In a small pocket of time between 1976 to 1977, Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola was king of his own movie making colony deep in the heart of a Philippine jungle, trudging through the creation of Apocalypse Now. But as he inched closer and closer to his own heart of darkness, he revealed the devastating price of an enduring cinematic masterpiece. Thirty-five years later, Raymond Ang surveys the debris
“We were shooting for almost two weeks when they said they were changing the lead actor,” says Danny Dominguez, who served as chief armorer for the Apocalypse Now production three and a half decades ago, “from Harvey Keitel to Martin Sheen. . . . It was the moment we realized it was going to be an interesting movie.”
Though Dominguez’s career has spanned over four decades, his résumé littered with everything from prestige pictures like Platoon to the various international franchises of the Survivor series, he has never quite escaped the sweltering jungles of Pagsanjan, with Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, and the rest of the cast and crew that comprised Apocalypse Now’s epic production, sweating and toiling away at a monster of a movie that was quickly growing legs. “Truly it was interesting—even up to now. After 35 years, when foreign directors and producers find out I worked on Apocalypse, they say the same thing—it cannot be equaled.”
This month marks the 35th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus. Initially planning to do a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola, coming off the highs of The Godfather’s Tinseltown takeover, was determined to succeed where Orson Welles had failed. In the 50s, Welles, the famed director of Citizen Kane, widely-regarded as the greatest film of all time, aimed to do an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. After several hitches in pre-production, he decided to make Citizen Kane instead. Coppola, perhaps 1970’s Hollywood version of Orson Welles—a prodigiously talented, albeit rather mercurial director with a propensity for risk, self-immolation, and perhaps most importantly, dreams of grandeur—was going to one-up him.
Instead, what was supposed to be an artistic battle between Coppola and his peers became a battle with himself. While the production was ambitious from its very inception—its controversial anti-Vietnam motif made more impossible by the use of Conrad’s Darkness, a text widely-regarded as unadaptable—the swiftness of its devolution into a multi million-dollar mess was devastating, chief of all, to Coppola. A film plagued by a famously difficult shoot, Coppola was reportedly on the brink of financial disaster and, possibly, mental illness. Later, he would call the shoot—which was tormented by everything from a set-destroying typhoon to Martin Sheen’s heart attack—“a nightmare every day.” From the planned few months, the shoot ballooned into a year and two months. As collateral, Coppola had staked his personal assets to ensure that the increasingly over-budget shoot would go on. As news of its probable demise wafted through the Hollywood elite, the press began taking jabs at Coppola, with some reportedly dubbing the film “Apocalypse Later.”
“Money flowed, of course,” explains Jun Juban, who assisted his brother Dennis Juban as official liaison of Coppola to the Philippines. “I mean, it was meant to be a three-month shoot for $3 million. They were here for a year and a half. When they left, it was $27 million. It was one of those movies that never ended.”
There have been many films about the Vietnam War, from Platoon to Deer Hunter. Some are great, some are middling, but none have been able to stand against the ambition, sheer audacity, and mythical genesis and afterlife of Apocalypse Now. After beating the odds and garnering an unlikely Oscar nod for Best Picture, the years would only grow more interesting for the movie. In 1991, Coppola’s wife Eleanor released Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, an award-winning documentary cobbled together from home videos, personal recordings, and Eleanor’s diary entries about the making of the movie. A decade later, Coppola finally released the film as originally intended, a 49-minutes-more extended cut of the film he titled Apocalypse Now Redux.
Through it all, the movie left a lasting impression on the thousands of Filipinos who worked on the production, hung out with production staffers, and rubbed elbows with some future Hollywood heavyweights. Careers have crashed, burned, and flourished in the shadow of Apocalypse. Across 1976 and 1978, the Philippines became the unwitting center of Coppola’s hurricane. For a brief pocket of time, the country became a place of interest for Hollywood productions looking for cheap but adaptable locations. According to Henry Strzalkowski, an extra in Apocalypse’s production, George Lucas expressed interest in shooting Star Wars here, only to change his mind after hearing about Coppola’s troubled production.
The documentary Hearts of Darkness opens with Coppola at a Cannes Film Festival press conference in 1979. “My film is not a movie,” he says. “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like. It was crazy. . . . Little by little, we went insane.” It seems, in the creation of a masterpiece, Francis Ford Coppola had to destroy more than a little bit of himself.
“I didn’t like the documentary. I found it pretty unfair,” says Jun Juban, taking a sip from a glass of Coke in the veranda of his Alabang home. “That film [Apocalypse] went way over budget. I guess they had to point at somebody. They even blamed us for the typhoons. But if you’re here for a year and half, obviously you’ll get hit one way or the other.”
Juban, then a high school student from Letran who assisted his brother Dennis during summer vacation, takes particular offense at Eleanor’s narration of the events that led to the choppers being unavailable during the shooting of an important scene. “The choppers were there 99.9% of the time,” he reiterates. “There were instances where Coppola and Storaro, the director of photography, would say ‘I don’t feel like filming today.’ In one particular instance, there was a skirmish in Laguna and the choppers had to go—but that’s what they played up. As the one directly in charge of the pilots, parang ‘Tangina naman, ang daming instances na nakatunganga lang yung pilots . . . I guess I’m just too defensive because that goes through the cracks of our work.”
