John Milius originally wrote the script in 1969. It was then known as "The Psychedelic Soldier". As Coppola described it, the original screenplay was a series of "comic book" scenes to point out the absurdity of the Vietnam War. Over the course of several years of rewrites, the final script kept some of the absurd elements from Milius' original screenplay for the first half with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness added to it for the second half of the movie.
The scene at the beginning with Captain Willard alone in his hotel room was completely unscripted. Martin Sheen told the shooting crew to just let the cameras roll. Sheen was actually drunk in the scene and punched the mirror which was real glass, cutting his thumb. Sheen also began sobbing and tried to attack Francis Ford Coppola. The crew was so disturbed by his actions that they wanted to stop shooting, but Coppola wanted to keep the cameras going.
Marlon Brando was paid $1 million in advance. He threatened to quit and keep the advance. Francis Ford Coppola told his agent that he didn't care, and if they couldn't get Brando, they would try Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, and then Al Pacino. Brando eventually turned up late, drunk, 40kg (about 88lbs) overweight, and admitted he hadn't read the script or even "Heart of Darkness", the book it was based on. He read Coppola's script, and refused to do it. After days of arguments over single lines of dialogue, an ad-lib style script was agreed upon, and this was shot according to Brando's stipulations that he be filmed mostly in shadows.
It took Francis Ford Coppola nearly three years to edit the footage. While working on his final edit, it became apparent to him that Martin Sheen would be needed to tape a number of additional narrative voice-overs. Coppola soon discovered that Sheen was busy and unable to perform these voice-overs. He then called in Sheen's brother, Joe Estevez, whose voice sounds nearly identical to Sheen's, to perform the new narrative tracks. Estevez was also used as a stand-in/double for Sheen when Sheen suffered a heart attack during the shoot in 1976. Estevez was not credited for his work as a stand-in or for his voice-over work.
Francis Ford Coppola believed that Marlon Brando was familiar with Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and had prepared for the role before the legendary actor arrived on the set. When Brando did come out, Coppola was horrified to find that Brando had never read "Heart of Darkness", did not know his lines, and had become extremely fat (Kurtz had always been written as a tall but starvingly-thin man). After some panicking, Coppola decided to film the 5'10" Brando as if he was a massively built, 6'5" brute (to explain Brando's size) and steered the camera clear of Brando's huge belly.
When Francis Ford Coppola asked Al Pacino to play Willard, Pacino turned him down saying, "I know what this is going to be like. You're going to be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do, and I'm gonna be down there in a swamp for five months." The shoot actually lasted 16 months.
Harvey Keitel was initially cast as Willard. Two weeks into shooting, director Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Martin Sheen. According to Coppola one piece of film with him did make it into the final cut (although you really can't see him) in a shot from the distance of the river boat as it is moving through the water.
Kurtz reads from the T.S. Eliot poem "The Hollow Men". Eliot was inspired to write this poem by "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, the book on which this movie was loosely based. The first line of the poem reads, "Mistah Kurtz - he dead". Kurtz leaves this line and the following line out when he reads. Also, the photojournalist says "This is the way the fucking world ends. Look at this fuckin' shit we're in, man. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, and with a whimper, I'm fucking splitting, Jack." This is taken from the same poem's famous last two lines, "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper."
In the DVD commentary, Francis Ford Coppola downplays his involvement in the controversial slaughter of the water buffalo, saying he "happened to film a ritual" being performed by Ifugao natives. However in the article "Ifugao extras and the making of Apocalypse Now", cast and crew detail how Coppola staged the entire scene, directing the natives to chant and sing while they killed the animal which Coppola provided. Afterwards, Coppola "went overboard and ordered a whole truckload" of animals which he gave to the Ifugao to slaughter on camera. However only one water buffalo slaughter was used in the final cut. ('Flip Magazine 2003, v.2, n.3, pp. 29-33, 90-91')
There are no opening credits or titles. The title of the movie appears as graffiti late in the film, which reads, "Our motto: Apocalypse Now". This was done simply so the film could be copyrighted, since it could not be copyrighted as "Apocalypse Now" unless the title was seen in the film.
