The Artist as Big Fat Baby
Genius or madman? Eleanor Coppola's harrowing documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now shows her husband behaving more like the latter
October 1991
Art Director Alejandro Gonzalez


It was late, I was alone, my finger on the remote knew no shame. It stopped at HBO, where Priscilla Presley was guessing how many pimiento-stuffed olives she'd had to swallow with her feet in the air and her cleavage on the tablecloth.

Sound like 9 1/2 Weeks meets Elvis and Me? Nope, this was a salty bit o' behind-the-scenes (B-T-S) Hollywood. Interviewed for one of those "making-of" featurettes now cluttering cable and network TV, plucky Pris was chatting about reshooting a tricky slapstick scene in The Naked Gun 2 1/2. Lord help me, I hung with this slick home video as the 'moviemakers' nice yidishe mama talked about her wacky sons, the Zucker brothers -those boys who also did the first Naked Gun and Airplane! Mama Zucker was burbling about the makeup for her own scene in Airplane! when reason prevailed and I zapped her.

Alas, we have slid into an indiscriminate slough of Camcorder Conceit. In the self-absorbed wake of the Me (Seventies) and Mine (Eighties) Decades, almost anything seems worthy of documentation. If it moves, shoot it. And if it's for theatrical release or broadcast, shoot it twice. Whereas once every movie set suffered a lone still photographer, there are now camera crews filming the camera crews -the ultimate in promotional piggybacking.

This "making-of" mania leapt into hyper-drive in 1984 with Michael Jackson's The Making of Thriller and reached its check-out-my-C-cups peak this past spring with Madonna's Truth or Dare, a B-T-S peep at her work in progress -a concert tour.

Cable TV has had a large appetite for this low-cost filler, provided most often by studios. On the Disney Channel, I caught Rick Moranis hyping the ten-foot Cheerio that costarred in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. HBO has run making-ofs on Hamlet, Edward Scissorhands and The Godfather, Part III, most of which are little more than extended commercials. Life on the set always seems antic and upbeat, with stars winking from Winnebagos and lotsa F/X magic.

Ah, but a charged little B-T-S bombshell lands on Showtime this month, a film to remind us that Movieland ain't all gumdrops 'n' pimientos. There is a place where the roar of untamed egos shakes the Bel Air palms and small, slithy insecurities make the footing on a movie set as slick as a film agent's promises - a place where art and obsession tango for cash.



Behind the scenes at the apocalypse: "My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film, and I AM DOING IT."

Hearts of Darkness, a new documentary on the making of Francis Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now, is a messy, compelling hour and fifty minutes of tropic film noir. This making-of shows the undoing of some of its principals, with footage so harrowing, so warts-and-all, that it was left to molder in the vaults for fourteen years. Hearts, too, began with the Conceit; Coppola's wife, Eleanor, shot the footage on location in the Philippines from 1976 to 1979, intending to make a B-T-S documentary for the United Artists promotional department. But as she admits in a voice-over, she wasn't sure whether she got the job because her husband didn't want strangers on his much-embattled set or because he just wanted to keep her busy.

My, was she busy. And so earnest that she shot everything. Some of the film's perkier moments:

Martin Sheen's on-camera drunken breakdown.

Martin Sheen's heart attack.

Coppola's spin-control reaction to Sheen's heart attack: "If Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything's okay until I say he's dead!"

Marion Brando's brilliant improvisations: "Ecch, I swallowed a bug."

Sam Bottoms cranked on amphetamines; a pathetically stoned Dennis Hopper arguing with Coppola about forgetting his lines.

Coppola's boudoir tantrums, recorded in secret by his wife.

Mama Zucker would plotz. Mrs. Coppola's film also has ritual slaughter, natural disaster, Hollywood lawyers-scenes that make Madonna and her gyno high jinks look like National Velveeta. The stuff was dredged up when two filmmakers, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper (both Apocalypse buffs), persuaded the Coppolas to cooperate and got Showtime to finance the project. They also reinterviewed on-camera all the principals, with the exception of Brando. The finished film was shown in Cannes this spring to a chorus of kudos, gasps and whispers. Since then, word of mouth has generated almost as much heat as did the airing of Naked Hollywood, the British documentary that had Tinseltown heavies stewing in bile and anxiety when it ran this past summer on A&E.

Hearts's title refers to Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, from which Apocalypse Now borrowed its plot line. In Conrad's masterwork, a steamship captain journeys up the Congo to face the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, a brilliant ivory trader gone mad. Coppola and screenwriter John Milius sent an army captain (Sheen) up a river into Cambodia to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Brando), a Special Forces officer gone mad. The Big Picture for the book, the film and the documentary: Making ivory money, war or a film, you've gotta take a meeting with ol' Lucifer Himself.

