You Have to Fail a Little

American Zoetrope

When I am flailing in my writing, certain I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, I put on Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse to remind myself that however bad it gets, it’s not as rough as being Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now.

Eleanor Coppola, Francis’ wife, co-directed Hearts of Darkness, a behind-the-scenes documentary following Francis as he attempts to realize his vision for his Vietnam epic. Opening on Francis’ notorious interview at the film’s Cannes premiere, he declares, “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” This primes the viewer: we are not merely watching the making of a movie, but the war waged within the mind of its creator as he figures out how to save the film that nearly broke him.

Eleanor includes excerpts from her on-set diary and recordings of private conversations with Francis that highlight his self-doubt, voiced over set footage of nighttime explosions and pouring rain. He confesses, “My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject and I am doing it.” He complains that everyone believes he’s good in a crisis, but that “None of my tools, none of my tricks, none of my ways of doing things works for this ending. I have tried so many times that I know I can’t do it.” In one production still, he holds a gun to his own head.

Already an Academy Award winner, and flush from his first two Godfather films, Francis chooses the John Milius-penned Apocalypse Now to launch his own independent studio, American Zoetrope, because he believes it will be quicker than developing his own material from scratch.

He is mistaken.

Shooting in the Philippines puts the cast and crew in proximity to civil war. Francis fires the lead, Harvey Keitel, replacing him with Martin Sheen, who has a near-fatal heart attack. Typhoons destroy the sets. Marlon Brando shows up overweight and without having read the source material, despite having been paid a million dollars of his $3 million fee in advance. The ongoing question of how to finish the film torments Francis, as filming drags on to what is eventually 238 days of principal shooting.

As Eleanor’s diary notes, “In order to maintain creative control, Francis had to raise the money himself. If the film goes over budget, Francis is responsible. He has put up our personal assets as collateral.” Eleanor admits in an interview that she didn’t understand the extent to which they were financially liable, but that she supported his art. In fact, she welcomed the idea of downsizing their lifestyle had the movie failed, comparing the possibility of losing everything to the “excitement” of war, because it allows them to focus on the present moment.

But the risk is real, and very public, as newscasters speculate about the money pit the film has become. Francis fantasizes about getting sick as a “graceful way out,” even as they are shooting the final scenes with Brando. Eleanor worries about his mental state, but views her husband as a classic tortured artist: “You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little, to come out the other side.” Like Willard, the protagonist, Eleanor and Francis are on a journey they cannot turn back from, because it has changed them. They can only keep going down the river.

In the documentary’s final scene, Francis sits in a shady spot on the Coppola estate in Napa, California, talking about his hope for the future of film—that it becomes more affordable, more accessible, so that more stories may be told. He says:

One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera-corder, and for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever, and it will really become an art form.

“That’s my opinion,” he adds, and stands up, interview and movie over.

He says this years before YouTube, before Netflix, before Tangerine, the first feature film screened at the Sundance Film Festival shot almost completely on iPhones. Coppola has repeatedly risked his own financial security rather than be beholden to studio execs, but he anticipates and hopes that the lowered barrier to entry will level the playing field and allow new voices—perhaps not male, perhaps not white—to shine through. Film can truly be art only when it is available to everyone who might want to make it.

Music scholars determined last year that the Easter Sonata attributed to Felix Mendolssohn and praised as “masculine,” “violent,” and “ambitious,” had in fact been written by his sister, Fanny, at the age of 22. The Brontë sisters originally published under male pseudonyms. Their books were reviewed better when reviewers believed the writers were male. Joanne Rowling was encouraged to use her initials, J.K., for her Harry Potter books, because the assumption is that boys won’t read books by women, or about women or girls; the male experience is universal and female experience is niche. Girls’ and women’s abilities as artists and creators are underestimated when we know they are female. “Genius” is rarely used to describe women, but often used to describe men.And because only men are allowed to be geniuses, men—white men—are the bar by which everyone must measure themselves. Hearts of Darkness pits Francis against the ultimate film auteur, Orson Welles: Eleanor explains that Welles intended to adapt Heart of Darkness, but abandoned it in pre-production in favor of making his own masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Francis articulates the weight of his own expectations, reaching a boiling point:

So here you are, on one hand, trying to aspire to really do something, on the other hand, you’re not allowed to be pretentious. And finally you say, “Fuck it! I don’t care if I’m pretentious or not pretentious, or if I’ve done it or I haven’t done it.” All I know is that I am going to see this movie, and that, for me, it has to have some answers.

I love this scene. I imagine artists of all kinds watch the documentary and see themselves in it—deep in the jungle of their projects, hoping to emerge with their own Apocalypse Now. Myself, I love the documentary so much that it inspired the first, unpublished young adult novel I ever wrote, about a girl who wants to be a director. I started writing because I’d reached the point where the fear of writing something bad was less than the pain of writing nothing at all.

The success of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman last year delighted me, especially after The Hollywood Reporter said that Warner Bros was “gambling” by hiring her. Never mind that her prior film, Monster, resulted in Charlize Theron winning the Academy Award for Best Actress and made back its $8 million budget more than seven times over, or that male directors whose previous credits were micro-budget films and TV sitcoms were offered major franchise films without the same public fretting. Jenkins insisted that the “No Man’s Land” scene, where Diana walks into battle alone and truly becomes Wonder Woman, remain in the film, when her own crew didn’t see the value in it on the page. It’s one of the most praised, moving scenes in Wonder Woman, and is essential to the film working as well as it does. But Jenkins wasn’t even locked in for the sequel until after Wonder Woman smashed all box office expectations. Only then could she make a point of holding out for more money—to be paid what a man would be paid—to establish a standard for the women who might follow her.

