What Really Went on Between Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Sheen During the Filming of Apocalypse Now?

Late in July 1976, the Coppolas returned to the Philippines. Sofia was enrolled in first grade at a Chinese school where no one spoke English (“Francis said it would be a terrific experience for her,” Eleanor recalled), and, the day before production was to resume, Eleanor dreamt heavily. At breakfast the next morning, she told Francis she was afraid to proceed with the documentary she was making about Apocalypse Now. She wasn’t a professional, she insisted. It just wasn’t her. Then it started to rain.

Coppola dreamt he was in the Saigon hotel room with Martin Sheen and a nameless Green Beret who was telling Coppola he wasn’t getting Willard right; he needed to convey something unprocessed in Willard’s “very textured soul,” and film, somehow, a private event that “would bring out the devils in him.”

But Sheen’s Willard, Coppola saw in dailies, wasn’t reading deep enough to contain devils. He was reading bland. “It’s the Stanley and Livingston of morality,” Coppola had implored Sheen, as if imploring himself, too. “The journey to find out. That’s why I say it’s a mythical journey into oneself. That is the question that I would love this movie not to answer, cause I don’t know that it can be answered, other than to say basically that the answer is you, you now, you are it.”

Coppola persisted, scouring the “hidden levels” for dark synchronies “in the actor’s personality and in the personality of the character he plays.” Again, it didn’t work. It looked like Sheen was acting. But the job of the actor was not to act. “Marty, it’s you,” Coppola insisted. “Whoever you are at the moment, that’s all we got. If the sun is shining, you don’t hold the umbrella up because the script says it’s a rainy scene. Or if it’s raining you don’t pretend that the sun is shining because the camera is going to photograph you at that moment in time doing whatever it is or not doing whatever it is. And the camera’s going to tell the truth.”

Coppola confided in [cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro he had done everything he could think of “to fuck him up,” including opium, but Sheen’s reaction always seemed somehow put on. “There isn’t an honest layer for maybe five layers down,” he told Storaro.

These guys are vain, the Green Beret in Coppola’s dream told him. Get Willard and Marty looking into their faces in the hotel room mirror, get them admiring their beauty, their hair, their lips . . .

They shot the scene on August 3, 1976, Martin Sheen’s 36th birthday.

It was a small hotel room, cramped with crew, equipment, and wet summer heat. Steve Burum set up two bright lights outside the window and, inside, arranged small lights in clusters to create patches of darkness around Willard’s bed. He placed the harsh glow of a naked light bulb at his mirror.

On the far side of the room, near the bathroom door, Coppola sat up on a dresser to have a clearer eyeline to Sheen.

Coppola had encouraged Sheen to get himself a bottle and peel away the dishonest layers between his vanity and himself.

By then, Sheen had been caged in the room days on end, just as Willard was meant to have been. “I was a raving lunatic,” he said.

It was the night of the day Willard’s divorce is finalized. He’s been trying and failing to get in touch with his ex-wife, in Ohio, Sheen’s birthplace. All present on the set, having fought long-distance loneliness in their own hotel rooms, related.

By the time the cameras rolled, Sheen had been drinking all day. Per his dream, Coppola had encouraged Sheen to get himself a bottle and peel away the dishonest layers between his vanity and himself. No one knew what would happen next.

Gradually, under the influence of Coppola’s off-camera prodding, the actor’s masks fell away. Sheen the righteous, the Catholic; Sheen the artist . . . he began to dance, to take off his clothes . . .

“Marty, go look at yourself in the mirror,” Coppola called from across the room. “I want you to look at how beautiful you are. I want you to look at your mouth, your mouth and your hair . . .”

He did as he was told. He did look beautiful, standing naked in front of a mirror. He had been practicing judo, and it showed. He looked strong.

“You look like a movie star.”

Coppola was tense. He was afraid of what he was about to see and of what it might say about him, as a director and as a man. “Now frighten yourself, Marty . . .”

Nothing is faster than your own reflection, the actor reminded himself. Judo had taught him that.

