Kurtz’s horror almost Coppola’s Waterloo

Francis Ford Coppola

Once upon a time, John Milius wrote a script titled “Apocalypse Now” as a guerrilla 16mm film project in which his USC filmmaking buddy George Lucas and a tiny crew were to risk life and limb filming this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” in Vietnam during the war. (Milius’ new title was his impish response to the popular hippie button, “Nirvana Now.”) Milius ended his saga with covert operations agent Willard and the reclusive, renegade Col. Kurtz defeating a North Vietnamese platoon, then shooting down the American copter attempting to rescue them because, as Milius’ men say, “we had fought too hard for this land.”

Warners, Lucas later recalled in the Fax Bahr/George Hickenlooper documentary, “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” yanked funding because “they figured we would all be killed.”

A certain degree of filmmaking madness had thus always permeated the making of “Apocalypse Now,” long before Francis Ford Coppola decided in 1975, flush from the massive double success of the first two “Godfather” films, to resurrect Milius’ script and film it on the kind of budget that only the “Godfather” master could command.

But, as Coppola’s producer Fred Roos recalls now, little did anyone realize that from the little Milius 16mm acorn would grow into a $30 million-plus epic. Savaged by typhoons, movie star egos, firings, sickness, heart attacks, a Filipino civil war, financial crises, a director contemplating suicide and — perhaps most critically — a script with an unresolved ending, “Apocalypse Now” can now be viewed as a movie that by all logic was impossible to make, killing lives and careers in its wake. And yet it defied logic, won Oscars, and made money.

An early, fateful decision, according to Roos, was selecting locations in the Philippines rather than the heavily tropical Port Douglas, Australia, region (where, ironically, Coppola’s contemporary, Terrence Malick, has been filming his World War II epic, “The Thin Red Line”). “We could have obviously shot much faster there, and even possibly kept to our original 14-week schedule, shooting in Australia,” Roos notes. “But the Australian actors union required almost 100% Australian casting, which made it impossible.”

Because of Roos’ previous production experience in the Philippines, his network of contacts greased the “Apocalypse” production wheels, though he acknowledges that they did have to do business with the devil while negotiating with Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos for use of his military materiel and personnel. “We had tried the U.S. Army,” explains Roos, “and they never gave us a quick ‘no.’ They strung us along through endless meetings, and then finally turned us down.” During shooting, armed Filipino aircraft had to be diverted away from such critical scenes as the copter invasion led by Robert Duvall’s Kilgore, in order to fight insurgent rebels in the nearby jungle.

The movie’s other early crisis was Coppola’s decision to fire Harvey Keitel after a week’s shooting in early April 1976 and replace him in the central role of Willard with Martin Sheen, who had previously screen-tested for Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.” Although press reports at the time referred to a contract dispute as being the cause of Keitel’s departure, Roos now denies these accounts: “There was never a contract dispute with Harvey.

“His performance just wasn’t working onscreen. Harvey and the role weren’t working together. And Harvey is pretty much a city animal, and he was really not a happy camper in the jungle. Still, Francis’ decision was really risky, gutsy and totally surprising — it’s just really rare to recast your lead while in production.” (Keitel could not be reached for comment by presstime.)

Shooting divided into what became four phases, and phase one ended with a devastating typhoon that hit the production’s coastal location in late May 1976. Although Coppola attempted to use the typhoon atmosphere in one scene, it was subsequently cut from the film, and with massive damage to designer Dean Tavoularis’ sets, production went into hiatus, and resumed in early August.

“The typhoon,” reflects Sam Bottoms, who played the surfing soldier Lance, “was our passage into a black hole, and it changed everything.”

In what was surely Coppola’s most important directorial choice — one which the film’s critics considers its fatal flaw —Milius’ script was no longer to be the production’s blueprint. As his wife Eleanor Coppola explained in both the narration of “Hearts of Darkness” and her frank diary account of the filming, “Notes,” the director would now re-explore the moral issues surrounding Conrad’s Kurtz character, jettison what he considered Milius’ “gung-ho, comic-book ending,” and mix in improvised elements of what would be experienced by being in the jungle itself.

