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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 12)

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?
Coppola
: 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.

I sold everything to put together this little bit of money, and we moved to San Francisco. We started an independent company, which we called American Zoetrope. One Sunday, I got a call from a guy named Al Ruddy and his partner named Gray Frederickson. These guys said, "We're up here making a film with Robert Redford called Little Fauss and Big Halsy and we want to come see you." The Sunday Times had just come and, as I was looking through it before they got to my house, I noticed a little ad in the book review. It was this stark hand and strings of a puppeteer and it said "Mario Puzo's The Godfather." I was drawn to it because I thought that sounds like some intellectual Italian writer, Mario Puzo. It was maybe like another Italo Calvino.

I was looking at the ad and wondering, who is this Mario Puzo? Is that an Italian writer? I had no idea. The book looked like it was about power. I was attracted to it. While I'm looking at it, the doorbell rings and these two guys who were making the Redford film come in.

I was trying to make a movie at that time, a more personal film called The Conversation. I had sent the script to Marlon Brando, whom I didn't know at all. But I greatly admired and looked up to him. I'm looking at The Godfather ad, and I'm talking to these two guys who are making a film with Redford, and the phone rings. I answer the phone, and it's Marlon Brando.

francis ford coppola portrait
I hear the voice. I recognize it. He said [mimicking Brando's voice], "This is Marlon Brando." I said, "Gee, Mr. Brando," "I read your script," he says. "I think it's very good. It's not for me." And I said, "I thought it could be an interesting character, you're a wiretapper." "You know, I thought it was good, but it's just that I'm not interested." I hung up the phone and I said, "My God! That was Marlon Brando."

It's very interesting that on that same day, without anyone knowing it, that Al Ruddy and Gray Frederickson would later be given this Godfather book, become the producers, and make the film. I had noted the ad for the book. And while Ruddy and Frederickson were in my house, Marlon Brando called me up. What a kind of cosmic thing is that, that on that one day all the pieces that were later to become The Godfather, came together. No one knew it. Brando didn't know he was going to be in it, Ruddy didn't know he was going to do it, I didn't know I was going to do it. They all came together on that same day.

A few months later, we're broke. We're so broke, the sheriff is going to chain up our offices because we haven't paid taxes. George Lucas is a worrywart. He's saying, "Francis, we gotta make some money. Whatta we gonna do?"

For some reason, Paramount offers me the opportunity to direct this book The Godfather, and they say Al Ruddy is going to produce it. And I said, "Wow," and George is saying, "Do it." I said, "But, I wanna do The Conversation." He says, "Well, we gotta get some money." So, I read Puzo's book. If you remember the original book, it's not by some intellectual Italian writer; it's like some guy in Brooklyn or Bay Shore, who's Italian-American. I thought, when I read the book, that the story of the brothers and the father and the Mafia was interesting. But it was also, if you remember, a book about this girl who has extremely large genitalia. She had an operation and the doctor who fixes her body is the first to sleep with her. It's all kind of sleazy. So I turned it down.

George Lucas is having a fit. "Francis," he says, "don't turn it down. We are broke. We're out of business. We're closed." And I said, "But, gee, George, I wanna make The Conversation and, you know, the book is so sleazy." He says, "Well, find something in it that you like." So, I remember going to the public library and looking in the library shelves about the Mafia.

CA: Am I right to assume, then, that you knew nothing about the Mafia?
Coppola: Nothing. All I knew about the Mafia is that there had been a movie called Black Hand, starring Gene Kelly, that I had seen when I was a kid. My father took me to see it. And I knew there was something about the Mafia, but I knew nothing about what it was or how it worked.

I had made my success writing war movies: Patton and stuff like that. But they hadn't come out yet, so in reality, I had no success. I remember going to the library and I pulled out three books on that subject. I read them all.

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.

CA: But I've read articles that Charlie Bluhdorn was behind the picture, and that because you were an Italian, and only an Italian could do this movie, [the studio was] behind you, too. Is that true?
Coppola: They were behind it. That was as much Bob Evans and Peter Bart [Paramount Studios' vice president of creative affairs] as Bluhdorn. But at the beginning, they felt that by getting a young Italian guy, (a) they could make the movie cheap, (b) they could boss him around, and (c) it would give it some Italian flavor.

You gotta realize the budget was a little under $2 million. It was a book that was starting to attract attention, but the book had not become a success yet.

CA: How much did the movie end up costing?
Coppola: $6 million.

CA: That's all?
Coppola: Yeah. $6.2 million.

CA: You couldn't bake a cake in Hollywood today for $6 million.
Coppola: Yeah, but in those days, $6 million was more than just tuna. It still is. I'm gonna try to place this in a time frame for you. I wrote the script. At this point, it's a little movie. They are hiring a cheap, low-budget director who was supposedly gonna be able to make the film cheap and they could push it out the door. They showed me a script that Mario Puzo had written under their supervision that I hated. First of all, it was set in 1972.

CA: The movie was released in 1972, right?
Coppola: Yes. The original script was set all in contemporary time. It had hippies in it. That's because a contemporary movie is much cheaper to make than a period movie. For a contemporary movie, you go out in the street. The clothes are the same, and the hippies are right there.

Portrait of francis ford coppola smoking a cigar.
I went to them and said, "I don't want to make it as a contemporary movie. I think it's very important that this movie is also about America. And I think it's very important, like the book, that it should be set in the '40s." "Absolutely not," they say. "Absolutely not. If we set it in the '40s, we're gonna have to have costumes, we're gonna have to have sets. Cars. We gotta get old cars. We gotta make the budget, so absolutely not." I said, "Well, to me, the story won't work with hippies in it. It's a classic story," I kept saying.

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