Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

Documentaries about filmmaking should come with a warning. Beware: the film that you are about to watch may make you feel differently about the film on which it is based. Okay, it’s not a catchy caution but an important one all the same.


For example, I can never watch Fitzcarraldo in the same way having watched Les Blank’s documentary, Burden Of Dreams. In the same way, my appreciation of many of Stanley Kubrick’s films has been coloured following movies such as Filmworker.


However, in most cases, the original films are not diminished by these documentaries. Far from it. If anything, learning more about how iconic scenes were created and the incredible effort that took place behind the scenes has made me appreciate these movies all the more. 


Case in point Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse - a gripping, fascinating and frankly unbelievable look at the story behind the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film, Apocalypse Now. 


Featuring interviews with cast and crew members, the key strength of Hearts is the immersive on-set footage shot by Eleanor Coppola (Francis’s wife) and the inclusion of audio recordings of intimate conversations between Eleanor and Francis as he struggled to bring his vision (a Vietnam story inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart Of Darkness) to cinematic life. 



We, of course, know how this story ends. Apocalypse Now was both critically acclaimed and financially successful. However, while shooting his epic film in the Philippines, Francis Ford Coppola was to experience bouts of extreme anxiety. 


Hearts shows the director wrestling with his lofty ambitions, terrified that the investment in his film (time, money and health) would result in failure. To make matters worse, the filmmaking process was (very much like in Burden Of Dreams) beset by problems.


Filming was initially expected to take 14 weeks, starting in the spring of 1976. However, mid-shooting cast changes (most notably Coppola’s decision to change his leading man from Harvey Keitel to Martin Sheen), significant weather challenges, helicopter recalls, the impact of drugs and alcohol on the cast and crew, not to mention Martin Sheen’s heart attack and Marlon Brando’s bizarre behaviour caused the shoot to extend to over a year.  


On top of all of these overwhelming issues was the fact that Coppola just didn’t know how to end his story. His anxiety about bringing Apocalypse Now to a satisfactory conclusion is palpable. At one point in Hearts he calls his film The Idiodyssey. 


Hearts plunges us into the centre of this chaos. It is truly remarkable to watch and we can understand why, by the end of the process of making Apocalypse Now, the film's cast and crew all felt as if they had fought their own war.


Indeed, at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival Coppola stated: “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It’s what it was really like - it was crazy. And 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.”


While there may be some merit to his comments, it still feels uncomfortable to compare the two. How can the making of a film, however challenging, be the same or even similar to a war - particularly a war that few on set had any personal, first hand experience of? 


In a fascinating article, film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, states that Hearts reveals the “Passion of the Artist writ large, made to seem far more important than the mere suffering and deaths of a few hundred thousand nameless and faceless peasants (and American soldiers) across the South China Sea”.


Many critics believe that Apocalypse Now has more to say about the act and art of filmmaking than the conflict in Vietnam. Whatever the case, Hearts is its unmissable cinematic partner.


Filmmaking Documentary Recommendations

Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is part of the filmmaking sub-genre of Documentary 7.


If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:


Burden Of Dreams

American Movie


They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

De Palma



I would also like to include the following honourable mentions: Lost In La Mancha, Cameraperson, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films, Best Worst Movie and The Kid Stays In The Picture.


Do you have any filmmaking documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones

E: jane@500daysoffilm.com


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