The Behind The Scenes Madness Of ‘Apocalypse Now’ Was Even More Hellish Than You Thought


While metaphorical battles often occur during the act of creation, the making of Apocalypse Now was about as close to a real war as any movie should ever get. The film examines the horrors and mental damage brought on by the Vietnam War, and was released to critical acclaim in 1979. At the time, few were likely aware that the violence and insanity on the screen eerily mirrored the stories from behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now.

When filming began in the Philippines in 1976, Francis Ford Coppola was hot off the success of The Godfather. Apocalypse Now was his passion project, and he fully intended to maintain complete creative control. However, a myriad of production problems caused the cast and crew to feel like they really were camping behind enemy lines. As the six week shoot turned into 68, the budget exploded, and not even Marlon Brando was above the madness. The set of Apocalypse Now felt so much like surviving a literal war that an entire documentary was made about the experience. From typhoons, to dysentery, to a heap of stolen corpses, the horrors of the Apocalypse Now shoot are realer than anything Hollywood could dream up.

Set Designers Planned To Use Real, Stolen Corpses As Props

Photo:  MGM

The lines between reality, movie fantasy, and outright insanity became increasingly blurred as production designers strived to make the horrors of war as real as possible. At one point, the crew killed a water buffalo on-screen, an act which was later condemned by the American Humane Association. To make Kurtz’s compound appear horribly realistic, designers decided to use real human bodies as set decorations, so they littered the ground with corpses. When one of the producers discovered a row of cadavers carefully laid out behind the mess tent, he was appalled, and demanded that extras be used instead.

To make the situation worse, the designer who obtained the bodies thought they were from a the medical examiner’s office, but they had actually come from a grave robber. The police shut down the production to examine everyone’s passports before deciding that the crew hadn’t murdered anyone. While the filmmakers were out of hot water, the most abject horror was yet to come; since the bodies were unidentified, and no one was willing to pay for a proper burial, the corpses were taken away in a truck, and no one knows what happened to them.

Martin Sheen Almost Died From A Heart Attack Early In The Shoot

Photo:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

While filming in the Philippines, the alcohol, drugs, and stress of the production seemingly caught up with Martin Sheen, as he suffered a heart attack. At the time of the incident, he was alone in a cabin, with no one around to help him. Desperate, Sheen struggled down the road, limping and crawling for nearly a mile before he found another person.

Francis Ford Coppola reportedly suffered an epileptic seizure after he heard the news of Sheen’s brush with death, and since the production was already massively behind schedule, he refused to tell anyone who wasn’t directly involved what really happened. He told the studio, “Even if he dies, he’s not dead until I say so,” and a body double was used for the six weeks Sheen took off. During this time, Sheen wasn’t sure he wanted to return, telling friends, “I don’t know if I’m going to live through this.”

The Movie Didn’t Have A Real Script, So Progress Was Slow

Photo:  Heart’s Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse/Paramount

As filming dragged on, it became clear that Francis Ford Coppola was completely lost. He had decided to work without the script for the most part, and often wrote scenes the same day they were shot. It was common for actors to be told that they were shooting “Scene unknown,” and Coppola expected everyone to improvise along with him.

When Brando arrived on-set having not memorized or prepared anything, things were thrown into even more disarray. Halting production to discuss the characters and how the film should end, 900 people waited around for the director and actor while they worked out a plan. Brando eventually decided to improvise his monologue, and rambled on for 18 minutes while the cameras ran. Only two minutes of his speech ended up in the movie.

The Scene Where Martin Sheen Freaks Out In A Hotel Is Real

Photo:  MGM

When filming began, Martin Sheen was struggling with alcoholism, which helped put him in the mindset of his character. Capitalizing on his weakness, Francis Ford Coppola decided to film Sheen’s opening breakdown scene when the actor was completely drunk. In Sheen’s defense, it was his birthday, so he did have a good excuse to drink. Even so, everything in the scene is completely real, from his staggering, to his weeping, to the mirror he smashes with his fist.

To incite a more authentic performance, Coppola prodded Sheen about vanity, and told his crew to keep filming despite their fear that Sheen would turn his drunken anger on them. When Coppola told Sheen that he was beautiful, Sheen lashed out at his own reflection, destroying the mirror in front of him and cutting his hand. At the time, he was so out of it that he didn’t realize how badly his hand was bleeding, and Coppola decided to let him finish the scene before he called a medic.

Marlon Brando Showed Up Without Having Read The Script

Photo: MGMWhen Marlon Brando showed up in the Philippines to film his scenes as Colonel Kurtz, he was nothing like the crew expected. It was reported that he weighed about 300 pounds, hadn’t memorized the script, and had lied about reading Heart of Darkness, the novella upon which the movie is based. While Francis Ford Coppola stopped production to literally read Brando the script, the actor decided to do things his own way.

Brando’s costume didn’t fit, and since he was self-conscious about his weight (he was supposed to be playing a lean warrior), Brando shaved his head, dressed completely in black, and chose to stay in the shadows. All of his performance was improvised, and Brando’s antics led Coppola to cut the star’s screen time drastically, and to move his scenes to the very end of the movie. Brando was on set for about three weeks, earned $2 million, and caused a fuss afterwards when he allegedly didn’t receive the royalties he was owed.

