovich as the madman on the finale shore.

Coppola set his vision in Vietnam, yet followed the basic conceit of the source material, that of a boat’s upriver journey to deal with (and in this version, the death-hand to) a twisted intellectual demigod, this time played by Marlon Brando. Martin Sheen took the role of the captain on the ambiguous mission and among the myriad problems that beset the production, he suffered a heart attack in the middle of the shoot. A double was used until the actor returned to good form some weeks later. Oh, and just to back up a bit, Harvey Keitel originally had the role of Captain Willard and was painfully fired during production. Add to that a typhoon wrecking sets and other contentious cast members wreaking havoc on Coppola’s psyche.

Apocalypse Now was a big budget film, very big for its time, but it’s making comes off as a very personal endeavor. You can see how far Coppola became entrenched in it, a true labor of love and angst, even putting up his personal assets as financial collateral to pump more cash into the film. Yet, whether it’s a crisis in the realm of money or with the vagaries of the eccentric cast, Coppola and his people soldier on. The production lasted about a year.

Francis Ford Coppola on set of Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola on set of Apocalypse Now

The shoot takes place in the Philippines, with the film company using President Ferdinand Marcos’ helicopter fleet to portray American air cavalry forces. On abrupt occasions, the copters are jettisoned from the shoot to go do the real thing, when rebel forces that Marcos’s government are battling are suspected to be close at hand. This of course, throws the already taxed production into additional tailspins. Painful as it is, it’s all ultimately worth it as we’re treated to some of the most spectacular air attack scenes ever filmed. And by cranking a little bit of Wagner during the awe evoking assault, this scene has become an iconic lodestar in cinema history.

This is not a talking-heads doc, but when it does pause to get some fixed reflection, we get some wonderful anecdotes from the likes of Martin Sheen, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest and Laurence Fishburne. Other encounters with the cast come in the form of a very close fly on the wall.

Dennis Hopper appears as the wild child that we’ve come to know and love; he’s as zany off-screen as he is on, in the role of an American journalist jovially, yet quite intensely, marooned at the end of this jungle road. We find him with Coppola, haggling over the fact that Hopper doesn’t have the right to forget his lines if he hasn’t learned them in the first place. Nonetheless, Hopper is a memorable presence on the screen and doesn’t fail

Marlon Brando shows up on set for an unprecedented salary of a million dollars per week, for three weeks, to play Colonel Kurtz. He’s arrived more overweight than they suspected (far from the emaciated specter of Mr. Kurtz in the book—it’ll just have to be indicated that he‘s been eating very well these days), and then another shocking fact reveals itself: he hasn’t even read the novella that the film is based on, forcing intense, elongated discussions between Brando and Coppola, which eats up the clock. These are some of the precious moments that give this documentary it’s invaluable place in portrayals of the filmmaking process.

John Milius co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola, but Coppola himself feels he still doesn’t have a satisfactory end for the film and we share Francis’s struggle to arrive at some meaningful conclusion. When he does come up with one, he admits he’s not completely happy with it—but it can be respectfully argued that the ultimate results are very satisfying, both cinematically and metaphorically.

With Apocalypse Now, Coppola created a masterpiece—and Hearts of Darkness is a testament to the unrelenting passion of one man’s vision, which overcame nail-biting odds to come out on the other side to share the best picture prize at Cannes in 1979.

Consequently, Hearts of Darkness should be an inspiration to any up-and-coming filmmaker as well as those that have been around the block, tired out and now need a little kick in the butt to get back in gear.

Also, be sure to check out Eleanor’s account of this extravagant odyssey in her memoir Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now. A great read.