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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

As Cigar Aficionado magazine approaches 20 years in print, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable stories we have published over the years. In this step back into our vaults, we go to 2003 when we put legendary filmaker Francis Ford Coppola on our cover.

Francis Ford Coppola is one of America's greatest movie directors. Ever. He has been associated with some of the most compelling films of the late twentieth century, from Apocalypse Now to The Conversation to The Godfather I, II and III. Those films have earned him a place in the pantheon of filmmaking.

It wasn't always that way. He struggled after his graduation from film school, earning his living as a scriptwriter and making small-budget movies that never hit it big. He took an entourage of talented young filmmakers, including George Lucas, and headed to San Francisco to escape the studios' big-business apparatus in Los Angeles, and to give free rein to the group's creativity.

The struggles continued there. But one day in the early 1970s, the offer came to direct a movie based on Mario Puzo's then unknown new book, The Godfather, a sweeping history of a Mafia family in New York. Coppola wasn't initially interested; he wanted to make the film that would eventually be called The Conversation. Lucas was almost apoplectic; the company that Coppola had formed, American Zoetrope, was broke. The filmmakers were broke. And the offer from Paramount Pictures to direct looked like the financial bridge that could keep the group going. In the end, Coppola agreed to take on the project, but that was just the beginning of the difficulties.

In an unusually candid interview with Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Coppola pulls back the curtain on a storied chapter of American moviemaking history. He talks about the negotiations, the fights and the inner power struggles that surrounded the making of The Godfather. And, he speculates about why the movie has become one of America's favorites.

Marvin shanken, francis ford coppola, side
Cigar Aficionado: The Godfather is frequently named as America's favorite movie. But there are reports that Paramount offered the film to as many as 30 other directors before you, and they all turned it down. What's the background of how you got involved with The Godfather project?
: I don't know if 30 directors turned down The Godfather, but definitely some directors did. There had been a movie a year or so before The Godfather based on a novel called The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas. It was a big studio production, sort of about the Mafia. It was not successful. When The Godfather proposition came out, a lot people thought, "That won't work."

Hollywood is very quick to judge what can work and what can't work. So, the idea didn't really light a fire with anyone. The movie studio executives concluded, when Puzo's book first came out, that they would make a movie very cheap and they would get a young guy who knew about the new cost-conscious techniques.

In those days, directors were all pretty much more mature men, part of that directors' club in Hollywood. No film student had ever made a feature film. I was 29 at the time. The idea was to make the film for $2 million or under, and maybe hire a director who is Italian or Italian-American so they might understand some of the family relationships in the film.

At that time, I was the first film student who had ever gotten the chance to direct a feature film. I had a modest little success in New York called You're a Big Boy Now and there was lots of talk in the movie industry about new equipment, new lightweight, lower-cost methods. The studio—Charlie Bluhdorn's Paramount Pictures—was interested in making a very inexpensive version of the book.

There's a story I love to tell about this movie, because it's a true story. It's really sort of uncanny. All my film school buddies and I had moved to San Francisco to try to be independent. We wanted to make personal films more like those art films in the '50s, like The European. I had a young, oh, call him a protégé, a guy named George Lucas. He was five years younger than me and was a film student. I was the only one who had any money because I had had a successful screenwriting career for about three years. I had a house. I had a summer house. I had a Jaguar. I had a couple of bucks.

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