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-