17 Facts About Apocalypse Now On Its 40th Anniversary

Martin Sheen stars in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Martin Sheen stars in Apocalypse Now (1979).
Paramount Home Entertainment

We love the smell of facts in the morning. Here are some things you might not have known about director Francis Ford Coppola’s loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which arrived in theaters on August 15, 1979.

1. Screenwriter John Milius was inspired to write Apocalypse Now because of his college English professor.

Screenwriter John Milius credits his obsession with war from never getting to fight in one. Milius attempted to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps to fight in the Vietnam War in 1968, but was deferred due to his asthma. Instead, he studied film at USC with fellow classmate and Star Wars creator George Lucas. There, during a lecture, a professor named Irwin Blacker convinced the class that no screenwriter had ever perfected a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The would-be filmmaker’s Vietnam-focused mind and Blacker’s challenge gave Milius the idea of combining the two in what would eventually become Apocalypse Now.

2. Apocalypse Now was supposed to be directed by George Lucas.

After directing 1969's The Rain People, Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, was given a development deal from Warner Bros. Pictures to produce films from new scripts. The script Coppola liked out of the bunch his friends gave him was Milius’s Apocalypse Now. After years of development, the plan was to have George Lucas shoot the movie on 16mm black and white film in Stockton, California on a shoestring budget in a pseudo-documentary style similar to the famous war film The Battle of Algiers. The project languished in development for years, and Lucas eventually dropped out of the project to direct a script he had written. The movie he eventually made was Star Wars. Following his successes with The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation, Coppola agreed to direct the movie.

3. Apocalypse Now’s title came from John Milus making fun of hippies.

Paramount Home Entertainment

An early title Milius had for the movie was The Psychedelic Soldier, but it was soon changed to the moniker it is today. Milius got the label by putting a contrarian spin on “Nirvana Now,” a slogan used by California hippies, which meant to get high and reach a state of pure consciousness. The actual title is never mentioned in the actual movie, but graffiti saying “Our motto: Apocalypse Now” can be seen on the front of Kurtz’s compound as Willard walks up the stone steps. It was added by Coppola because the title and copyright legally had to appear somewhere in the movie according to union regulations.

4. Apocalypse Now’s opening shot was created from leftover footage that was sitting in the trash.

Coppola shot an unprecedented 1.5 million feet of film for the movie, and came upon the opening shot by accident during the post-production process. In the editing bay, Coppola asked editor Richard Marks (who was one of four people who edited the movie) about reels of footage that were in the garbage. Marks replied it was static footage from an unused angle from one of the six cameras used to shoot the napalm scene. Coppola liked the eerie geometry of the trees and the helicopters whizzing by, and told Marks to cut it together with a song from The Doors called “The End,” because he thought it would be humorous to start the movie with "The End."

5. Harvey Keitel was the first actor to play Willard.

Coppola held exhaustive audition sessions for his primary cast, but the part of Willard proved to be a problematic one for Coppola. He first offered the part to actor Steve McQueen, who turned down the role because he didn’t want to shoot in the jungle on location. Al Pacino, James Caan, and Jack Nicholson all turned down successive offers from Coppola until he gave the role to Harvey Keitel. Coppola then fired Keitel six weeks into production because he thought the actor’s performance wasn’t as introspective as he needed for the character. So he called Martin Sheen, who had previously auditioned for the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather and passed on Apocalypse Now because he was shooting The Cassandra Crossing in Rome.

6. Francis Ford Coppola risked every cent he had on Apocalypse Now.

The director invested $30 million of his own money into the project to get the budget to the amount required to execute his vision. That total included the valuations of his house and his winery, which he signed over to Chase Bank as collateral on the amount. The interest rate for the amount began at seven percent, but when production ended it was up to 29 percent. If the movie tanked, Coppola faced financial ruin, which understandably made the filming process fairly stressful. Coppola suffered an epileptic seizure while shooting, had a nervous breakdown, and allegedly threatened to commit suicide at least three times.

7. Apocalypse Now went famously over budget and way over schedule.

Coppola planned an initial 14-week shoot for the movie in the Philippines in the spring of 1976, which was on schedule until Typhoon Olga ruined nearly all of the sets and equipment, forcing the production to shut down for eight weeks. Coppola continued to shoot with reckless abandon thereafter, and principal photography didn’t conclude until May of 1977. Post-production on the movie lasted for a further two years, and the movie was finally released in August of 1979.

8. Harrison Ford appears in a (technically) pre-Star Wars role.

Coppola hired a young actor named Harrison Ford to appear as Colonel Lucas (a nod to George), one of the military officers who gives Willard his orders to assassinate Kurtz. Ford had previously appeared in Lucas’s American Graffiti and Coppola’s The Conversation, but was still relatively unknown when the filming of Apocalypse Now began in 1976. He would later become a megastar after appearing as Han Solo in Star Wars when it was released in 1977. Apocalypse Now, which was shot before Star Wars, was released afterwards. Ford was apparently so nervous when shooting his scenes that Coppola added a story beat for his character to drop his dossier about Kurtz as a way to incorporate the then young actor’s anxiety into the scene.

9. Apocalypse Now was shot on location near Vietnam.

Inspired by Haskell Wexler's 1969 film Medium Cool, which had shot footage during the 1968 Democratic National Convention riot in Chicago and incorporated it into the plot, Milius wanted to shoot the movie on location in Vietnam while the war was still being fought. Coppola rejected the idea, and eventually shot the movie on location in the Philippines because President Ferdinand Marcos has agreed to lend the production as many helicopters and gunships as they needed. The U.S. Department of Defense, then led by Donald Rumsfeld, had denied the film any assistance due to its anti-Vietnam message.

