Though it's widely considered one of the greatest American movies ever made, Apocalypse Now is perhaps best-known for its tumultuous production. Marlon Brando can't be blamed for everything that went wrong, but his off-camera behavior certainly added to the turmoil. Known for his mercurial personality and extreme dedication to method acting, Brando had enjoyed a public comeback since starring in The Godfather in 1972. But even collaborating again with director Francis Ford Coppola wasn't enough to rein in Brando's eccentricity. Stories from behind the scenes prove his memorable on-screen performance came as a package deal with his personal idiosyncrasies.
Apocalypse Now came out in 1979, the culmination of Coppola's infamous struggle to get the picture made. The director and his crew spent month after month on set and tallied expenses far beyond what the intended budget allowed. Monsoons and a typhoon ruined the set, the Filipino government sporadically took back the military equipment they had lent the crew, and Martin Sheen nearly succumbed to a cardiac episode. Between suicidal thoughts and an epileptic fit, Coppola declared that his film wasn't just about Vietnam: "It is Vietnam." Into this chaos came Brando, not looking the part, making movie-star demands, and creating a number of memorable behind-the-scenes stories in the process.
According to Joseph Conrad - author of Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now was loosely based - Colonel Walter Kurtz was weak, sickly, and gaunt from years living in the jungle. In the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, writer John Milius turned the character into a strong and fit military man. When Marlon Brando showed up to the set, he fit neither description. According to stories, he weighed somewhere between 210 and 285 pounds - either way, he was overweight for the role.
Brando's physique surprised the crew so much that a producer allegedly complained, "You couldn't see around him."
Brando and Francis Ford Coppola put the production on hold for a week in order to flesh out the end of the film, help Brando understand his character, and finish writing the script. Unfortunately, like Dennis Hopper, Brando had an inability to memorize his lines. Coppola decided to record Brando's ramblings as he improvised lines during their meetings, capturing five days' worth of work. He then typed them up, inserted some text directly from Heart of Darkness, and recorded them on audio tape.
In addition to capturing Brando's improvisations, Coppola gave the actor a tape recorder with an earpiece that played the text Coppola had recorded. This gave Brando a little help, as he could recite what he heard on the tape by simply pressing a button.
Though Coppola initially wanted to take advantage of Brando's weight and turn Kurtz into a character who indulged in excess, Brando wanted to be filmed in the shadows to hide his large frame. Brando appearing primarily in darkness gave his character a mysterious aura worthy of a demon. It makes sense that a man living in a run-down temple littered with garbage and his lifeless enemies would refuse to be seen in the light.
Coppola put all of the character's scenes at the end of the movie - making audiences wait in foreboding anticipation for the mythological character to appear - and ultimately limited Kurtz's screen time to about 15 minutes. He also hired a tall double who could fill in for Brando during long shots to emphasize Kurtz's overall scale, not just his weight.
Because Brando's scenes didn't have a finished script and the actor struggled to memorize the lines he did have, he and Coppola decided the actor would improvise most of his dialogue. For his most important sequence - which featured the legendary line, "The horror, the horror!" - Brando rambled on for around 18 minutes. Coppola later edited this down to two minutes, and the scene became the film's powerful end.
Despite the stress Brando may have caused the production, he gave the performance all he had. According to stories, after his 18-minute speech, Brando stopped and told Coppola, "Francis, I've gone as far as I can go. If you need more, get another actor."