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How Fleetwood Mac and Francis Ford Coppola made masterpieces from disaster

It is true in many cases that in-life turbulence and art are a match made in…well not quite heaven, but, perhaps, the upper mid-table ranks of purgatory. The exorcism of troubles through art has no doubt been the source of many a masterpiece, but what about when the very production of the art itself is flown right into heady turbulence? What about when the strife that spawned the picture actually begins to stir the paint-pot?

There are two prime examples from both studio and screen, a moment when the trouble behind the art cannot be sequestered for its production, and yet, despite what you imagine possible, a masterpiece is snatched from the jaws of disaster. One such case comes from the mercurial mind of one of rock music’s finest but most turbulent bands while the other is arguably one of the best films ever made. One is Fleetwood Mac’s impeccable and yet wholly horrific album Rumours while the other, entrenched in the plague of war, is equally as flea-ridden yet wonderful, Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now.

We’re looking back at how two pieces of near-perfect pop culture, career-defining and generational behemoths as they are, can be rescued from the disaster zones that surrounded them and turned into diamond-gilded pieces of museum quality brilliance in their fields. There’s perhaps no better place to start than with Fleetwood Mac’s stormy seminal record, Rumours.

When the wide-eyed world of cocaine-kookiness from Californian couple Buckingham and Nicks collided with the booze and blues bounty of the very British Fleetwood Mac, on paper, it may well have been a mixed-up milieu that precluded productivity. Perhaps it would have been worse still if they were all fucking each other. But possibly worst of all, was the reality that they were all suddenly not doing so. Somehow a pop-rock masterpiece was spawned from that reality, nevertheless.

Fading British blues band Fleetwood Mac were in the market for a guitarist and a revival, Lindsay Buckingham was the man they had in mind but he and Stevie Nicks came as a package deal. In 1975, on their 11th record, the band signified a rebirth by self-titling their first album as the eponymous five-piece (now including Buckingham and Nicks). Buoyed by the success of that record, they returned to the studio in 1977, only this time the touring had taken a hefty toll.

John and Christine McVie were in the midst of a mutually self-destructive divorce and took to the secluded Sausalito studio in a sort of comatose stupor, the symptoms of which pertained to denying each other’s existence unless it involved simple uncommunicative utterances, like ‘what key are you in John?’. Buckingham and Nicks had previously been so close that they seemed to exist as a single entity. So much so that their break-up was like splitting an atom along with the volatile reaction that ensues. Meanwhile, poor old sticksmith Mick Fleetwood was trying to hold this fragile band of despairing brethren together, whilst also coming to terms with the fact that his wife had left him for his best friend. To complete the Rumours recipe, add a glug of alcoholism, and a pinch of mass cocaine addiction, bake in a hot Californian, windowless oven for 15 hours a day for almost a year, garnish with a strange sort of symbiosis, and serve up the pop perfection.

Unlike a lot of inhouse problems, those surrounding Rumours were well documented. They permeate the albums itself with a sense of drama, authenticity and vitality, but they also, imbue it with a certain sense of dark hilarity.

That is by no means to say it is comical or novelty, quite the contrary in fact, but some of the situations surrounding the recording seem so much like a parody of the archetypal debauched rock group that you can’t help but laugh. Even Mick Fleetwood jokes that the whole situation was perhaps worst of all for John McVie because the others were talking through their problems in song, “Only John couldn’t talk back because he doesn’t sing.”

We all know ourselves that the post-break-up period is one where time and distance are vital necessities for personal and emotional rebalancing. Not only were the band members denied this by enduring hours in the same tiny cramped studio with the very person they were breaking up with, but they were also periodically having to perform or even sing songs which were unambiguously about themselves.

Every day a spurned lover would totter into the studio clutching a new lyrics sheet condemning before the jury of the band, the man or woman stood opposite them to varying degrees of vitriol — the accused had to simply reticently play along. In fact, they had to give their all to the damning indictment against them.

Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s
Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s. (Credit: Alamy)

Although subsequent time and distance may now have added mirth to the whole thing, at the time, it was anything but the wacky fanfare that has been glibly alluded to. Whether it be John and Buckingham butting heads creatively, Nicks and Buckingham rowing ferociously or Mick missing his children and delving increasingly into narcotic excess, the studio was a place of torment as oppose to a purging place of sanctity. It was only the quality of the music, of which they were all an indispensable part, that pulled them through.

Take, for instance, the song ‘Dreams’. It is perhaps too catchy and too easily sung-along to be considered the peak of heart-breaking music, in fact, it is even played at weddings by less lyrically scrupulous DJ’s. However, the story behind it is one that doesn’t get much more tragic this side of Orpheus. Written by Nicks (on Sly Stones piano) on a particularly bleak and lonely sounding evening, she knew she had written a gem. She was also aware that the barebones song she had written could only be elevated by the same man she painstakingly wrote it about. Likewise, Buckingham could be under no illusions that the song itself was about him.

