Recently I bought the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam film Apocalypse Now. The behind-the-scenes footage and interviews reflect how the adaptation of Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness closely paralleled the production experience of Director Coppola and other members of the cast and crew.
Coppola, sporting the artistic momentum and financial windfall of his first two Godfather films, had already spent years pursuing his vision of trying what Orson Welles had failed to do decades earlier: bring Conrad's troubling manuscript to the silver screen. Escorting his family and crew to the Philippines, Coppola launched the directorial effort that gradually began to mirror the film's storyline of Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) traveling up the river to assassinate Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando.)
At one point a monsoon destroyed the set, halting production for a couple of months. Sheen then suffered a heart attack, again interrupting the production.
Along the way, Coppola's wife Eleanor shot copious amounts of film, narrating how her husband was “in a place within himself he never intended to reach…he can’t go back down the river because the journey has changed him.” She continued, “I was playing the observer, but realized I was on the journey too and can’t go back to the way it was…everyone here seems to be going through things that are changing them profoundly, changing them their perspective on the world.”
Sheen's challenge was to transform his mindset into that of the fictional Willard's, someone who could conceivably commit an assassination of a fellow American soldier. Willard, Coppola noted, “must have that 'Kurtzian' other side in him.” Sheen commented in the behind-the-scenes footage that he had to face his worst enemy–himself. “I was in a chaotic, spiritual state inside. It was real hard for me to reveal myself.” The actor, Coppola added, was “full of a lot of love…when you asked him to examine his darker nature, it meant closing himself down more…in order to find the killer who could carry out the task and kill Kurtz.”
Coppola also commented on how the job of film director was “one of the few dictatorial roles left in a world getting more democratic.” He thought this dynamic, plus his own wealth and success, was contributing to a state of mind that was like Kurtz's own. “It takes courage to look in and see that twisted mind that lays beneath the surface and say, 'Yes, I accept you…I even love you because you’re a part of me,” Brando's character asserts.
As the production swelled in budget and length of time, Coppola had to admit that he “didn’t know what he was doing,” that “the script didn’t make sense.” He lamented on camera, “I’m like a voice crying out, saying, 'Please, it’s not working, get me off this…this is one crisis I’m not going to pull myself out of..why can’t I just have the courage to say, 'It’s no good?'”
Coppola, noted his wife, “had gone to the threshold of his sanity…it was scary but exhilarating that he would take such risks for himself…this film was all about risking: your money, your sanity, how far you could press your family members.”
A greater risk, added the director, was the possibility of making a “pretentious movie.” He said, “Here you are aspiring to really do something, but trying not to be pretentious…it had to have some answers, on about 47 different levels. It’s a renaissance, a rebirth, which is the basis for all life. The one rule for all man from the time he started walking around, the first concept that entered their head was the idea of life and death. The sun went up and the sun went down. A crop lived and died. You thought it was the end of the world, and then it was spring.”
I bought the $2 used VHS copy of this documentary on Amazon.com because I am seeking further insights into my own characters in my incomplete novel. About 50,000 words in, I am struggling to take things to a deeper level. My chief protagonist is a journalist who is on a work-related journey that must simply serve as a metaphor for the odyssey he is taking into his own darkness, disappointments and pain.
And I am in a sense taking this journey with my character, just like Coppola took it along with Willard and Eleanor Coppola and the actor Sheen and the others involved. I wanted to understand more of what it took, what price was paid, for this now classic film to become reality. I am giving gradual birth to this artistic project as I face some of my own Kurtzian nature, as I grapple with mid-life and the experiences, joys and pains that have lent paint to the canvas of my travels up the banks to date.
Despite the odds against him, Coppola did finally finish his film. It made a lot of money and, while not universally admired, has a definite cult following. His life was changed, but his prize was completed. And then, of course, Coppola was off to the next production, for he cannot help but be an artist and create work that in some way reflects the condition of his own soul. Anything worthwhile and lasting is squeezed through the sieve of suffering.