Sheen shrank and lunged forward, ashamed of pretending. He knew he had been hiding his brokenness and that in keeping it from Francis, he was failing them both. Failing the truth, he was failing two of his own brothers, both Vietnam veterans. Disgusted, he drunkenly punched Willard’s movie star face in the mirror, shattering it, cutting open his thumb, and stumbled back, half-conscious of what was changing in him.

It was, in a sense, why he was an actor: to protect himself from having to feel like Martin Sheen.

Coppola didn’t jump down from the dresser. He didn’t call “Cut.” He waited, Sheen unraveling, watching him.

How long would he wait?

Before a hushed crew and rolling cameras, both were finding out.

Coppola waited.

Sheen was drifting, glaring at the blood in his hand. He was so drunk he could hardly stand.

“Okay, cut,” Coppola said. “Do we have a doctor?”

“No, let it go,” Sheen insisted. “I want to have this out right here and now.”

He was in chaos. Slumped on the floor, against the bed, he was wailing, an animal. There was blood on the bed, on his bare chest.

He had been acting his entire life until that moment. It was, in a sense, why he was an actor: to protect himself from having to feel like Martin Sheen, handsome and virile and, as Coppola dreamed, vain, but angry, alcoholic, married and alone. He was fragmented, “almost nonexistent,” he realized, “not in touch with my spirit at all.” “He’s angry with the Church,” said his brother Joe Estevez. “It did so much good and it caused so much pain.” He turned on himself.

It was not natural to watch the deliberate breaking of a human being and do nothing.

“You fucker . . .” He was crying on the floor. “You fuckkkkerrrrr . . .”

He had failed as a father and a husband, emotionally abandoning his wife, Janet, to become Willard.

Coppola badgered him for being evil. I want the hatred in you to come out. “You tell that to a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic,” a crew member later said, “and he hasn’t a chance.”

“Think about it,” Francis demanded, taunting Sheen. He didn’t know the man was an alcoholic. “Your wife! Your home. Your car . . .”

“My heart is broken . . . God damn it!”

It was not natural to watch the deliberate breaking of a human being and do nothing. “Francis,” one crew member said, “did a dangerous and terrible thing. He assumed the role of a psychiatrist and did a kind of brainwashing on a man who was much too sensitive.” There was in the room the unreal feeling that if Coppola let the transformation continue, Sheen or Willard might attack him or someone else, or worse. Coppola himself shared the feeling, but he was plagued by another: if he didn’t continue, if he called cut now, he could lose whatever came next.

Then, quite unexpectedly, a calm overtook the actor. “It was a landmark in my life,” Sheen reflected. “And that scene in particular revealed something to me about myself.”

Coppola would say, “As you go up the river, there are things on your right that you can choose and there are things on your left that you can choose—and usually possibilities are contradictions. I began to realize that I was not making a film about Vietnam or about war, I was making a film about the precarious position that we are all in where we must choose between right and wrong, good and evil—and everyone is in that position.”

A nurse standing by in the hotel room was called forward, and the man on the floor, Martin Sheen, was bandaged.

Eleanor would watch Storaro and his crew walking out of the hotel room, solemnly, unlike themselves. Inside, she found her husband alone with Sheen. He was dangerously drunk on the bed, raving about God and love, singing “Amazing Grace,” begging Eleanor and Francis to sing with him, squeezing their hands so hard he bled more through the bandage, and the nurse was called in again to redress the wound. Taking the nurse’s hand, Sheen had her join them in song and prayer, and she did, emphatically assuring him throughout, “Jesus loves you, Marty. Jesus loves you.” Then Janet and their son appeared out of the rain, and Sheen joined their hands together and asked them to get on their knees to pray and confess with him.

He had met Coppola on a Good Friday. On Holy Saturday, he had learned he got the part, and on Easter Sunday, he had read the script. “Martin paid a lot of penance for that film,” said his brother Joe. “Willard is symbolic of his life. Martin is such a lonely man.”


From THE PATH TO PARADISE: A Francis Ford Coppola Story by Sam Wasson. Copyright © 2023 by Sam Wasson. Published on November 28, 2023 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.

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