George Lucas was originally set to direct "Apocalypse Now" from a screenplay by John Milius. Lucas' initial plan was to shoot the movie as a faux documentary on location in South Vietnam while the war was still in progress. Francis Ford Coppola, who was to be the executive producer, tried to get the film made as part of a production deal with Warner Bros. The deal fell through, and Coppola went on to direct The Godfather (1972). By the time both men were powerful enough to get the film made, Saigon had fallen and Lucas was busy making Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). Milius had no interest in directing the film. Lucas gave Coppola his blessing to direct the film himself.
The canteen scene with Lt. Col. Kilgore and the wounded Viet Cong is based on an actual wounded VC fighter who fought while keeping his entrails strapped to his belly in an enameled cooking pot. The incident was documented by the photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths. The real-life U.S soldier was quoted as saying, "Any soldier who can fight for three days with his insides out can drink from my canteen any time!".
Francis Ford Coppola invested several million dollars of his own money in the film after it went severely over budget. He eventually had to mortgage his home and winery in Napa Valley in order to finish the film. In fact, throughout the 1980s he had to work as a "hired gun" for other producers (instead of his own projects) to pay off the enormous debts he had incurred.
Nick Nolte has said that he has never wanted a role more than that of Captain Willard, and was very disappointed when Coppola picked Harvey Keitel. When Keitel was fired, Nolte thought the role was his, but Sheen eventually got the part.
In May 1979 this became the first film to be awarded the Palme D'Or at The Cannes Film Festival before it had actually been completed. Because the Cannes jury was unable to come to a unanimous vote, this film shared the Best Picture prize with The Tin Drum (1979).
Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the filming and some shots of Willard's back are of doubles, including Sheen's brother Joe Estevez who was flown out specially. Coppola was so worried that backing would be withdrawn by the studio and distributor if news of Sheen's heart attack leaked out, that he kept it quiet, even to the extent of explaining Sheen's hospitalization as being due to "heat exhaustion" in the official Shoot Schedule.
Steve McQueen was the first to turn down the role of Captain Willard. He had initially verbally agreed to play him when Coppola agreed to his salary of $3,000,000 (equivalent to a little over $13,000,000 in 2013 dollars). But after thinking about the fact the work would require months of on-location shooting in the Philippine jungle, McQueen told Coppola he'd rather play the Kilgore role instead, which would require much less location work, as long as he would still be paid his full salary. Coppola, who was essentially self financing the movie, simply couldn't afford it and said no.
One of the sequences cut from the original release version but added to the "Redux" version is a sequence featuring the soldiers making out with two Playboy Playmates. Colleen Camp was the Playmate surrounded by birds. Camp said her character trained birds at Busch Gardens; Camp actually did this in real life. Camp, who had never been a Playmate (although Copplola thought she had), had to be specially photographed topless to make the ersatz centerfold seen in the movie.
Military sets for the movie were nearly destroyed by a hurricane during filming. Instead of breaking them down and starting over, the partially-destroyed sets were used to create new scenes in the movie (including the scene in "Redux" where the playmates are stranded at the deserted military base).
When Steve McQueen was being pursued for the role of Willard, the script was called "Apocalypse Three" as it featured three main characters, including a helicopter pilot. Gene Hackman reportedly was considered for the role of the pilot, as it was Francis Ford Coppola's idea initially to cast the three roles with stars.
Francis Ford Coppola, who considered offering the role of Willard to Al Pacino, said that Pacino would probably have played the role if they could have filmed the movie in his New York City apartment. Jack Nicholson also was offered the role but turned it down.
When asked what he thought about Brando's $3.5 million fee after a NYC screening of the film, former Brando colleague Tennessee Williams reportedly said, "Gee, I don't know. I think they paid him by the pound."
According to the George Lucas biography "Skywalking," Lucas' decision to pull out of Apocalypse Now destroyed his working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who felt betrayed, and all but ended their friendship, and the Colonel Lucas character was meant as a back-handed snub to his then ex-friend. It would be years before they would be on speaking terms again, and would not work together again until 1986's Captain EO (1986).
The opening tracking shot of the film was originally a discarded trim from the footage of the village napalm attack. While going through the trims, Francis Ford Coppola accidentally stumbled on the trim and added it. He later said that having that trim complemented well with the The Doors' "The End" and the accompanying montage.
The famous helicopter battle where the helicopters swooped in on the village while playing "The Ride of the Valkyries" was meant to be an ironic comment on the Vietnam War. In the original Wagner magna opera "Der Ring des Nibelungen," the Valkyries arrive at a point of apparent victory, but which later results in defeat. Thus, the apparent victory in the helicopter battle would be followed by the eventual defeat in the war.
