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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 1)

CA: The movie was released in 1972, right?
Coppola: Yes. The original script was set all in contemporary time. It had hippies in it. That's because a contemporary movie is much cheaper to make than a period movie. For a contemporary movie, you go out in the street. The clothes are the same, and the hippies are right there.

Portrait of francis ford coppola smoking a cigar.
I went to them and said, "I don't want to make it as a contemporary movie. I think it's very important that this movie is also about America. And I think it's very important, like the book, that it should be set in the '40s." "Absolutely not," they say. "Absolutely not. If we set it in the '40s, we're gonna have to have costumes, we're gonna have to have sets. Cars. We gotta get old cars. We gotta make the budget, so absolutely not." I said, "Well, to me, the story won't work with hippies in it. It's a classic story," I kept saying.

I had decided I wanted to focus on the story of the father and the brothers. Forget all this other stuff, I was saying, and do it like a classic story. Like a Shakespeare story. Tell the story about the man, and he has got to find a successor. He's got one son who's tough and a Mafia guy. He's got one son who's sort of a little bit light-headed. He's got a third son, his youngest son, whom he probably loves the most, who is a war hero and he wants to go into politics and not be dirty. And I said that's what the movie's about.

Then I hit them with the really tough one; I had to make the movie in New York. "Absolutely not. You're crazy, you can't make the movie in New York," they said, "And you want to make it 'period,' you're not going to make it 'period,' you're going to make it in the '70s as cheap and you're not gonna make it in New York." I said, "Well, where am I gonna make it?" The studio guys say, "Well, you're gonna make it in L.A. or you're gonna make it in Kansas City or you're gonna make it in San Francisco. It's not gonna be in New York. New York is the most expensive place in the world to shoot a movie. You cannot make it in New York."

I'm just a kid. I'm 29 years old. I have no money. Meanwhile, as this is going on, Marvin, the book is becoming a best-seller. They're looking at this book, which they thought would make a cheap movie. The book has been selling and selling and selling and they're starting to say, "Hey, get rid of this kid. This is a big best-seller. He's not even very good; he's not cooperating and he's got terrible ideas. He wants to make a "period" movie. He wants to make it in New York."

I say, "OK, let me consider making it in Kansas City." [Along with] Al Ruddy and Frederickson, these two guys that I had set up as producers, we go look at Kansas City. We go to the Italian neighborhood in Kansas City. We go look around in San Francisco. And I said, "I don't care. This movie has to be made in New York. It's a New York story. It's the five families of New York, for God's sake. What do we do? Make it in Kansas City? And it has to be 'period.' "

Now I realize that they're starting to go out to more important directors to see if maybe they can get rid of me, who's making trouble. The budget is not going to be under $2 million if he makes it in New York. I heard rumors that they had offered it to Costa-Gavras and then Elia Kazan. They both turned it down. People were turning it down because that movie The Brotherhood had been a flop and no one saw any potential.

I was hooked now on what I had read during my research. When I read about Vito Genovese, I began to see how Mario had taken the real guys and combined them. Vito Corleone was really a combination of Vito Genovese and Joe Profaci. I began to see that, in his own way, in his fictional way, he was using the real stories of famous Mafia murders and these various gangland wars that were going on.

Then trouble really started to happen. I'm trying to figure out ways to make it in New York and keep it on the cheap. Then, we start talking about casting. I need to place this in perspective, because the rumblings didn't start right away. They were still pissed off about the fact that it was "period" and that meant it couldn't be made for under $2 million.

I started interviewing people. There was a photographer I had heard of that had never done a lot of motion pictures but that I thought was very talented. I started interviewing art directors and costume designers. I began to choose the people that I wanted to meet and I deliberately chose people who were based in New York. I figured that they'd say, "Oh, my God," you know, "we got the guy who lives in New York. If he had to make a trip to Kansas City, we're gonna have to pay his travel and expenses."

I was already pushing the issues. Then, we start talking about casting. Their first idea for casting was, "What about [Robert] Redford for Michael Corleone?" I said, "Well, Redford's a very bright guy and wonderful, I think, but, he doesn't look Italian." They said, "Well, Italian…there's a lot of Italian blonds. Sicilians are blond and have red hair and blue eyes." I says, "Yeah, but don't you think that Michael, the son that is not gonna go into the family business, ought to look Italian so it's like he can't escape his destiny? You know, if he's blond, he'll become Robert Redford, he will be a Wasp banker."

Marvin shanken and francis ford coppola walking
Then they suggested Ryan O'Neal, because he had just had a big hit called Love Story. They really thought Ryan O'Neal was a good compromise because he was younger and had become a big star. Ryan O'Neal, and Ernest Borgnine as the father. So, they're starting to cast it. As I said, one of the reasons I got the job is because they thought they could push me around.