So, picture if you will, as a sort of tableau for the record, the moment the three-part vocals had to be recorded: in a silent, darkened, studio room stood Stevie, Christine and Lindsey huddled inches apart around the same microphone and pouring their heartaches into it, no doubt in that very moment the heartache was being added to – frankly, it’s hard to imagine a performance under any more emotional duress. And yet it is that very vulnerability combined with the cathartic so-fuck-it liberation of great rock music, that lends the song its vibrant and emotive immediacy.

The last twist in the tale of this difficult record was the fact they had done so much recording that some of the oxides on the analogue tapes had actually been worn off by the tape heads, meaning anything of a high frequency was lost, and thus overdubs had to be used to meticulously mix everything back to its original quality.

The very fact that despite everything this record exists is a testimony, not just to the strength of the five musicians in question, the defiant belligerence of art or the power of the album itself, but seemingly the wild yet nevertheless good-hearted glue of the groups guiding ‘Daddy’, Mick Fleetwood. It is, therefore, perhaps fitting that the reverse of the album features a series of photos where the band are hugging in a rare moment of joyous harmony as Mick stands off to the side watchfully smiling on. It is perhaps even more fitting of the album that the only song which credits all five as songwriters is the aptly named ‘The Chain’, a particular highlight on an album of particular highlights.

Rumours is the distilled cacophony of five people falling apart and yet at the very top of their game. Despite all the chaos and despair, it is the sound of a rarefied space between crazy, debauched love and its lonely, sombre counterpoint — people at their best and worst. Most importantly though, none of this is imbued retrospectively through the lens of the story we now know, it is all so perfectly captured and present in the sound.

The record encapsulates everything that was happening — all the wrung-out heartache, the comic silver-lining of tragedy, the vying musicianship, opulent excesses and all the inherent jubilation that they were, in their own berserk way, getting through it together. In short, the record is somehow a total mad expression of love — everything coalesces to make not only one of the greatest rock and roll records ever but one of the greatest records ever, period.

Fleetwood Mac
(Credit: Alamy)

Equally as vital to the rich tapestry of one’s career as Rumours is to Fleetwood Mac, Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film Apocalypse Now was destined to fail without ever doing so. The acclaimed director pushed everybody to the edge with his vision and it nearly cost him, and several members of the cast and crew, their lives. It’s a story of creative construction waging war on the elements.

Sometimes you watch a reel of comedy outtakes and think ‘I can’t believe these lucky bastards get paid for this’, other times you hear of a movie so nightmarish in the making that it would seem if Dante was to rework his Inferno for modern times then filmmaking would surely be reserved as a circle of hell.

Apocalypse Now transposes Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘The Heart of Darkness’ on to the Vietnam War. The events of the conflict itself being superseded by the cultural subtext that existed within it. Likewise, John Milius’ script took a backseat in favour of director Francis Ford Coppola’s desire to draw more heavily upon the novel, a seminal work on psychological depravity as it traverses a journey to figurative hell and near-literal madness.

The journey of Apocalypse Now from inception to the screen wasn’t much different. In many ways, this waywardness is a more fitting encapsulation of the conflict itself, whereby the end goal was to a large extent intangible, in a war that had become, as stated in a leaked dossier by then-president Lydon B. Johnson, “80 % about saving face”. This indeterminate end and suspension of progress only added to the mindless harrowing of those soldiers who served. Apocalypse Now mirrors this like an allegory, but inadvertently so did its production.

There may have been a moment when Coppola stood, clutching his paperback copy in the Philippine jungle, sweating, shirtless and stressed to the eyeballs and saw in the line “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice” the presentiment of his own situation. “The Horror! The Horror!”.

He could have made a light-hearted comedy in a nice air-conditioned Hollywood studio, or else he simply could have taken his lavish Godfather spoils, retired to his Napa Valley wine ranch and never touched a camera again. Instead, he staked that very property to raise funds for what would go on to be one of the most horrific movie productions imaginable—offering up $30 million of his own wealth as collateral to bolster the film’s budget, risking financial ruin if the film tanked. However, as he puts it himself, “If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?”.

Although beautiful is probably not the first superlative brought to mind, Apocalypse Now is certainly a sui generis masterpiece that had never been seen before, or since for that matter. Nonetheless, there clearly must have been times during the chaotic 238-day shoot, when the whole thing seemed one risk too many (not to mention the two years of post-production).

Dennis Hopper and Martin Sheen in ‘Apocalypse Now’ 1979. (Credit: Alamy)

The run sheet of disasters are as follows: Coppola had wanted Steve McQueen for the main role of Willard, but after months of expressing interest, McQueen dropped out over concerns about the (initially scheduled) 14-week shoot in the jungle. Harvey Keitel was cast but didn’t last more than ten days of shooting after the decision was made that he wasn’t right for the role. Martin Sheen stepped in and then temporarily stepped out owing to a near-fatal heart attack—and the heart attack wasn’t the only medical emergency to befall the frontman. He was also injured by standing too near to an explosion, and the cut sustained to his thumb in the opening sequence was very much real.

