In Praise of Filmmakers Who Go Out on a Limb

Filmmakers go to incredible lengths to tell stories. Here‘s why movies like Apocalypse Now and The Revenant deserve our praise...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

“We were in the jungle. We had too much money. We had too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane” – Francis Ford Coppola

You wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to be a member of the cast or crew on the set of Apocalypse Now, but you can’t argue with the results. Director Francis Ford Coppola intended to spend five months in the Philippines shooting his Vietnam war epic; instead, he was stuck there for a year, caught in a quagmire of illnesses (lead actor Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack), typhoons and a rapidly-expanding budget.

Apocalypse Nows nightmarish shoot was captured for posterity in the documentary Hearts Of Darkness, largely shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor and eventually released in 1991. What that documentary reveals is how the battle to make Apocalypse Now transformed the film itself.

Before a frame of Apocalypse Now was shot, Coppola had said that he wanted to make a movie that made audiences actually feel as though they were experiencing the Vietnam war first-hand; what he probably hadn’t counted on was the otherworldly quality his movie would ultimately take on.

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As lead character Benjamin Willard (Sheen) makes his journey up the Nung river – his secret mission: take out maniacal colonel-gone-rogue Kurtz (Marlon Brando) – the very fabric of the film seems to split and break apart. The further into the heart of darkness Willard goes, the more surreal and bizarre the movie becomes: a near-riot inspired by cavorting Playboy models, shipped into ‘Nam to lift the spirits of US troops, is almost indescribably weird. Kurtz’ muddy enclave has a hellish, dreamlike quality. 

While many of Apocalypse Nows most memorable lines and events were present and correct in John Milius’ original screenplay, there’s little doubt that the movie was transformed by its long, arduous production. Had Apocalypse Now been shot in the relatively cozy confines of a California backlot, say, it would have been an entirely different movie.

Apocalypse Now was made in an era when maverick directors thrived; where it wasn’t uncommon for filmmakers to go out on a limb for their art. Werner Herzog, for example, seemed to positively enjoy making life difficult for himself – this is a director who repeatedly worked with the legendarily obnoxious actor Klaus Kinski, after all. For 1972‘s Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Herzog stole a camera from Munich Film School, spent months in the Amazon preparing and shooting his low-budget movie, where Kinski engaged in protracted screaming rants and shot the finger off a crewmember with a pistol. 

About a decade later, Herzog and Kinski returned to Peru to make Fitzcarraldo, a movie about a rubber baron who decides to have a 300-tonne steamship dragged from one river to another – the other river just happening to lie on the far side of a dangerously precipitous hill.

Flatly refusing to resort to the use of miniature effects, Herzog had dozens of extras pull off the feat for real – the steam ship really did weigh around 300 tonnes, and the anguish you can see on the actors’ faces is genuine (hilariously, the boat belonging to the real Carlos Fitzcarrald, on whom the film was based, weighed a relatively slight 30 tonnes). 

It takes a certain cast-iron will to make films such as these. It takes a director as driven and febrile as William Friedkin to build a bridge over a Central American river at huge cost for The Sorcerer (1977), only to have to construct another bridge elsewhere when the first river suddenly dried up.

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It takes a certain type of director to be so intent on getting a film just right that they wind up shooting it three times, in horrible, toxic locations – which is just what Andrei Tarkovsky did for his 1979 sci-fi odyssey, Stalker.

For a while, though, the infamously protracted shoot on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate seemed to bring these directorial excursions to a halt. Cimino spent $44 million (an eye-watering amount for the time) shooting his period drama – the cash went on time-consuming location shoots, building and tearing down sets he didn’t like, and shooting take after take after take.

Cimino, it seemed, had fallen so desperately in love with his subject that he simply couldn’t stop exploring it; with time running our before release, bosses at United Artists were horrified when a first cut of Heaven’s Gate amounted to about five hours. With damning reviews and gossip-filled stories about the film’s production hanging around it like a millstone, Heaven’s Gate disappeared without trace at the box-office. 

The failure of Heaven’s Gate helped usher in a new era of caution among Hollywood studios; while costs still overrun and movies bomb today, few directors have been given the same creative lattitude that Cimino enjoyed in the late 1970s. Heaven’s Gate has since been reassessed as a brave piece of filmmaking in some quarters, yet the story behind its making still haunts the industry – it’s become the case study for what can happen when a project is allowed to spiral so wildly out of control.

When viewed from a Hollywood executive’s angle, it isn’t difficult to see why films like Fitzcarraldo, Apocalypse Now, or The Sorcerer would seem like an exercise in indulgence. Weren’t Coppola and Herzog, and other directors like them, simply burning through millions of dollars in their quest for glory?

