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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 4)

I say, "OK, let me consider making it in Kansas City." [Along with] Al Ruddy and Frederickson, these two guys that I had set up as producers, we go look at Kansas City. We go to the Italian neighborhood in Kansas City. We go look around in San Francisco. And I said, "I don't care. This movie has to be made in New York. It's a New York story. It's the five families of New York, for God's sake. What do we do? Make it in Kansas City? And it has to be 'period.' "

Now I realize that they're starting to go out to more important directors to see if maybe they can get rid of me, who's making trouble. The budget is not going to be under $2 million if he makes it in New York. I heard rumors that they had offered it to Costa-Gavras and then Elia Kazan. They both turned it down. People were turning it down because that movie The Brotherhood had been a flop and no one saw any potential.

I was hooked now on what I had read during my research. When I read about Vito Genovese, I began to see how Mario had taken the real guys and combined them. Vito Corleone was really a combination of Vito Genovese and Joe Profaci. I began to see that, in his own way, in his fictional way, he was using the real stories of famous Mafia murders and these various gangland wars that were going on.

Then trouble really started to happen. I'm trying to figure out ways to make it in New York and keep it on the cheap. Then, we start talking about casting. I need to place this in perspective, because the rumblings didn't start right away. They were still pissed off about the fact that it was "period" and that meant it couldn't be made for under $2 million.

I started interviewing people. There was a photographer I had heard of that had never done a lot of motion pictures but that I thought was very talented. I started interviewing art directors and costume designers. I began to choose the people that I wanted to meet and I deliberately chose people who were based in New York. I figured that they'd say, "Oh, my God," you know, "we got the guy who lives in New York. If he had to make a trip to Kansas City, we're gonna have to pay his travel and expenses."

I was already pushing the issues. Then, we start talking about casting. Their first idea for casting was, "What about [Robert] Redford for Michael Corleone?" I said, "Well, Redford's a very bright guy and wonderful, I think, but, he doesn't look Italian." They said, "Well, Italian…there's a lot of Italian blonds. Sicilians are blond and have red hair and blue eyes." I says, "Yeah, but don't you think that Michael, the son that is not gonna go into the family business, ought to look Italian so it's like he can't escape his destiny? You know, if he's blond, he'll become Robert Redford, he will be a Wasp banker."

Marvin shanken and francis ford coppola walking
Then they suggested Ryan O'Neal, because he had just had a big hit called Love Story. They really thought Ryan O'Neal was a good compromise because he was younger and had become a big star. Ryan O'Neal, and Ernest Borgnine as the father. So, they're starting to cast it. As I said, one of the reasons I got the job is because they thought they could push me around.

I said, "I don't know yet who can play The Godfather, but there's a young actor that I know. He has never been in a movie, but every time I read the scenes with Michael Corleone in the book, like him walking in Sicily with the two bodyguards and the girl, I kept seeing his face. And when I read it, that's the only one whose face I saw." Evans said, "What's his name?" I said, "Al Pacino." He said, "Well, who is he?" I said, "Well, he's a theater actor, but he's never been in a [film]." So, they did some research and Evans said to me, "A runt will not play Michael." I said, "What d'ya mean, 'a runt'?" He said, "He's a little short guy." I said, "Well, yeah, but he's a good actor, he looks Italian and he has power and I think he should play that." "Absolutely not," was the reply. "Michael Corleone will not be played by Al Pacino. You will not have Al Pacino in this movie and you will not shoot it in New York and you will not make it 'period.' "

I was very disappointed because I was sure that this young actor was really great; and I couldn't convince them. I couldn't get any support. So then they said, "Well, what else, who else do you have?" I said, "Well, we could just go look at all the young best actors and actresses. Let me…give me a little time and I'll do it."

I had worked with a guy named Bobby Duvall on two or three pictures. I worked with a wonderful casting person named Fred Roos. So, we worked together and we started to figure out, what if Pacino plays this part? I got all of the other actors to come up to San Francisco. They were all sort of old friends and all unknowns. My wife cut their hair and got some clothes and we shot on 16mm film a whole bunch of tests of scenes.

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