Feb 9th 2012, 20:14
www.unsungfilms.com by Theo Alexander
My first experience of this film involved a big white sheet tied to two long bamboo sticks on a balcony one summer night. So we set up there and sat down with some drinks, placing a projector behind us. It was insanely hot and there were flies on the sheet, buzzing around. I sat there on the ground with a few others, and watched as it opened with Martin Sheen and the Doors and a little room in Saigon with a fan slowly rotating while Sheen built on this monologue over Jim Morrison’s ‘The End’ playing somewhere behind. We had the redux edition, which ended up as way over three hours long, but it didn’t matter. Actually, I didn’t even feel it, I forgot about time in the strange and beautiful colours and the sounds that surrounded me and almost panicked me. Up until that evening I hadn’t realized what kind of effect film was capable of creating, but it was the intricate details, the immensity of the production that took my breath away. It was the jungle, the landscapes, Marlon Brando, the Vietnam war, T.S. Eliot all clouded in an unreality.
What was behind it all? From the beginning, this is what intrigued me the most. It was such a complex piece of cinema – it felt so loaded and vast. Was it enjoyable to be a part of or was it painful and desperate? As I spent time looking into the film and investigating it, so much was uncovered and the whole process in its entirety became a fascinating subject. Why did Al Pacino turn down the leading role? How and why did Sheen have a heart attack on set? Every part of the film’s production seemed to have so much weight.
It was John Milius who came up with the idea to write a script based on the Vietnam War, encouraged to do so by friends, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. He decided he was going to write his script as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ - but more symbolically than directly, set during the time of Vietnam. He stated, ‘it would have been too simple to have followed the book completely’. He wrote in sometime around 69’ and titled it The Psychedelic Soldier. Francis Ford Coppola picked it up in the end, compelled to start work on a project which would be a statement on the damages of war and the sometimes frightening effect that so much of American society has on the rest of the world.
The casting was a long, long process. For Benjamin Willard, Steve McQueen had been the first choice, but resolutely declined the offer because he didn’t want to leave the United States. Al Pacino was asked but he was afraid of falling ill out in the jungle. Coppola joked that Pacino would have accepted to play Willard, if they’d offered to film solely in his New York apartment. In the end, Harvey Keitel was cast after his performance in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, but replaced two weeks into filming with Martin Sheen, who they’d seen audition for The Godfather. For Kurtz, Coppola had managed to convince Marlon Brando to play, for a ridiculously large payment of 3.5 million (much more at the time). The actor arrived on set well after filming had begun, very fat and not having read ‘Heart of Darkness’ or Coppola’s script. Kurtz was originally meant to appear half-starved and gaunt. The director was infuriated by this, but accepted that there was nothing he could do. To compensate, Brando was dressed entirely in black, filmed in shadows and greatly limited in screen time – it was two and a half hours into the film that he finally appeared. The ending was changed, half his lines were improvised and Coppola read him the entire script out loud on set.
They set off out to the Philippines, where the film was to be set. Funnily enough, filming was originally planned to take place in Queensland for its forested, hilly landscape resembling Vietnam. They instead ended up settling for thePhilippines due to the cheap labour and access to American equipment. The president of the country at the time, Ferdinand Marcos, took helicopters and pilots out of his army to give to the crew for use in the film. Because they were struggling with the emergence of a rebel coup at the same time, both pilots and helicopters would randomly be called back to the army for assistance in the struggle, at crucial points during the filming.
The first scene – the one where Martin Sheen as Benjamin Willard is sitting in his room having been asked to return to Saigon, freaking out – was entirely unscripted. He was also drunk and stoned throughout filming, and everything was improvised. At some point he haphazardly and unexpectedly smashed the mirror, which the crew allowed to be kept in, and at another, he started crying hysterically before lunging at Coppola. Surprisingly, the director was insistent that the cameras just keep on rolling, and the scene be left as it would become. It should also be brought to light that Sheen had a heart attack midway through filming. It is because of this that many of the scenes include doubles and not Sheen, shot from behind, including his brother, Joe Estevez. Coppola was reduced to panic, in fear that on hearing about Sheen’s attack, the studio would call everything off, so nobody outside of the crew ever knew about it. They simply called it ‘heat exhaustion’.
Before Willard meets Kurtz, as his boat floats down the river and into the madman’s camp near the end, the words ‘our motto: Apocalypse Now’ are seen just for an instant, as graffiti on a piece of wall surrounded by bodies. It turns out that this was added into the film for copyright reasons. The film doesn’t contain any opening credits, not even the title – it was for this reason that these words had to appear at some point throughout the film, meaning that the film could be copyrighted as Apocalypse Now.
Other difficulties on set, due to the disaster that turned out to be Marlon Brando, meant that the conclusion of the film had to be totally re-worked. Throughout his appearance on screen, many lines, such as ‘You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill’ were not scripted and completely improvised by the actor. Other times, he is reciting T.S. Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’, a poem which was inspired by Conrad’s book, but the lines originally assigned to Brando’s character were non-existent. At a further point, Dennis Hopper, the crazed photographer, rambles, ‘this is the way the f****n’ world ends, man’ – a play on the final line of Eliot’s poem.
And so I began to understand why it seemed different that anything I had ever seen. It had, in a way, been infinitely more involved than any other film could even claim to be. The development of Apocalypse Now had been an output of life. There they all were, out in some Philippine jungle, away from home for over sixteen months, Francis Ford Coppola, the actors, the camera people all working on this gigantic project with over 200 hours of film. Coppola even ended up losing a hundred pounds, while threatening to commit suicide on several occasions. It kind of makes you think about how far some people are willing to go for their work, and where it all comes from and goes at the end of it all.
Theo Alexander at www.unsungfilms.com
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