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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 2)

CA: Do you remember the books?
Coppola: They're the old classic books, and they talked all about the so-called New York families and the famous turning point in the New York Mafia history—the murder of Mafia chieftain Salvatore Maranzano by Lucky Luciano. Luciano emerged at that time. And then it talked about Vito Genovese and Joseph Profaci and Joe Bonanno. And it was a book all about connections and lives.

I was fascinated by this whole idea that there were these various families that had divided up New York and they ran them like businesses. One would take drugs and one would take prostitution and they were all in the businesses that were made illegal by our laws. But people like to gamble and like to go to prostitutes and like to do drugs and stuff like that.

When I read those books, I turned around my attitude. I said this Mafia stuff is really quite interesting. I'd heard of Lucky Luciano, but he was fascinating. And then my memory came back to me. There was a very famous Mafia guy in New York. His name was "Trigger" Mike Coppola, same spelling.

CA: Obviously, a relative [laughs].
Coppola: No, he wasn't related. But I remember my Uncle Mikey and my father talking and making jokes, "Oh, we're gonna go see 'Trigger' Mike." Well, one of the things about "Trigger" Mike was that in the '30s or '40s he had married a burlesque dancer. I think her name was Doris. She browbeat him constantly and he was always in a fuss over his wife. My father and my Uncle Mikey ridiculed him. I also had an Uncle Dante, who I think knew these kinds of Mafia types. He was a very beloved uncle. So, it all started to come back to me, the family talking about this stuff and particularly this "Trigger" Mike Coppola.

Having finished the books, I had new reference points. So I went and I read The Godfather again. And this is the actual book that I read. [He holds up a book.] When I read it, instead of just reading it, I underlined everything and made notes as to everything that I thought.

The Godfather book cut up by francis ford coppola
To plan the film, Coppola made extensive notes in a copy of Puzo's novel. The director's notebook is shown here open to the infamous "horse head" scene.
In other words, this book is the first book of The Godfather, the movie. I cut it up, with all my notes on it, and I put it in a big loose-leaf binder. I begin to diagram the story and write down the theme for each scene, what the family relationship was all about in that scene. I analyzed the entire book like this.

CA: What percentage of the movie comes from the actual book, and how much did you improvise and make up?
Coppola: When I directed The Godfather, I didn't use the book or the script I had written. I used this [referring to the loose-leaf binder with diagrams]. I broke down each sequence, I made a little synopsis as to what happens, I wrote a paragraph as to what the time period, the 1940s, was like. Then, I put in images and the tone for each scene.

CA: How much time did you spend preparing for the movie?
Coppola: Well, in truth, I read the books and I made the notes and then I took the job. When I accepted the job, I cut all the pages out of the book where I made my notes, and I glued them into this thing myself. I made this myself. And then I went through very carefully and I analyzed each scene. Like this. This was the scene when Michael killed Sollozzo in the Italian restaurant.

CA: Oh, I remember that, the one where Michael gets the gun out of the men's room. That was quite a memorable scene.
Coppola: This book was done months before the filming. There was no movie at this point. But I had the job. And then I used this book to write the script for Paramount, [production head] Robert Evans and those guys, and I turned in the script. I had decided that the book had a jewel in it, which was the story of the father and the three sons.

CA: When did you realize that The Godfather had captured a mass audience?
Coppola: The answer to that question is after the movie. The movie was a black sheep at Paramount. They didn't like it. They didn't like my idea. They didn't like me.


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