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Apocalypse how? Inside the chaotic set of this 1979 movie masterpiece

Francis Ford Coppola releases the final cut of his 1979 masterpiece this week, but with the chaos that ensued on set during filming, it's a wonder the movie was ever made at all, writes Paul Whitington


Francis Ford Coppola films a scene from Apocalypse Now with Martin Sheen

Francis Ford Coppola films a scene from Apocalypse Now with Martin Sheen

Marlon Brando ad-libbed most of his lines

Marlon Brando ad-libbed most of his lines


Francis Ford Coppola films a scene from Apocalypse Now with Martin Sheen

The Cannes Film Festival has had its fair share of spectacular press conferences, but few can match the drama of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 interview. He had just screened what he called a "work in progress" version of Apocalypse Now, the sprawling three-hour war epic he'd spent the previous three years editing, and was in defensive mode when he spoke to journalists afterwards.

After criticising the media for attacking him and the film during its notoriously troubled production, he said "there were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane". Then he added darkly, "my movie is not about Vietnam - my movie is Vietnam". The real war had only ended four years earlier, and his statement was deemed shockingly insensitive by some American critics, but Coppola's hyperbole was perhaps excusable given the trauma he'd endured.

Though so far as we know no one actually died during the making of Apocalypse Now, its star Martin Sheen nearly did, Coppola threatened suicide, while Dennis Hopper's herculean cocaine consumption would have finished off a lesser man. And all of that was before Marlon Brando showed up to waddle around stubbornly ad-libbing and refusing to cooperate. Storms, bad luck, accidents, war and a constantly spiralling budget almost sunk the production on numerous occasions.

Coppola was never happy with the original theatrical cut and, in 2001, released Apocalypse Now Redux, which restored 49 minutes of excised footage, including a French colonial scene and a helicopter crash involving Playboy bunnies. But that didn't feel quite right either - this week, he unleashes Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, which knocks 14 minutes off Redux and is, Coppola says, his ideal version.

All this tinkering and re-editing might seem excessive, but Apocalypse Now is a unique film, a sprawling war epic filmed entirely on location with no special effects. It's also a masterpiece, but it wasn't originally supposed to be Coppola's film at all.

It was screenwriter John Milius who came up with the idea of adapting Joseph Conrad's 19th century anti-colonial epic and setting it in Vietnam. George Lucas was originally going to direct it and planned to shoot on location in Vietnam while the war still raged. That mad idea would probably never have been sanctioned, and by the time the project was ready to shoot, Lucas was unavailable as he'd started making Star Wars.

Coppola was impressed by Milius's screenplay and, after the huge success of the Godfather films, felt he had the clout to get Apocalypse Now made. By mid-1975, his production company American Zoetrope had put together a deal with a $15m budget, including funding from United Artists, who'd been assured that Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Steve McQueen would star.

But Hackman wanted nothing to do with it and McQueen wasn't thrilled at the idea of spending an estimated 17 weeks shooting on location in the Philippine jungles. McQueen was Coppola's first choice to play Captain Benjamin Willard, the US Army assassin sent into the jungle to "terminate with extreme prejudice" the command of Colonel Kurtz, a decorated officer who has apparently lost his mind and set up a savage fiefdom.


Marlon Brando ad-libbed most of his lines

Marlon Brando ad-libbed most of his lines

Marlon Brando ad-libbed most of his lines

But McQueen decided he wanted to play Kurtz instead, because that would only take two weeks, and tried to persuade Clint Eastwood to play Willard. Clint said no, then McQueen dropped out. In the end, Coppola persuaded Marlon Brando, whose career he'd revived in The Godfather, to play Kurtz: for his two-week participation, he'd be paid $3.5m. Harvey Keitel would play Willard, but just a few weeks into the shoot, Coppola realised Keitel was all wrong and cast Martin Sheen instead.

The film's producers had smoothed the waters in the Philippines by courting the favour of Ferdinand Marcos, and Coppola and his family arrived in Manila in March of 1976 for what they thought would be a five-month shoot. In the end, filming would take more than a year.

At Marcos's behest, the Philippine military gave Coppola access to their military helicopters, which allowed him to create his iconic 'Valkyrie' battle sequence. But the choppers kept disappearing for days on end to fight real battles with insurgents in the north of the country.

Rules and regulations were lax in the Philippines, allowing Coppola and his crew to set fire to acres of virgin rainforest and ritually slaughter a water buffalo on camera.

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All of this frantic shooting took place against a backdrop of constant partying among the crew: "We'd have a hundred beers lined up around the hotel swimming pool," a production assistant later remembered. "There were people diving off the roof, it was crazy." But things were going well enough until Typhoon Olga struck.

The raging storm destroyed sets and ruined months of work, trapping the jolly crew in their hotel and forcing a six-week shutdown. The film was now behind schedule and over budget, forcing Coppola to return to the US to put his home, car and profit percentage on the film up as collateral. What had begun as an interesting project was now an existential fight for survival.

Sheen, meanwhile, was battling demons of his own, namely alcoholism. He was close to the edge, and an early scene in which a clearly PTSD-afflicted Willard loses control and trashes his hotel room was entirely unscripted. After punching a mirror and hurting his hand, Sheen began sobbing uncontrollably and tried to attack Coppola. On March 5, 1976, Sheen had a heart attack and had to crawl to a road to get help. While he recovered, his younger brother Joe Estevez stood in for voiceovers and long shots.

Hopper, who played a deranged photojournalist (not much of a leap), had apparently asked for "about an ounce of cocaine" as payment for his role. He, alone apparently, seems to have greatly enjoyed the Apocalypse Now experience, but his director kept clear of him. "In terms of Dennis," Coppola said recently, "God knows what he was doing." Then Marlon showed up.

In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which Coppola carried in his pocket like a bible on set, Kurtz had been described as a very tall, rangy man, who loomed like a monster over all those around him. Marlon was at least 100lbs overweight, hadn't learnt any of his lines and was in a grandly uncooperative mood.

Faced with this, Coppola admitted he had no idea how he was going to finish his film. Then Brando, without warning, shaved his head and suggested he just ad-lib, and let the cameras capture whatever he came up with. His instincts were right, and the results were totally fascinating: Brando was utterly convincing as the unhinged Colonel, and his charisma gave the sprawling film a much-needed climactic focal point.

On May 21, 1977, the shoot finally ended, and Coppola repaired to California to begin the daunting project of editing hours and hours of rough shooting into a coherent film. He did it, but the troubled production would become as famous as the finished film.

"Ask anyone who was out there," Dennis Hopper said afterwards. "We all felt like we fought the war."

  • Apocalypse Now: Final Cut is on limited release now.
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