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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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To me, it was just a horrible experience. I hated it. I still hate the memory of it. I didn't even know the picture was any good until a friend of mine that I called to give me some advice looked at it and said, "This is terrific." That was Bob Towne, the writer. But at the time, I had nothing positive happening.
CA: Did any of the Paramount executives ever say anything to you in the years following the movie's success?
Coppola: They desperately tried to go back and show how really it was to their credit. Evans claimed he had saved the picture because he asked me to put back the half hour that he had told me to take out.
CA: What about Pacino, De Niro, Brando?
Coppola: Yeah, we remained close and we worked together. They went on to become movie stars. But they had never been the doubters. They were just these kids I brought in and they were hoping I wasn't gonna get fired. The group was tight and remained tight. Of course, when I made the second film, which I didn't wanna make, the rules were different. Paramount had nothing to do with it. They didn't even see the script or anything.
CA: Tell me how the rules differed between Godfather I and Godfather II.
Coppola: Godfather I was done. I vowed I wanted nothing more to do with it. I didn't ever want to see anything about the Mafia or anything about the film. Charlie Bluhdorn says, "Francis, you have the formula of Coca-Cola. You should make another Godfather." I said, "Charlie, I don't even want to hear about that. I hate The Godfather. I don't want to know anything about…." He said, "But that's Coca-Cola." So, then he asked me to make a second film and I said, "Lookit, the movie doesn't need a second film. It ends at the end. It's not like Andy Hardy or something. You could make five of them. It's a drama, and it's done." "You gotta make another Godfather," and I said, "I absolutely will not make another one."
CA: What had the movie grossed up to this point?
Coppola: I have no idea, but it was the biggest grossing picture in history at that time. It changed the way movies were shown. In the old days, a movie would come out in one theater and play. In Godfather, they brought it out in six, seven theaters and that was like, Wow! It was huge. It was the big success, bigger than Gone with the Wind—at the time. So, then they started again, but I wanted nothing to do with Evans. He had made me miserable. I was so glad that I could just be free and I wanted to make my movie The Conversation, which I was gonna make before anything else.
When The Godfather came up for the Oscars, it won Best Picture, but didn't win Best Director. I was Best Director for the Directors Guild of America, but when they announced Best Director at the Oscars, Bob Fosse won it for Cabaret, so I was a little depressed, because every young guy wants to win an Oscar. Charlie said, "Francis, you won The Bank of America award." All of a sudden, my little six percent was gonna be worth $6, $7, $8 million. I had never had two dimes to rub together in my life. Suddenly—how else can you say it—I was rich just from having that little piece.
Charlie started working on me to make another Godfather picture and I absolutely refused. He kept coming and coming. Finally I said, "I will find a young director that I think is really talented, that is every bit as good as me, and we'll have him do it, and I'll help. I'll be like a producer. But, I won't do it. I don't want to be involved with Paramount." I hated those guys. He said, "OK."
You know, a lot of business guys realize like I did that even with the terms that you agree to initially, it will all change. Four months went by and I was thinking about it, so I finally go back and I said, "I'm ready. We got an idea and I would like to suggest a director."
CA: Who is doing the screenplay for this? Who's going to write it?
Coppola: I was going to help. Me and Mario were going to help. There was no screenplay yet. There was only "What was it gonna be?" You know, the guy's dead. I go back and Evans was there and they go, "Who do you want to direct it?" I said, "Well, the guy I think who'd really do a great job is a guy named Marty Scorsese." And Evans said, "Absolutely not. He will never direct The Godfather. That is the worst idea I ever heard." I said, "Well, I can't deal with this," and so, I leave. Then, Bluhdorn says to me, "Look, you gotta do it. You're the only one who can do it. What do you want?'
And I said, "OK, first of all, I want to make my movie The Conversation, that I'm gonna do now." By then, I had gotten Gene Hackman to do it. "Second of all, I will do The Godfather—the second Godfather—but I have some conditions. One, is I want a million dollars." Some stupid amount of money that I figured they'd say, Forget about it. I didn't want to do it. I didn't know how to do it. "And, number three, Bob Evans can have nothing to do with it. He cannot…he cannot see the budget. I do it alone. I will do the whole thing, but no executives can be around. Nobody can be on the set. He cannot even see the script or see the movie until it's done. And the fourth thing I want is, I don't want to call it The Return of Michael Corleone, the way they always did it. I want to call it The Godfather: Part II.
They said, "Well, the million dollars is no problem. We can work it out with Evans, but we can't agree to calling it The Godfather: Part II." I said, "Why not?" He said, "Well, because everyone's gonna think that it's the second half of the movie they already saw. They're gonna think, "Godfather: Part II, oh, we gotta go in and go see the second half." I said, "Well, that's all right. We'll use the scene."
I didn't mention this earlier, by the way, that they had all these terrible ads for the movie, and I was the one who said, "No. I just want to use the same logo from the book, with the hands and the string." Then they had to go buy that. And, I said, "Well, we'll make it in red this time, so they'll know it's our movie." So, the big sticking point was calling it The Godfather: Part II in the ad. I was the first one ever to call a movie Part II.
CA: Did they give you a bigger percentage of the second film?
