Money, Power, & the Mob: Inside Francis Ford Coppola's Fight to Make 'The Godfather'
By the time he made The Godfather, at the age of 33, Francis Ford Coppola had already had a decade's experience in the movie business, co-earning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the biopic Patton. Even that, though, didn't make getting the film greenlit an easy or sure proposition. With pressure coming from all sides (several of them armed), Coppola began the first of his epic, career-long battles against everyone and everything that would stand in the way of his vision. Time and again, the director has gambled. Sometimes, he's won, and very big. Sometimes, not so much. But whatever it is, he gives his all (including property). Now learn some of his tricks of the trade as Coppola, (along with the recently late DP Gordon Willis, Brando, Pacino, Caan, et al.) outwits everyone to make an American classic, his way, in this 1990 doc, The Godfather Family: A Look Inside.
Coppola was not Paramount's first choice to direct The Godfather, as an untested director without a hit to his name. But, because everyone was insane in 1972, Robert Evans was somehow head of Paramount and had decided, in his words, that he wanted to "smell the spaghetti," which I think means that he felt previous Mafia movies had failed because they'd been helmed by men like Robert Evans, who say things like "smell the spaghetti." (And if you can read those words without hearing Evans' caricature of a caricature voice, you're made of stronger stuff than I. Oh, and in case you've never seen him, here's Wes Anderson interviewing Evans. You are welcome.)
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The whole Godfather saga started because author Mario Puzo had gambling debts, was advanced $12,500 by Evans to write a book, and the book he turned in was called The Godfather, and explicitly referenced the Mafia, which was a huge deal at the time. Organized crime was an open secret, but in film and on TV, it was always referred to as "The Organization" or, "The Outfit." When the novel was published to epic success in 1969, Paramount decided to capitalize on its cheap acquisition and make a film, though the process of how they ended up with Coppola is a story unto itself. He was reluctant to direct a film about the Mafia, though when he started working with Puzo, "Two things quickly became apparent to Coppola: for the film to be authentic, it had to be a period piece, set in the 1940s, and it had to be filmed in New York City, the stomping ground of the Mob."
This was bad news for Paramount, who had wanted to make the film cheaply, and period films are not cheap. More bad news came in the form of one crime boss Joseph Colombo Sr., who was so outraged that these Hollywood creeps were making a movie about some supposed Mafia that he started a campaign which eventually almost steamrolled the whole picture. (Talk about Evans, you start to talk like Evans. It's scary!) Eventually there were death threats and, even worse, casting decisions.
The studio hated Coppola's choices, calling Pacino too short, and so other choices to play Michael Corleone included, seriously, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O’Neal, David Carradine, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty. Imagine The Godfather with Warren Beatty. Okay, no, don't. You'll get a headache.
Eventually Coppola got his way and the film went into production, against the will of Robert Evans' tan, a 45,000 member strong league against Italian-American defamation, and probably locusts and hail and frogs from the sky. It was bad. One final note on casting: Brando took the role because he thought it was a metaphor for "the corporate mind," opining:
The Mafia is so American! To me, a key phrase in the story is that whenever they wanted to kill somebody it was always a matter of policy. Before pulling the trigger, they told him, ‘Just business, nothing personal.’ When I read that, [Vietnam War architects Robert] McNamara, [Lyndon] Johnson, and [Dean] Rusk flashed before my eyes.
Eventually, a deal was reached with the Colombo's league (the famous and beloved Luca Brasi was actually not an actor but a Mob bodyguard with the amazing name of Lenny Montana), but then, during a rally in New York to show solidarity and whatnot, Colombo was assassinated (seriously, this happened) starting what would become a huge war initiated by "Crazy" Joe Gallo, also the subject of one of Bob Dylan's worse songs. (Oh man, memory serves: Dylan rhymes who knows when? with accordion, in the first thirty seconds.)
There was trouble on set, too: editor Aram Avakian complained to Evans about Coppola's shooting style, but Coppola hung on and got Avakian fired. Then there was the matter of DP Gordon Willis' lighting schema; at the time, Hollywood films were pretty overlit as a rule, partly because (why would I kid you?) they played better on drive-through screens. However, Brando's extensive makeup required that he be lit from overhead, in order to not make him look like a wax dummy; this turned out to be an aesthetic triumph, as it gelled with the film's themes of the dark secrets at the heart of power and the American dream of respectability, and set Willis' style as one of the most influential, especially with regard to period films, of the era. Picture Robert Evans, in a hot tub with some starlet whose name he almost certainly does not know, saying something like, "Would an audience tolerate shadows in their picture show? You bet your sweet ass they would!" Which, I mean, that is probably not that far from what he did say, at some point, possibly to a mirror.
Check out the documentary below:
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...which goes into much further depth than either I, or the incredible Vanity Fair article/oral history surrounding the film, are capable of. But, in the end, it's the movie that counts, not the bickering, or, you know, Mob hits. The Godfather was the highest grossing film of 1972, as well as displacing Gone with the Wind as the highest grossing film of all time (until Jaws), earning 9 Academy Awards, and becoming an American classic (as well as the first $100 million dollar blockbuster.) But, as William Goldman so frequently reminds us, "Nobody knows anything," and this goes for Coppola, as well:
"I had been so conditioned to think the film was bad—too dark, too long, too boring—that I didn’t think it would have any success,” says Francis Ford Coppola. “In fact, the reason I took the job to write [a screenplay for the 1974 remake of] The Great Gatsby was because I had no money and three kids and was sure I’d need the money. I heard about the success of The Godfather from my wife, who called me while I was writing Gatsby. I wasn’t even there. Masterpiece, ha! I was not even confident it would be a mild success."
Which just goes to show, we are not always the best objective judge of our own work. What do you think? Are you a Coppola fan? What role (if any) has The Godfather played in your life, as a piece of American pop culture? What do you think Coppola's tenacity in the face of incredible odds (and Robert Evans) has to teach us, as indie filmmakers and creative artists, about resilience? Let us know, in the comments!