While working as an assistant for Francis Ford Coppola on The Rain People, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg encouraged their friend and filmmaker John Milius to write a Vietnam War film. Milius had wanted to volunteer for the war, and was disappointed when he was rejected for having asthma. Milius came up with the idea for adapting the plot of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War setting. He had read the novel when he was a teenager and was reminded about it by one of his college lecturers who had mentioned the several unsuccessful attempts to adapt it into a movie.[note 1]
Coppola gave Milius $15,000 to write the screenplay with the promise of an additional $10,000 if it were green-lit. Milius claims that he wrote the screenplay in 1969 and originally called it The Psychedelic Soldier. He wanted to use Conrad's novel as "a sort of allegory. It would have been too simple to have followed the book completely".
Milius based the character of Willard and some of Kurtz's on a friend of his, Fred Rexer. Rexer claimed to have experienced, first-hand, the scene related by Brando's character wherein the arms of villagers are hacked off by the Viet Cong. Kurtz was based on Robert B. Rheault, head of special forces in Vietnam. Scholars have never found any evidence to corroborate Rexer's claim, nor any similar Viet Cong behavior, and consider it an urban legend.
At one point, Coppola told Milius, "Write every scene you ever wanted to go into that movie", and he wrote ten drafts, amounting to over a thousand pages. Milius changed the film's title to Apocalypse Now after being inspired by a button badge popular with hippies during the 1960s that said "Nirvana Now". He was also influenced by an article written by Michael Herr titled, "The Battle for Khe Sanh", which referred to drugs, rock 'n' roll, and people calling airstrikes down on themselves. He was also inspired by such films as Dr Strangelove.
Milius says the classic line "Charlie don't surf" was inspired by a comment Ariel Sharon made during the Six Day War, when he went skin diving after capturing enemy territory and announced "We're eating their fish". He says the line "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning" just came to him.
Milius had no desire to direct the film himself and felt that Lucas was the right person for the job. Lucas worked with Milius for four years developing the film, alongside his work on other films, including his script for Star Wars. He approached Apocalypse Now as a black comedy, and intended to shoot the film after making THX 1138, with principal photography to start in 1971. Lucas' friend and producer Gary Kurtz traveled to the Philippines, scouting suitable locations. They intended to shoot the film in both the rice fields between Stockton and Sacramento, California and on-location in Vietnam, on a $2 million budget, cinéma vérité style, using 16 mm cameras, and real soldiers, while the war was still going on. However, due to the studios' safety concerns and Lucas' involvement with American Graffiti and Star Wars, Lucas decided to shelve the project for the time being.
Coppola was drawn to Milius' script, which he described as "a comedy and a terrifying psychological horror story". In the spring of 1974, Coppola discussed with friends and co-producers Fred Roos and Gray Frederickson the idea of producing the film. He asked Lucas and then Milius to direct Apocalypse Now, but both men were involved with other projects; in Lucas' case, he got the go-ahead to make Star Wars, and declined the offer to direct Apocalypse Now. Coppola was determined to make the film and pressed ahead himself. He envisioned the film as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. The director said that he wanted to take the audience "through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war".
In 1975, while promoting The Godfather Part II in Australia, Coppola and his producers scouted possible locations for Apocalypse Now in Cairns in northern Queensland, that had jungle resembling Vietnam. He decided to make his film in the Philippines for its access to American equipment and cheap labor. Production coordinator Fred Roos had already made two low-budget films there for Monte Hellman, and had friends and contacts in the country. Coppola spent the last few months of 1975 revising Milius' script and negotiating with United Artists to secure financing for the production. According to Frederickson, the budget was estimated between $12–14 million. Coppola's American Zoetrope assembled $8 million from distributors outside the United States and $7.5 million from United Artists who assumed that the film would star Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Gene Hackman. Frederickson went to the Philippines and had dinner with President Ferdinand Marcos to formalize support for the production and to allow them to use some of the country's military equipment.
Steve McQueen was Coppola's first choice to play Willard, but the actor did not accept because he did not want to leave America for 17 weeks. Al Pacino was also offered the role but he too did not want to be away for that long a period of time and was afraid of falling ill in the jungle as he had done in the Dominican Republic during the shooting of The Godfather Part II. Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and James Caan were approached to play either Kurtz or Willard.
Coppola and Roos had been impressed by Martin Sheen's screen test for Michael in The Godfather and he became their top choice to play Willard, but the actor had already accepted another project and Harvey Keitel was cast in the role based on his work in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. Principal photography began three weeks later. Within a few days, Coppola was unhappy with Harvey Keitel's take on Willard, saying that the actor "found it difficult to play him as a passive onlooker". After viewing early footage, the director took a plane back to Los Angeles and replaced Keitel with Martin Sheen. By early 1976, Coppola had persuaded Marlon Brando to play Kurtz for an enormous fee of $3.5 million for a month's work on location in September 1976. Dennis Hopper was cast as a kind of Green Beret sidekick for Kurtz and when Coppola heard him talking nonstop on location, he remembered putting "the cameras and the Montagnard shirt on him, and we shot the scene where he greets them on the boat".James Caan was the first choice to play colonel Lucas. Caan wanted too much money for what was considered a minor part in the movie. Harrison Ford was eventually cast as Colonel Lucas.
