Here are five things you can learn from the early days of one of our greatest directors.
When Francis Ford Coppola got the call to direct The Godfather, things hadn't been looking very promising. Like many of his peers in the "New Hollywood" group, Coppola went to UCLA and got his start working under Roger Corman. He had just formed Zoetrope with George Lucas, and was a young, broke, father of two with a third on the way. If it weren't for the desperation that comes with providing for a young family, on an artist's budget, we might never have seen the brilliant classic that isThe Godfather. The thing was, Coppola didn't like Mario Puzo's novel, from which the film was to be adapted. He thought it was "salacious and commercial." But when he got the call, he took it for the money, like many young directors do.
All of this and more is outlined in the heartfelt introduction to Coppola's recently published The Godfather Notebook. What happened next is every filmmaker's fantasy; Coppola sat in a cafe, for months, carefully studying and breaking down every element of Puzo's book—and turning it into a screenplay.
"I always felt that I could know a bad performance from a good performance or fake a way to make something look good, but if I were wrong in the script, then that'd be as wrong as I could be."
"I took my huge notebook, bought a big brown satchel I could lug it around in, got my Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter and blank paper, went to the Caffe Trieste in North Beach in San Francisco, and set myself up in the afternoons to work on this project." Coppola describes, "I loved it; I was living a dream. I was in a café where there was lots of noise and Italian being spoken, and cute girls walking through, and that was my dream; it was La Bohème for me."
Every thought Coppola had in that café, and throughout the entire adaptation process, is there on the page, in his own handwriting. And now, it's been published for the world to see.
We had the opportunity to read this intimate book, and it's even more glorious than it sounds. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more in-depth study of the development of a script. And knowing how it turned out makes it even more valuable. Here are the biggest takeaways from The Godfather Notebook.
1. Be methodical
There is method and a certain meditative quality to the way that the physical notebook was made. Inspired by his theater background, Coppola decided to approach his adaptation in the way that many stage managers annotate scripts. He took a blade to Puzo's novel, cutting out each individual page and mounting it on loose leaf sized paper, with cut-outs in the center so the text could be read from both sides. Coppola cut and glued and mounted every page, lovingly and methodically, over the course of many hours.
He imprinted binder holes and reinforced the pages. He bound the volume and labeled it with a REWARD FOR RETURN stamp. And then he went through the text, time after time. Underlining, annotating, emoting onto the page.
This concept of the physical is often lost in our digital age. Hand-notated scripts are abandoned for the latest breakdown software. There are benefits and pitfalls to both, but what cannot be denied is the strong mental bonding that forms through this kind of analog labor. Coppola was, in a sense, building his creative space.
2. Find your theme
Upon his second reading of the novel, Coppola's distaste for it fell away and he began to direct. In his mind, he was able to distil the text to its most crucial, cinematic moments and storylines. In the introduction, Coppola remarks how the story became "a metaphor for American capitalism in the tale of a great king with three sons: the oldest was given his passion and aggressiveness, the second his sweet nature and childlike qualities, and the third his intelligence, cunning, and coldness." Ultimately he came up with one abiding theme: the succession of power. With those three words always on his mind, Coppola made sure that every single decision spoke to them. What kind of coat does Clemenza wear? How does Kay react in this scene? For Coppola, the answers all come back to the theme of succession.
This is not a foreign concept in script writing, but it is often too easily lost. Staying true to a theme, in every instance, will create a steadfast core for your film and be a guiding tenet when making tough directorial decisions.
3. Challenge your preconceptions
In addition to the theme, there were other crucial elements that informed every moment of Coppola's script.
The way the notebook worked was this: Coppola first broke down the book into 50 natural sections, or scenes, and then broke down every section from there. He dissected the sections in both liner notes and in summary. At the start of every scene, he explored five criteria: 1. Synopsis, 2. The Times, 3. Imagery and Tone, 4. The Core, and 5. Pitfalls.
These explorations make up pages and pages of in-depth thought surrounding each scene. Coppola was hyper-aware of the need for a fully realized world—one that works within the film and within the greater fabric of its historical context.
"In truth, I think that I made the notebook out of profound fear."
No matter what kind of script you're writing, following this breakdown methodology in your development will keep you on track for a consistent and textured story.
The Synopsis is self-serving. This is an easily scannable reference and helps when building the final script. The Times refers to a question of historical context. What are the laws and customs in this time period? Imagery and Tone is a simple reminder to think visually. How are my images serving my story? The Core refers to a similar idea as the theme. The core of the scene is an easily distillable feeling or goal, and it should ultimately speak to the overarching theme. How does this wedding party scene speak to the theme of succession? And finally, Pitfalls. This keeps you self-aware. Throughout the text, Coppola is constantly questioning himself and the story. Will this be cliche? Parodic? How can I avoid these things?
In the end, the idea is to challenge your preconceptions in the name of better storytelling.
4. Fight for your instincts
It's clear, going through Coppola's notes, that he had a strong vision from the beginning. He fights in the margins, as he did in reality with the studios, for what he thinks is best for the story. Paramount never wanted to work with Brando, but Coppola wanted him from the beginning. They wanted the film to be set in the 70s, with hippies, to be current, cheap, and attractive to audiences. Coppola fought for a period piece. These are just two of the major fights fought and won over the course of The Godfather's journey. Your fight may not be for Brando, and you may not even be right every time, but having faith in your gut is as important as any learned skill. If you're writing an original screenplay, as opposed to an adaptation, compromises may pop up in other places, like in terms of budget or marketability. Of course, films are collaborative and flexibility is necessary, but when you truly believe a decision is right for your film, don't back down.
5. Don't be afraid to be afraid
In a particularly poignant line of the introduction, Coppola admits, "In truth, I think that I made the notebook out of profound fear." He was terrified. And that's okay. He continues, "I always felt that I could know a bad performance from a good performance or fake a way to make something look good, but if I were wrong in the script, then that'd be as wrong as I could be."
That sense of fear motivated an in-depth study of his world, and that's exactly the kind of motivation every writer needs. Be afraid. Let that fear of not understanding your script motivate research, breakdowns, character descriptions, and maybe even your own notebook. And when it's all said and done, you won't be afraid anymore. You'll be steeped in your project. An expert. In fact, you'll be just the kind of person who should be directing it.
Coppola built his notebook out of instinct. He felt that it was the only way for him to navigate such an impossibly huge project. Do you have your own processes for getting through development? Tell us in the comments below.