“I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve never seen…”
Francis Ford Coppola . 1976
“Brando is the only star I could get.” Coppola talking of his mythology of war “opera,” in the works since setting up his American Zoetrope dream factory in an old San Francisco warehouse ten year s before. Coppola would produce and George Lucas direct John Milius’ “descent into hell” script. After eight years of Coppola ups and downs, an United Artists deal was finally signed in 1975. Budget: $10m.
Everyone turned him down: Eastwood, Hackman, McQueen, Nicholson, Redford, even Coppola-made stars like James Caan and Al Pacino… Harrison Ford was eager to be hit-man Willard until posted to outer space with George Lucas, the sorcerer’s apprentice. Once free, Ford (who later married Coppola’s main squeeze during the shoot, The Black Stallion and ET scenarist Melissa Mathison) figured in the opening laundry-list sequence as Colonel G Lucas. (Bollywood actor Bob Christo – 106 films in 23 years – had auditioned for the part, instead he used his civil engineering background to help build some of the film’s sets).
The Milius script came Robert Redford’s way – but so did another about a Rocky Mountains trapper known as Liver-Eating Johnson who lived in the canyons around Sundance a full century before the Redfords arrived. This was exactly the kind of “real West” the new star wanted.. He called up his mate, director Sydney Pollack, for the second of their seven movies, ditching the unfilmable Milius scenario and digging for the gold in the source novel, Mountain Man, by Vardis Fisher, ultimately titled Jeremiah Johnson.
Incidentally, Coppola had been a gofer on his Redford’s debut, War Hunt, 1962, and his draft of This Property Is Condemned for Redford and Natalie Wood in 1965, marked his escape from Cormania. He also scripted Redford’s not-so-Great Gatsby, 1973.
Steve McQueen scorned a $1.5m offer. He wanted double. With Coppola, he discussed less jungle time in one of the two other main roles, for example, the surf and napalm loving Colonel Kilgore (originally, Kharnage). Sure, said McQueen, for $3m.
James Caan wanted $2m. He recalled Coppola passing him a script: “Any part you want.” Caan liked Kharnage – “the guy is nuts, he’s blowing things up, he’s surfing.” Coppola wanted him as Willard. “But I didn’t want to play that.”
Al Pacino knew what how it was going to be. “You’re gonna be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do… in a swamp for five months.” Muttered Coppola:
“If this kept up, the industry would some day
be paying $3m for eight hours, plus overtime,
and I’d have to shoot at the actor’s house.”
And by 2010, Coppola was shooting his horror story, Twixt, on his own property in Napa.
Meanwhile, when moaning about his Godsons’ thirst for big bucks, Coppola was put in his place by Caan. “Hey, Francis, you made $11m [from The Godfather], we each made $35,000.” Lee Marvin was totally disinterested
Like Jack Nicholson, Pacino was offered Captain Benjamin L Willard or Colonel Walter E Kurtz. (Orson Welles aimed to be both when Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the basis of Apocalypse , was to be his directing debut in 1940 until Citizen Kane was born). Obviously, Francey should never have told Pacino: “You’re my Frankenstein monster.” The actor said: “I hadn’t been in the Army and if I were to go, I wouldn’t want to go to war for you.” Or anyone. He refused all other Vietnam related offers: Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, First Blood.
Jeff Bridges also passed on Willard and Tommy Lee Jones rightly refused Colby .(He hd no dialogue and Scott Glenn, who took over, mostly landed on the cutting room floor) . And, of course, indeed par or the course, Gene Hackman loathed discussing roles that got away. “But I will talk about Francis Coppola. He did approach me about a part – which one I don’t want to say. [Robert Duvall’s Kilgore]. But Francis has a way of asking you to work on the come [a cut of the profits] which I didn’t think I should do.”
