Napalm and espresso coffee

THE MAKING OF APOCALYPSE NOW Eleanor Coppola Faber £9.99
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The Independent Culture
When Francis Ford Coppola went to the Philippines to shoot Apocalypse Now, he lobbed his wife some cameras and told her to make a documentary. It sounds peremptory, and it was. "I don't know," Eleanor notes, "if he is just trying to keep me busy or if he wants to avoid the addition of a professional team." But she turned out to be a good choice. Her documentary - Hearts of Darkness - was a gripping portrait of creativity and megalomania, with one especially great scene when the director discovers his leading man has had a heart attack. "No one has a heart attack," he shouts, "unless I say so." Also Sprach Coppola.

These notes, however, offer something different. They will disappoint film buffs. The assured and epic screen version does not survive the trip onto the page. "Being on set every day," Eleanor confesses, "we get immune to the incredible imagery." She relies instead on a steady enthusiasm for the everyday. Coffee in particular plays a leading role. When Martin Sheen is bleeding and deliriously drunk after shooting the famous opening scene - the judo pose, the smashed mirror - she thinks: "I should go home and get some espresso coffee in a thermos." It is quite possible that in more flamboyant hands the coffee could have been hot stuff, but Eleanor is anything but an expansive writer. These really are notes. When an insect bites the back of her hand she writes: "I have an insect bite on the back of my hand."

Her notes are not so much about the film as about her own feelings during the shoot, so it is not surprising that the most vivid strand concerns her husband's infidelity. Beautiful actresses keep telling Francis he's the greatest man on the planet, or write notes saying: "Thank you for letting me participate in your genius." This gets Eleanor down a bit, but she is confident and optimistic. "The more I see him as he is," she writes, "the more I love him." The feeling isn't mutual. He declares he loves someone else, and talks of divorce. Her reaction is to weep; his is to smash the glass table, the one they keep ordering their daughter not to put her feet on. It's cruel, and very sad: a parable about the heavy domestic price exacted by high drama. But you can see how it happened: Francis was worrying away about the contradictory nature of war and the vibrancy of his own talent, while Eleanor was telling the kids not to nibble the roast until dad got home.

Eleanor finds herself in an important but uncomfortable role - as her husband's conscience. Late on, she sends him a haughty telex, accusing him of setting up "his own Vietnam" in the Philippines, with his flown- in air conditioners and wine and steaks. She also calls him "an asshole." This might have been just a coded way of saying that she's fed up of fixing up the house while he shoots rapids being a genius, but he replies with "an avalanche of anger." These moments are sparingly told, though; and while we can understand why, some big opportunities are missed. The sense in which the recreation of Vietnam in Manila was an arrogant imposition in its own right is worth pursuing, but brushed aside. We see Francis watching Napalm burn up a beach and murmuring: "This could never happen in America. The environmentalists would kill you." There is a fair amount about the craftsmanship that goes into big films, but the only detail that catches the domineering American reflex which Coppola both typifies and satirises concerns the footprints on the loo seats at the military base. They are too high for many Filipinos. The locals have to climb up and squat.

Francis was fired with self-dramatisation and excess. He talked about death with Marlon and Bobby and Marty, while Eleanor stayed close to the children. And it's tragic, because these are, to be honest, the bits you skip on your way to the next blow-up with Brando. Still, we can at least blame the director for the failure of this book to tell the story of the film. If Eleanor had not had her own unhappiness to record, she might not have been immune to the incredible things that were happening. The sludgy implication that working on the film somehow lured all participants towards their own private apocalypse is, alas, not quite enough to make up the lost ground.