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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 1)

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.

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