Inside The Hellish Production Of Apocalypse Now

Hollywood has produced countless war films over the decades, yet none are quite like Apocalypse Now. A fever dream that quickly descends into a surreal nightmare, Francis Ford Coppola’s vision of the Vietnam conflict is both bold and brilliant: a masterful movie. But that in itself is a minor miracle. Few productions in the history of the business have ever faced a shoot as crazy as this one; we’re about to guide you through the madness. Or perhaps should that read, “The horror! The horror!”

Coppola’s unorthodox approach to scripting

After winning the Best Director gong at the Oscars for The Godfather Part II, everyone waited with bated breath to see what Francis Ford Coppola did next. He was arguably the hottest filmmaker in Tinseltown at the time. Within a year, we got our answer.

Yep, in 1976 Coppola started work on a movie adaptation of the famous 1899 book Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. John Milius thrashed out a script for it back in the 1960s, which he titled Apocalypse Now.

Penning new sequences

In this version of the story, the events would take place during the Vietnam War, as opposed to the African jungle in the 19th century. The production was set to be filmed in the Philippines, with Coppola and company heading out there at the beginning of 1976. 

He had a $12 million budget to play with, but it didn’t take long until things started to go awry. For one thing, the director opted to move away from the script for large stretches and pen new sequences on the day of the shoot. It was unorthodox and caused real headaches for the actors!

Typhoon Olga

There were bigger issues on the horizon for Coppola and company, though. Due to the timing of the shoot, the crew faced an almighty battle against Mother Nature. Yes, Apocalypse Now was being filmed slap-bang in the middle of the Philippines’ monsoon season.

Just weeks after the cameras began rolling, heavy showers doused the sets and everyone on them. And it got worse. Much worse. If the rain wasn’t enough, a terrifying storm smashed into the country during that spell, too.

Obliterating the sets

It was Typhoon Olga, and it obliterated much of the film’s staging areas. As a result of the weather system, the production had to be halted for a couple of months. Now, that would’ve been unfortunate enough under any circumstances, but Coppola was already feeling the pinch.

Even before Typhoon Olga had wreaked its havoc, the previous weather issues had cost the director three weeks of shooting time. On top of that, the budget had also ballooned by $2 million at that stage: a sign of things to come.

Adjusting to life in the tropics

Given that they were filming in the Philippines, the tropical conditions always posed a risk, and we’re not just talking about the weather here. Alongside all the rain and humidity, certain members of the crew came down sick with dysentery, throwing a further spanner in the works.

Plus, the production had to contend with the local wildlife as well. One rumor suggested that a tiger was shadowing the shoot! But when it comes to Apocalypse Now and animals, that isn’t even the craziest story.

The water buffalo problem

To gain permission from the nearby tribes to shoot sequences on their land, the filmmakers had to hand them livestock in exchange. Those animals would then be killed in ritualistic ceremonies.

It wasn’t just pigs and chickens up for the chop, though — a pair of water buffaloes were included, too. Now, Coppola’s wife caught sight of the ritual that led to the death of the first buffalo, and it gave the director an idea. Why not document the other one and edit it into the movie?

Furious backlash

So yes, that’s why the water buffalo sequence towards the end looks so realistic: it wasn’t fake! Yet here’s where things get sketchy. Given the animal cruelty laws on productions that take place on U.S. soil, that scene could never have been shot in America.

The same restrictions didn’t apply in the Philippines, meaning Coppola could get away with it. It caused an almighty backlash upon release, though. Organizations such as the American Humane Association didn’t hold back in hitting out at the movie.

Martin Sheen’s breakdown

Speaking of realistic scenes, that brings us on to Apocalypse Now’s star. At the time of the shoot, Martin Sheen was dealing with a serious substance abuse problem. By now he was all too familiar with what alcohol did to him, and the actor was hoping to free himself of the addiction.

Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t an easy process, and Sheen again had one too many while celebrating his birthday out in the Philippines. Yet instead of going back to his room, he and Coppola came up with an idea.

A not-so-happy birthday

In one of the film’s first sequences, Sheen’s character Captain Willard suffers a breakdown in his bedroom. It’s extremely tough to watch. But as it turns out, there wasn’t much acting involved.

With the star’s permission, Coppola actually filmed Sheen in the aftermath of his birthday celebrations, which all made it into the scene. So yes, the actor really did slice his hand after smashing that mirror. And as he informed Bob Costas in a later interview, he had no intention of calling, “Cut!”

“I must do this for myself”

Sheen revealed, “I bled quite a lot and Francis tried to stop the scene, and I begged him to continue rolling. There were two cameras going. He said he couldn’t do it and they had a nurse standing by. And I said, ‘Please. I must do this for myself.’

“And he did. He allowed me, in a sense, to wrestle with some demons that I had been wrestling with for quite a while. Now, I was doing it in a public forum, and in a sense, I got them out.”

Sheen’s heart attack

Given what went down in that scene, you’d think Sheen’s time shooting Apocalypse Now couldn’t get any wilder. But it did, and to an almost fatal degree. Yes, after going back to the Philippines following the typhoon, the actor had a terrifying brush with death.

Sheen recalled to Rolling Stone magazine, “I had this severe pain in my inner elbow. Then my chest started to hurt and I thought, ‘I’d better quit smoking.’ The pain grew more and more intense as the night went on.”

“I crawled to the side of the road”

“At dawn I got up and I looked at myself in the mirror,” Sheen continued. “My eyes were down to [my cheeks]. I looked bad. Then I really began to feel strange and went into the toilet and started feeling faint.

"I dressed myself, lying on the floor, pulling on my clothes and my combat boots. I crawled to the side of the road and propped myself up and waited.” Yep, instead of calling an ambulance, the actor traveled to the film’s production office.

“He’s not dead until I say so”

Soon after his arrival, Sheen was then taken to a nearby hospital. He had indeed suffered a major heart attack, and the news rocked the production. For Coppola, it was yet another setback in what was turning out to be a disastrous shoot.

And in a bid to keep Sheen’s condition a secret, the director told a studio executive over the phone, “Even if he dies, he’s not dead until I say so.” But this wouldn’t be the last time that Apocalypse Now was forced to deal with death.

Real corpses

Of all the Apocalypse Now sets, Colonel Kurtz’s jungle compound has to be the most haunting. From the stone idols to the throngs of extras, the level of discomfort jumps up a notch as soon as the film gets there.

Dean Tavoularis, the production designer, did a heck of a job putting it together. Mind you, he very nearly took things way too far in a bid to add more authenticity to those scenes. Yep, Tavoularis planned on using real cadavers around the set.

Unwelcome dinner guests

It even got to the stage where the bodies had actually arrived at the set. Shockingly, they were placed outside the canteen tent away from the cameras, ready to be grabbed when Tavoularis deemed fit. Talk about a health hazard!

Now, we can probably guess what you’re thinking here: where on Earth did he get those remains? And why didn’t any of the higher-ups step in to suggest it was a bad idea beforehand? Well, the answers are arguably just as jaw-dropping.

Grave robbery and the whole set being arrested

When it came time to shoot the big final sequence at Kurtz’s compound, Sheen’s spouse was on the set. Due to his health at the time, she was being extra-vigilant in making sure he was working in safe conditions. But then, she caught a whiff of a horrific smell.

It was so bad that Sheen’s partner had to storm off and find Gary Frederickson, the film’s co-producer. She barked, “You’ve got to clean this up. It’s a health risk. I won’t allow Marty to work here.”

Discovering the truth

After taking in the smell himself, Frederickson sought out Tavourlis. “They’re complaining about you, there are dead rats in there,” the co-producer said. Nonplussed, the production designer responded, “That’s intentional, it gives it real atmosphere.” Upon overhearing that, a prop assistant whispered, “Wait till he hears about the dead bodies.”

Unsurprisingly, Frederickson was left dumbfounded. There were suggestions that Tavourlis might’ve done something like this, yet he didn’t for one second believe it was true. But then he found them.

“You guys are nuts”

“You guys are nuts, where did these come from?” Frederickson gasped. “We’ve got to get rid of this immediately.” Tavourlis’ reply? “No, no, they’ll be very authentic, we’ll have them upside down in the trees.” Why was he so calm?

Well, part of it was down to where he got the bodies. You see, the production designer believed that he’d obtained them via a “medical school supplier.” That wasn’t the case, though. Instead, he’d actually dealt with a grave robber.

Everyone was a suspect

And the craziness didn’t end there, either. Once the higher-ups realized what Tavourlis had done, they contacted the authorities to pick the bodies up. But upon their arrival, the cops went on to take everyone’s passports.

In their mind, they couldn’t be sure that the deaths hadn’t actually taken place on the set. So yes, the actors and crew were all considered murder suspects! Fortunately, the situation was soon cleared up and the shoot continued after the cadavers were removed.

Flooding pushed Coppola to the brink

We can only imagine Coppola’s stress at the time! The director was already feeling immense pressure to keep the film on track, amid further flooding and failed attempts to bring in needed supplies. He was desperate for the production to match his standards of perfection, but it was nigh-on impossible.

Internally, the Oscar-winner was being ripped apart as the disasters continued to stack up on set. And it all took its toll in the end, leading to a terrifying moment.

“Drifting into the darkness”

After previously threatening to take his own life, Coppola was struck down by an epileptic seizure. Rather ominously, he informed his spouse that he was “drifting into the darkness” in the aftermath. Yet the director’s health issues didn’t stop there.

Due to the stresses of the movie shoot, Coppola had also dropped about 100 pounds in weight, while suffering with both dehydration and malnutrition. He eventually checked in at a medical facility to try and get back on his feet.

Firing Harvey Keitel

For all the flooding, health issues, and brushes with the authorities, though, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now headaches can be traced right back to the start of the shoot. You see, Sheen hadn’t been the first choice to play Willard.

Harvey Keitel had been cast in the role and actually appeared in three weeks’-worth of footage once the cameras had begun rolling. But Coppola didn’t like the results. At all. He gave Keitel the boot and then recruited Sheen as a last-minute replacement.

Casting Captain Willard wasn’t easy

Mind you, the casting process for Willard had always been a bit of a nightmare, even before the Keitel drama. To start with, Coppola had his eye on Steve McQueen, only for the actor to demand a huge $3 million salary. McQueen later toyed with the idea of playing Kurtz, while also suggesting Clint Eastwood for the lead role.

But his financial demands didn’t change, so the director binned the idea. The likes of Jack Nicholson, James Caan, Al Pacino, and Robert Redford were all in contention as well, yet none of them worked out.

The Marlon Brando drama

While the Willard dilemma dominated the early part of production, though, it was soon eclipsed by the appearance of a certain Hollywood superstar. Of course, we’re talking about Marlon Brando.

Taking on the role of Kurtz, he turned up on the set much later than planned and left Coppola in a state of shock. The actor had put on a lot of weight, which didn’t fit with his director’s vision of the character. That’s why Brando’s scenes are largely bathed in shadow!

Feuding with Dennis Hopper

And the issues didn’t stop there, either. Brando couldn’t have been more underprepared for this job, as he struggled to remember his lines and skipped reading Heart of Darkness. The latter problem ultimately led to a misunderstanding between the actor and Dennis Hopper, sparking a spiky feud on the set.

What makes that even crazier is Hopper was only there due to the allure of working with Brando! He never got his chance after their fiery encounter, as The Godfather star didn’t want to be anywhere near him.

Pushing for a name-change

If that wasn’t enough, Brando also pushed Coppola to change Kurtz’s name, too. In his opinion, it wasn’t befitting of a U.S. trooper. So they went with Leighly for a spell. But in that case, the actor did step back and concede Kurtz was the better choice.

Why? Simple: he eventually read the book! Despite all the drama, Brando’s talents shone through in the final product. His chilling performance as Apocalypse Now’s antagonist is up there with the film’s best.

Renting the choppers

Yet even though Brando proved problematic, Coppola had other concerns on his plate. And that brings us to the movie’s use of helicopters. As the American army had turned down the chance to work with the director, he got in touch with officials in the Philippine government.

One thing led to another, and soon Coppola was sitting down with the nation’s president. During that chat, Ferdinand Marcos gave his permission to the crew to borrow some choppers. Great news, right? Well, sort of…

Recalling the choppers

While the helicopters got plenty of use during filming, they’d sometimes disappear from the set without a word of warning. Why’s that? Well, there was a genuine conflict raging on in the Philippines as the movie was being shot.

The country was dealing with a rebel uprising, and obviously needed its choppers as a result. Given what we now know about Apocalypse Now’s production, this hiccup was pretty par for the course: it would’ve been more strange if there hadn’t been a complication!

Sam Bottoms taking method acting a little too far

Sticking with that theme, let’s turn our attention back to the cast now. Actor Sam Bottoms took on the role of Lance B. Johnson, and in an interview after the film’s release he made an eye-opening admission.

He said, “Most of my character was [performed] under the influence of pot — we did a lot of that. I was [also] doing speed then. I wanted a speedy sort of edge. And [I was drinking] alcohol. We were bad boys, you know.” 

Laurence Fishburne lied about his age

So it’s probably fair to say that this wasn’t an appropriate set for a young teenager. Yet Laurence Fishburne was right in the middle of it after telling a lie at his audition. Speaking on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, the actor recalled, “I told them I was 16 when I had my interview.

