Compare and Contrast
Burden of Dreams/Hearts of Darkness
Quick, name this movie: An incredibly talented filmmaker, after a recent string of successes, plans to film an ambitious epic deep within the jungle. Unfortunately, his lead actor is felled by disease (and another actor shows up woefully unprepared), his local labor has to leave to do battle with belligerents and his studio hounds him to finish the movie while the very elements do their best to destroy his sets. Meanwhile the director’s mental stability seems to take the same track as his protagonist's, neatly reflecting the anxieties of his magnum opus. But the movie that comes out of it, for my money, is one of the best films of all time. Now, if you guessed either Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo, come collect your prize.
These two films, released within three years of one another despite their long gestations overlapping, had disastrous productions that reflect each other so closely, that it would honestly make more sense that it were divinely scripted. Though they were filmed in jungles on opposite sides of the world, Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola were soul mates living the same disastrous scenario. It also led to their best pictures.
The creation of both these films were captured in two great “making-of” documentaries. Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams follows Werner Herzog into the Amazon rain forest as he makes his film about an obsessed aesthete dragging a boat up a mountain, while Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness goes upriver to track down a cult-leading madman with a great vision. But while both films could be summed up in the same paragraph, it’s their muses - the directors and their disparate personalities - that make them so fascinating to watch in tandem.
By the time Herzog lands in the jungles of the Amazon, he’s already well known in his native Germany and in film circles around the world. It’s been almost 10 years since Aguirre, the Wrath of Godmarked him as a new voice in world cinema (not for nothing, another story of a man searching for purpose in a jungle). He’s here to make a movie that is close to his soul. He tells the camera that he would rather die than not make it. He has a new lead actor (Jason Robards) and a rock star as a supporting character (Mick Jagger, seen in snippets of the scenes filmed while he was attached. The man is not a natural actor). It’s here that he films his movie about an opera fanatic who, in order to finance his passion, buys a steamboat to use to harvest rubber. Unfortunately for him, to get to the best grove of trees for this business, he has to abandon the Amazon and trek his boat up and down a mountain to the river on the other side. And unfortunately for Herzog, filming this also actually requires HOOFING A ENTIRE BOAT UP AND DOWN A MOUNTAIN.
Soon after arriving, Herzog decides to film not shortly outside the largest town in the jungle, as is recommended by locals and reinforced by his backers. We see Herzog point on a giant map where he thinks he has found the perfect filming location. It’s 2000 miles of jungle on either side, he brags, as if this is actually meaningful to the production. He admits as much, saying that he agrees he could have made it 50 feet into the jungle, and have spared his workers (mostly compensated natives of the Amazon) months of agony. Herzog also admits that he likes to make things more difficult, that it brings out the best qualities of his actors and his art. But here it puts him down a ruinous path.
He soon loses Robards to dysentery and Jagger to a new tour (“Have the Rolling Stones killed” is something I hope Herzog said in footage on the cutting room floor). As a replacement, Herzog’s old mortal enemy Klaus Kinski shows up to fill the lead role while Jagger’s part is written out altogether. Kinski's fraught relationship with Herzog is legendary, and spending months in the jungle pushes it to the breaking point. Kinski rages at the cast and crew, causing everyone on set to turn against him (Herzog famously admitted that one of the tribal chiefs offered to have Kinski murdered, and the director seriously considered it before declining).
At one point, a tribesman related to the native workers comes into camp with an arrow stuck into his neck, a result of an attack up river. Herzog’s workers take the production boats and rush upriver with guns loaded to confront the tribe that acted aggressively, while the filmmakers worry about potential reprisals on the set. Herzog himself busies himself with the arrow the doctors pull out of the struck man, saying how he will bring it home to his son as a gift - he will be thrilled that it came from a man’s neck. I honestly fear what a Herzog Christmas looks like.
Blank takes great glee presenting Herzog as a megalomaniac at many points, in particular his relationship to the natives of the Amazon. Herzog pays lip service to their plight, relating the all-too-true fact that their way of life is slowly being eroded by incursions from outsiders. He does not, of course, count himself among those overstepping their bounds. He considers the natives “savages” within the context of his film, and and his indifference to them while they do a great deal of the labor suggests that may have infected his view of the people themselves. Blank instead makes them the focus, watching individuals, getting their input on what it is like to work with the mostly white film crew and the reactions from their more skeptical relatives. The camera focuses on a young woman carrying a heavy box full of film supplies, stepping gingerly through rough terrain over a hill. In the next scene, Herzog bounds up the same patch of land, completely unencumbered. It’s a perfect summary of the ‘work’ he’s been doing.
Herzog is not necessarily a monster because of this, but it does show how obsessed he is with his final product alone. Over and over, he gives long sermons about what this movie means to him while little fascinating things happen all around him - something he seems totally oblivious towards. Blank subtly tricks the audience, seemingly giving Herzog his time to pontificate while undercutting our investment in him as a character by providing this context. He films things like a turtle walking along the deck of a house, or children at play, that are beautiful on the screen and that Herzog has no concern for at all. I imagine everyone involved is happy with the end product. Herzog got his movie, but Blank captured the more fascinating character.