With Eleanor Coppola's camera as an all-seeing third eye, the documentary about this bloated, beset production dissects the true, Type-A heart of Hollywood darkness. Its rhythms are driven by Coppola's galloping monomania. Such obsession gets epic films made but carries neat side effects like madness and death, bankruptcy and divorce. Unlike all those other skin-deep making-ofs, Hearts delivers a real B-T-S payload. It raises the megabuck question, What makes all these directors such well-manicured nut bars? And why are actors, gaffers and wives willing to dance to their mad fiddling at the very ends of the earth?

Such queries, like all epics, are Years in the Making. What led Werner Herzog to drag a 320ton steamship over the mountains of Peru for Fitzcarraldo? Reviewing the documentary on that film, Burden of Dreams, Pauline Kael sniped "He [Herzog] turns the production of a film into a mystical ordeal." Clint Eastwood saw directing as a macho odyssey in his White Hunter, Black Heart. In that film, a fictionalized account of the making of John Huston's The African Queen, Eastwood's Huston character holds up shooting for weeks, at tremendous cost, so he can stalk and kill a bull elephant. During the making of Bertolucci's 1900, the cast and the crew endured periodic shutdowns because of the director's bouts with depression and hypochondria.

In Hearts, Coppola himself calls Apocalypse his "Idiodyssey," 238 days of principal shooting done over two years in the steaming paddies and jungles of Pagsanjan in the Philippines. He incurred huge cost overruns, star wars, delays that had everyone from Rona Barrett to Russell Baker lampooning "Francis's Folly." Throughout Hearts, he moans that the production has become far too huge and overinflated, but he won't fess up to being the chump with the bicycle pump.

The centerpiece for this insanity is the filming of the scene that defines Martin Sheen's character, Captain Willard, Kurtz's would-be assassin. It takes place in the Saigon hotel room where Willard awaits his orders. It must be established that Willard is a little, ah, teched himself.

Captured by Mrs. C., the shooting of this scene is not unlike the ritual pigsticking performed later in Hearts by Ifugao Indians. Here, Sheen is the unfortunate squealer. It's his thirty-sixth birthday; he is so drunk he cannot stand. He asks for more booze, which is swiftly provided. Off-camera, Coppola's voice tells Sheen to look in the mirror at his beautiful mouth, his hair. (These are directions that came to the Great One in a dream.) "You look like a movie star!" he tells his actor, who in fact looks as if he's been chinning himself on the deepest ring of the Inferno.

"Now frighten yourself, Marty."

Marty moans, smashes a mirror, slashes his hand, wanders, bloodied, hollering "YOU FUCKER!" He looks as if he's ready to charge his tormentor. The camera rolls on, Coppola prods. "My heart is broken," Sheen weeps. When the director has enough, the actor is dragged away, naked, to the shower. But unlike the Ifugaos' ritual brutality, this ain't over when the fatted piggy screams. Sheen, who had reported for work out of shape, smoking three packs a day, would end up shvitzing on this mosquito coast a year and a half past his original sixteen-week commitment. Nearly one year into it, he found himself crawling to a highway in the throes of a major coronary. We see him getting first aid. Shortly after his actor receives the last rites, Coppola is heard railing piteously about the fate of his unfinished $27 million negative.

Cut, soon after, to scenes at the director's Napa Valley estate. The footage looks like the opening credits of Falcon Crest: lush vineyards! rolling hills! a twenty-two-room Victorian mansion! And what a garden party: Carmine Coppola, Francis's father, leading an orchestra on the sprawling porch. George Lucas and Bobby De Niro on the lawn. Yet above the heady din of this dolce vita, Eleanor's voice complains of the scale: the screening room, the staff, the endless arrangements. She muses that failure and bankruptcy might be a relief.

What bliss it would be: a week without consulting the pool man, the viticulturist, the projectionist. Granted, success can be burdensome, but when Francis puts up their personal assets as collateral to finish the film, Eleanor goes a bit wonky with her similes: "There is a kind of powerful exhilaration in the face of losing everything, like the excitement of war when one kills or takes the chance of being killed."

Whoa, it's a movie holding the mortgage, not Mussolini. Looking through her viewfinder, Eleanor Coppola is smart, honest and unblinking. But in some of her voice-overs, taken from her diaries, she has bought into the Conceit, flattering about her husband's journey into Self, his struggle to impose his Personal Vision. Unfortunately, edited for film, the diary excerpts sound loopier than they do in the full context of her 1979 book, Notes, which will be republished this month by Limelight Editions to coincide with the film.

As an accompanying text, Notes is pure, uncut B-T-S. Reading it, I understood better why the documentarian looks so wraithlike, down to eighty-nine pounds of haunted Irish eyes and muddy combat boots. Her husband's Idiodyssey is darker than even Hearts admits: Notes reveals that he's told her he's been having an affair, that he is still in love with the woman and won't give her up. As Eleanor is back in San Francisco, tending their three children, the big formaggio is cabling her to send him cases of frozen steaks and vintage wines, and air conditioners for his plush resort cottage in the tropics. (Besides guzzling velvet Burgundies, he's also dumping 2,000 gallons of flaming gasoline on the green countryside to simulate napalm.) He tells his wife he is "designing his life to live every moment magnificently."

