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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 6)

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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