As much as I appreciate the work of movie director Francis Ford Coppola, I’d never want to replicate the grueling journey he experienced when making the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.

Several years ago I watched the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of the film. The behind-the-scenes footage and interviews reflect how this creative adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness closely paralleled the production experience of Coppola and other members of the cast and crew.

Coppola, leveraging the artistic momentum and financial windfall of his first two Godfather films, had already spent years trying to do what Orson Welles had failed to do decades earlier: bring Conrad’s troubling manuscript to the silver screen. Escorting his family and crew to the Philippines, Coppola launched the directorial effort that gradually began to mirror the film’s storyline of Capt. Willard (played by Martin Sheen) traveling up the river to assassinate Col. Kurtz (played by the legendary Marlon Brando).

At one point a monsoon destroyed the set, halting production for a couple of months. Sheen then suffered a heart attack, again interrupting the production. Along the way Coppola’s wife Eleanor shot copious amounts of film, narrating how her husband was “in a place within himself he never intended to reach…he can’t go back down the river because the journey has changed him.” She continued, “I was playing the observer, but realized I was on the journey too and can’t go back to the way it was…everyone here seems to be going through things that are changing them profoundly, changing their perspective on the world.”

Sheen’s challenge was to transform his mindset into that of the fictional Willard’s, someone who could conceivably commit an assassination of a fellow American soldier. Willard, Coppola noted, “Must have that ‘Kurtzian’ other side in him.”

Sheen commented in the behind-the-scenes footage that he had to face his worst enemy—himself. “I was in a chaotic, spiritual state inside. It was real hard for me to reveal myself.” The actor, Coppola added, was “full of a lot of love…when you asked him to examine his darker nature, it meant closing himself down more…in order to find the killer who could carry out the task and kill Kurtz.”

Coppola also commented on how the job of film director was “one of the few dictatorial roles left in a world getting more democratic.” He thought this dynamic, plus his own wealth and success, was contributing to a state of mind that was like Kurtz’s own: “It takes courage to look in and see that twisted mind that lies beneath the surface and say, ‘Yes, I accept you…I even love you because you’re a part of me,’” Brando’s character asserts.

As the production swelled in budget and length of time, Coppola admitted he “didn’t know what he was doing,” that “the script didn’t make sense.” He lamented on camera, “I’m like a voice crying out, saying, ‘Please, it’s not working, get me off this…this is one crisis I’m not going to pull myself out of…why can’t I just have the courage to say, ‘It’s no good?'”

Coppola, noted his wife, “had gone to the threshold of his sanity…it was scary but exhilarating that he would take such risks for himself…this film was all about risking: your money, your sanity, how far you could press your family members.”

A greater risk, added the director, was the possibility of simply executing “a pretentious movie.” He said, “Here you are aspiring to really do something, but trying not to be pretentious…it had to have some answers, on about 47 different levels. It’s a renaissance, a rebirth, which is the basis for all life. The one rule for every man from the time he started walking around, the first concept that entered their head was the idea of life and death. The sun went up and the sun went down. A crop lived and died. You thought it was the end of the world, and then it was spring.”

I bought the $2 used VHS copy of this documentary because I was seeking further insights into my own characters for a novel that ultimately became part of my collection of novellas, Narcissus Blinked. As I attempted to give birth to this artistic project as I faced some of my own “Kurtzian” nature. Perhaps that is art at its best: helping us to grapple with more of our own frailty, light, and darkness.

But many artists tend to spend too much time immersed in the darkness. And speaking of “American Angst” or just angst, period, I’m kind of over it. I’m enjoying life a lot more and still creating art.

Are you still bought into the ubiquity of the suffering artist, whose creativity is best birthed in anguish? In her latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert gives artists permission to be set free. She writes:

“If you want to be an artist of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work—perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process. The fun part (the part where it doesn’t feel like work at all) is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instants are rare. You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.”

One of Gilbert’s most insightful threads across this book is the de-romanticizing of the tortured artist. The best work, she asserts, cannot be unleashed if we’re constantly in torment. As a former self-torturer, I find that so freeing. I can be a responsible parent, partner, and working professional…and write decent stuff.

What a concept! I still love you, Francis Coppola, Ernest Hemingway, and Jim Morrison. I just don’t want to BE you.

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