It was his 36th Birthday, Sheen at the time was an alcoholic, he was allowed to drink all day so by the time it got to the evening and the entirely improvised PTSD riddled hotel room scene, he was so refreshed he could barely stand. Under Coppola’s direction of, “Now frighten yourself, Martin,” he punched the mirror resulting in a massive gash along his thumb. Coppola wanted to stop filming to allow a nurse to see him, but Sheen pleaded that the cameras must be kept rolling as he wanted to exorcise some of his own alcoholic daemons through the conduit of his character. Enough of Coppola’s artistic thirst presided over his better judgement, and the disturbing and bloody sequence remained uncut.

Following the scene Sheen, now bandaged and naked, but still bathed in his own blood, lay on the hotel bed in a state of intoxication and post-self-purgation bliss, clutching the hands of Francis and Eleanor Coppola, trying to invoke a sing-along of Amazing Grace. Sheen was far from the only one engaging in excesses. Prodigious drug use was as rife among the film crew as it was amongst the America soldiers serving across the South China Sea. Dennis Hopper famously demanded “an ounce of coke” before signing up to the movie. When he arrived, he was deemed unsuitable for the role initially intended and was immediately recast as a character concocted on the spur of the moment. The drugged-out poetry-spouting hippy we see on screen was almost entirely improvised.

Similarly, when Marlon Brando finally agreed to sign on for his $3 million in a month payday, he arrived to play the role of an ultra-fit Green Beret weighing well over 300lbs. He spent his first four days on set doing absolutely no filming, and any time Coppola entered his trailer to try and broach the subject of acting Brando would cajole him into talking about something completely unrelated like Baseball.

His lack of preparedness was not solely limited to his weight either. Despite demanding that his character be called Col. Leighley rather than Kurtz, because it sounded “more like the wind through corn”, it was soon revealed that he had neither read the script or source material. On his fourth night of lavishly well-paid trailer gorging, he finally read the book and emerged the next morning energised and agreeing that his character should indeed now be called Kurtz, meaning in all previously filmed scenes the name had to be overdubbed in post-production. In the end, his scenes, which feature some of the most spectacular lighting in film history, were only shot in that way to hide his bloated physique. And what’s more, much of his famous monologue was improvised on the spot.

Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando / Apocalypse Now 1979
Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brandoon the set of ‘Apocalypse Now’ 1979. (Credit: Alamy)

Even the elements seemed to be transpiring against the film. Following the hiccup with Keitel, the schedule was back on track, and things were going well when Typhoon Olga hit, destroying the set and resulting in an 8-week layoff.

It might not have been Vietnam, but The Philippines had its own issues too. President Fernando Marcos had promised all the helicopters and warships necessary for the film, but he hadn’t counted on an escalation in the countries conflict with militia rebels; thus much of Coppola’s military booty had to be recalled in order to serve in actual battles. As did the pilots flying them – so often the pilot filming the scene was not the one present in rehearsals.

All of this took a hefty toll on Coppola. He lost so much weight he was able to sneak back into the states unrecognised to cast Sheen. He suffered an epileptic seizure, where he told his wife he was ‘drifting into the darkness’. He threatened to commit suicide three times. And, unsurprisingly, at one point, had to check himself into the hospital.

Much like the war effort itself, there was also no end in sight. During production, Coppola said, “I call this whole movie the Idiodyssey. None of my ways of doing things work for this ending. I have tried so many times that I know I can’t do it. It might be a big victory just to know that I can’t do it. I can’t write the ending to this movie.” It is not without irony that the movie actually opens and closes with ‘The End’ by The Doors.

This constant mindless chaos and start-stop nature of production parallel perfectly the central message of the novel and movie —death, life and rebirth — to an almost mystical degree. What was happening on-set in the Philippines mirrored the actual war, as Coppola puts it: “The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” In so many ways the book mirrored the movie, the movie mirrored the war, and the war mirrored the production.

As Werner Herzog once said, “I would travel down to hell and wrestle a film away from the devil if it was necessary,” and he once nearly took an extra up on his offer to kill his uber-difficult leading man Klaus Kinski, so he knows a thing or two about tricky productions. It would seem Coppola got as close to delving into hell to make a movie as its possible to get and in doing so perfectly encapsulated Vietnam. The epitaph of the Vietnam War was ‘war is hell’, and “Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam!”.

These two examples are relics from a bygone era. Productions where the artists had control over the bigwigs as oppose to the other way around. We’d imagine that rarely in today’s world of music and film that such things would be allowed to continue, that organisers and money-providers wouldn’t step in to ensure their investment remained intact. But it’s worth noting in the year of our lord 2020, a year which can largely be summed up as a dumpster fire of fuckery, that even in the mire of disastrous times a masterpiece can spring forth.

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