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Shining a light on Hearts of Darkness

Eleanor Coppola says documenting ‘Apocalypse Now’ was a ‘profound experience’

The making of “Apocalypse Now,” the 1979 seminal film about the Vietnam War based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness,” was fraught with battles of its own: typhoons, major health issues, an uncooperative U.S. State Department, funding problems. But they were battles director and producer Francis Ford Coppola was willing to fight.

And one woman, Eleanor Coppola — Francis’ wife — was there to capture it all.

A distinctive behind-the scenes film, “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” created from Eleanor’s footage, will be screened at the Ashland Independent Film Festival on Saturday, April 13, at the Ashland Street Cinema in honor of the 40th anniversary of “Apocalypse Now.”

“Hearts of Darkness” was not a project Eleanor originally set out to do. “It was a profound experience for me in the sense that I never imagined myself making that documentary,” Eleanor says in a telephone interview.

On the set of “Apocalypse,” filmed in the Philippines, it seemed as though a veritable war was ragging at times. A severe typhoon ravaged the island while they were there, and actor Martin Sheen had a heart attack in the midst of filming. Shooting stretched from a planned 12 to 18 weeks to a year and a half. Funding was less than forthcoming, and the U.S. State Department refused to participate in the film, forcing Francis to turn to the Philippine Air Force for helicopters and pilots — who often got called away during filming.

The lightest camera they had with them was a 16 mm newsreel camera. Having made only a few short art films, Eleanor was unfamiliar with the workings of this particular camera, but she didn’t let that deter her. She learned how to change the film reels in the bathroom with the lights off and the door closed, figuring it out solely by touch to protect the film from light.

“They kept getting called away to fight the real war in the South,” Eleanor says.

Looking back on all the problems encountered on the set, Eleanor says, “It’s interesting because sometimes the film seems to, the process, seemed to reflect each other.”

One of the funding sources wanted to send a documentary team out from Los Angeles to get enough footage to make a 5-minute promotional spot for television. Francis, who had his hands full managing the people he already had on location, put his foot down, and made the decision to film the footage in-house and send it back over to the U.S.

“There wasn’t almost anyone out there except myself who didn’t have a part to play in the crew, and so he said, ‘Here Ellie, you do this.’ I was intrigued,” Eleanor says.

The lightest camera they had with them was a 16 mm newsreel camera. Having made only a few short art films, Eleanor was unfamiliar with the workings of this particular camera, but she didn’t let that deter her. She learned how to change the film reels in the bathroom with the lights off and the door closed, figuring it out solely by touch to protect the film from light.

She remembers that Francis was adamant that he didn’t want her film to be about him, but instead to be about the production. “Eventually, I dropped out of the editing because I realized that even in the best case, I would make him too much of a genius or too much of a jerk,” she says. “I didn’t have the perspective to really be the one that edited it.”

Before long, Eleanor had amassed a staggering 60 hours’ worth of raw footage, in part because of her unrestricted access. “The actors had to give me access, too, because I was the boss’ wife,” she says with a laugh.

As a visual artist, she loved looking through the viewfinder, seeing a wide world reduced to a single point of focus. Each reel of film was only four minutes long, so she had to make tough choices: stick with the shot she’d planned, or capture the spontaneous moments?

“To take your mind off what you intend to do, and do what was happening in the moment, was an interesting experience, to really try and be in the moment,” Eleanor says. “... It was a very interesting life-learning experience for me on a lot of levels.”

After wrapping up filming, the Coppolas and crew returned home to the U.S. and Eleanor got to work editing her footage.

“His creative process started to be front and center,” she says. “... My curiosity that he had this really hard project and he wouldn’t give up he could not let go of it, even at its worst moments he just kept going and that kind of fascinated me.”

“When it was finished (in 1991), Francis was still very resentful because he felt like the film was too much about him, that it made him look too raw. ... He felt like he didn’t like that image of himself, so he was mad at the film for a few years,” Eleanor says with a chuckle. Francis eventually came to terms with the film, she adds.

She remembers that Francis was adamant that he didn’t want her film to be about him, but instead to be about the production. “Eventually, I dropped out of the editing because I realized that even in the best case, I would make him too much of a genius or too much of a jerk,” she says. “I didn’t have the perspective to really be the one that edited it.”

The TV spot was made and the footage was edited. Then a production team approached the Coppolas about creating a behind-the-scenes documentary about the filming of “Apocalypse” using Eleanor’s footage and her “Notes,” a journal she kept while on location. Francis gave them the green light.

They brought Eleanor into the production.

“I was very surprised they had me come to the editing room and I felt like my job was not to intrude except to try to keep the balance,” she says.

The production team had intended to use a voice actress to narrate the film, but Francis insisted on Eleanor, as her voice, unpolished though it may be, would lend the film authenticity.

“When it was finished (in 1991), Francis was still very resentful because he felt like the film was too much about him, that it made him look too raw. ... He felt like he didn’t like that image of himself, so he was mad at the film for a few years,” Eleanor says with a chuckle. Francis eventually came to terms with the film, she adds.

“I think it’s probably as good a behind-the-scenes look at that kind of big filmmaking as there had been up to that time,” she says.

Eleanor since has been busy following what draws her attention, interest or passion. On March 29, she wrapped up a film comprising three short stories on women’s issues, specifically how older women are largely ignored in the film industry.

The project comes from a place of personal passion.

“I think I’m on a little mini-mission, I don’t know why I’m drawn to that right now,” she says. “I’m not some big, active, political person, but I do feel that these women, they’re good actresses, you know, Cybill Shepherd and people like that, that we haven’t seen for a while, are talented and should be working and be seen and should be part of the cultural dialogue. I feel like this group of older women are invisible and unseen. ... And there’s a lot of us out there.”

What’s next for Eleanor?

“Well, I don’t have any plans,” she says. “I’ll complete something and then see what draws me, draws my attention, draws my interest, draws my passion toward it, and then I’ll go down that way. But it could be a set of watercolors, I don’t know. It’s a ton of mystery, a trail that I’m on,” she says, laughing.

“Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” will be screened at 3:40 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at the Ashland Street Cinema, 1644 Ashland St., Ashland, and a Q-and-A session with her will follow the screening.

For a full listing of AIFF’s events, see ashlandfilm.org or call 541-488-3823.

Eleanor Coppola
Martin Sheen portrays Capt. Willard in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Associated Press photo