In an interview aired on San Francisco radio last week, Francis Ford Coppola acknowledged that he could no longer compete with himself — that he couldn’t make the kind of films that made him famous during the 1970s. The Godfather (1972), The Godfather II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979) — they were big, sprawling, masterful films. And they sometimes pushed a young Coppola to the physical and financial brink.
The making of Apocalypse Now is a legendary tale. Shot in the Philippines in 1976, the production ran into immediate problems. After only two weeks, Coppola fired Harvey Keitel, the lead actor, and replaced him with Martin Sheen, who stumbled into chaos upon his arrival. As biographer Robert Sellers noted in The Independent, “Coppola was writing the movie as he went along and firing personnel, people were coming down with varioustropical diseases and the helicopters used in the combat sequences were constantly recalled by President Marcos to fight his own war against anti-government rebels.” And things only got worse from there. Marlon Brando showed up enormously overweight and not knowing his lines. Then, during the difficult filming, Sheen suffered a heart attack, and Coppola himself had a seizure and eventually a nervous breakdown, apparently threatening to commit suicide on several occasions. Speaking about the whole experience years later, Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, said:
It was a journey for him up the river I always felt. He went deeper and deeper into himself and deeper and deeper and deeper into the production. It just got out of control…. The script was evolving and the scenes were changing — it just got larger and more complex. And little by little he got out there as far as his characters. That wasn’t the intention at all at the beginning.
Yes, it’s no wonder that Coppola, now 73 years old, might not have another epic film in him.
Apocalypse Now hit theaters exactly 33 years ago this week. And to commemorate that occasion, we’re serving up a short remix film, Heart of Coppola, that weaves together scenes from the film, footage from behind the scenes, and audio of the great Orson Welles reading from Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novella upon which Apocalypse Now was loosely based. (Find it in our collection of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.)