Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 tour de force epic about the Vietnam War, is a rare film where the infamously perilous shoot rivaled the onscreen drama. At his Cannes press conference, after unveiling the (yet unfinished) cut, Coppola himself said, "We had access to too much money, too much equipment. We built villages in the jungle and the weather destroyed them, and we went insane. Eventually I realized that I was not making the movie. The movie was making itself - or the jungle was making it for me" (Cowie 131).
Ten years earlier, in 1969, John Milius wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now. While at UCLA, Milius' mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, claimed that Heart of Darkness was impossible to adapt - even the great Orson Welles had failed to crack it. Milius decided that he was up to the challenge, updating the setting from the French-occupied Congo to the Vietnam War - a subject, according to Peter Biskind, that "was still too sensitive for Hollywood to touch" (Biskind 246). According to Milius, the title is based on "a button badge popular among hippies during the 1960s - [that read] 'Nirvana Now'" (Cowie 120).
Originally, George Lucas was the intended director, planning to make Apocalypse Now as a $2 million documentary-style film about Vietnam with real soldiers. Lucas had done some prep work already, but he knew "no studio would finance a film on the Vietnam War while it was still raging" (Cowie 5). He thought that making American Graffiti first would give him the status and clout he would need to get Apocalypse Now off the ground. After that film was done, though, Lucas got swept up in an epic of his own: Star Wars.
However, by 1974, Francis Ford Coppola was fresh off the massive success of The Godfather films and recognized the timeliness of Apocalypse Now. With Lucas otherwise engaged, Coppola decided to direct the film himself. He figured it would make a lot of money and finally resuscitate his studio Zoetrope's financial stability. "My thought was to do some virtuoso directing, and get on with what I'd always thought I wanted to do - which is which is to have my own film company, and my own studio, and really get to work" (Cowie 7). Coppola thought that Apocalypse Now would be his opportunity to make a film easily. Walter Murch says that Coppola imagined it as "a big outdoor opera...he thought he would be in his shorts, run around in the jungle, swim, and make a film that was far from the kinds of issues and dynamics that he had previously worked on" (Cowie 7). He could not have been more wrong.
Apocalypse Now was the most difficult film of Coppola's career, more challenging than most directors will experience in a lifetime. "It was a hellish shoot, the difficulties compounded by Coppola's arrogance" (Biskind 347). The US Department of Defense would not support the film and rejected producer Fred Roos' requests for military advisors, escorts, aircrafts, vehicles, and radios. However, the Filipino government, specifically, President Ferdinand Marcos, was much more amenable - making it the most attractive location for the shoot, despite the risk of political upheaval and unpredictable weather.
In October 1975, The Philippines Department of National Defense signed a contract with Coppola, agreeing to provide the production with equipment, personnel, and "twenty Huey helicopters for the aerial attack sequence" (Cowie 16). On paper, it seemed perfect - but in practice, the situation was not so simple. The Filipino government kept pulling the helicopters off set to fight the rebel forces that were rising up in the southern part of the country, leading to extensive delays.
That wasn't the only challenge, though. After a month of shooting in the Philippines with Harvey Keitel in the role of Willard, Coppola fired him and re-cast the role with Martin Sheen, which necessitated re-shoots for all of Keitel's scenes and put the film even further behind schedule. Coppola was constantly rewriting the screenplay on set, a practice that had worked for him before, but the stakes were much higher this time. As a result, the crew never knew what scenes were being shot when they arrived on set, and would not have a chance to prepare adequately. In addition, the heat was vicious and the hours were long, and after hours the cast and crew would party as hard as they worked - Coppola included. He is rumored to have thrown himself an $8,000 party for his 37th birthday.
In addition, Coppola's nasty temper emerged regularly - he was throwing things at his crew, firing people, and trashing equipment. Certainly, his recent success had affected his ego, but he became increasingly concerned that Apocalypse Now was going to be a massive, career-ending failure. In the midst of the shoot, Coppola's wife, Eleanor, wrote in her diary: "More and more, it seems like there are parallels between the character of Kurtz and Francis. There is the exhilaration of power in the face of losing everything, like the excitement of war when one kills and takes the chances of being killed" (Cowie 123).
When it looked like things couldn't get any worse, on May 19, 1976, Typhoon Didang (or Olga) hit the Philippines. It was the worst storm the region had seen in 40 years. The storm destroyed many of Apocalypse Now's sets. The crew was stranded, some of them without electricity or drinking water (Coppola, meanwhile, was shacked up in a hotel with a porn actress). The production had to be shut down. Coppola returned to San Francisco "with ninety hours of rushes and only 8 minutes of cut, usable film" (Biskind 351). By this point, the production was 6 weeks behind schedule, and nearly $3 million over budget. Coppola did not yet have a completed script and the end was nowhere in sight. The director was forced to make a difficult deal with United Artists for a $3 million loan - if Apocalypse Now did not earn over $40,000,000, Coppola himself would be personally responsible for paying the studio back.
So began the second phase of production on Apocalypse Now, and Coppola returned to the Philippines to pick up where he left off. Soon, the lavish set for the Kurtz compound had been rebuilt. Marlon Brando, who was to be paid $1 million a week to play the role of Kurtz, brought with him a whole new set of challenges: he wanted to sleep on a houseboat, he was terrifically overweight and insecure about it, and he had done no preparation for his part as Kurtz - he had not even read Heart of Darkness. Coppola was still struggling to figure out a way to end the film. Despite his limited shoot days, Brando wanted to spend hours discussing his character with Coppola, holding up the shoot endlessly. As the days dragged on, Coppola was losing control and his behavior was getting increasingly erratic, much to his wife's concern. She wrote in her diary, "It is scary to watch someone you love go into the center of himself and confront his fears, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane" (Cowie 126). Between Francis' flagrant infidelity and rampant self-doubt, the Coppolas' marriage was in trouble.
On March 5, 1977, Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Needless to say, the anxiety on set was palpable, and it spread all the way back to the United Artists offices in New York City. Coppola was furious with his assistant for letting the news of Sheen's ill health reach all the way to the States, and UA's concerns made him even more determined to keep shooting. They shot whatever they could without their star and when Sheen recovered a month later, went back and finished shooting all his close-ups. Finally on May 21, 1977, 14 months after the first day of shooting and 238 days of production, Apocalypse Now wrapped. Coppola's struggle was not over yet, though - post production lay ahead.
Peter Cowie writes, "for almost two years, [the post-production team] would toil in Rutherford, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to draw structure from the raw marble of the movie brought back from the Philippines" (Cowie 99). One major component of the editing process was to craft the narration - for which Coppola brought in Michael Herr. Famed sound editor Walter Murch had very little to work with by way of live sound - the tight schedule had prevented the production sound team from getting clean dialogue and effects. Back then, effects libraries did not have contemporary war sounds, and so Murch and his colleagues crafted the jungle soundscape from scratch. Ultimately, Murch would be rewarded with an Academy Award for his innovative techniques.
Much to Francis Ford Coppola's (and United Artists') relief and joy, Apocalypse Now was a hit, grossing $75 million during its United States theatrical run. It won the Palme d'Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival (Coppola's second after The Conversation). Even though a few critics were divided on the film - Time Magazine's Frank Rich called it "emotionally obtuse and intellectually empty," It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards - Besides Murch, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro also took home an Oscar for his work. Today, The American Film Institute ranks Apocalypse Now #19 on the list of greatest films of the 20th Century. Coppola's embattled masterpiece has lived on in both pop culture and as major triumph of American filmmaking, capturing a moment in history right as it was occurring. As Coppola said in a press conference - "the film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam".