Because of the money and stakes involved, studio movies tend to be so completely worked out in advance that shooting them is about executing a creative vision rather than discovering one. But for Francis Ford Coppola, at least on his phantasmagorical 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, filmmaking is an open-ended process, beginning with questions that he hopes the movie will answer. In adapting Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness as a grand metaphor for the Vietnam War, Coppola felt he had to go along with his hero's terrifying journey upriver, even if it meant living with the possibility that he wouldn't find those answers, and the film would fail colossally. Call it courage or hubris, but for Coppola to haul a production of this size to the Philippines without knowing its artistic destination is an invigorating sort of madness—and one that's indelibly imprinted on the finished product.
Assigned to shoot 16mm pickups for a five-minute promotional featurette, Eleanor Coppola was by her husband's side for the entire 238-day quagmire, and her extraordinary footage was shaped (by directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper) into Hearts Of Darkness, one of the great making-of documentaries. Much like Burden Of Dreams, another story of a director whose journey mirrored that of his half-mad protagonist (in that case, Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo), the film covers a host of production calamities while also going deep inside the mind of a great, uncompromising filmmaker. The mishaps on Apocalypse Now are the stuff of Hollywood legend: The lead actor (Harvey Keitel) was fired a few weeks into shooting, the new lead (Martin Sheen) suffered a heart attack, a civil war lured away the government helicopters on loan for expensive setpieces, a typhoon knocked down sets and stalled shooting, and Marlon Brando arrived on set unprepared and out of shape.
As the days dragged on and the budget ballooned, the Coppolas offered up their personal assets as collateral, and even then, Francis didn't know whether he was making a good movie or a deeply pretentious one. His paroxysms of self-doubt, picked up in Eleanor's secret audio recordings, are perhaps the biggest revelation in Hearts Of Darkness, proof that creative genius often lies chillingly close to the abyss.
Key features: Only one, but a doozy: Eleanor Coppola's Coda: Thirty Years Later, a fascinating 30-minute doc about the making of Youth Without Youth, her husband's first feature in a decade.