Nick Nolte was a hot favourite – except with his advisers. “During all that time, they had The Deep just sitting there, with my agents going ‘Do The Deep! Do The Deep!” Since I wasn’t cast in these other pictures, I went to work and did The Deep.” While researching his Lee Marvin biography, writer Dwayne Epstein unearthed a handwritten letter from Coppola “imploring“ Marvin to play Kurtz. Marvin never replied.
And Clint Eastwood? “I wouldn’t have been happy,” he told me in Cannes. “I didn’t understand the story, didn’t feel the role was a challenge, something I hadn’t done before. Also, I’d just got situated at home and didn’t want to live in the Philippines for two years. They weren’t planning on two years – just 18 weeks. I kinda felt it might be a little longer.”
A total of 238 days, 1.5m ft. of film,
budget hitting $27m…
and another $10m forpost-production.
Brando was paid $3.5m (and points) leading to the Tennessee Williams retort: “They paid him by the pound.”
Mount Marlon was trouble from the start, threatening to take his $1m advance and run. Worse when he arrived – late, drunk, 40kg overweight – he admitted he hadn’t read the source novel and disapproved of the script. Coppola spent days reading him the novel, finding a way to mask his enormous belly (Kurtz was supposed to be starvation thin) and finally being so mad at his star that he gave Brando’s scenes to his assistant director, Jerry Ziesmer.
Dennis Hopper, dear old Dennis, told it best…
“I was there for four or five months,” he told Alex Simon, in Venice Magazine, 2008, about Coppola’s Philippines odyssey. “When I arrived, I was signed to play a CIA agent. There was no script. So I started out in a clean uniform being told by Francis that I was going to be second-in-charge to Marlon Brando’s army in the jungle (finally played by Scott Glenn]. I was with these Green Beret guys who’d just gotten out of Vietnam, playing war games. We had mortars that we’d play with that were full of powder, and if you got any of the powder on you, that meant you were dead. We had all these war toys we’d play with at night. We’d be assigned to hold a bridge. Would they be coming by the sea? Would they be coming through the jungle? We’d play these incredible war games and just had a ball.
“Finally Marlon arrived and everything was shut down for a week because [Coppola] realised Marlon hadn’t read Heart of Darkness, so Francis went out to read Marlon Heart of Darkness… and 900 people, the cast and crew, just sat and waited! [Laugh]. We called it The Million Dollar Week because Marlon was getting paid a million a week. When he came back, [Coppola] said: “Marlon and I agreed that your part should be as large as his, or maybe larger.”
“When you read Heart of Darkness, you never actually see the Kurtz character, you only hear about him being talked about by this Russian-Jewish trader, who comes out with shrunken heads and thinks he’s such a great man. So, Francis wanted me to play that part, and made him a photojournalist who carried a lot of cameras instead of shrunken heads. So we started there, and wrote a little bit in the morning and then would just improvise off of that.”
Almost needless to say, par for the course as it were, the two actors were never ion the same set together for their scenes.
“Yeah, he’d shoot one night, then I’d do another. I came in one night and Francis said: ‘Marlon called you a sniveling dog and threw bananas at you.’ So I had this prop man throwing bananas at me all night long. [Laugh]. And that’s how we worked for a couple weeks. It was Marlon’s decision for us to work separately. At the time, I was sort of offended by it, but looking back, I think Marlon did me a big favor. If you’re improvising something, and he suddenly started reading Hollow Man by DH Lawrence, you really can’t get something going if you have two people vying for [the director’s] time. In the end, it worked out really well.”
When Hopper arrtved in Hamburg for Wim Wender’s he was sstll in his costume, cameras and all. “I think a lot of us left an awful lot of brain cells back in the Philippines.”
Yet still no Willard…
Finally, it was when visiting director pal Alan Rudolph while editing Welcome To LA, that Francey noticed one actor among themany. And so Harvey Keitel was Willard when shooting started on March 20, 1976 in the Philippines, not Australia and Malaysia as previously discussed. “I don’t think we communicated well,” Keitel would later comment, “ We clashed. It was a matter of a young actor who was an ex-Marine out of Brooklyn meeting up with a talented director who was out of UCLA and some fraternity.”
