Francis Ford Coppola on making The Godfather

The Godfather (1972) is a film that one never forgets and spawned two sequels that, unlike in the case of so many sequels, managed to maintain the quality of the first. Director Francis Ford Coppola was only 29 when he was asked to direct the film version of Mario Puzo’s book. Coppola kept a notebook during the making of the film, with his ideas of what to do and what traps to avoid and those notes have now been published. In an interview today on Fresh Air, he talks about the making of the film and I found it fascinating. You can listen to it.

He says that Paramount studio asked him to direct it because he was of Italian ethnicity and also because since he was so young, they could get him cheap and felt that they could boss him around when it came to making the major decisions. This led to a series of conflicts around issues of what period to set the film and who to cast in the roles. Coppola said that he wanted to set it in the period of the book which was 1945 but the studio wanted to set it in the current time period to cut down on the extra expense of getting sets, cars, costumes, etc. that mirrored the past.

Coppola and Puzo both thought that Marlon Brando would be perfect for the role of Vito Corleone but the studies felt that Brando would be too much trouble and too expensive,. There were a wohle lot of actors that the studio was considering such as Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier, George C Scott, Jean Gabin, Vittorio De Sica, John Huston, Paul Scofield, and Victor Mature. Incredibly, Coppola said that there were rumors that Danny Thomas was planning to buy Paramount studios (he had made a lot of money as a comedian on TV and the studio was in financial trouble and on the market for a low price) so that he could play the role that is now indelibly linked with Brando. The studio also wanted to have someone like Ryan O’Neal or Robert Redford play Michael Corleone, the role that made Al Pacino a star. Luckily for us, Coppola managed to win the day.

But the problems didn’t end with that.

The shoot itself was a nightmare. “My history with The Godfather was very much the history of someone in trouble,” says Coppola. He knew early on “they were not happy with what I had done…”, and expected to be fired at any moment. In the men’s room he heard crew members talking: about the film – “What a piece of junk!”; and about him – “This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Coppola was constantly undermined. Indeed, Elia Kazan was lined up as a possible replacement. Coppola “kept dreaming that Kazan would arrive on the set and would say to me, ‘Uh, Francis, I’ve been asked to…’”. But Brando nobly said he would walk off the picture if Coppola was fired. Pacino, too, expected the boot: “I always felt that I still had to win these people over.” He was convinced “I was out – and then the Sollozzo scene came”. They loved his intensity as he takes bloody revenge in that great sequence in the restaurant.

Brando came good. Coppola notes that “without exception, every one of his crazy ideas I used turned out to be a terrific moment”.

Coppola wanted to fill the film with “hundreds and hundreds of interesting specifics”, one example being the cat Brando cradles in the first scene. It wandered onto the set, Coppola befriended it and settled it on Brando’s lap.

Here is that famous opening scene from the film. (That scene was hilariously parodied in Mel Brooks’ film Robin Hood: Men in Tights with Dom DeLuise playing the Brando role. Unfortunately, there is no clip available of the full scene.)

I am not a fan of the gangster film genre that Martin Scorcese and Robert de Niro seemed to specialize in. They are too violent for my taste. But I did enjoy The Godfather series. In fact, I watched the first two Godfather films back-to-back in a cinema in a marathon viewing session that lasted over six hours. Maybe because I was young them and had more for a stomach for seeing screen violence.

UPDATE: I found the Dom DeLuise clip. Note the sly reference to the fact that Brando, who was only 48 years old at the time but playing a man in his sixties, had the idea of stuffing his cheeks with cotton balls to give him an older, jowly look.


  1. says

    There’s a documentary “Hearts of Darkness” about making “Apocalypse Now” which is pretty amazing; it has one of the best lines in it, ever:
    “We had too much money and too many drugs, we were stuck in the jungle… and slowly we went mad.”

    Coppola seems to enjoy making his movies on the edge of disaster. I’m sure the funders in the studios were pulling their hair out for a while, there. It seems that since the death of Stanley Kubrick, Hollywood has slowly moved away from great film-making where the film is a single person’s vision, to film by writers’ room and focus group. Eh. I guess another “people in tights punching eachother; explosions” movie is going to make enough money there’s no need to take a chance on making something good.

  2. oualawouzou says

    I still remember my first brush with “The Godfather”. My very young daughter had the… dubious quality of routinely waking up at 11pm, and going back to sleep around 1am. So one summer evening, I was woken up at 11pm by her cries for milk. I fed her, turned on the TV to help alleviate the pain of not sleeping, recognized “The Godfather” on TV (one of those movies you have never seen, but that you have heard so much about you can recognize anyway). Around 1am, I put her back in her bed, sound asleep… and went back to the living room to watch the rest of the movie. :-/ That’s how you tell great filmmaking: when a young sleep-deprived parent would rather sacrifice a precious few hours of sleep to watch a movie.

    The novel on the other hand… ouch. Has a cavernous vagina ever been a plot point at any other moment in literary history?

  3. Mano Singham says

    Hearts of Darkness is a superb documentary about filmmaking on the edge. I think that when you are visionary film maker like Coppola, always improvising to get just the right effect, you are always also flirting with disaster.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    The Godfather (1972) is a film that one never forgets and spawned a sequel that, unlike in the case of so many sequels, managed to maintain the quality of the first.

    Fixed it for you.

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