Coppola: I think I got a piece of the gross, as opposed to the net. And they told me they would let me do anything I wanted. I didn't have to show them the script. I didn't have to have any permission, and it was going to be called The Godfather: Part II. And then, I sat down and I wrote a script and I brought the script to Mario and then Mario helped me and we worked together and then we put together that movie.
CA: Was that a bigger grosser than Godfather I?
Coppola: No, it grossed less money. But it won all the Oscars and I won Best Director. It was very respected. It was the first sequel that was considered as good or better than the first movie.
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.
CA: It's under the bed cover.
Coppola: I had him wake up and draw the sheet and see the blood and think he's been wounded. And he doesn't know: Is it his body? Has he been stabbed? And he opens the sheets and there is the horse in bed with him. So, that's the difference between the way the director did it and the way the author did it.
CA: How could the fact that certain things in the film that Mario or you had come up with became accepted years later as the way things really are, like the thing of sleeping with the fishes?
Coppola: But he had heard that. He made up the idea; as a matter of fact, you see it all the time in movies, and they put a fish in a newspaper. He had made things up. I don't know what's real and what isn't real.
CA: Stop for a second. You just said something that was profound: "I don't know what's real and what isn't real." The whole thing I'm trying to get at is that millions and millions of people, myself included, believe that the way they look, the way they talk, the way they behave—everything—was The Godfather. It was the most richly accurate, detailed examination of the Mafia that anyone had ever seen or heard.
Coppola: Well, I have to disillusion you. Knowing how the movie was made and knowing what I knew, I have to tell you that it is not the truth. We staged it. We just said, "OK, you sit here and you sit here." We used common sense and, as I said, I used things I remembered from my family. But I didn't know. I'd never been around a Mafia family. I have no idea. I just assume they're like an Italian family.
The story I wanted to tell you is that Mario used to like to gamble. So, he had a lot of cronies that would hang around him. Not so much from the Mafia, but from the gambling world. And, once we were somewhere and he had some character with him and the guy looked at me and he says, "Hey, you just remember: you didn't make him; he made you." And it was true.
CA: You made this movie without any understanding or expectation that this was something that the American moviegoer would embrace. That was 30 years ago and there seems to be an endless series of crime-related movies in the theaters, as well as on television. Now we're in the next century, the new millennium, and we have this series "The Sopranos" on HBO, and people keep describing it as the next-generation Godfather. Why do you think this topic of the Mafia is so magnetic, a subject that fascinates millions and millions of Americans?
Coppola: I can only guess and speculate. First of all, America has always had an interest in outlaws, from the days that we liked to see cowboy movies or learn about Jesse James, or when we were kids and played pirates. I think we live our lives in very repetitive, normal ways. We go to work, we're all pretty much law-abiding. There's always a romantic fascination with the idea of people who don't take those limitations and kind of do what they want.
In American culture, that was exemplified by the wild West. You had these fabulous legendary heroes that came out of maybe real, authentic people in the West. But they were romanticized. People like Jesse James or Wes Harden or Doc Holliday. They enter the mythology of the country. That was picked up by the gangster movies, because the gangster was in a funny way the urban version of the cowboy that we know.
I think people are fascinated by outlaws, because, for the most part, they are not outlaws. They can only imagine. Second, I thought that when I read The Godfather, that there was something really attractive about the idea that if you have had injustice, if your neighbor has done something terrible or someone has been unfair to you, and you know that you can't really go to the police and the legal system isn't going to honor your complaint, that there's something really attractive about the fact that you could go to someone like a godfather and say, "Lookit, you know, they've done this to me. I was innocent, they did this to me." And you would get justice.
I found that first scene in the beginning of the movie, when the little undertaker tells the story about the daughter who was raped, that you could go to someone. I think that was a very powerful idea that Mario came to understand. All of us would like that, as we're double-crossed or someone takes advantage of us. I think there is a fascination with the romantic outlaw.
That's the idea that you can get real justice from someone without going through the corruption of the court system. I think that was partly what had to do with the appeal of Mario's book, because we must remember that Mario's book was a masterful, masterful best-seller. And that the movie picked up the energy. Everyone knew The Godfather was kind of like Gone with the Wind. When I was hired, it wasn't. But, by the time a year or so had gone by, The Godfather was a phenomenon.
We made a famous movie years ago called American Graffiti and, like a year and a half later, there was a television series called "Happy Days" with Ron Howard. Television always looks to what's going on in the movies and tries to pick up and leverage that.
CA: "The Sopranos," of course, is happening 30 years later.
Coppola: There were three Godfather movies. But all these people loved to watch The Godfather and quote the lines. It became a kind of cultural phenomenon. There are three reasons that happened. One, because it had that extraordinary cast. It was a case of all the planets lining up correctly. You had a good cast, you had a wonderful book, you had a great photographer, you had a terrific art director, you had great music—you had all those things, and the public was ready for it. It's like chemistry. If you get the formula right, it will take off. It was furthered by Martin Scorsese. He made some great movies, notably Goodfellas, which looked at a more realistic view of the Mafia. My Godfather was more classical and not as gritty and as realistic as Goodfellas.
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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