The point of Francis’ remarks is that a girl with zero access or experience might be a great artist, and that film must become more affordable to make if we’re ever going to be lucky enough to see what she can do.  At least one thinkpiece invoked the “little fat girl in Ohio” line to describe Lena Dunham, who broke out in her 20s with her film, Tiny Furniture, and TV show, Girls. It’s rare for a woman director to find success as early as Dunham, who grew up surrounded by artists like her mother, Laurie Simmons, and the thriving ‘90s indie film scene in New York City. The truth is that many women wait long after girlhood to pursue art seriously, often after nurturing their children, as well as their husbands’ careers, but sometimes just because they’re not encouraged in the same way or because models for success aren’t readily available to them. Francis’ daughter, Sofia, was 4 when her parents brought her to the Philippines with her brothers for the Apocalypse Now shoot, and 32 when she won her Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation. Hearts of Darkness shows Sofia sitting quietly among her father’s script notecards, reading a book, and later on his lap, watching the shoot. She is one of only five (all white) women ever to be nominated for Best Director in Academy Awards history. Kathryn Bigelow was 58 when she became the first, and so far only, woman to win the award, for her eighth feature, The Hurt Locker.

Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, about a writer referred to only as “the wife,” contains a line that has developed a cult status since its publication in 2014: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” Of course, the wife did get married, and must care for her child, work as a professor, and cope with her husband’s betrayal, all while writing her novel. And writing is the art form with perhaps the lowest overhead costs, with no cast or crew necessary to complete one’s vision, unlike film; even now, it’s difficult for women to secure financing as directors, and only nine have ever worked with a budget of $100 million or more.

Eleanor directed her first narrative feature, 2017’s Paris Can Wait, at the age of 80. Inspired by an experience she had at age 73, it stars Diane Lane as the wife of a famous director, who mourns the tragic loss of her son (Francis and Eleanor’s son Gian-Carlo died in a boating accident at the age of 22) while driving around France with her husband’s business partner. It’s rare that a woman of Eleanor’s age would even be in the position to direct. Most reviews note its autobiographical elements, which furthers the narrative that men create art and women merely transmit their experiences the best they can, as if all art isn’t interpreting our lives in some way, and as if it isn’t art to embellish real life for fiction.

Hearts of Darkness, in fact, shows that this is how Francis eventually finds his ending. Eleanor, observing a ritual sacrifice, runs and grabs Francis so he can see it. He is writing, and reluctant to join her at first, but then Francis recreates the sacrifice for the film’s famous climax, cross-cut with Willard’s murder of Kurtz, all set to a crescendoing remix of “The End” by The Doors.As Eleanor says of Francis, “You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little, to come out the other side.” Failure is a learning process. But when women directors fail, they rarely get a second chance. That’s why every time there’s a big movie by a female director, the stakes feel so high—because they are. Just ask Elaine May, who hasn’t directed a feature film since Ishtar flopped 31 years ago. Francis’ One From the Heart, his follow-up to Apocalypse Now, bankrupted American Zoetrope. He’s filed for bankruptcy three times. Yet he has gone on to make more films, even if they’ve never reached the peak of his 1970s acclaim. Imagine a woman director behaving the way Francis does on this film, delivering her film over budget and years late, and still having a career.

The night before I started grad school, in an MFA program specifically for writing for children and young adults, I heard Amy Heckerling speak at The Strand to promote the oral history of Clueless, a movie I first saw when I was 12, and can quote by heart. Nobody in Hollywood wanted Clueless when she first shopped it around, but it became a huge hit and a cultural touchstone. Even so, Heckerling struggles to get funding for her projects. While she signed my copy of the oral history, I mentioned my failed novel. She smiled at me wryly and said, “It’s so hard to get female shit done, isn’t it?”

It’s so hard to get female shit done. That’s why I’m obsessed with how Ava DuVernay promotes marginalized directors through her company, Array, and hires exclusively women to direct her OWN series, Queen Sugar. Because as Carolyn Heilbrun writes in Writing Women’s Lives:

What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

I wrote a successful girl filmmaker in my first novel because I want more women filmmakers. I want a new narrative, where some little fat girl in Ohio might be the next Mozart, but also to give girls room to fail, so that each woman doesn’t have to represent all female filmmakers with every film. They can simply be filmmakers.

Eleanor reads from her diary, “For years, Francis has dreamed of a group of poets, filmmakers, and writers who would come together to form American Zoetrope. This morning I realized that this was it, right here in the heart of the jungle.” Watching Hearts of Darkness, you get to experience the highs and lows of the creative process, with the comfort of knowing it all works out in the end, beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

As an interstitial states, after returning briefly in the end to Apocalypse Now’s premiere as Coppola and crew walk the red carpet, Apocalypse Now won three Golden Globes, two Academy Awards, the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and grossed $150 million worldwide. It regularly lands on lists of the best films of all time—a Hollywood ending for the filmmaker determined to do it his way. The dozen years between the film’s premiere and the documentary’s means that viewers arrive at Hearts of Darkness knowing Apocalypse Now became a commercial and critical triumph. And yet it’s still compelling to see it all come together, and how close it came to falling apart. (Plus, you get to see Marlon Brando end a take by announcing that he’s swallowed a bug.)

I graduated from my MFA program last year, and I’m working on another manuscript, my second. I’m not sure exactly how it needs to end, or if it will sell. Part of me feels like it’s superstitious to even write this right now, without that certainty, while I’m still in the jungle. Watching Hearts of Darkness reminds me to keep going, to say “Fuck it!” Because you can’t go back down the river. You can only keep going forward.