Scouting for a country to shoot Apocalypse Now in, the Philippines was a logical choice for Coppola. With its grassy terrains and tropical weather, it was a natural dead ringer for Vietnam. Initially it was John Ashley, producer of the show The A-Team, and local film legend Eddie Romero, who brought in the deal. Later, when complications arose, Dennis Juban, Jun’s brother, went from the film’s military liaison officer to Coppola’s liaison to the Philippines.
“When Apocalypse came scouting, they asked us if we could provide them their needs on movie guns,” says Danny Dominguez, one of the Jubans’ longtime collaborators, “so we showed and tested our guns, including the first caliber .45 pistol firing semi-auto in blanks, which Francis Ford Coppola himself fired without jamming. But when they came back for the preparation stage, this time they asked for a caliber .50 machine gun which we didn’t have then. So Dennis told me to work on it quickly because Joe Lombardi would also be testing his version of a caliber .50. In three days, we went to Pagsanjan ready to compete with whomever to try to win the contract. Finally, we won because of our gun. It worked like a real one.”
“It was Martial Law and we had a contract with the Department of National Defense,” explains Juban. “Naka-pirma si Enrile [Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile signed]. It was an honored contract. . . . The guns came from the Philippine Army, the AK47s came from the Philippine Constabulary, the trucks came from the Army Support Command . . . anything they wanted was here.”
“That contract was the first of its nature done and it set the precedent for other films,” he says, “films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July.” Coppola had a deal with Marcos, according to the documentary. Production was to pay the military thousands of dollars per day, as well as overtime fee for the pilots. In return, Coppola could use the government’s entire fleet of helicopters, as long as they weren’t needed for the communist insurgency in the South.
“The film Francis is making is a metaphor for a journey into self,” goes Eleanor Coppola’s opening gamble in Hearts of Darkness. “He has made that journey and is still making it. It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the center of himself and confront his fears,” she continues. “Fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane. You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little, to come out the other side. The process is not over for Francis.” The parallels between Coppola and Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, Brando’s character in the film, a man who slowly loses his mind in the jungle and then plays jungle god, are not hard to miss.
“Coppola was God,” Juban recalls. “Our mantra then was if he asks for a pink elephant, you shout ‘Coming!’ and figure it out later. If you were [one of the] film guys, grabe ‘yun. Kahit anong hingin mo, pwede . . . Coppola was the savior of Hollywood, so he got away with anything.”
But he didn’t get away with everything. “Coppola wanted to see how live bullets would hit a body,” Juban continues, “so we had to shoot some cows.” Later, information about the cruelty to animals leaked. “We got in trouble with the animal industry.”
“It was insane and exciting,” Henry Strzalkowski says, who was on set for four months, as an extra for the Do Lung bridge scene in which Captain Willard first meets Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. “Dennis Hopper decided to stay in costume for the entire period of the shoot,” he says. “It got to the point where his own co-stars couldn’t stand his smell. They gave him his own coaster. He didn’t stay in the hotel like everyone else.
“That beach took this weird reputation after the movie was over. It may not have anything to do with Apocalypse Now, but I heard there was a tourist influx,” Strzalkowski says. “Some call it a pedophile’s paradise.”
In 1976, Eleanor Coppola wrote in her diary: “Everyone who has come out here to the Philippines seems to be going through something which is affecting them profoundly, changing their perspective about the world or themselves.”
“There were times when Coppola would lose his temper,” Strzalkowski recalls. “They had 200 extras. Okay, you’ve got 200 extras. You gotta keep going, you gotta give them something to do . . . But when they did have scenes , they were really [groping]. . . . He’d show up on set and no one would know what to do.” Still, the 200 waited.
Not all Filipinos were lost in the background, though. A local face that made an impression was Gigi Dueñas-de Beaupré. “She was a friend of mine,” Strzalkowski says. “We used to hang out. She was always in the Hobbit House [a popular club at that time], where she was part of the scene. . . . That’s how they found her. . . . That’s where production would go when they needed amusement.”
“So while I was on set, she comes in. She sashays in wearing a floppy hat, a regular green shirt, tsinelas, nothing else. And I go, ‘Gigi, what are you doing here?’” he remembers, laughing. “She goes, ‘I’m Brando’s wife!’”
“I met one of the resource persons of Apocalypse Now at the Hobbit House,” Dueñas-de Beaupré says. “He offered me roses and asked if I would be interested in playing Marlon Brando’s wife for the movie. I laughed and told him that it was the best pick-up line I’d ever heard.”
Little did she know that she was competing against Elizabeth Oropesa for the part, then one of local cinema’s leading actresses. “I got hold of a newspaper and read that Elizabeth Oropesa got the role,” she says. “And I bewailed my misfortune, my new friends didn’t believe that I was considered for the role. They thought I was putting them on.” Juban remembers the days nearing what was supposed to be Oropesa’s debut. “It was supposed to be her but . . . I think they realized she didn’t look the part. . . . There were more scenes shot ,” he goes on to say, “but a lot of them ended up on the editing floor.”
