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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.

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The studio even lied to me what my fee was. When they offered me my deal, they offered me two deals: One was $125,000 and 10 percent of the profits, or $175,000 and 6 percent of the profits. So, I had no money. I mean, I had kids. So, I had to take the $175,000. So, I said, "OK, I'll do it for $175,000 and 7 percent of the picture, because seven is my lucky number. I was born April 7, I have to have 7 percent." And they said to me, Yablans said, "Sure, OK, 7 percent," but they never gave it to me. They gave me 6 percent. So I had 6 percent of the picture and $175,000.
CA: How long did it take from the day you agreed to do the movie until it was completed and in the can?
Coppola: Close to two years.
CA: So, $175,000 for two years.
Coppola: Yeah. Plus 6 percent. I wanted the 10 percent. I always would take less money up front, but I couldn't afford to. I didn't even know I was in debt. At any rate, that was the deal.
The next thing was, of course, all these other parts: Al Pacino, Bobby Duvall, Jimmy Caan. I kept fighting for my cast. I finally realized why they didn't want Pacino, why they wanted Ryan O'Neal. Bob Evans wanted a Michael who looked like him. Someone who was handsome and tall. And I wanted a Michael who was more like me, who was more ethnic. At any rate, we went back and forth, and it got to be really hot and heavy. It reached the point where they were really gonna get rid of me.
CA: It sounds like a hopeless situation for you at this time.
Coppola: At one point, I started to say, "Well, I'm gonna get fired anyway." For instance, my sister wanted to play the sister in The Godfather and I thought she was too pretty for the role. I mean, this is the Mafia. She only gets married because she's the guy's daughter. Anybody would want to marry you if you're the big boss's daughter. But Evans liked Talia [Shire]. Evans saw something in Tallie. So, when I heard that Evans liked Tallie, I said, "Let Tallie have the part, because I'm gonna get fired anyway."
Then, there was something where they all said, "What if Jimmy Caan plays Michael?" Pacino had done tests, but whatever I did they hated. Pacino takes another job. He signs for a picture called The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. So, I lose Pacino. I go to London, because Brando is working on a picture over in London and I had to talk to him about the part. I had a nice little meeting with Brando. When I came back, I call my secretary from the airport, and I just get a message: "Don't quit. Let them fire you." So, I immediately knew what that meant. If I quit, I wouldn't get the $175,000, but if they fired me, I would get it.
It was my lawyers. They were afraid that I was gonna get so angry about them insisting that Jimmy Caan plays Michael, that it was better that I was going to go to the meeting where they were gonna fire me. I started thinking, so I'll get the $175,000 and I'll be done with this mess and I'll just go and make my own personal film. And I was totally sure that I was gonna get fired. But, I go to the meeting, and they said, "Everything's changed."
They had seen a little piece of a new movie that Pacino had done, but it hadn't come out yet. It was called The Panic in Needle Park, and they had gotten ahold of some of the scenes—and Pacino was very good in that picture—and they could see that he had something. They said, "Everything's changed. Pacino can play Michael if you'll have Jimmy Caan move over and play Sonny." I said, "Boy, I like Jimmy Caan, but Pacino's taken another job. How you gonna get him?" They had gone with their gangster connections and had a guy call up to get Pacino out of the part he had taken.
A little side story that's quite amusing is there was another actor I liked quite a bit in the screen test. His name was Bobby De Niro. But no one had ever heard of him. I thought he was incredible. I had given Bobby De Niro a part in The Godfather, of the character Paulie Gatto. So, De Niro calls me up and De Niro's not a big shot. He says, "I'm very worried, Francis." I said, "What is it?" He says, "Pacino was out of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight and there's a chance I'm gonna get the starring part, but I don't wanna give up my part in The Godfather even though it's a smaller part, and then not get that." I said to him, "Look, don't worry. I will keep the part for you. You go out, if you get the part, great, I'll cast someone else. If you don't get it, I'll hold it for you." So, we did that.
They did get Pacino out of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight and De Niro did get the role in that movie. Then, we're all set to go with the same cast that we had done in San Francisco for the $500 eight months before. They got exactly that cast and they didn't have to spend the $300,000 of screen tests.
We all go to New York ready to make The Godfather. I was so broke, even with $175,000 I couldn't afford anything. They give you what's called "per diem," about $1,000 a week to live on. I decided if I just banked the fee for all my debts, I could live really cheap. I borrowed my brother-in-law's one-bedroom apartment in New York that he had that was being redone. So, I had to live in there while they were painting it. I had two babies and a pregnant wife.
