Eleanor Jessie Neil was born on 4 May 1936 in Los Angeles. Her father, a political cartoonist, died when she was 10, and her mother brought her up in Sunset Beach, 30 miles south of LA. After graduating in applied design from the University of California, Eleanor met Francis Ford Coppola while working as an assistant art director during the filming of Dementia 13 in 1962. They married in Las Vegas the following year. Their three children, Sofia, Roman and Gian-Carlo have followed them into the film industry. Eleanor, herself, has directed and/or been the cinematographer on several documentaries about the making of films. Otherwise, among her other activities, she helps manage the family winery in California, and has designed for a dance company in San Francisco. She also developed an art project, Circle of Memory ‘to inspire visitors to recall and commemorate children who are missing or dead.’ Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia or the Note on the road website.
While Eleanor Coppola’s husband was working on Apocalypse Now, in the 1970s, with a shooting schedule in the Philippines, she kept extensive diary-like notes. These were published in 1979 by Simon & Schuster and simply called Notes, although subsequent editions were called Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now. This book, in turn, led to a film, co-directed by Eleanor Coppola, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. Irene and Alan Taylor, authors of the anthology, The Assassin’s Cloak, say the diary is ‘an extraordinary record not only of making a movie but of the emotional and physical prices extracted from all who participated in it.’ Later, she published Notes on a Life, in a similar style, but with a much broader focus on her world. Further information and and extracts from Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now can be found at SF Gate, Los Angeles Times, and The Independent.
In her book, Coppola explains that she went with her husband and their three children to the Philippines in March 1976, where they rented a large house in Manila for the five-month scheduled shooting of Apocalypse Now. The film was conceived as an action/adventure structured on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, but rather than Africa in the 1800s, the film was set on a river in Vietnam during the late sixties. The story concerns a Captain Willard who is given an assignment to go on a classified mission up a river in Vietnam, cross into Cambodia and assassinate Colonel Kurtz, a Green Beret colonel who has apparently gone insane and is conducting the war by his own rules. When Willard finally arrives at his destination, he has been changed by the experience of making the journey. Coppola concludes her introduction by saying: ‘Many of the people who worked on the film were also changed.’ Here are several extracts from Notes.
24 June 1976
‘Napa. Yesterday Mike and Arlene saw two hours of rushes, and when they called to ask us if we would like anything from the city, Arlene said she thought the acting was kind of tentative. Francis went into a tailspin. He felt totally defeated. He has spent $7 million, and months of grueling production, and they didn’t say, “Hey, you’ve got some fantastic stuff there.” He really got into a black depression. As I see it, Francis has ninety hours of film, and no chunk can give you an idea of what fifteen minutes’ worth of moments he is going to select from it. What you finally see on the screen does not give the slightest clue of what was left out. For someone to just look at an arbitrary piece is meaningless. Francis felt hopeless and scared. We slept outside on the lawn. It was a beautiful night, so clear with stars. Francis tossed and turned most of the night, having nightmares. We woke up at dawn; there was a crescent of new moon rising near the horizon in the pinkish light. Francis said he had had a dream about how to finish the script, but now that he was awake it wasn’t really any good. Francis talked to Brando on the phone yesterday.’
15 October 1976
‘Thirty-eight takes, and Francis said it was never the way he wanted it. The people who were playing the severed heads sat in their boxes, buried in the ground, from eight in the morning till six at night. All day they were there in the hot sun, with smoke blowing on them. Between takes they were covered with umbrellas. They got out for lunch, but the rest of the time they were there in place.
During one take, Dennis Hopper backed up and stepped right at a girl’s cheek and collapsed part of the container she was in, nearly stepping on her face. The mud on both sides of the dolly track was deep and people kept slipping. Dennis and Fred Forrest both fell during takes. The sound man had someone hold on to his belt in the back and stabilize him as he followed the actors, so that he wouldn’t fall with the boom.
It was one of those days where the dry ice mist, or the orange smoke, or the performance, or the light, or something just never came together for a take that Francis was satisfied with.
At one point I was sitting there looking around. The severed heads were drinking Cokes. The Ifugao children were putting chunks of dry ice in film cans and making the lids pop off. Some Ifugao girls were picking lice out of each other’s hair. One girl had a wrapped skirt, bare breasts and pink plastic hair rollers. A man sitting down in his loincloth held up the fringed ends neatly so they wouldn’t get in the mud. The man with the boa constrictor was giving it a drink of water. Alex was talking about the fake blood . . . “It’s thirty-five dollars a gallon and they’re really using a lot today.” Special effects ran out of orange smoke and had to use red. My favorite old Ifugao priest wasn’t in costume today; he had on a loincloth and beige print, nylon jersey sport shirt. He came up close to the steps to take a look at the fake severed heads. They say his tribe were headhunters as recently as five years ago. Angelo had a tuna sandwich he was passing around, and people were saying, “You know how long its been since I had a tuna sandwich?” ’
17 October 1976
‘Pagsanjan. I shot an interview with Dennis Hopper. One of the things he said that interested me the most was that he thought filmmaking was in the same phase of development that art was during the cathedral-building period. When they built those great cathedrals in Europe, they employed stonemasons, engineers, fresco painters, etc., and created the work through the combined talents of many. By the nineteenth century, art evolved to the point where the major work of the day was being done by individual artists working alone at an easel. Dennis was making the point that now film-making involves the talents of many departments and perhaps eventually major films will be made by one person with a video port-a-pack.’
4 November 1978
‘Napa. Yesterday I went with Francis to a screening of the last half of the film to see some changes he was working on with the editors. I hadn’t seen any footage since June. There is no question in my mind, beyond all my personal feelings and connections, it is an extraordinary work. It feels like Francis’s level of desperation and fear is shrinking. The lawyers and United Artists are starting to talk more optimistically about the financial situation. There is still more work to do in the final sequence at Kurtz Compound, but each cut seems to improve, get closer.’