When John Milius first put pen to paper on a screenplay that set Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness in the jungles of Vietnam, he had no idea he’d be embarking on a decade-long trip through creative hell. When George Lucas dropped out of directing Apocalpyse Now in favor of making Star Wars, he had no idea he’d be subjecting his friend and fellow director, Francis Ford Coppola, to the wrath of the filmmaking gods. And when Coppola—with dreams in his eyes of his own company that would make ambitious films with directors like himself—packed up his family and left for the Philippines, he had no idea he was in for years of creative frustration, physical and mental exhaustion, and near-financial ruin.
Perhaps Eleanor knew something. Francis’s wife had the foresight to chronicle her family’s odyssey on videotape. This footage—along with candid audio recordings of her private conversations with Francis and some modern-day (i.e. 1990, when Hearts of Darkness was put together) interviews for appropriate historical context—is Hearts of Darkness‘ skeleton. At its worst (or more appropriately, its most conventional), this precisely and smartly edited piece of film history is the greatest DVD extra ever produced. At its best, it’s a dark, hyper-compelling dive into the creative process that presents a chilling example of art imitating life.
Apocalypse Now, of course, turned out to be one of the greatest films ever made, but one wouldn’t know it from reading Hollywood headlines back in 1976 and 1977. The film chronicles a Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) crazy trip downriver in Vietnam to carry out a top-secret mission to kill a psychotic former officer, Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard’s journey sees him encounter incident after incident that slowly strips him of his sanity and humanity on his way to Kurtz. For Coppola, his Kurtz is a completed masterpiece, and over the course of nearly a year of shooting, he too will encounter incident after incident (like a typhoon that destroyed sets or his star having a heart attack) that made him question what he was doing there in the first place.
Of course, the lion’s share of Apocalypse Now‘s behind-the-scenes problems are old hat to even casual cinephiles. But Hearts of Darkness does more than present a CliffsNotes version of one of the most troublesome movie productions in history. Eleanor comments on her husband’s deteriorating confidence and shrinking bank account. The latter is hardly a concern of hers; she stands by her husband’s art and whatever process helps him create. The former, however, truly frightens her.
Hearts of Darkness also questions the nature of art. Chasing absolute truth through art is folly, the film argues, and Coppola’s inability to clench his fist around the phantom-like truth he so desperately seeks is problematic from the outset. In one of his first talking heads, he explains that, with Apocalypse Now, he was attempting to do much more than tell a Vietnam story. He wanted his film to be Vietnam—the attitude, the rock and roll, the senselessness, the fear.
Chekov famously said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” Maybe it was Coppola’s unquenchable thirst for meaning in that which is meaningless that led him astray. It certainly explains how he could bring Brando on set for a fee of $1 million a week without dialogue and an ending. “Just go with it,” he told his comically overweight star in the hope that decades of hard living and brilliant performing would lead both down the road they were looking for but couldn’t see. “I swallowed a bug,” he responds, as eloquently as one can while uttering those four words.
Or maybe Apocalypse Now was just cursed. How else does one account for epically bad weather and a young man having a heart attack? Unlike Coppola, though, Hearts of Darkness‘ three directors—Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and the aforementioned Eleanor Coppola—aren’t so much interested in the why. They’re exploring themes in ways that are in their grasp, and their desire to do things safely, smartly is no less admirable than Coppola’s borderline reckless ambition. As one might expect, these two films are inextricably linked. For the sake of Hearts of Darkness, that’s a great thing. As the passage of time gives Apocalypse Now more meaning and a greater reputation, its making-of doc benefits reciprocally. And for good reason; it’s tremendous.
— John Gilpatrick