Thursday, June 19, 2003

238 Days or Less

"My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It is what it was really like. It was crazy. And 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."
So said Francis Ford Coppola at the 1997 Cannes Film Fest discussing the making of APOCALYPSE NOW. All the insanity and more is captured in the 1991 documentary HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE which was created using footage shot by Coppola's wife, some of it using cassette recordings and footage shot surreptitiously. Was this a precursor to those reality t.v. shows? Oh wait - there is nothing remotely "reality" about them but I digress.
The making of HEARTS OF DARKNESS goes something like this: In Feb. 1976 Coppola took his entire family to the Philippines, including wife Eleanor and three children all under the age of 12 (a glutton for punishment if ever their was one), to begin filming of APOCALYPSE NOW. To make the film, which took 238 days to shoot in the hot and humid jungles, Coppola went through hell, as well as created it. He hocked all his assets, went $3 million over budget, his original lead actor Harvey Kietel, who was to play the pivotal role of Willard left the film (or was fired - the doc doesn't state the circumstances), his replacement Martin Sheen had a heart attack at the age of 36 in which last rites were performed. Not to mention that Brando was somewhat uncooperative (imagine that! Although he was getting paid $1 million a week and only was contracted for three weeks of filming - damn prima donna), and a fleet of helicopters on loan from then Philippine President Marcos (ya know, the guy with the wife who owned something like 1,000 plus shoes) for key scenes would on occasion just up and leave the set to fight Philippine rebels in the hillside, thus ending filming. Ahh the pleasures of filmmaking. It all came together in the end in the magnificent film that APOCALYPSE NOW is and Coppola walked home from the Academy Awards with an armful of awards but the journey was harrowing.
APOCALYPSE NOW was in Coppola's words supposed to be "a metaphor into self" and me thinks specifically the animated, manic, brilliant, at times insane, Coppola. He had attempted to make the film before the first two Godfathers were ever made but no studio would finance it. After the success of the first two Godfathers Coppola created American Zoetrope, which was Coppola's idea of a film company to be outside of the Hollywood system. APOCALYPSE NOW was to be their first project. Hats off to Coppola's DIY spirit albeit one funded by the huge proceeds from the Godfather films. Multimillionaire Coppola had George Lucas, John Milius and Coppola himself write the script. He gathered up Marlon Brando as Col. Kurtz, initially casting Harvey Keitel and later Martin Sheen as Capt. Willard, Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Kilgore, Dennis Hopper as a whacked out photojournalist, Albert Hall as Chief Quartermaster Phillips, Frederic Forrest as "Chef," and 14 year old Laurence Fishburne as "Mr. Clean." Harrison Ford and Scott Glen also had roles. An ideal "outsiders" casting clusterfuck if their ever was one.
Fishburne as Mr. Clean was maybe Coppola's most interesting casting selection. A 14 year old boy in the middle of a Philippine jungle? Coppola was attempting to reflect the naivete of the American soldiers going to Vietnam, as well as the demographic. Mostly sons of the working class and unable to dodge the draft, many of the soldiers had never left the inner-cites in which they were born and raised in. Vietnam was a parallel universe seen only on t.v. - remote and distant - until the soldiers were unceremoniously set down in the middle of the jungle to fight. Who better than a 14-year old boy who didn't need to act necessarily to reflect the otherworld quality of Vietnam at the time? Fishburne just had to be himself. An air of surrealism surrounds Fishburne's character in the film and the footage from the doc captures this quality in him as well. "The whole thing is really fun. I mean war is fun. Shit," Fishburne comments in HEARTS OF DARKNESS, "You can do anything you want to, that's the way Vietnam was really fun." Strange and disturbing. One of the darkest and saddest moments in the documentary.
In one of the more amusing segments of the documentary Coppola muses over the making of APOCALYPSE NOW and describes the writing process as "idiocy," and predicts that "the film will not be good. A 20 million dollar disaster. I am thinking of shooting myself." Glad he didn't. He made a great film. The documentary is stunning, funny, and difficult at times to watch as Coppola teeters on edge of a breakdown. Watch it drinking a bottle of Heart of Darkness wine (with a killer label designed by Ralph Steadman) or better yet a fine diamond series syrah from Coppola's vineyard - no doubt funded in part by the proceeds from APOCALYPSE NOW.