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The Godfather Speaks

Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the iconic Godfather series, reveals secrets about the making of the epic saga.
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 12)

CA: Given that you went into The Godfather project without any prior knowledge of the Mafia, how did you re-create a story that many people came to believe was real Mafia life? How did you do it?
Coppola: And the Mob did accept it. Although I had no experience or knowledge of the Mafia, in the end, they were just an Italian-American family. I based the film all on my uncles and my relatives. Now, they were musicians, or they were little businessmen or tool and die makers, but they were true first- and second-generation, third-generation Italian-Americans. I used my memories of what it was like in my family. How they sat around the table. How my uncles would get Chinese food. What the family dinner table was like. How my sister would serve and how the uncles would discuss world events. All I did was take another profession of Italian-Americans, which was what my family was like. In acting they call it substitution.

CA: But it was so vivid. There are so many themes and sets that seem so authentic.
Coppola: Well, of course, that's just the Italian-American heritage. There are many kinds of Italians. Today, they're politicians: Governor Mario Cuomo. You have so many Italian-Americans in every walk of life. We've been in this country in tandem with the Jewish Americans, because they came at the same time and both groups ended up primarily in New York. It's as though you were making a movie about a lot of great Jewish traditions, but you didn't know any Jewish traditions.

You use what you know and the way they talked, what the uncle was like. How the feuds started with the brother-in-law or if someone had to come from another town. All I did was apply what I knew intimately, which was my own family. All that detail, and I just said, "Oh, the gangsters were probably just like that." There were little stories I grew up with. I had one uncle who married a lady, and they said her father-in-law was sort of connected in some way. So, when the uncle's daughter's got married and there was trouble, he would threaten that he knew some people that would break his leg. Those are just stories.

CA: Did you ever have any contact with the real Mafia while you were making the movie, or afterwards?
Coppola: Mario Puzo gave me some advice when he started. He said, "Francis, when you work on this, the real Mafia guys are gonna come, and they're gonna wanna know you, and they're gonna be very nice," he says. "Don't let them in. Don't let them think that they can call you up. Don't let them think that they have your phone number. They will respect that and they will never bother you and they will never try to reach you. But, if you accept their friendship and you take the gift of cannoli and if you go out and have dinner with them, then they have access."

And I remember that, when I was a kid, they're like vampires. The vampire can't come into your house unless you invite them over the door. But, once you invite them over the door, then you're theirs. So, over the course of the film, I never wanted to know them. I never started hanging out with the big one, like Jimmy Caan.

CA: Who was that?
Coppola: Carmine Persico, I believe. That whole Mafia thing he does where he goes "badda-bing"? That was done by Jimmy Caan. In other words, in the scene—it wasn't written that way—he went right up to the guy and said "badda-bing." Jimmy should have royalty on that "badda-bing," whether or not he picked it up from the guys he was hanging out with. He did go out and would hang with them.

CA: Did you ever say to him, "What did you learn that we should use?"
Coppola: No. The way I work with actors, they are always encouraged to bring everything to it. They're free. I don't say, "OK, do the scene, and do just what's written." I say, "OK, let's do it. And they do it and they know that they're expected to take liberties. I had made another film with Jimmy when I was younger, so I was very comfortable with him. Those actors, also, are very funny. They're always joking and playing tricks on each other and goofing off, which is all day long. And that was the joy of the job. It was them.

CA: What about the scene with the horse's head? That's a classic! Is that something you made up?
Coppola: Hold…hold…hold on. Let's not discount who created The Godfather. Mario Puzo created The Godfather. Now, he didn't know a lot about Mafia people either, but he did a lot of research. He did the same thing. He was broke and he needed some money and he decided that, if he wrote this book set around the Mafia, maybe he could make some money. And, so, he wrote it.

He told me that the real person he based The Godfather on, that character with the wisdom—you know, those lines like, "Make him an offer he can't refuse," or any of those things—he said he based that kind of wisdom on his mother. He said it was his mother who said those things and had that type of personality. Mario did a lot of research. But he never had known any people in the Mafia and then he wrote a novel. He was a very imaginative man and he created the horse's head. I just did it from the book.

I'll tell you the difference between the horse-head scene in the book and the horse-head scene in the movie. You might find it interesting. In the book, the movie producer wakes up, and he looks and he sees on the post of the bed the horse's head bleeding there, and he screams. When I directed it, though—and I may have made the note there—I changed it.

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