Hell on Earth: The Making of Apocalypse Now

“My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” announced Francis Ford Coppola to the gathered press before they viewed the masterpiece that is called Apocalypse Now. Few who worked on the shoot would disagree, especially Dennis Hopper who said afterwards “ I felt like I had fought in the war”.

The filming of Apocalypse Now was eventful to say the least. It has gone down in history as the most chaotic, hellish nightmare of a production that there has ever been.

Coppola, the director, was in up to his neck from the very start. He wanted Steve McQueen for the role of Willard, McQueen refused. He tried Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and Al Pacino. When they all refused, Coppola, at the end of his tether and roaring like a wounded bull, hurled his five Oscars out of his window.

Harvey Keitel was hired for the lead, but after a short time was fired. Martin Sheen took the main role, but he was struggling from the outset. In the midst of a complete personal alcoholic breakdown, he walked into the Apocalypse Now production set which was riddled with alcoholism, drug-binges, tropical diseases and monsoons.

Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now

One day early on, Sheen got completely shitfaced and ordered the crew to film him. He got aggressive, punching out mirrors and even tried to attack Coppola. The director kept rolling, and the footage is now in the scene with Martin Sheen sitting on the edge of his bed.

Martin Sheen has since described the making of Apocalypse Now as ʻChaos”, and even told friends back home that he generally believed he was going to die.

Shooting in the Philippines had itʼs own problems. Coppola got in trouble for filming the ritual killings of water buffalos, rogue tigers prowled the set at night, and the Philippine dictator President Marcos kept stealing their helicopters.

To his shock, he discovered that over-enthusiastic prop workers had decided to use real dead bodies in shots rather than dummies. this was only discovered when a pungent odour became too strong to ignore.

With Coppola making the script up as he went along, there was a lot of free time on the set of Apocalypse Now. Crew members described the crazy shoot as the result of too much money, too much time, too much drink and too much drugs. Little by little they all went insane. Actor Sam Bottoms, who played the surfer Lance Johnson, spent the whole shoot high on speed, LSD and marijuana.

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

Things became much worse when the legend that was Marlon Brando arrived on set. He turned up drunk, weighing as much as an African elephant and having never looked at the script or read the book it was based on. After reading the script Coppola handed to him, Brando refused to do it. After much arguing, he agreed on the promise that he was shot entirely in shadow and could say whatever he liked. The next day he appeared on set having shaved his head bald.

Coppola lost over 100 pounds in weight, he threatened to commit suicide several times during the shoot and, when Martin Sheen was found crawling up the road having suffered a heart attack, he collapsed and had an epileptic seizure.

Things werenʼt improved by the typhoon that tore through the production, destroying all the sets. More downtime, which the crew put to good use. Parties at the hotel grew more infamous by the day. Swimming pools surrounded by bottles of beer and actors hurling themselves off the roof.

Amidst all the chaos, stood Dennis Hopper. The hippy hellraiser of Hollywood. A man who lived on a daily diet of a half gallon of rum, 28 beers and three ounces of cocaine. When Coppola asked him how he could help him with his role, Hopper replied, “an ounce of cocaine”. The production team ended up supplying him throughout the filming.

Brando hated Hopper. He wouldnʼt appear with him even if they were in the same scene. They had to be shot separately. Eventually, Brando told his director that they had used him for long enough that if they needed more, they could hire someone else. With that, he got up and never came back.

An estimated 6-week schedule ended up taking 68 weeks to film.

So when Coppola said, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” You can understand where he was coming from.

For more info on the making of Apocalypse Now, check out the 1991 behind-the-scenes documentary called “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse“.

Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now

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