CA: Where was the apartment?
Coppola: It was a little studio apartment on 60th Street that was being painted. I had these two little boys and Eleanor was pregnant. We lived like real paupers. During that period, my father, who had a very tough career, was on the verge of becoming a high school teacher. He had the idea that he could write all these little dances and stuff and lead the band in the weddings. He was there, too. We're all like this impoverished Italian family. And it was just miserable. They'd pick me up every day in a station wagon with five other guys, and I started shooting and, of course, the result is I remember every day what I shot the first week.
CA: Where was the actual shooting done in New York?
Coppola: We shot on different locations. The first shot we did was the scene where Michael and Kay come out of Best's department store. And Bobby Duvall is in front of a toy store where they snatch him. Then we shot the restaurant scene where Michael killed Sollozzo, the third day of the shooting.
CA: Was that downtown?
Coppola: That was in the Bronx. It was in an Italian restaurant in the Bronx. And then the last day, Friday, was in the hospital where they go to kill The Godfather. They look at the footage, they hate it: it's too dark, the camera never moves.
CA: "They." You mean the Paramount executives?
Coppola: Bob Evans. They send this horrible guy to be my minder. This real mean guy.
CA: What's a minder?
Coppola: A minder like in Iraq. Everything I did he was there, countermanding my orders. They were convinced that this was the worst picture ever made, that I'm the worst director ever. They hated it. And it's interesting, because I've heard them on the record saying, "Well, yes, at first it didn't look that good."
But the truth of the matter, it's probably the best scene in the picture, which was Michael and Sollozzo in the restaurant. That was all shot that first week. And they didn't like it. I was being told, "Listen, they're gonna go to Kazan now, because Kazan knows Brando and they're gonna offer him a lot of money and you're gonna be out." I was always being told, "You're out."
CA: Was this common in those days? Were directors replaced all the time, or was this a very unusual situation?
Coppola: Well, directors could be replaced, especially when they're unemployed directors, as I was before the film started, and especially since I was such a kid.
CA: How old were you?
Coppola: I was 30. The last day on that first week, Friday, Pacino twists his ankle and they had to take him to the hospital and I didn't finish the scene. Now they're saying, "He's falling behind schedule." I said, "What does that have to do with whether they take the actor away with a twisted ankle?" They really were pushing to get rid of me.
I would go home on the weekend and I had to rewrite scenes and I was in a cold sweat. I couldn't sleep at night. I'm in this horrible little apartment, with all the painting, my little boys. The second week was coming up and there were a few days when Brando was gonna have his first day on set and we're shooting downtown. They're all very anxious to see the Brando stuff.
CA: So, by that point, you're saying they were high on the idea of Brando in the film?
Coppola: Well, they kept him. They're not high on him, because I had done that trick of going straight to Bluhdorn. The first Brando stuff comes in and they hate it. They hate it. They said, "Oh, he mumbles. You can't understand him. It's too dark." Even Bluhdorn hates it. It was the scene when they're in the olive oil factory and Sollozzo comes in and they all are in a room. They just hated Brando. Now they're really serious about getting rid of me. We get through the second week and now the third week comes up and we're shooting Brando with the oranges and stuff.
We're all right outside the scene. I said to them, "Listen, it was Brando's first day. The actor's first day. First of all, I didn't think it was so bad, but Brando was a little nervous and stuff." I say, "Let me go again," I said to them, because I was right. It was right there in Chinatown and Little Italy. I was out in the street by the vegetables, and where we were shooting we'd also shot the scene they didn't like. "I'll reshoot it in a day." They said, "No." I said that's odd.
Gray Frederickson says, "Listen, this weekend they're gonna fire you." I won't get into the politics, but it was a lot of politics. My editor had sold them a bill of goods that the film wouldn't cut together and that he had directed a picture and that maybe he would be a better director. And he has a friend who was his producer, and he asked them to give this guy an assistant director's job.
Now I had a group in my own movie that was conspiring to get rid of me. My own friends! They figured I was lost. But I remember this guy, a friend that I looked up to, had a meeting with me, and he said, "Francis, face it. The acting is terrible. It's not gonna cut together. I don't know what to do. I can't put the footage together."