On March 1, 1976, Coppola and his family flew to Manila and rented a large house there for the five-month shoot. Sound and photographic equipment had been coming in from California since late 1975.
Typhoon Olga wrecked the sets at Iba and on May 26, 1976, production was closed down. Dean Tavoularis remembers that it "started raining harder and harder until finally it was literally white outside, and all the trees were bent at forty-five degrees". One part of the crew was stranded in a hotel and the others were in small houses that were immobilized by the storm. The Playboy Playmate set had been destroyed, ruining a month's shooting that had been scheduled. Most of the cast and crew went back to the United States for six to eight weeks. Tavoularis and his team stayed on to scout new locations and rebuild the Playmate set in a different place. Also, the production had bodyguards watching constantly at night and one day the entire payroll was stolen. According to Coppola's wife, Eleanor, the film was six weeks behind schedule and $2 million over budget.
Coppola flew back to the U.S. in June 1976. He read a book about Genghis Khan to get a better handle on the character of Kurtz. After filming commenced, Marlon Brando arrived in Manila very overweight and began working with Coppola to rewrite the ending. The director downplayed Brando's weight by dressing him in black, photographing only his face, and having another, taller actor double for him in an attempt to portray Kurtz as an almost mythical character.
After Christmas 1976, Coppola viewed a rough assembly of the footage but still needed to improvise an ending. He returned to the Philippines in early 1977 and resumed filming. On March 5, 1977, Sheen had a heart attack and struggled for a quarter of a mile to reach help. He was back on the set on April 19. A major sequence in a French plantation cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but was cut from the final film. Rumors began to circulate that Apocalypse Now had several endings but Richard Beggs, who worked on the sound elements, said, "There were never five endings, but just the one, even if there were differently edited versions". These rumors came from Coppola departing frequently from the original screenplay. Coppola admitted that he had no ending because Brando was too fat to play the scenes as written in the original script. With the help of Dennis Jakob, Coppola decided that the ending could be "the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it's the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough".
A water buffalo was slaughtered with a machete for the climactic scene. The scene was inspired by a ritual performed by a local Ifugao tribe which Coppola had witnessed along with his wife (who filmed the ritual later shown in the documentary Hearts of Darkness) and film crew. Although this was an American production subject to American animal cruelty laws, scenes like this filmed in the Philippines were not policed or monitored and the American Humane Association gave the film an "unacceptable" rating. Principal photography ended on May 21, 1977.
Japanese composer Isao Tomita was scheduled to provide an original score, with Coppola desiring the film's soundtrack to sound like Tomita's electronic adaptation of The Planets by Gustav Holst. Tomita went as far as to accompany the film crew in the Philippines, but label contracts ultimately prevented his involvement. In the summer of 1977, Coppola told Walter Murch that he had four months to assemble the sound. Murch realized that the script had been narrated but Coppola abandoned the idea during filming. Murch thought that there was a way to assemble the film without narration but it would take ten months and decided to give it another try. He put it back in, recording it all himself. By September, Coppola told his wife that he felt "there is only about a 20% chance [I] can pull the film off". He convinced United Artists executives to delay the premiere from May to October 1978. Author Michael Herr received a call from Zoetrope in January 1978 and was asked to work on the film's narration based on his well-received book about Vietnam, Dispatches. Herr said that the narration already written was "totally useless" and spent a year writing various narrations with Coppola giving him very definite guidelines.
Murch had problems trying to make a stereo soundtrack for Apocalypse Now because sound libraries had no stereo recordings of weapons. The sound material brought back from the Philippines was inadequate, because the small location crew lacked the time and resources to record jungle sounds and ambient noises. Murch and his crew fabricated the mood of the jungle on the soundtrack. Apocalypse Now had novel sound techniques for a movie, as Murch insisted on recording the most up-to-date gunfire and employed the Dolby Stereo 70 mm Six Track system for the 70mm release. This used two channels of sound from behind the audience as well as three channels of sound from behind the movie screen. The 35mm release used the new Dolby Stereo optical stereo system, that has a single surround channel and three screen channels.
In May 1978, Coppola postponed the opening until spring of 1979 and screened a "work in progress" for 900 people in April 1979 that was not well received. That same year, he was invited to screen Apocalypse Now at the Cannes Film Festival. United Artists were not keen on showing an unfinished version in front of so many members of the press but Coppola remembered that The Conversation won the Palme d'Or and agreed, less than a month prior to the start of the festival, to screen Apocalypse Now at Cannes. The week prior to Cannes, Coppola arranged three sneak previews of slightly different versions. He allowed critics to attend the screenings and believed that they would honor the embargo placed on reviews. On May 14, Rona Barrett reviewed the film on television and called it "a disappointing failure". At Cannes, Zoetrope technicians worked during the night before the screening to install additional speakers on the theater walls, to achieve Murch's 5.1 soundtrack. On August 15, 1979 Apocalypse Now was released in the U.S. in 15 theaters equipped to play the first Dolby Stereo 70mm film with stereo surround sound.