And, with Marlon Brando committing a mere three weeks to shooting his role as Kurtz, threatening at one point to bolt the tardy production while pocketing his $1 million advance, and then consuming valuable time conferring privately with Coppola and Sheen on the Kurtz-Willard scenes while the cast and crew waited, Roos was foreseeing the shoot slipping into a financial hole. “The potential overage once the Brando scenes were being filmed was getting pretty scary,” he says. “Brando’s contract stipulated that he would be paid an (unspecified) daily fee for every day over the three week limit.

“And we still had months of shooting after the fall of ’76.”

Eleanor Coppola reports in “Notes” and in “Hearts” that Brando had obviously not read the Conrad novella as he had promised Coppola. In his autobiography, “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me,” Brando contradicts this, suggesting that he worked to inform Coppola himself on the meaning of Conrad’s themes of good and evil, even insisting that “I spent about 10 days on a houseboat completely rewriting the movie,” and that “besides restructuring the plot, I wrote Kurtz’ speeches …” No one involved with the production, on or off the record, has confirmed Brando’s account.

This puzzling “Rashomon” syndrome aside, what is known is that Coppola filmed Brando in a 45-minute death scene that Bottoms terms “incredible, the most amazing speech I’ve ever seen an actor give on-camera. It allowed Brando as Kurtz to explain what Kurtz had done, why he was there.” Ironically, in his autobiography, Brando disparaged Milius’ script as “awful … most of it simply didn’t make dramatic sense,” and that his “part must have had 30 pages of dialogue; it went on and on while going no place theatrically.”

Of that 45 minutes, Coppola preserved no more than 15 seconds, in which Kurtz utters his dying words quoting T.S. Eliot, “The horror … the horror.”

Indeed, huge chunks of scripted and filmed material never made it to even the rough cut, which this writer viewed in the first public screening, on May 11, 1979, at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood. In this cut, Coppola keeps Willard at dead Kurtz’ compound as the heir to Kurtz’s throne. The subsequent theatrical version has Willard and Lance departing, and the compound destroyed by a U.S. air strike. A third ending survives to the video letterbox print, which excises the air strike conflagration.)

Among the cutting room floor footage, Bottoms recalls not only a lengthy semi-comic sequence in which each man on Willard’s boat makes love to a Playboy bunny, and the well-known “French plantation” sequence (scenes of which are shown in the “Hearts” film), but key scenes involving Lance.

“I had a scene with Dennis Hopper as the crazy photojournalist, where we’re standing in the river, and he tells me that Willard is here to kill Kurtz — just like the tribe is about to sacrifice a water buffalo. Later, Francis took two days filming me trading in my gun for a spear, my uniform for a loincloth, and I joined the tribe and went into the jungle. But the lab told Francis there was a scratch on the negative, and it couldn’t be re-shot.”

The final phase of filming “Apocalypse,” in the summer of ’77, did not take place in the Philippines, but, rather, on the Sacramento Delta and in Coppola’s Napa, Calif., backyard, where various insert and pick-up shots were filmed. Such crucial elements as author Michael Herr’s narration, according to Coppola biographer Peter Cowie, were not written and recorded until the early months of 1978.

And the movie was still 13 months away from its appearance at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, where it shared the Palme d’Or with Volker Schlondorff’s “The Tin Drum,” and where Coppola stunned a press conference with his confession that “the way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam: We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money and equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Roos now says that “while Martin (Sheen’s) heart attack (in late March ’77) was a terrifying moment for all of us, Francis having to take a time-out from filming to recover his psychological equilibrium — and that’s what it was — was one of the most sobering moments during the entire shoot.”

What kept the cast and crew going, some 10 months past schedule? Bottoms sums it up in tellingly combat grunt terms: “We had to accept it, because we never knew when we were being ‘discharged.’ I was committed to being there for Francis, because he was the leader. I would have gone to hell and back for him, because he was extremely accessible to actors, gave totally of himself, and wanted our input.”

Bottoms believes, now, that there’s one unfinished chapter in the life of “Apocalypse”: “I hope Francis goes back, retrieves the cut footage, and edits together his dream version of 4-1/2 hours. The stuff that was cut would blow people away.”

A version, it might be added, that would only add to the film’s stunning worldwide gross of more than $100 million — this from a project that was nearly Francis Ford Coppola’s Waterloo.

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