Still, Dueñas-de Beaupré, got more than her fair share of time with Hollywood royalty—though it was mainly offscreen. “I played cards with Harrison Ford who was unknown then. I really had a great time with Laurence Fishburne. He was known as simply ‘Larry.’ We called him Fish. He was 15 years old and giving headaches to his Mom Hattie who was trying to keep him out of drugs on the set. . . . Larry would only smoke grass. We used to hide him from his Mom,” she says. “Larry was a funny guy and he had a smooth way of moving. He made up most of his lines in the movie. He played himself, a teenager full of insouciance.”
But perhaps the Hollywood import that made a lasting impression on Dueñas-de Beaupré was Marc Coppola, Francis Ford’s nephew and Nicolas Cage’s older brother. “Marc Coppola and I fell in love. . . . I really got close to the Coppola family. My son Karlo played with Sofia, who was around five years old then. . . Coppola asked me once if I wanted to marry his nephew. I just laughed the question off. I was in love, but I still wanted to go to Kathmandu. Marc was really disappointed that I didn’t choose to go with them to California. Francis
“The lowest point for me was when it ended and everybody was heading home,” she continues. “When Marc left for California and I didn’t follow him there. Was that a stupid decision? What if I became Mrs. Coppola?” She seems happy with her decision though, brushing it off with a laugh and a reminder that she’s very happy with her husband and children. “Actually, I have no regrets and Marc and I remain friends. We correspond every now and then.”
But it is perhaps a testament to the production’s troubled story, that even an account as rosy as Dueñas-de Beaupré’s still contains a few barbs. “One scene I couldn’t forget was the cañao scene,” she recalls. “I was actually out there with the Ifugao women dancing just before they killed the carabao. After the scene was filmed, I ran to a corner and vomited. Francis handed me a glass of water and said, “That’s just like killing
butterflies . . . ”
“The weird thing about that was right before they shot, the carabao was waiting the whole night. It goes like this,” Strzalkowski says, bowing his head to illustrate the animal’s pain, “right before it was killed.”
“It was pretty bad,” Juban says. “We used some cadavers, actually, for some scenes. Those are actual cadavers hanging [when they enter the temple]. . . . He wanted that feel, that feel of death. If smell can come out of his movies, he will try to do that.” The cadavers didn’t last long. After a complaint was filed, they took them away. “My brother said it was too much, hindi natin kaya ‘to. He [Coppola] wanted the smell of death. I guess that was the toughest one for us.”
Juban believes that it might have been actions like this, the complete disregard for other forms of life, that triggered what he calls an “Apocalypse Now curse.” He recalls bringing Igorots to the production to become extras. When a temple was destroyed for a scene, the Igorots claimed a dwarf died. “If you look at it, everyone associated with the movie got bad luck, one way or another. . . . My brother died on the very spot. He was scouting in 1978 for a new film when he died in a helicopter crash. It’s eerie . . . maybe it’s a coincidence pero . . . ang bigat dalhin.”
There’s an early scene in the movie where Lieutenant General Corman tries to explain Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s fate. He says: “Out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil; and good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point.”
“We were all kind of acting out our characters,” Strzalkowski confesses. For better or worse, for a little over a year in the heart of a Philippine jungle, Coppola became Kurtz.
“I tried to break the spell—the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness—that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. . . . Soul! If anybody ever struggled with a soul, I am the man.”
—Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Today, Francis Ford Coppola runs a a private company-—with a revenue of over half a billion dollars a year—built on wine, cigars, prepared foods, and resorts. It has given him financial independence from Hollywood, finally liberated from filmmaking, finally making films for himself again.
The years between Apocalypse Now and his present contentment have had their highs and lows. While Apocalypse Now’s robust box office and subsequent home video strength saved him from what could have been financial ruin, his follow-up, the experimental musical One from the Heart, proved his luck had just about run out. He spent most of the next few years working off debt, literally making films to live. He reached his nadir in 1995, with Jack, a sentimental comedy featuring Robin Williams and a pre-fame Jennifer Lopez. Now in his business, he’s stable and strong. If he’s not killing himself making contemporary classics, he’s at least not killing himself financially, spiritually. He is out of the jungle.
In October 2010, GQ magazine interviewed Coppola for the Blu-ray release of Apocalypse. In the interview, he was asked to explain the movie’s enduring hold on film buffs. He said: “Clearly [Apocalypse Now] went off on its own to explore the themes of what was a very unusual, maybe unprecedented, war on many levels. So when the film came out, it shocked people at first and almost defied them, because it was so different than what had been considered a war film. When that happens—when risk is taken and the filmmakers dive into the subject matter without a parachute—very often what you get is something with those qualities that make it age well with the public. Risk is a factor in making art, making films.”
“My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it,” he says, in Hearts of Darkness. “And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from . . . the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.”
In his little colony in the Philippines in that short pocket of time along 1976 and 1977, Francis Ford Coppola took risks. He took lives, he took nature into his own hands, all for the sake of a film. What he gave in return was a classic—a stone cold standard of modern moviemaking.