Emilio Estevez hung out on the set of the movie in the Phillipines with his father Martin Sheen during the filming of the movie. When casting for The Outsiders (1983) 4 years later, Francis Ford Coppola remembered Emilio hanging out on the set of 'Apocalypse Now', and wanted him to play Two-Bit in 'The Outsiders'.
When Francis Ford Coppola first described the role to Marlon Brando, Brando remarked that an American colonel wouldn't have a name like Kurtz, he would have an English name like "Leighley." Having never read "Heart of Darkness", Brando did not appreciate the reference. Brando eventually read "Heart of Darkness", but not until after the film's completion. After reading the book and liking it, Brando demanded that his name be changed to Kurtz in the film, and Harrison Ford's lines were dubbed to accommodate him.
Robert Duvall 's character, Col. Bill Killgore, was loosely based on author and syndicated columnist Col. David H. Hackworth's exploits in Viet Nam. Hackworth, born and raised in Southern California, commanded a helicopter Air Cavalry brigade in which pilots actually wore Civil War campaign hats and flew in helicopters with crossed swords painted on them.
Brando improvised a lot of Kurtz's dialogue, including an eighteen minute speech, of which only two minutes survived the final cut. According to Peter Manso's "Brando," Meade Roberts, screenwriter for "The Fugitive Kind," later heard the entire monologue and said that while some of it was incoherent, most of it was brilliant. At the end of the speech Brando reportedly said to Coppola, "Francis, I've gone as far as I can go. If you need more, you can get another actor."
Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos agreed to let his army supply the helicopters and pilots used in the film. The Marcos government was also fighting rebels in the area where filming was taking place, and sometimes withdrew the helicopters and pilots when they were needed in battle, replacing them with pilots who weren't familiar with the filming, which caused some problems.
The visit by the Playboy Playmates was based on an actual visit by 1965 Playmate of the Year Jo Collins. She was so popular with the troops that she was made an honorary GI. The Playmate of the Year character in the movie was played by Cynthia Wood, who was herself Playmate of the Year in 1974.
According to an interview given by Robert Duvall for NPR's Fresh Air on July 22, 2010, Colonel Kilgore's name was originally going to be Colonel Carnage, but they changed it to make their statement about him less obvious.
There are three different treatments of the opening and end credits. In the 35mm version, the credits roll over surrealistic explosions and burning jungle. The 70mm version has none of this, no credits, nothing but a one-line copyright notice at the end. Both versions are available on video. The 70mm version has been letterboxed. A third version has the credits rolling over a black background.
The photojournalist quotes two T.S. Eliot poems. In a late scene in the film, a slow pan over a table in Kurtz's room shows a copy of "From Ritual to Romance", a book by Jessie Weston that inspired Eliot's poem "The Wasteland".
In the Playboy Bunny show scene, several drums with the name "Dow Chemicals" are visible. Dow is one of the companies that manufactured Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used throughout Southeast Asia to kill the jungle plant life that the United States government claimed was aiding the enemy in hiding from Army forces.
More than a year had passed between the filming of Willard and Chef searching the jungle for mangoes and encountering the tiger, and the immediately following shots (part of the same scene) of Chef clambering back onto the boat, ripping off his shirt and screaming.
The character of the photojournalist, played by Dennis Hopper, was first suggested by Chas Gerretsen, unit photographer and Robert Capa, Gold Medal Award winner (1973) during a lunch with Francis Ford Coppola. During the lunch, they discussed the scene where an American TV correspondent (played by Coppola) yells at some passing soldiers, "Don't look at the camera". Gerretsen suggested that if Coppola wanted to portray the manic side of the press, he should use a photojournalist because "we were all crazy". The three black body Nikon F cameras that Hopper's character carried, had been used by Gerretsen in Vietnam. He sold the three cameras to Zoetrope Studios after Hopper, who'd originally been cast as Lt.Colby, became the photojournalist. Gerretsen used three Nikon F2 cameras and one Leica M4 during the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979). He didn't like using blimps (sound boxes) because it prevented him from immediately shooting an image when he saw it (as he'd learned as a photojournalist). Coppola gave him permission to shoot during filming in between the dialogue (except for Marlon Brando's dialogue), to the great unhappiness of the sound-man, who had to edit out the clicking of the camera.
