How the Burden of Dreams can take man deep into the Heart of Darkness
There’s a fascinating moment towards the end of Les Blank’s sublime 1982 documentary “Burden of Dreams” where Werner Herzog begins to wonder aloud whether or not the nearly backbreaking effort he’s put into the making of his latest filmmaking endeavor, 1982’s “Fitzcarraldo”, has been all worthwhile. At one point equating the film’s tumultuous production in the jungles of Peru to having to work with the devil on his back watching over him. Francis Ford Coppola expresses similar sentiment in his wife Eleanor’s equally fascinating 1991 documentary “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” about the troubled production of his 1979 Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now”. In it, he openly contemplates maiming himself as an excuse to get out of completing his long-gestating and seemingly cursed production where he had personally invested much of his own savings into the film’s increasingly overinflated budget.
Two acclaimed filmmakers from vastly different backgrounds who both found themselves lost somewhere deep in the heart of the jungle while the cameras were rolling. Both coming face to face with the destructive powers of mother mature. Both dealing with extremely difficult and often unpredictable leading men. Both working tirelessly around the clock over the course of several years to turn their vision into reality. In Herzog’s case, his battle station was somewhere along the banks of the Camisea River on the southeastern side of Peru along the Amazon Basin. It’s here that in 1981 he and his crew managed the nearly herculean feat of dragging a 320-ton steamship over the steep 40-degree incline of a local hillside all in the hopes of getting to the other side so that Klaus Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo character can seek his fortune in the burgeoning South American rubber industry.
For the shooting of Apocalypse Now, Coppola found himself on the other side of the world on the island of Luzan on the northern most tip of the Philippines, home to its capital city of Manilla. During much of 1976 and early 1977, Coppola battled the elements, a local civil war, immense budget overruns and hostile press reports in order to bring his modern retelling of Joseph Conrad’s classic novella “Heart of Darkness” to the big screen. If that wasn’t a difficult enough proposition as is, Coppola’s leading man, Martin Sheen, suffered a near-fatal heart attack towards the end of production sidelining the actor for upwards of 6 weeks. Oh, and did I mention the film’s other leading man, Marlon Brando, infamously showed up for filming severely overweight? None of that compares to the difficulties Herzog faced with his off-again, off-again leading man and “best fiend” Klaus Kinski who violently clashed with cast and crew throughout much of Fitzcarraldo’s production. None of these issues would’ve ever materialized had the two actors originally hired to play Sheen’s and Kinski’s roles, Harvey Keitel and Jason Robards respectively, hadn’t been forced to drop out for one reason or another.
Throughout the history of filmmaking, brave directors have risked life and limb for the sake of their art including John Ford who travelled to the middle of the Pacific Ocean during the early days of World War II in order to document the Battle of Midway and John Huston who took his cast and crew into deepest darkest Africa in order to bring C. S. Forester’s novel “The African Queen” to life. For all their bravura, these auteurs often get the lion’s share of the accolades and the recognition for their willingness to put it all on the line for the sake of their art but it should be mentioned that both men had the luxury of working with cast and crew members who were (in most cases) equally as willing to risk it all just for the opportunity to bring their director’s respective visions to light. This is particularly true in Herzog’s case who’s film likely would’ve never gotten off the ground (literally) were it not for the contributions of a local native tribe who worked tirelessly both in front of and behind the camera for the equivalent pay of $3.50 per day or about double what they would usually make for a day’s work.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from either Burden of Dreams or Hearts of Darkness it’s that even in the best of times the art of filmmaking can be a perilous activity but during the worst of times it can be downright murder for your psyche. It’s a minor miracle that they both men have managed to make it through their respective journeys into the jungle with their psyches relatively in tact. Even as they’re both pushing 80 (Coppola reached the milestone earlier this year), it’s a true testament to their strength of character that both Herzog and Coppola continue to strive, push forward and continue to make films even today nearly 40 years later. I wonder if today’s new crop of filmmakers realize how much easier they have it now that everything Coppola and Herzog realized out there in the jungle can be so easily be recreated on a sound stage in front of a green screen.