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Francis Ford Coppola almost ruined his own sanity when he set out to film his Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. The film, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was an arduous shoot, full of problems and crazy actors. Thankfully, the filming was completed, and the result was a masterpiece in the war genre. Here are 21 facts your may not have known about the film…
1. The scene at the beginning with Captain Willard alone in his hotel room was completely unscripted. Martin Sheen told the shooting crew to just let the cameras roll. Sheen was actually drunk in the scene and punched the mirror which was real glass, cutting his thumb. Sheen also began sobbing and tried to attack Francis Ford Coppola. The crew was so disturbed by his actions that they wanted to stop shooting, but Coppola wanted to keep the cameras going.
2. Laurence Fishburne began his acting career here, by lying about his age in order to get the part. He was actually 14 at the time.
3. The shoot was originally scheduled for six weeks. It ended up taking sixteen months!
4. Robert Duvall’s iconic Oscar-nominated performance as Colonel Kilgore amounts to just 11 minutes of screen time.
5. Even though Marlon Brando turns in perhaps the most memorable role in the film, he appears almost 2 and a half hours in some versions. And, his role only amounts to about fifteen minutes of screen time.
6. A great deal of angst over the production involved the increasingly impossible Marlon Brando. Coppola believed that Brando had researched Conrad’s novel and was well versed on his dialogue. However, when Brando did come out, Coppola was horrified to find that Brando had never read Heart of Darkness, did not know his lines, and had become extremely fat. After some panicking, Coppola decided to film the 5’10” Brando as if he was a massively built, 6’5″ brute (to explain Brando’s size) and steered the camera clear of Brando’s huge belly.
7. Marlon Brando so angered Francis Ford Coppola that the director turned over the filming of Brando’s scenes to Jerry Ziesmer, the assistant director.
8. The shoot was so agonizing on Coppola, he threatened suicide several times and wound up losing 100 pounds.
9. The famous helicopter battle where the helicopters swooped in on the village while playing “The Ride of the Valkyries” was meant to be an ironic comment on the Vietnam War. In the original Wagner magna opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the Valkyries arrive at a point of apparent victory, but which later results in defeat. Thus, the apparent victory in the helicopter battle would be followed by the eventual defeat in the war.
10. Francis Ford Coppola invested several million dollars of his own money in the film after it went severely over budget. He eventually had to mortgage his home and winery in Napa Valley in order to finish the film.
11. In the DVD commentary, Coppola downplays his involvement in the controversial slaughter of the water buffalo, saying he “happened to film a ritual” being performed by Ifugao natives. However in the article “Ifugao extras and the making of Apocalypse Now”, cast and crew detail how Coppola staged the entire scene, directing the natives to chant and sing while they killed the animal which Coppola provided.
12. Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the filming and some shots of Willard’s back are of doubles, including Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez who was flown out specially. Coppola was so worried that backing would be withdrawn by the studio and distributor if news of Sheen’s heart attack leaked out, that he kept it quiet, even to the extent of explaining Sheen’s hospitalization as being due to “heat exhaustion” in the official Shoot Schedule.
13. Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos agreed to let his army supply the helicopters and pilots used in the film. The Marcos government was also fighting rebels in the area where filming was taking place, and sometimes withdrew the helicopters and pilots when they were needed in battle, replacing them with pilots who weren’t familiar with the filming, which caused some problems.
14. Coppola, who considered offering the role of Willard to Al Pacino, said that Pacino would probably have played the role if they could have filmed the movie in his New York City apartment. Jack Nicholson also was offered the role but turned it down.
15. The total length of film printed for the movie was approximately 1,250,000 feet. That number roughly translates to a total of around 230 hours worth of footage. It took Coppola three years to edit all the footage.
16. According to Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando yelled at him over a simple misunderstanding. He then decided to deliberately antagonize Brando whenever he could. This resulted in Brando refusing to share the set with him and the one scene they share together being shot on separate nights.