“Francis is a megalomaniac
and he had to have his whipping boy.”
KEITEL FIRED; WON’T WAIT FOR BRANDO was the Variety headline on April 26, 1976. “That’s not what happened,” said Keitel. “But it’s a nice souvenier.” After seven weeks (seven is usually Coppola’s lucky number), Keitel was out for acting “too feverishly.” He was replaced by Martin Sheen – by Sheen, who had previously succeeded Keitel as Happy Loman in Broadway’sDeath of a Salesman in 1975 when he left to make Buffalo Bill and the Indians.“Harvey had a great sweetness, a great sense of humor. He makes you like him instantly.He has a presence that’s so strong and human.”
Particularly in his alarmingly drunk as a naked lord scene – really drunk according to the legend. British actor Ray Winstone was not so sure. “He still covered his bollocks up when he stood up, so he couldn’t have been that drunk.” But it was for real when poor Sheen had a nearly fatal heart attack during the shooting. Incidentally, his previous war film had been Catch-22. What a double!
(Watching the latest (final?) cut in 2019, I was amazed how much Martin Sheen resembledf David Tennant. Never noticed it before because the Scot was an unknown quantity until Blackpool in 2004. He studied acting at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (the youngest student at 17) and oviously spent more time at the Sheen Acting Academy. Wonder how many times he watched Apocalypse. Not that there‘s anything wrong with that. Look at the tons of actors influenced by Brando).
French heavyweight Lino Ventura was asked to head the French plantation family sequence. “An undrinkable role,” he called it. Christian Marquand took the cup… He told me all, about it during Apocalypse-Cannes when I ran into him, quite by chance, on the Carlton terrace one night around midnight. With great gusto, he delivered quite a spoiler. The actual scenes were not seen again until the 1991 documentary of the shooting, Hearts of Darkness, and then added to the complete Apocalypse Now Redux in 2001. (Aurore Clément, who played Marquand’s daughter, later married Coppola’s production designer Dean Tavoularis).
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Marquand’s then brothert-in-law, not to mention screen brother in Et Dieu… crea la femme (and Bardot!), has often been listed as another potential chief of the plantation tribe. He was not. He was, however, the original choice for the war photographer… until Dennis Hopper turned him into a funky, druggy mix of Tim Page, Sean Flynn – and a whole lotta Hopper, man!
Trintignant would have had an excellent salary, reported his agent Jean-Lous Livi (Yves Montand’s nephew). “But that was never his motivation… His wife and dauighter were keen on the idea but he was not interested in spending six months of hjis life in the Philippines.” He stayed home in his village of Lambesc, 3,000 inhabitants, ,on the route to Avignon, dropping many of his friends and colleagues. “When I was little I used to break all my toys, particularely the ones I loved the most.”
Coppola then spent nearly two years of his life editing his 200 hours of film. Martin Sheen was unavailable for extra narration and his brother, Joe Estevez, already his stand-in and double for scenes after Martin’s heart attack, became his (almost identical) vocal double, as well. Without a credit.
Lucas and Milius hated how their godfather’s “fervid imagination” distorted their work. Chinatown writer Robert Towne called it Apocalypse Now And Then. “We didn’t know who was in charge, man,” recalled Frederic Forrest. For Fred, the essence of the tortuous shoot was summed up by the scene when Sheen asks a grunt who the commanding officer is. And the reply is: “Ain’t you?”
For Laurence Fishburne, 14 at the time, having lied about his age to get into the film, it was “my craziest experience ever. I haven’t had another film top it.”
And as Coppola famously admitted at Cannes in 1979…
“The way we made it is very much
like the way we Americans were in Vietnam.
We were in the jungle.
There were too many of us.
We had access to too much money,
too much equipment.
And little by little, we went insane.”