When Francis Ford Coppola started filming his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now in the Philippines in 1976, his wife, Eleanor, began to chronicle the making of her husband’s project — in a journal that became the 1979 book Notes, and on film. The documentary footage shot by Eleanor Coppola forms the heart of Hearts of Darkness, which caused a gossipy stir when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
You may remember all the stories about what a headache Apocalypse Now was to film — bad weather, bad actors (well, naughty, at least: Marlon Brando wanted to improvise his part rather than follow the screenplay, we’re told), and a bad script (Coppola and writer John Milius took separate shots at adapting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for Apocalypse; Coppola here refers to their work as ”The Idiodyssey”). But it’s one thing to read about the problems on a faraway movie set; it’s another to watch Eleanor’s film of Apocalypse star Martin Sheen, so drunk he can’t stand up, trying to complete a crucial scene in Apocalypse. Sheen succeeds only in cutting his hand when he accidentally smashes a mirror. (Soon after, Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack, and we hear Coppola on location, yelling at an associate, trying to avoid bad publicity and carrying the director-as-God thing a bit far: ”If Marty dies, I want to hear that everything’s okay until I say Marty is dead!”)
If you read the excellent, recently reprinted Notes, you’ll understand that Eleanor had noble artistic intentions in doing a making-of-Apocalypse film, but when you watch her footage in Hearts, you might feel a bit like a voyeur spying on other people’s trying times. Eleanor shows her husband at the height of egomania (”My film isn’t about Vietnam; it is Vietnam…It’s like a great war itself”) and in the depths of despair (”Everybody says, ‘Well, Francis works best in a crisis,’ but this is one crisis I’m not going to pull myself out of”). There’s a level on which Coppola seems to be reveling in his agony; even when he bellows to his wife, ”I’m thinking of shooting myself!” you get the feeling he means only with a camera.
Hearts of Darkness director Fax Bahr has taken Eleanor’s footage and folded in recent interviews with Coppola and various Apocalypse participants — wry, illuminating chats with actors as well as businesspeople, who look back not in anger but in amused bemusement. Hearts gives us a very good idea of what moviemaking madness is all about. A-