I said, "I don't know yet who can play The Godfather, but there's a young actor that I know. He has never been in a movie, but every time I read the scenes with Michael Corleone in the book, like him walking in Sicily with the two bodyguards and the girl, I kept seeing his face. And when I read it, that's the only one whose face I saw." Evans said, "What's his name?" I said, "Al Pacino." He said, "Well, who is he?" I said, "Well, he's a theater actor, but he's never been in a [film]." So, they did some research and Evans said to me, "A runt will not play Michael." I said, "What d'ya mean, 'a runt'?" He said, "He's a little short guy." I said, "Well, yeah, but he's a good actor, he looks Italian and he has power and I think he should play that." "Absolutely not," was the reply. "Michael Corleone will not be played by Al Pacino. You will not have Al Pacino in this movie and you will not shoot it in New York and you will not make it 'period.' "

I was very disappointed because I was sure that this young actor was really great; and I couldn't convince them. I couldn't get any support. So then they said, "Well, what else, who else do you have?" I said, "Well, we could just go look at all the young best actors and actresses. Let me…give me a little time and I'll do it."

I had worked with a guy named Bobby Duvall on two or three pictures. I worked with a wonderful casting person named Fred Roos. So, we worked together and we started to figure out, what if Pacino plays this part? I got all of the other actors to come up to San Francisco. They were all sort of old friends and all unknowns. My wife cut their hair and got some clothes and we shot on 16mm film a whole bunch of tests of scenes.

You can see these, they're really funny—of Pacino playing the guy. Jimmy Caan. Diane Keaton was a kind of quirky actress. But I thought the part of Kay in the book was so strange that we needed a real Wasp, but also an actress with the personality and someone a little quirky who could play Kay.

They all come up to San Francisco. We're all living in my house. My wife, Eleanor, is putting their clothes on. And we're shooting all these tests. We sent them down to Los Angeles. That's when the Paramount guys really started thinking about firing me because I have spent maybe $500 for meals and other stuff. But I gave them all these screen tests and they said, "Listen, Francis, we're taking over. You have to really cast this movie. Don't give us this Al Pacino and all these people like Bobby Duvall, we don't want them."

They made me go into a very intensive screen test mode. We had to test every young actor for every part and shoot it on film, and so we tested everybody. We tested Martin Sheen as Michael. Dean Stockwell as Michael. Ryan O'Neal as Michael. There were hundreds of tests, and we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on them. But then, we went back to my $500 worth of tests, and they finally look at these tests and they are totally dismayed.

Bluhdorn, in that German or Yiddish accent he had, says, "I look at all these actors and they're all terrible. Let me ask you: Is it logical that every actor we test is terrible? No. The director is terrible. There are 15 actors and there's one director. If the director's terrible, get rid of the director."

They didn't want my suggestions and they didn't even want me. They're offering the film to another director. I keep saying, "No. I feel that the movie has to be cast this way." Ultimately, they said, "What about The Godfather?" I said, "Well, lookit, there's no old Italian guy." They said, "What about Carlo Ponti?"

Evans had a great idea. "Let's get Carlo Ponti to play The Godfather. He's a real Italian guy. He's not an actor, but he's been around show biz." I said, "But gee, Carlo Ponti's a real Italian. He speaks English with an Italian accent. New York Mafia guys are not Italian. They're New Yorkers. They speak like New York people." I knew all my relatives—my Uncle Mikey, my Uncle Danny, probably "Trigger" Mike Coppola—they didn't speak like this: "I'mah gonna tell you something." They spoke like they speak in "The Sopranos."

I said, "I don't want a real Italian for the part of The Godfather." I wanted either an Italian-American or an actor who's so great that he can portray an Italian-American. So, they said, "Who do you suggest?" I said, "Lookit, I don't know, but who are the two greatest actors in the world? Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando." Well, Laurence Olivier is English. He looked just like Vito Genovese. His face is great. I said, "I could see Olivier playing the guy, and putting it on." [And] Brando is my hero of heroes. I'd do anything to just meet him. But, he's 47, he's a young, good-looking guy." So, we first inquired about Olivier and they said, "Olivier is not taking any jobs. He's very sick. He's gonna die soon and he's not interested." So, I said, "Why don't we reach out for Brando?"

francis ford coppola and wife Eleanor.
Coppola with his wife, Eleanor, at Niebaum-Coppola winery, which was purchased with profits from The Godfather.
I go to another meeting and the Paramount guys are saying, "Forget these other actors, because you're not going to have your actors. We like Ryan O'Neal. But, who do you have in mind for the part of Vito Corleone?" I said, "Well, I think the best bet would be Marlon Brando." "What! Are you crazy? Marlon Brando was just in a movie called Burn. If he wasn't in the movie, it would have done better. If you hire Marlon Brando, not only are you not getting any value, but you're gonna keep wanting him to stay away from the set."

