If Francis Ford Coppola knew what he would have to deal with to make Apocalypse Now, maybe he would not have embarked in such enterprise. The project turned out to be an extreme ordeal, even for an experienced and comitted filmmaker like himself.
For over ten years, he struggled with several movie studios for financial support. After that, he spent over three years making the film. In 1978, The New York Times published an article entitled "Apocalypse When?", questioning if the movie would ever be completed due to Coppola's work methods.
In the 1970's, big-budget filmmaking meant a big crew, several locations, construction of big sets, long periods of shooting and long post-production as well. Thirty years ago, there was no computer graphics, every footage had to be fully captured on film. For example, imagine how much easier would it be today to shoot the famous helicopter attack scene with modern technology. There would be no need to have a single helicopter in the shoot. They could all be digitally inserted in post-production. But at the time, Coppola had to negotiate with the Phillipine government to have all those choppers in the scene. Several times in the middle of a complex take, without warning, they would simply fly away to fight rebel forces somewhere else, putting the production on hold indefinitely.
There are a lot of stories about the making of Apocalypse Now. After all, it was a huge production in every aspect. It is based on a classic book - Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad - wich resulted in a great script. It's cast included such stars as Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and future stars Harrison Ford and Lawrence Fishburne, age 15 at the time. Italian cinematographer Vitorio Storaro's work, colorfully captured the madness in the jungle and, last but not least, the original score by Francis father, Carmine Coppola and the music of The Doors, complete the bizarre climate of the film.
Coppola had two friends as partners in the project: screenwriter John Milius (who later became famous for his film Conan, The Barbarian - Arnold Schwarzenegger's breakthrough as an actor) and George Lucas, who had not yet directed his first movie.
John John Milius.
Coppola and Milius planned to shoot the film on location in Vietnam, during the war. After hearing this, Lucas - who was the original director - dropped out of the project. Later, the duo concluded that if they proceeded with this plan, they would most certainly end up dead and abandoned the idea.
At the time, United Artists declined to produce the film because they thougth that Coppola did not have the credentials to direct a big-budget project. But after the huge success of The Godfather (1972) and it's sequel, The Godfather - Part II (1974), both films winners of several Academy Awards, Coppola finally got the green light from the studio.
Dealing with Marlon Brando was very difficult. Despite having recieved US$ 1 million in advance, he threatened to abandon the project before principal photography started. Coppola responded that he would not miss Brando and planned to invite Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino for the part of Colonel Kurtz.
Brando was, at the time, in the beginning of his decadency. Physically out of shape and drinking a lot. He later admitted not having read the book in wich the film was based on and, after reading Coppola's screenplay, refused to do it. After several days of negotiations by phone with Coppola (who was already in the Phillipines), Brando finally agreed to play the part.
Coppola's Kurtz problems seemed to be over, but when Brando showed up on the set, everyone was shocked by his appearance. He was at least, 90 pounds overweight. Very different from the Kurtz Coppola had originally imagined.
This fact made Coppola rethink the character. Instead of a rigid, strong rebel Colonel, Kurtz would be portrayed as a bitter, melancholic leader. The style in wich Kurtz's scenes were shot - always in the dark, among shadows - illustrate this aspect, like the shadow of a once, great man.
The film's delirious style, seems to reflect the madness that characterized it's making. Coppola had to deal with problems that would certainlly drive anyone crazy.
Originally, Harvey Keitel was casted for the part of Capt. Willard. Two weeks after shooting started, Coppola decided to replace his leading actor with Martin Sheen. The schedule projected 16 weeks of shooting, but due to several problems, it went on for over 16 months. Martin Sheen suffered a heart-attack and almost died. He had to go back to America to recuperate, only to return months later. After all this, a hurricane hit the location, destroying all the sets that took months to build.
At one point, Coppola had to invest millions of his own money because the film had gone way beyond it's original budget and the studio refused to increase it's investment.
Legend has it that Coppola threatened to kill himself several times during the shooting of the film.
All this and more is captured in the documentary film
Hearts of Darkness - A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, made by Coppola's wife, Eleanore who, along with their two sons, witnessed her husband's ordeal.
In 1979, after more than three years in the making, Apocalypse Now was presented in the Cannes Film Festival as a "work in progress". It won the Palm D'Or anyway.
During an interview, Francis Coppola stated that "...Apocalypse Now is not a film about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. That's the way I see it. It was pure madness. And the way we did it can be compared to the American involvement in the war: We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had acess to a lot of money, we didn't know how or when all that was going to end and little by little... we went insane.".
In the Golden Globe Awards of 1980, Apocalypse Now was awarded for best director (Coppola), actor in a supportive role (Robert Duvall) and original screenplay (John Milius and Coppola). Besides these, it won Academy Awards for best cinematography (Vitorio Storaro) and sound (Walter Murch).