The Horror, The Horror!
By David Nicholson
Lightning storms, flash floods, chronic illness, violent drugs gangs on the streets, freak fires, boats being washed away...the story of the making of Heart of Darkness is every bit as dramatic as the film itself.
It seems to go with the territory. Coppola's epic struggle to film his own version of Joseph Conrad's turn-of-the-century novel, Apocalypse Now, was recorded on film in a documentary: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. This time, with British director Nicolas Roeg in charge, Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich in Brando's shoes as Kurtz, we only have the participants' word for it.
But what a tale it is. Roeg took his cast and crew to Belize and out into the jungle for six weeks. "On the first day," says Roth, "the boat sank." Finally, after much delay, another was built. But then people began to get sick. "There was one actor whose pants exploded, basically, while he was standing there. At times it was a nightmare. Diseases of the bowel were prevalent."
Not only dysentery, but screw worms burying underneath the skin and hatching eggs; doctor flies whose bite induces headaches and nausea; pneumonia; and even homesickness on the part of the Mexican unit. One night actor Derek O'Connor wandered into the wrong part of Belize City and was smacked in the head with a baseball bat by a crack dealer. "He had to play a beaten up character," says Roth.
Chaos suits Roeg. His filmmaking style thrives on uncertainty and fragmentation and it was the intangible nature of Heart of Darkness which drew him in. "It's all about character instead of plot. Conrad said 'I'm not sure if I understand it myself,' so you can have lots of opinions about it."
The plot, in essence, has Marlow sent off to the Congo by a Belgian company to track down Kurtz who has lost contact and is said to have created his own miniature kingdom. While Coppola's Apocalypse Now paid tribute to the novel as "inspiration" and transplanted the action to Sixties Vietnam, Roeg is sticking more faithfully to period settings and original dialogue. Do not, however, expect a production in the Merchant Ivory mold. "I hate all the costume drama stuff we sell to the States," Roth comments. "But this isn't a study of silverware. It's total craziness."
Acknowledging the shadow of Coppola's film, Roeg makes a teasing suggestion. "They'll probably say 'there goes Nic Roeg, setting Apocalypse Now at the turn of the century. Why couldn't he leave the story alone, why did he have to be so perverse? I preferred the original!'"
He provided Roth with next to no guidance on interpretation: "He just said 'read the book and go for it,' so a lot of it was me reacting to whatever's happening. A complete technical screw-up behind the camera, or someone reading me some lines, or whatever. I didn't know what the hell was going on. It was chaos, but chaos organized very deftly by Nic."
Roth has a quick, animated face, well equipped for displaying contradictory emotions. He will lower his brows, widen his eyes and cock his ears in a single gesture, like a cat becoming alert to a bird. In Heart of Darkness he seems to have foxed his director. "What I like about Roth is that he's very secretive about his decisions and thoughts," says Roeg. "I enjoy that with an actor, it's rather surprising. An actor's instinct is to react immediately, to fight, or cry, or have silence, whereas here you can't always see how the character has changed from one scene to another."
Roth did have an "explosion" at one point, when he wanted to run through some lines for continuity, "but Nic said 'no, we're doing this bit now. So you just have to trust him. It's very hard and for a while I was insecure."
"The climate of the jungle dictated a lot of the film. Like when we were doing the last shot there. Kurtz had just died, the village was on fire, it was supposed to be at night, with the villagers and the ivory...and the sun came up. So he said 'everyone go home, except for this one actress,' and he shot a different ending."
Roeg, discussing these fluctuations of schedule, takes on an other-worldly air. "The scene descriptions were done in Los Angeles, a long way away, at another time," he says. "So I allowed the film to be part of a chaotic regime, rather than a controlled one. You can plot lovers on a beach saying their goodbyes with the sun going down, but you get there and it's raining, so you see it a different way, you can have them sitting with newspapers over their heads. The rain is telling you something."
Roeg's attitude might tell some financiers to mind their wallets: producers like to keep a detailed track of shooting plans, and Roeg has taken 18 years to find similarly minded backers for this project. "The producers understood a great deal of what they were getting into," he says. "When you're dealing with a jungle and a river and illness, there's inevitably going to be some chaos. A jungle is like an ocean. It breaks things. If you tried to follow a storyboard you'd end up in far worse shit. You have to go with the flow."
Producer Rick Rosenburg admits: "It's a gamble...but you have to take chances." His $6m budget overran, but, ironically, you can see that Roeg's informal, take-what-comes approach could in fact save money, compared to the obsessive stubbornness of a director waiting for the perfect light.
A new crew has been assembled for the London shoot ("the other one was wasted. We left them in the jungle," says Roeg) and a studious, workmanlike atmosphere hangs over the set -- the Masonic Grand Lodge in Holborn -- where Marlow has come to receive his orders.
Roeg has gathered his family around him for the shoot: wife Theresa Russell and sons Luc and Waldo. He has a fatherly touch, strolling gently around the set in an old sports jacket and pink flannel shirt, collar loosely flapping at his neck. He is softly spoken with some youthful color still in his cheeks, and an endearing way of catching loops in a conversation and taking them out for a spin.
Now he is girding himself for action in the edit suite, creating his own idiosyncratic order from the jumble in the jungle. Like Conrad, no one is sure whether Roeg himself understands what this film means, but he finds at least one way to sum it up. "Surreal," he says. "That's the word I've always had in my head."