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Certainly, the era of green screens and pristine digital effects might imply that filmmakers simply don’t need to spend a fortune filming in inclement weather and remote locations. Why subject yourself to months in ice and snow, or being stuck out in the middle of a desert, when you can stay on the relative comfort of a soundstage? 

To refute those arguments, you only have to go back and watch those ’70s and ’80s films again. By exposing themselves to the unknown – the typhoons, the mud, the vicious bouts of illness – Coppola and Herzog shaped and reshaped their films in ways they couldn’t have predicted. A devastating storm disrupted the shoot of Aguirre, but Werzog decided to incorporate footage of it in the finished film – leading to one of Aguirre’s most starkly effective moments.

In each movie, there’s a raw, elemental power that couldn’t have been wrought on a studio backlot. You don’t have to know about the production history of Apocalypse Now to recognize the energy in the images that emerged from it; it’s all there in a detail like Sheen’s haunted expression, or a sequence as grand and jaw-dropping as its famous Ride Of The Valkyries helicopter assault. The cast and crew lived and breathed those experiences, so we experience them, too.

What’s heartening is that, even in an era where studios are more risk-averse than ever, movies like these are still occasionally being made. Director George Miller could have found easier, very digital ways of making Mad Max: Fury Road, but instead he spent months and millions of dollars in the Namibian desert, crashing cars and trucks into each other, over and over again.

Cast and crew hung around for days in parched sand and scorching heat, and the production was clearly gruelling – yet the result was an action film where you can almost smell the oil and axle grease as jury-rigged cars slice across the screen. It’s a fascinating vortex of destruction; a kinetic spectacle pitched somewhere between a classic piece of exploitation cinema and an experiment in arthouse filmmaking. 

And then there’s The Revenant, Alejandro G Inarritu’s period survival film that one crewmember described as “a living hell” to make. Star Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the team endured months of freezing weather in remote, hostile locations. DiCaprio fell ill; the budget swelled, equipment broke. The shoot wound on so long that co-star Tom Hardy had to withdraw from this year’s superhero movie, Suicide Squad.

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Yet even as stories of The Revenants filming circulated last summer, Inarritu insisted that his use of available light and real locations wasn’t a self-indulgent whim, but an integral part of the movie. “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time,” Inarritu told The Hollywood Reporter, “everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit.”

As it turned out, Inarritu was right. The palpable sense of cold, the wildness and the desolation of The Revenants locations, positively eats through the screen. The comfortable barrier that often lies unseen between viewer and movie ebbs away here; Inarritu’s omnipresent camera puts us so close to the film’s central character – desperately wounded frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) – that we almost seem to be able to hear his heart thudding in his chest. 

Again, it takes a director with a certain amount of drive and singularity of vision to make a film like The Revenant. Just as the process of making Fitzcarraldo must have felt like dragging a massive boat up a hill, so The Revenant must, particularly for an increasingly exhausted DiCaprio, felt like an endless slog across a frozen wasteland. But the results are all there in the finished movie: its sense of authenticity is nothing less than mesmerising.

Of course, movies don’t have to be made in extreme conditions to be brilliant. Movies don’t necessarily have to be shot on location to be classics, either. But every so often, a director will go off on an extraordinary journey to make their film. They may have a script and a specific look in mind, but they don’t necessarily know what’s waiting for them when they embark on their shoot, and it’s likely that the process of making the movie will see their creation evolve and change in ways they couldn’t have foreseen.

It’s those moments of discovery and palpable realism that make movies like Apocalypse Now and The Revenant so effective. As Inarritu told us just before The Revenants UK release:

“I remember when films were done more in the tradition of, I would say, a valid artform, which is to get lost as you are doing it, metaphorically. Where you take a journey – as you are doing, you are finding out what exactly it is you’re trying to make. That’s exciting. Original material – producing something with physical things that can change, and you have to adapt. You find surprises. Or you fail. To surprise people with something that is unexpected or unpredictable.” 

As awards and nominations have piled up for Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, there have been some dissenting voices among all the praise: aren’t they just empty spectacles? So what if DiCaprio felt a bit cold on a film shoot? But even the detractors would surely agree that we need directors like George Miller and Alejandro Inarritu more than ever – filmmakers bold enough, perhaps even obsessive enough, to push themselves and their crew to unusual extremes in order to make their movies.

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By journeying into the unknown, they put us in the place of characters we’ve never met, and make us experience times and places we’ll never see first-hand. They break through the apathy of our day-to-day lives and, just for a moment or two, make us forget about ourselves and surrender to the story they want to tell. That’s great filmmaking. That’s great cinema. 

The Revenant is out in cinemas now.