A few years earlier, when Francis Ford Coppola walked into the jungles of the Philippines to film a script by John Milius, he may have had the same confidence as Herzog. But instead of almost having his star killed, Coppola considered turning a gun on himself rather than face the boondoggle he created. That alone says a lot about the difference between the two directors.
First of all, the script by Milius was constantly subject to change, depending on the day. Considering how bloated it was to begin with, the additions we’re generally for the worse. Then came the talent problems. Martin Sheen replaced Harvey Keitel as the lead early on, only to have a heart attack (likely brought on by the copious amount of drugs ingested by everyone on set.
Why did you invite Dennis Hopper along, Francis? Why?!). While he was incapacitated, Sheen’s brother was brought on to film any scene that didn't require any dialogue, or at least that could be filmed from a distance. If you didn't know this fact going in, there's a chance you missed some blatant body doubling. But it is not seamless. Once Sheen is back in business, Coppola finds himself wrangling with Marlon Brando. First Brando demands a million dollars to even consider showing up. And when he deigns to do so, he shows up obese and unprepared, having barely glanced at a script. This of course happens at the very end of filming, meaning there is no way to give up at this point. He has to soldier on. Toss in leased helicopters that are called away to fight actual insurgents and dangerous weather that destroys sets as well as morale repeatedly, and this vision begins to quickly fall apart.
Whereas Herzog’s situation is mostly defined by his stubbornness in the face of disaster, Coppola wears his misery on his sleeve. Perhaps having his wife along on the project affected the directors viewpoint of the character, but the director is a far more sympathetic figure in this film. As the pounds slough off his body in the jungle heat, as you see him pecking out revisions to his script, as you see him finagling with lights to cover up Brando’s girth, you clearly get the sense that this man is trying to hold onto his dream by any means necessary, even if it kills him. You can see him spiral into a depressive funk, then pull out of it once he steps foot in America and gives himself a break. Compared to unbending Herzog, Coppola is tied into knots by the potential failure that grows in scope before him.
Because Coppola is so much more relatable in his agonies, the directors of the documentary do not offer too much judgement - they let him do it for them. Though they note how many days over schedule or how many dollars over budget the film becomes, it becomes more about whether Coppola will walk out of this jungle alive, or whether he’ll be overtaken like Kurtz. Though we know that the film is eventually made, we’re left asking how on earth it was possible? How did he manage to dig himself out of that hole? Coppola offers little in the way of explanation, but you can see it in how his shoulders are weighed down by the stress, or in the growth of his wild-man’s beard.
Of course, it could have been worse. George-fucking-Lucas could have directed Apocalypse Now as was originally intended according to this movie.
If you're a fan of the making-of film documentary, there are any number of reason why it offers comfort. If you're any kind of creative person, it shows how obsession can meet with success. There’s a thrill in seeing how Coppola can manage to fly by the seat of his pants and quickly alter scripts or light shots to make them seem organic, rather than a blatant cover up. It’s satisfying to see Herzog so stressed out that he honestly considers having Kinski murdered by his native workers, because it makes the stress I feel writing this column much easier to bear (I rarely consider murder as an option, for what it’s worth). Here are two great egos fighting their hardest to lift something salvageable from the depths of their own misery.
(This may also be a good time to note that these two documentaries about successful films with trouble back stories [successful artistically, if not financially]. If I were to tack on a third movie and make this into a terrible-time trilogy, Lost in La Mancha, Kieth Fulton’s documentary about Terry Gilliam’s attempt to make a Don Quixote film, would offer a great counterpoint. Here, Gilliam is ultimately crushed by outside events, and the movie is put on hold indefinitely. Needless to say, this result means the documentary sputters out at the end. Instead of being amazed how this beautiful thing ever happened, Lost in La Mancha just confirms why ambition can backfire. Most people already know that, unfortunately.)
Films about films offer hundreds of opportunities for conflict. It’s a potent visual metaphor for all art, even if it’s literally about a single medium, because creativity is about wrangling both ideas and people to support your vision. Every artist can relate to the sudden shifts of temperament and tone, the rewriting on the fly, the people around you who don’t believe in what you're doing, who are concerned more for your mental health than the work you're doing (the nerve of them too). Your worst failure at work probably didn't have many millions of dollars and a whole studio in the balance, but they might have been invested with the same mental strain. The making-of documentary pulls the metaphorical curtain back, showing you how damn lucky your heroes were. It may not be as treacly as saying “anybody can make it,” but it is comforting to see that even a great director can be driven to tears by a scene that is just not quite coming together. Having a bad day? Well at least your helicopters didn't fly off to do battle with insurgents.
Every person committed to their work has a bit of Herzog and a bit of Coppola in them. You need both. Sometimes driving at full speed with blinders on can carry you past your temporary problems. Sometimes self-doubt isn't so crippling, and actually improves your product. In these cases, these two directors , often despite themselves, produced incredible works of art. But I’m just as thankful we got to see just how much was at stake beyond the screen, to see just how easily art could slip away from our fingers.