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Charlie Sheen Is Winning with Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III 

Sheen's new film, made with childhood friend Roman Coppola, was his first acting gig after his notorious meltdown

Thursday, Jan 31 2013
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Sheen interrupts: "— and play the Montagnard army, yeah."

"...so we were in this world as kids. We would just hang out, amidst all this very far-out imagery. Heads, dead bodies. It's a whole swirl of memories now, 30 years later — "

" — which don't seem real."

click to flip through (3) KEVIN SCANLON - Charles Swan was Sheen's first acting gig after his infamous meltdown.
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  • Charles Swan was Sheen's first acting gig after his infamous meltdown.
   
 

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"Yeah," Coppola agrees. "But they were very matter-of-fact at the time."

After the shoot, the boys became pen pals. "Over the years, we would see each other," Coppola says. "Sometimes not so frequently, but years would go by and we would always have that bond."

That bond would sustain ups and downs in each man's fortunes. In 1986, Sheen broke out with a lead role in Oliver Stone's Platoon. That same year, Coppola's older brother, Gio, 22, died in a boating accident while working for their father as second unit director on the film Gardens of Stone. After Gio's death, Roman, then a 21-year-old NYU student, stepped into his brother's job.

"I could see his misery," Eleanor Coppola wrote. "He lost the person he was perhaps closest to in all the world and he couldn't escape; each day he will be surrounded by reminders of Gio and will witness his parents' and sister's pain."

Roman Coppola has shot second unit on almost every Francis Ford Coppola film, and every Sofia Coppola film, since.

And then, Coppola says, "There was sort of an epic period."

Sheen cackles: "The year of '90!" Sheen appeared in six films that year, including The Rookie (co-starring and directed by Clint Eastwood) and Men at Work (co-starring and directed by his brother, Emilio Estevez). That year, an article about the "Coppola brats" described Roman as having "the ectomorphic look of someone surviving solely on caffeine, cigarettes and sleep deprivation." He had started producing independent films, most notably a '70s spoof called Spirit of '76, which he also co-wrote. Coppola was toiling to make a name for himself; Sheen was the biggest of young stars.

Stardom has changed so much that there is no direct equivalent to the kind of star Charlie Sheen was in 1990, or what that must have felt like. Think Robert Pattinson, if he had already starred in two Oscar-winning films; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, if he had had all of his current success by age 25, and knew that his movie star father had made his greatest film when he was 36; Jennifer Lawrence, if she was a dude. If you were Charlie Sheen in 1990, you wouldn't know that your biggest and best films (Wall Street, Young Guns, Eight Men Out, Major League) were behind you, and that the future of your film career held the Hot Shots movies and Money Talks, and not much else worth mentioning. If you were Charlie Sheen in 1990, you probably would think you were going to live forever.

"Charlie said something to me," Coppola remembers, "and this was a time when you were doing big movies and stuff — you said, 'Dude, we've got to make a movie together.' " Sheen nods vigorously. "And I was just a 25-year-old guy, aspiring to do stuff, and that stuck in my mind. It meant something to me that you would say that."

"Well, it was the sons of the guys who made the greatest film ever," Charlie says. "Period. The end. Sorry, Godfather. Sorry, Dog Day [Afternoon]."

In an interview a week before he was fired by CBS, Sheen encapsulated his state of mind with an Apocalypse reference: "I'm putting up the river to kill another part of me," he said, "which is Kurtz." Meaning, of course, Marlon Brando's character in the film — a Special Forces officer gone AWOL and insane. Martin Sheen's character, Willard, journeys upriver into the proverbial heart of darkness to confront his own demons and kill the rogue colonel.

Today, Sheen says, "Everything, every lesson about life, every nuance, every hard-core, soft-core — everything you need to know about how to be a good person is in Apocalypse." That's been his philosophy, he says, "since I was a young adult, since I started looking at it a little bit differently, about Dad's journey. You know, people try to compare Platoon to Apocalypse, and I'm like, 'Get out of my house.' Our story was pretty good and told from boot level, but I think Apocalypse is about so many other things than just that war, you know?" Gesturing to Coppola, he adds, "We quote the movie incessantly."

Coppola confirms, "If we're together, a day doesn't go by without some reference."

They are products, literally and figuratively, of 1970s American cinema, and Coppola used their shared shorthand — as well as visual references, like a photo of Jack Nicholson accepting his Oscar in 1975 — to communicate what he was after with Swan. "That period of time when my dad made those pictures — and [Martin Sheen made] Badlands — it was a big moment in cinema. We would see it with a different perspective years later."

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