The horror, the horror. The darkness, the deepening monomania lies in the artist's Life-as-Art Conceit. Coppola's been lost in the mangroves for two years -and still has to diet! Finally, Eleanor cables him-with copies to the production staff. Her message: Francis is creating his own Vietnam with his audacious luxuries, his staff of hundreds. Her own Personal Vision of the creative genius has become painfully clear. Asshole! she calls him. One only wishes she'd had a camera on him when he read the telex, because it hits at the heart of Coppola's deepest anxieties: the Artist as Asshole. But she did get a confession to this effect, taping marital tête-à-têtes without his knowledge. As a tape recorder winds, asplike, we hear him whine:

"My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film, and I AM DOING IT .... The film will not be good… I wanna get an F! This film is a $20 million disaster. WHY WON'T ANYONE BELIEVE ME?"

Later, as he is still unable to write an ending, as a grouchy, grossly overweight Brando arrives without having read Heart of Darkness and insists on being filmed only in shadow, Coppola fantasizes about what illnesses he could get to exit gracefully. A fall from a scaffold and partial paralysis sounds mighty good.

As Coppola raged and complained, I found myself talking back to the small screen. Francis, GROW UP, you overfed galoot. A typhoon hits, halting shooting. The sets are being destroyed. Francis blasts La Bohème and makes pasta in his snug quarters. Yo, wake up and smell the buffalo dung! Two hundred Filipinos have been killed by the storm. But the Yankee director will have hundreds more of their countrymen working for about $2 a day rebuilding those sets.

Basta! The annoyances continue. Imagine you're staging a war and someone takes your helicopters. "Huey go away," moans Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro as the military choppers on loan from Ferdinand Marcos roar off to quell a bitter Communist insurgency on the country's southern islands. Coppola is mighty peevish. And I'm muttering at the screen again. Roll with it, pal. When the bodies are counted, Huey come back.

Like any engaging piece of work, Hearts is both maddening and brave. With its savvy editing, the film flicks neatly between the light and the shadow of the world's most glamorous profession. Certain things are glossed over or omitted: the replacement of Harvey Keitel by Sheen after a week of shooting, the Coppolas' well-known private dramas. But unlike all the processed Process that characterizes other B-T-S efforts, Hearts is not a promotional tale but a cautionary one. It keeps the focus on the fine line between creative courage and raging balls-to-the-wall ego-between the Artist and the Asshole. To us, it's just the movies -but these folks try to live it. That's the tightrope act that keeps us so riveted by B-T-S Babylon.

Coppola didn't move to suppress this film, which is subtitled A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. He'll make money from it; Zoetrope Studios, his company, retains home-video and international rights. But he can't be thrilled at its release. Besides the unflattering hissy fits, some of the footage must have been truly painful to review. There are lyric, happy shots of his oldest son, Gian-Carlo, as a child of 12, and of his father, Carmine, now both dead. Interviewed for this film in late 1990 and early 1991, the director is older -51- grayer, heavier and far less passionate than the Young Turk who sits bare-chested in the jungle and pontificates on Art.

In Coppola's final interview, he wonders if "some fat girl in Ohio" won't make a genius film with her dad's camcorder and True Art will vanquish this crass, seductive professionalism. (This would be swell, as long as her fat uncle Moe from Toledo isn't getting it all over her shoulder with his camcorder.) At the end of this monologue, the big, ungainly man gets awkwardly out of his chair, headed, like Brando, for the comforts of chiaroscuro. Some of these interviews were shot as Coppola endured the pressures of finishing the overbudget Godfather, Part III. Again, his wine cellar was on the line, his loved ones tormented. His daughter, Sofia, the game, spidery child cavorting on the set in Hearts, endured savage criticism and derision when her father cast her in a key role, as Mary Corleone. She was woefully inexperienced, but Papa insisted.

In fairness, Coppola isn't blind to his monomania; he jokes that the job of film director is one of the last dictatorial posts left "in a world getting more and more democratic." He understands that, coming off his Godfather crest in 1976, risking his own money in a strange, savage place did contribute to a state of mind "that was like Kurtz."

But, Francis, it was only a movie. Neither Coppola's nor Conrad's Kurtz had a gala premiere for his worst heebie-jeebies. Both met death, not a box-office bonanza of $150 million. In the very big business of celluloid vision quest, there is always a net, always a backup camera. (And now, a backup backup camera.)

Who won when the Artist and the Asshole struggled for Francis's soul? In the end, it's a scene from Apocalypse Now that best describes Coppola's scrambled priorities in the midst of incoming star tantrums and a widening delta of red ink. The scene is this: One grunt about to engage in a firefight is stunned to see others from a hotdog air-cavalry unit remove their helmets, leaving their brains dangerously exposed. Are they mad? He has to ask:

"How come you guys all sit on your helmets?"
"So we don't get our balls blown off," •

Gerri Hirshey has profiled Andrew Dice Clay and Andre Agassi for GQ.