Apocalypse Now (1979)

Oftentimes our “reviews” here at Motion State aren’t reviews at all, really, but just tangentially-related trivia-night factoids stretched into meandering essays posing as criticism (see here, here, here, here, here, herehere, and here, among others). Think sitting down for dinner and accidentally filling up on appetizers — every now and then it just happens. This is that, essentially, except today we’re filling up on dessert.

During the grueling production of Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal Apocalypse Now, his wife Eleanor took copious notes and video footage with an eventual resolve to distill it all into a documentary about the making of the film. She never found the proper “angle” for a documentary feature, but Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now was eventually published in 1995. And the unedited, uncensored writings are probably a better peek into Apocalypse Now than a film would have been, because here there is no “angle” — there’s only the experience of being there as the film came together.

Notes on the Making of Apocalypse NowBefore it came together, of course, it fell apart. The primary focus of Notes is the three years prior to the theatrical release of the film, seventeen straight weeks of which were spent in the sweltering Philippines jungle. As far as tough shoots go, Apocalypse Now is certainly up there in terms of the sheer number of challenges the cast and crew faced every day. Notes doesn’t deal so much with the physical challenges — though there were typhoons and dangerously hot days to contend with — but delves instead into the emotional difficulties involved with the making of the film. Francis met with more opposition on this shoot than on any other film he had made to date, and his wife chronicles his working out the theme of the film as they were filming, seeking actor after actor only to be met with refusal after refusal, and even sending telegrams to Donald Rumsfeld for funding and military equipment. But Eleanor’s perspective, obviously, is a unique one. Take her notes from the birthday party for their son Roman:

Fred and Gray were there talking about if Jack Nicholson did the picture and they had to give him a percentage, how much each percentage point would be worth if the film made $40 million, and how much they would make if an unknown did the part, and how much if the picture made only $20 million, or if it did $80 million. All the while Roman was at the end of the table opening his presents: $11 swim fins, $1 poker chips, a $2 T-shirt, 15-cent comic books, a pelota ball and some little cap rockets.

In most cases Eleanor presents this stuff without further commentary or judgement, and she seems to know that we’ll see what she sees — which, here, could be juxtapositions of what satisfaction might cost to different people, or could be the ever-present shifting required to go from Moviemaker to Family Member.

Most interesting is the fact that Apocalypse Now casts Willard and Kurtz as two sides of the same doomed coin, a thematic parallel fairly obvious throughout the film (especially in the “if his story is a confession, then so is mine” speech). Remarkably, this cosmic coupling seems to have been an unconscious fact to Coppola even before filming began, even before he reworked much of the script on location in the Philippines. It begins when Coppola approaches Steve McQueen for the part of Willard in 1976. McQueen doesn’t think it’s right, so Coppola says he’s willing to rewrite the part of Willard to better suit him. McQueen is eventually satisfied by Coppola’s changes, but he says the seventeen-week jungle shoot is too much. This becomes somewhat of a theme going forward — who the heck wants to spend months on end on location in hell on earth?

Coppola phones his Godfather stars Al Pacino and Marlon Brando for Willard and Kurtz respectively. Pacino, like McQueen, recognizes the impressive script but has to pass due to the jungle shoot. In Notes Eleanor remarks on how sick Pacino (she calls him “Al”) became during Godfather Part II after just a few weeks of shooting in the Dominican Republic. Again, there’s no degree of judgement in her writing, so we never get the slightest inclination that Coppola considered shortening the shoot or changing the location to appease these big stars. The shoot was the shoot, and through frustration after frustration he’d find the right sap guy for the job.

He calls James Caan (Eleanor: “Jimmy”) for Willard, who declines due to the shoot (his wife’s pregnant); he calls Jack Nicholson for Willard and gets the same response. There’s a note about conversation with Robert Redford, but it’s never made clear which part is being offered. Then comes the interesting part: Coppola calls McQueen back, the first guy he had in mind for Willard, and offers him the part of Kurtz. The Kurtz shoot is only three weeks in the jungle instead of seventeen, so, essentially, there’s 3/17 the chance of contracting deadly disease. McQueen declines again, so Coppola calls Caan, then Nicholson, then Pacino again. He offers all of these actors the part of Kurtz after they’d already turned down Willard.

The thematic pairing of Willard and Kurtz is one thing, evident as Willard moves closer and closer to toward the heart of darkness, but I never considered the look of the two characters to be anything but hugely dissimilar. Maybe it’s the posters with Brando’s huge head (he eventually returned Coppola’s call) looming over the tiny river that makes me believe him to be a giant, or maybe it’s the character’s presentation within the film itself, or maybe it’s the fact that Brando was at the time getting a bit (ahem) hefty. I can’t picture the wiry James Caan as Kurtz, nor Al Pacino, nor McQueen. Nicholson maybe, but that brings us away from weight and into sheer ability: did McQueen ever play a villain? If he did, it sure as heck wasn’t Kurtz. He was one of the best actors around (and he still is, goddammit) but it’s tough for me to picture him as the hulking, horrifying extreme of the demented Colonel.

Again, in Notes we get only the facts. We don’t get Coppola’s thought-process with regards to casting or anything else, except for the rare points during which he vents his passion to his wife. Still, it’s interesting to compare the protagonist/antagonist (if those simplified terms don’t demean one or both of them) by considering that, in a way, one was almost the other. That’s beautiful in the context of Apocalypse Now, as Willard is fighting the urge to approach the same extreme wherein Kurtz resides, approaching that compound at the end of the river, becoming someone else, becoming himself.

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