Writer Michael Herr was called in to write much of Willard's voice-over dialogue and a few scenes. The scene where Roach uses a grenade launcher to kill the NVA soldier in the wire during the scene at the Do Long bridge is taken directly from "Dispatches," Herr's memoir of the year (1967-'68) he spent in-country as a journalist accredited to Esquire magazine during the war.
In the original script and the shooting of some scenes, Colonel Kurtz was originally to be called Colonel "Leighley" (this can be seen in bonus materials of 'Apocalypse Now Redux' DVD edition). In the movie when Harrison Ford says the line "pick up Colonel Kurtz path at Nu Mung Ba", you can see his mouth doesn't match the word "Kurtz" (indicating it was re-dubbed). (see the Alternate Versions)
In an interview between director Francis Ford Coppola and writer John Milius, John Milius explains how he had come up with the title "Apocalypse Now". Apparently this was derived from a, at that time (1965), very popular tattoo amongst the hippie community of a peace sign that said "Nirvana Now". Milius, by adding just a couple of extra lines, edited the peace symbol to make it look like a circle with a B52 bomber in the middle and changed the slogan to "Apocalypse Now".
"Dennis Gassner" is the author of one of the articles about Kurtz in the dossier given to Willard. Dennis Gassner designed the dossier information for the movie and later became a noted production designer.
The boat's name is "Erebus", seen on the transom, referring to the son of the Greek god of utter darkness, as the movie's source novel was called Heart of Darkness. (Erebus and Terror were also the two lost ships in the famous 1845-6 British polar expedition of Sir John Franklin.) The back of the seat in the forward turret (with dual M2 .50 cal MGs) of the PBR (Lance's position) has the words "God's Country" written on it. The steel gun-shield protecting the gun mount (single M2 .50 cal MG) on the back of the boat is marked with the words "Canned Heat".
In a 2006 interview, writer John Milius said that after he had written the now famous line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." he thought to himself "This is over the top. This will be the first thing they'll take out."
According to writer John Milius, he wrote the entire script of the movie listening only to music by Richard Wagner and The Doors. To him, the music by The Doors had always been "music of war", though when he at one point mentioned this to the band they were horrified. As, to them, it was the exact opposite. Ironically, the lead singer of the band, Jim Morrison, was a son of George S. Morrison, who was an important Admiral of the United States Navy.
In addition to the other T.S. Eliot references, one book shown at the Kurtz compound is "The Golden Bough", one that Eliot said, along with "From Ritual to Romance", his "Waste Land" was largely based.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In or just before each of the scenes where a member of the boat crew dies, purple smoke from a flare is visible. A similar thematic element is used by Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather series where oranges appear just before or in a scene where a character dies.
The original script by John Milius climaxes with Kurtz fighting off an attack by U.S. Army helicopters, firing a machine gun, while exclaiming to Willard, "I can feel the power in my loins!" Francis Ford Coppola thought this was absurd.
The document that Willard skims through near the film's conclusion, on which "DROP THE BOMB. EXTERMINATE THEM ALL" is scrawled, is entitled "The Role of Democratic Force in the Underdeveloped World, by Walter E. Kurtz, Colonel USSF" and is "Commissioned by The Center For Democratic Studies, Santa Barbara, California". This is taken directly from Joseph Conrad's novella, where a report written for "the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs" by Kurtz is also graffitied with a similar message: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
In the theatrical version of the film, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper leave the exact same way: by standing up from a squatting position and walking out of the frame to the right. However, this changes in the "Redux" version of the film which features a few extra minutes with Duvall's character.
One of the books on Kurtz's night table is "The Golden Bough" by James Frazer. It is an anthropological study of rites in several cultures in which a young usurper ritually kills an aging king and inherits his throne.
One ending considered for the film was that an air strike was called to destroy the temple. Explosives were rigged especially for this sequence, but Francis Ford Coppola changed his mind, feeling that the finale should represent the end of war and the beginning of peace. However, since it was required by Philippine law to get rid of the sets after filming, the sets were blown up anyway. After its initial engagements, which presented the film without credits, Coppola decided to use footage of the demolition as the backdrop for the end title sequence. After the public misconstrued this sequence as the alternate ending, Coppola re-edited that portion and had the titles run on black.
The sequence where the PBR gets attacked with spears exactly mirrors the attack on the jungle boat in the novel "Heart of Darkness". In the book one of the helpers on the steam boat is killed whereas in the movie it is the captain.