One of the Paramount Pictures execs in those days was a guy named Frank Yablans. He was already working on Charlie to take over and be the big shot. He was on the East Coast and he had Charlie all ready to go with his plan; he was the head of distribution. He said "Charlie, this Brando idea is ridiculous. First of all, he's not Italian and he doesn't look Italian. Second of all, if he comes on the production, you're gonna end up just having cost overruns because he's such a pain in the neck. You get no value at all, because people will stay away. From the last picture, they stayed away from him. He's washed up, he's finished."

They called me into a meeting. I'm sitting at a table like this with all the big shots. The president of the company then was a guy named Stanley Jaffe. So, Stanley Jaffe looks at me. You know how they are sometimes. They gang up. This was the exact line: he says, "As the president of Paramount Pictures, I want to inform you that Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture and I instruct you not to pursue the idea anymore." So, I'm sitting like this. I fall on the floor like this [he falls on the floor] and I say, "I give up."

I did it as a gag. I wanted to demonstrate. I knew the floor was carpeted, so it wouldn't hurt. I said, "I give up. You hired me; I'm supposed to be the director. Every idea I have you don't want me to talk about. Now you're instructing me that I can't even pursue the idea. At least let me pursue it." They said, "All right."

They went and talked and decided. "We'll give you three rules, if you want to pursue Brando: One, he has to do the film for nothing; two, he has to put up a bond, a cash bond, that if he causes any more overages, the bond will pay it; and three, he has to do a screen test. He gets nothing, he's gotta put up a bond and do the screen test." I said, "Yes. I agree." I figure, what can I lose? They just told me under no circumstances would he be in the picture. Now, they're telling me these things. So, I said, "I accept."

I was thinking, How am I gonna handle this, and I knew the key thing was the screen test. I call up Brando. I say, "Mr. Brando. Don't you think it would be a good idea if we fooled around a little bit, and do a little improvisation for this role, and see what it would be like." I didn't say it was a screen test. I said it was like a little experiment with a video camera. He said, "OK." We make a date that I should go to Brando's house to meet him and do whatever we discussed.

I had done some reading about Brando. I told my crew, "You know, Brando is very much a person who doesn't like loud noises. He doesn't like all that noise and shouting and stuff. And that's why he wears earplugs a lot when he goes on the set. Let's just dress in black and let's go to his house, but no one say a word. No noise. No nothing. And we'll just communicate with hand signals. And I'll lead him through some things and you get it on film." And I had a little video camera that in those days was just starting to come out. We go to Los Angeles. We knock on the door at seven in the morning and some little old lady lets us in.

Meanwhile, I had brought a lot of stuff with me. I brought Italian cigars; I brought some provolone cheese and salami; a little bottle of anisette. All the props that I knew Italian guys had, and I put them around his living room. We all got nervous because we hear he's waking up. He wakes up. He comes out of the room. He's got long, flowing blond hair and a ponytail, very handsome. He's obviously a young man. He's in a Japanese robe. And I said, "Well, good morning, Mr. Brando." He sees what I put around, little cheeses and stuff and he sits down and he starts going, "Mmm, mmm [mumbling in the manner of Brando]." He takes the cigar and "Mmm, mmm [more mumbling]," just like that. He takes the cheese: "Mmm."

Then he goes and he takes the blond ponytail and he rolls it up and he takes some shoe polish and—this exists on film—he paints it black. I'm shooting it. He goes with his collar of his shirt and he goes, 'Those guys, they always have the collar, it's always wrinkled." And he goes like that, and he gets it wrinkled.

Now he's starting to turn into the character and puts the jacket on. He takes the little cigar and starts to light it. Then the phone rings in his house and he goes to the phone and he's mumbling into it, and I'm wondering, Who the hell was that on the phone? Then, it was over. "Thank you very much," and we were done and we leave. We look at it and it's a miracle, how he goes from this 47-year-old surfer guy into the beginnings of this character.

I got the tape. It was great. What do I do? I go to New York on my own and I go straight to Gulf & Western and straight to Charlie Bluhdorn's office, because I figure these guys are all afraid of Charlie Bluhdorn. As long as Charlie Bluhdorn is the one who's saying "no Brando," it's never gonna happen.

On a table in a conference room next to his office I set up the video recorder. I get it up to the place where Brando comes out of the room with the blond hair. I knock on the door and I go in and I say, "Mr. Bluhdorn, could I just show you something?" "Hi, Francis, whatta ya got there?" "Just come here and let me show you something." So he comes out and I flick on the tape recorder and he sees Brando on the screen coming out, so he knows I'm showing him Brando. Here's Brando coming out with the blond hair. He says, "No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not." And, as the tape is going, Brando's putting the hair up and turning…and Bluhdorn looks and he says, "That's incredible."

The word goes back to Los Angeles that Charlie thinks the screen test of Brando is incredible. I jumped over five guys that way and then the next step was OK'd. By the time they then thought it was incredible, the question is, What about the other two parts of the deal? They're not going to pay him any money, but they're gonna give him actor's scale, and then the issue of him putting up a bond all evaporated. I got them to agree.


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