But I've been told that film studios never fire a director on a weekday, because if a director gets fired on a weekday, then the studio loses two days in the transition. They'll always wait till the weekend. They'll fire him after Friday, then the new director comes in and he'll be ready for Monday. So I took a real chance. I went in—and I knew who all the conspirators were; there were about 16 of them—I fired them all on Wednesday.
They were like, "What do you mean we're fired?" I said, "I'm the director. Fired. You're out." And I took my crew and I went and I reshot the Brando scene. Personally, I didn't really have to. It would be interesting today to look for the two versions, but I'm not even sure which one is in the movie.
Evans had a fit. "What are you doin'? You fired the so-and-so." I startled them, so that by the time the weekend had come, I had reshot the scene. I said, "Well, let's wait and see how it looks." So, they look at it and they say, "Well, it's much better and we don't need all the bad publicity." But I had already fired everyone anyway, and there was nothing they could do. Then I get a call from Charlie Bluhdorn, and he says, "I saw the movie scenes, and it's terrific." He said, "I want you to come to dinner with me tonight." I brought my father. And Charlie Bluhdorn takes me to the Palm Restaurant and he buys steaks and lobsters. I got his arm around me. "Ah, you're great," he says to me.
And from that moment on, he figures we're stuck with this loser. Let's at least build him up a little. They knew what they had been doing to me. They had been punishing me. We had this big dinner at the Palm steak house and suddenly, Charlie Bluhdorn is my best friend.
We continued shooting. Their guy, the minder, was still on me and we went a little over budget and they were very tough on me. For example, we're shooting the wedding scene in Staten Island. There was a scene in the script in which The Godfather is sitting in his tomatoes with his grandchild where he dies.
CA: That's a classic scene.
Coppola: Well, funny story. They cut it out. They said, "You can't shoot that scene." I said, "Look, we'll do it right where the wedding is so no one will know and I can do it in fifteen minutes." "You don't need to show him die, you just cut to the funeral and we'll know he died." I said, "But, this could be nice with the little kid. I wanna shoot it." They said, "Well, we gotta break for lunch in a half an hour; if you can get it done in a half an hour, then get it."
We had the tomatoes and they made a big stink about it because the art director had flown the tomatoes in from Chicago at a cost of $3,000 or so much a tomato. We made the tomato patch and the little kid comes on with Brando, and the little kid is scared. He doesn't want to do anything. I said, "All right, we'll just do a shot. He's a little kid, he's playing and then he goes to tThe Godfather, but he's afraid of The Godfather." We do two takes. We have two cameras set up, which is to say we shoot it all at once. Brando says to me, "I got an idea." So, he takes an orange and he said, "We'll just shoot because we have twelve minutes."
In the movies, if you don't break at the right time for lunch, all the crew gets a fine. So, if you miss the break, it could cost like $10,000. They were there ready with the stopwatch. They would have cut me off. Brando takes an orange in the scene and he cuts it and puts it in his mouth and he smiles at them and the little kid goes, "Ahhhh [Coppola makes a whining sound]." You know…and he goes like that, and they say, "Meal break." So, it was that close that the scene wasn't gonna get shot. But we had it. Later on, we went and we did the part where he keeled over, and I was able to piece it in. Making the movie was like that.
I hated it. I hated it, I wanted to be done with it. It was the most miserable time of my life.
CA: In retrospect, you must be greatly satisfied, like a great chef who takes different food items and blends them together into great food, or a winemaker who makes great wine. You took unknown actors, a washed-out has-been, and on top of all the battles you had to fight, created something special. How does that make you feel?
Coppola: The key thing was that book I showed you. In that preparation with all those notes, I had outlined what the movie was going to be. And I had a cast of my friends who remained a really tight little group that supported me. Even though I had all this pressure from without, and nobody liked what we were doing, I had these wonderful actors who were on my side. And, I had this concept from Mario Puzo's wonderful book. That's what guided us, too.
But I had no idea, until the movie was long finished, what had happened. The struggles went on right through the editing. They pulled the music out and said how they hated the music, or how they told me to take a half an hour out or they were gonna fire me, and that when I took the half hour out, they said, "You ruined the picture." Or they said, "We ordered a movie and you brought us a trailer," so they put the half hour back in and then they said, "Look how brilliant we are, we put that in."
Gregory Mottola March 27, 2015 11:43am ET
"If I had 10 divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly."
—Apocalypse Now

I get the feeling Coppola felt the same way. Great interview.

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