“I was 14. I think they knew, I don’t think I was fooling anybody.” When a secretary at the office told Coppola that Fishburne could’ve passed as an 18-year-old, that helped seal the deal.

The infamous roof parties

But while Fishburne and company certainly saw their fair share of craziness on the Apocalypse Now set, it was just as rowdy where they were staying, too. Looking back on that, production assistant Doug Claybourne had this to say. 

As quoted by The Independent newspaper, he remembered, “At the hotel where the crew were based, it was party heaven. We’d have a hundred beers lined up around the swimming pool. There were people diving off the roofs, it was crazy.”

Hopper’s unhinged demands

When it came to excess, though, there's little doubt that Hopper took things to a whole other level while working on the movie. His feud with Brando was pretty tame in comparison!

Documentary filmmaker George Hickenlooper revealed, “Dennis recounted the story to me that Francis came to him and said, ‘What can I do to help you play this role?’ Dennis said, ‘About an ounce of cocaine.’ So he was being supplied [with] drugs by the film production that he could use while he was shooting.”

“Stark naked”

Hopper also elected to avoid showering during the shoot, which became noticeable fairly quickly! And his wild antics only continued ahead of a press showing of the film in 1979. Claybourne stated, “I had all the actors together at the theater, but I couldn’t find Dennis.

“I had to go back to the hotel and I found him in his room, stark naked with his cowboy hat and boots on. I said, ‘Dennis, it’s time to go to the screening, man.’”

Orson Welles originally wanted to make it

All in all, then, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Apocalypse Now was a bit of a cursed production. Yet Coppola wasn’t the first Hollywood director to struggle with a movie adaptation of Heart of Darkness. In 1939 Orson Welles had pushed really hard to get something off the ground.

RKO Pictures gave him the green light and he dedicated months to pre-production. Thanks in part to the start of World War II, though, the studio pulled the plug. Mind you, it wasn’t all bad news for Welles: he directed Citizen Kane instead!

George Lucas’ vision for the movie was even wilder

And do you want to know who else fancied giving it a crack? The one and only George Lucas. But his vision for the movie was absolutely wild. Prior to Coppola taking his place, the director seriously considered shooting it in Vietnam during the war.

Lucas even thought about recruiting genuine troops as opposed to actors! Now of course, we know that didn’t happen. Yet it’s since been suggested that Star Wars might be his sci-fi take on Apocalypse Now and the conflict as a whole.

Coppola’s huge gamble

Given what happened while shooting it, you might reasonably wonder wheather Coppola sometimes wishes that Lucas had beated him to it! You see, one of the root causes of his stress during the production stemmed from his decision to literally bet the house on making it.

Yes, Coppola used his Napa Valley Wine Ranch as collateral to nail down the movie’s funding. If Apocalypse Now had gone up in smoke, the director could’ve lost everything. So you can hardly blame him for feeling twitchy!

A spiralling budget and 1 million feet of film

Originally, the production was set to span around 14 weeks, but that number kept growing as the disasters piled up. In the end, the cameras stopped rolling in the Philippines on day 238. When Coppola was done, he had a jaw-dropping 1 million feet of film to go through.

No, that’s not a typo. And as you can probably guess, the initial budget of $12 million had jumped significantly, too: the final total was roughly $30 million. You could make a movie about the making of this movie!

Making Hearts of Darkness

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in 1991. That year, Hearts of Darkness made its bow at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s the ultimate behind-the-scenes documentary, covering the craziness of Apocalypse Now’s shoot via footage captured by Coppola’s spouse.

Incredibly, she had recorded around 140 hours of audio and film back then, which contained plenty of juicy snippets. To give you an idea of how good it is, some would seriously argue that it’s actually better than Coppola’s movie. And that’s no mean feat!

The chaos mirrored the Vietnam War

Despite all that he went through, Coppola did come out of the production relatively unscathed. And as he reflected on a shoot that very nearly ruined him, the director made a very interesting observation.

He said, “The way we made it was very much like the way the 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.”

It took three cuts to get right

Insane or not, the results of Coppola’s unforgettable time in the jungle hit the big screen in 1979. It might’ve had its critics, but Apocalypse Now was quickly recognized as one of the best movies of that decade. Having said that, though, the director had his issues with the theatrical cut.

He went on to add 49 minutes of footage back in for 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux, before dropping the Final Cut in 2019. Do you have a favorite? For Coppola, it was very much “third time’s a charm.”