10. Coppola has a quick cameo in Apocalypse Now .

Coppola, along with production designer Dean Tavoularis and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, appears in a cameo as the newsreel director telling Willard and the boat crew not to look at the camera during the rendezvous scene with Colonel Kilgore.

11. Author Michael Herr wrote the narration for Apocalypse Now.

Part of the extended post-production process included the addition of an entire voiceover track for Willard. In 1978, Coppola hired writer and Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr to write whole selections of possible voiceover parts that he could pick and choose from to give to the character. Coppola initially got in touch with Herr for the narration because he loved his book Dispatches, a collection of Herr’s experiences during the war.

12. Francis Ford Coppola was friends with The Doors, which is how their music ended up in Apocalypse Now.

Coppola went to UCLA film school with all of the members of The Doors, including Jim Morrison, who agreed to let Coppola use the master recordings of their music for his Vietnam film. The five-and-a-half-hour early assembly cut of the movie was scored entirely using songs by The Doors before an actual score was created.

13. Francis Ford Coppola had to get creative while shooting Marlon Brando.

Marlon Brando, who previously won an Oscar as Vito Corleone in Coppola’s The Godfather, showed up on location in the Philippines weighing in at over 300 pounds. All of his costumes had to be scrapped because Coppola expected the actor to show up as an astute and fit Green Beret soldier. This forced Coppola to have to come up with a way to shoot around Brando’s weight, so he and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro thought of shooting him in shadows and silhouettes to make his character seem more mysterious.

14. Brando did Apocalypse Now for the paycheck.

Brando’s contract stipulated that he would be paid $3 million for four weeks of work on weekdays only, and that he would not be required to work past 5:30 p.m. For his first four scheduled days of shooting, Brando didn’t show up to set, but instead wrangled Coppola in his trailer to talk about random topics to ostensibly stall the movie and simply collect his acting fee. When Coppola finally got him on the subject of how to play Kurtz, Brando rejected all of his ideas, including the suggestion to play him as a bald man like in the book. When Brando said he’d sleep on it, he finally showed up to set the next day with a shaved head and told Coppola he’d finally read Heart of Darkness the night before and decided to play him like the character in the book.

15. Dennis Hopper’s Apocalypse Now character was improvised.

Originally, Hopper was supposed to play Colby, the Special Forces Captain (eventually played by actor Scott Glen) who abandons his mission to join up with Kurtz’s primitive followers after he is sent in to assassinate Kurtz before Willard. But Coppola didn’t like him in the part once he got on the set. Instead, Coppola created the drugged-out war correspondent photographer on the spot, giving Hopper a peasant shirt, necklaces, and a bunch of cameras to hang from his neck. The director modeled the new character after a character in Conrad’s book simply referred to as The Russian. Nearly all of Hopper’s dialogue, including the T.S. Eliot quotes, was improvised.

16. Francis Ford Coppola made up the ending to Apocalypse Now as he went along.

The original ending in Milius’s script had North Vietnamese forces attacking Kurtz and his followers in a giant climactic battle, but Coppola scrapped that because he felt it didn’t fit with the movie he was making. Instead, he took the advice of his UCLA friend Dennis Jakob and actor Dennis Hopper to create a more mythical ending of the concepts of death and rebirth. Using the story of the “Fisher King” found in books like The Golden Bough and From Ritual to Romance and the poetry of T.S. Eliot (all of which can be seen in Kurtz’s possession in the film), Coppola devised a new ending wherein Willard would kill Kurtz and ostensibly become his followers’ new king.

17. Coppola didn’t want Apocalypse Now to have any credits, but a credits sequence does exist.

Original presentations of the movie came with a specially made program that included a full list of cast and crew to stand in for the credits, which Coppola intentionally left out of the film. But the studio forced him to create a credit sequence to tack on to subsequent showings of the movie. Coppola eventually created one that featured the credits over images of Kurtz’s camp being firebombed. When Coppola felt the anarchic message of destroying Kurtz’s leftover followers went against his downtrodden but anti-war message, Coppola decided against the credits sequence.

Additional Sources:
Blu-ray special features

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

America’s Most Popular Horror Movie Villains, Mapped

FrontierBundles.com
FrontierBundles.com

No matter how you feel about scary movies, it's hard to avoid them around Halloween. This is the time of year when the faces of cinema's classic horror villains seem to pop up in every store window and television set you see. Depending on where you live, certain horror icons may be especially hard to ignore. Check out the map below to find out the most popular scary movie villain in your state.

To make the map, FrontierBundles.com chose 15 classic horror movie antagonists and looked at regional Google Trends data for each name from the past year. Frankenstein's Monster from 1931's Frankenstein dominates most of the country, with 11 states including Pennsylvania and Arizona searching for the character. Ghostface from 1996's Scream ranked second with eight states. Chucky from Child's Play (1988), the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise, and Norman Bates from Psycho (1960) also rank high on the list.

FrontierBundles.com

Not every Halloween term Americans are searching for is horror-related. Some of the more wholesome seasonal queries that appear in Google's data include candy, crafts, and maze. But for every Google user searching for family-friendly fall activities, there are plenty looking up horror movies and monsters as well. Here's what people are Googling in your state for Halloween.