The Crew Was Infamous For Their Drug-Fueled Roof-Diving Parties

Photo: MGM

A good amount of the cast and crew of Apocalypse Now spent the majority of the production either drunk, high, or a combination of both. In addition to Martin Sheen’s alcohol abuse issues, actor Sam Bottoms claimed he was high on marijuana, LSD, and speed the whole time. Since Dennis Hopper was involved, there was a good amount of cocaine available as well.

Parties were regularly thrown at the crew’s hotel, and they grew more infamous as the production continued. One crew member remembered beer bottles lined up along the pool and people diving off the roof into the water below. Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, resorted to comfort food, and spent his down time enjoying hot dogs sent from San Francisco and pasta imported from Italy.

Dennis Hopper Got Drugs From The Production Crew And Didn’t Shower

Photo: MGM

In order to keep Dennis Hopper happy and in-character, Francis Ford Coppola ordered the production crew to supply Hopper with cocaine. He may have tried to play it off as “method acting,” but Hopper’s drug use was already well known. Marlon Brando refused to work with him, and Coppola was required to shoot their scenes separately. Hopper’s character and dialog were both improvised, which perhaps explains the crazy things he says as he plays a photojournalist enamored with Brando’s Kurtz.

It wasn’t just Brando who refused to be near Hopper; others claimed the actor had horrible body odor since he didn’t shower often, and they didn’t want to stand too close. Filming in a humid, tropical jungle probably didn’t help either.

Francis Ford Coppola Suffered A Seizure And A Nervous Breakdown

Photo: MGM

In order to maintain complete creative control over the movie, Francis Ford Coppola was forced to put up millions of dollars from his own pocket for the budget. The normally in-control director told crew members and his wife that he didn’t know what he was doing, blamed himself for Martin Sheen’s heart attack, suffered an epileptic seizure, lost around 100 pounds, and was hospitalized from malnutrition and dehydration. Coppola was convinced that the movie would be terrible, and that it would bankrupt him, and he eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

Coppola threatened to commit suicide three times before shooting wrapped. At a Cannes press conference, he described the shoot, saying, “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam… We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

A Set Was Destroyed By A Typhoon

Photo: MGM

The cast and crew endured many days of rainy shooting after Francis Ford Coppola ignored the advice of weathermen and decided to film during monsoon season in the Philippines. The seasonal rains started just two months into filming, making everything wet, muddy, and miserable. The movie’s bad luck continued when Typhoon Olga swept through the island and destroyed most of the set, caking everything in mud and delaying filming for two months.

Fortunately for the crew, actor Scott Glen was a former Marine, and helped with emergency relief by doing things like delivering a baby and saving Coppola from capsizing into a raging river. A month into monsoon season (and three months into the shoot), Coppola was already three weeks behind and $2 million over budget.

The Helicopters Had To Be Taken Back To Fight Rebel Soldiers

Photo: MGM

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” became one of the most famous lines from Apocalypse Now, but it wouldn’t have been so memorable had there not been helicopters and explosions involved. While Francis Ford Coppola was struggling to make a movie about war, there was an actual conflict going on in the Philippines. After the US military denied his request, Coppola borrowed helicopters and other military equipment from the Filipino government. Unfortunately, they often needed to take stuff back without warning to fight rebel troops.

After spending seven months building the set of Kurtz’s temple, special effects technicians blew it up for a scene at the end of the film, and claimed it was the largest napalm explosion to take place outside of an actual war.

The Crew Was Ravaged By Dysentery And Accidents

Photo: MGM

The crew of Apocalypse Now was huge, as Francis Ford Coppola had brought on a swath of professionals, such as snake wranglers and people who were experts on finding hundreds of skulls at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, many crew members got caught up in the production nightmare. Tropical illnesses such as dysentery affected people soon after filming started, a side effect of shooting on-location in a jungle.

In addition to claims that a tiger was stalking them, there were also several serious accidents on set, including one that killed a local Filipino worker (a log fell on him during the construction of a set). Between the tropical illnesses, fatal accidents, heart attacks and nervous breakdowns, the set really was “Hell on Earth.”

Several Famous Actors Turned Down The Main Role

Photo: MGM

Francis Ford Coppola originally wanted to cast Steve McQueen to play the lead role of Captain Willard, but the actor refused after he was unable to get $3 million for the role and didn’t want to leave the country. James Caan demanded $2 million, and eventually turned the part down as well. Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford were considered, but both refused, and Al Pacino was too afraid of having to work in the jungle to sign on.

Coppola was obviously frustrated, and after hurling all five of his Oscars out a window in a fit of rage, he calmed down and gave the part to Harvey Keitel. After only three weeks of filming, Coppola decided Keitel wasn’t right, and fired him. Martin Sheen was brought on instead, and although his experience on-set wasn’t the greatest, it’s now difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.

One reply on “The Behind The Scenes Madness Of ‘Apocalypse Now’ Was Even More Hellish Than You Thought”

The first time I read one of these behind the scenes stories about the movie, I was horrified to learn that the buffalo scene was real. But, the more I read, the more the movie made sense. The idea was to show the madness and senselessness of the war, by going ona river journey deeper and deeper into madness, so Coppola just let the production descend into madness, and miraculously cut together a storyline loosely based on the book in post production. In that context, even the buffalo makes sense.

BTW, Baler bay in East Luzon is idyllic. I hope to go there one day and surf a longboard wearing an Air Cav Stetson.

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