Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola in the second of a five-part feature… read part one here.
“There had been a movie a year or so before The Godfather  based on the novel called the The Brotherhood , starring Kirk Douglas [Paths of Glory],” remembered American director Francis Ford Coppola. “It was a big studio production which was sort of about the Mafia. It was not successful. When The Godfather proposition came out, a lot of people thought, ‘That won’t work.’” Financially broke and faced with being evicted from the offices of his production company American Zoetrope, the filmmaker was approached by Paramount Pictures to helm the cinematic adaptation of the tale authored by Mario Puzo. “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 a book a about this girl who has extremely large genitalia. She has an operation, and the doctor who fixes her body is the first to sleep with her.” Much to the disbelief of his colleague George Lucas (Star Wars), Coppola chose to turn down the potentially lucrative project. At the goading of Lucas to find something he liked in the novel, the director went to the public library to do some research on the Mafia. “When I read those books, I turned around my attitude,” recalled Francis Ford Coppola. “I was fascinated by the whole idea that there were these various families who had divided up New York and they ran them like businesses.” The Detroit native set about revisiting the source material aided by new points of reference. “When I read it [again], instead of just reading it, I underlined everything and made notes as to everything I thought…I cut it up, with all my notes on it, and I put it in a big loose-leaf binder. I began to diagram the story and write down the theme for each scene.” He added, “I broke down each sequence, I made a little synopsis as to what happened, I wrote a paragraph as to what the time period, the 1940s, was like. Then I put in images and the tone for each scene.”
“The original script was set all in contemporary time. It had hippies in it,” revealed Francis Ford Coppola who fought against the cost-saving measure of transferring the period drama to the present day. “One of the reasons it was so important to me to get Paramount to agree to set the movie in the forties instead of the seventies was that so much of the story connects with what was going on in America during that period.” The director decided to emphasize the Shakespearean elements found in the book which evolves around a man in search of a successor. “He’s got one son who’s tough and a Mafia guy. He’s got one son who’s sort of a little light-headed. He’s got a third son, his youngest son…who is a war hero whom he wants to go into politics rather than become dirty.” Coppola clashed with the Hollywood studio over the casting wish list for the proposed $2 million production (rising to a final tally of $6.2 million) which would have seen Robert Redford (The Sting) play Michael Corleone, the third son who assumes control of the family business. “I worked with a wonderful casting person named Fred Roos [Five Easy Pieces]. We worked together and we started to figure out, what if [Al] Pacino plays this part? I got all of the other actors [Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and James Caan] to come up to San Franciscio…My wife cut their hair and got some clothes. We shot on 16mm film a whole bunch of tests of scenes.” The Paramount executives were not impressed with the footage resulting in a very intensive casting search. “We had to test every young actor for every part,” groaned the filmmaker. “We tested Martin Sheen [The Departed] as Michael. Dean Stockwell [Compulsion] as Michael. Ryan O’Neal [Barry Lyndon] as Michael. There were hundreds of tests and we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on them. But then, we went back to my $500 worth of tests.” Chosen to play the patriarchal title character was Marlon Brando (A Dry White Season). “I thought it would be an interesting contrast to play him as a gentle man, unlike Al Capone who beat up people with baseball bats,” stated Brando on how he approached his signature role of Don Corleone. “I saw him a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement, a man of unerring instinct who just happened to live in a violent world and who had to protect himself and his family in this environment.”
“The first shot we did was the scene where Michael [Pacino] and Kay [Keaton] come out of Best’s department store,” stated Francis Ford Coppola who used a variety of locations while conducting the principle photography in New York. “I honestly did feel from the second week that this was a remarkable movie being made, but the number of people seeing the dailies began to shrink. You can always tell when a studio is giving up on a picture – you look around the room and there’s nobody there.” The production was in constant turmoil as the film fell behind schedule at the cost of $40,000 a day and making matters worse, the director had to deal with a disgruntled movie crew. Cinematographer Gordon Willis when asked to remark about the freewheeling filmmaking style employed by Coppola replied, “I like to lay a thing out and make it work, with discipline. Francis’ attitude is more like, ‘I’ll set my clothes on fire – if I can make it to the other side of the room, it’ll be spectacular.’” In a counter move designed to starve off his being replaced by the studio, Francis Ford Coppola fired the discontents on his production staff. “When you make a movie, there isn’t a human being on that set that doesn’t think they can make it better than you,” observed Coppola whose job was saved by the performance of Al Pacino in the pivotal restaurant assassination scene.
“I liked the idea of starting the movie…with, ‘I believe in America,’ because it’s what the whole movie is about,” reflected Francis Ford Coppola. “It’s saying that our country should be our family in a way, that it should afford us the protection and the honour that, in a strange way, this Mafia family does.” The cinematic theme resonated with movie audiences whose overwhelming enthusiasm resulted in the picture grossing $1 million dollars a day for an initial release total of $86 million. At the Academy Awards The Godfather won for Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), and Best Adapted Screenplay while contending for Best Supporting Actor (James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino), Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Editing and Best Sound. The BAFTAs presented the period crime drama with the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music along with nominations for Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Costume Design, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), and Most Promising Newcomer to a Leading Film Role (Al Pacino). The Golden Globes lauded the movie with Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Drama (Marlon Brando), Best Original Score, and Best Screenplay as well as nominating it for Best Actor – Drama (Al Pacino) and Best Supporting Actor (James Caan). The Godfather received a Directors Guild of American Award, a nomination from the American Cinema Editors for Best Edited Feature Film, and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay – Drama. In 1990 the Mafia saga was inducted into the National Film Registry.
“Everyone advised me not to invest my own money,” lamented Francis Ford Coppola of his decision not to finance George Lucas’ sophomore effort about a group of high school students on the eve of their graduation. “I turned the film over to Universal and lost the chance to earn enough money to set up my own studio. That movie could have brought me over $20 million. After that I decided to finance all of my Zoetrope films myself.” American Graffiti (1973) grossed $115 million at the domestic box office; it won Best Picture – Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes while receiving Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Candy Williams), Best Editing, and Best Original Screenplay.
“The Conversation , which I did write and direct as an original, was a film nobody wanted me to do, but I got to make it because of the deal to do The Godfather: Part II ,” stated Francis Ford Coppola of picture which stars Gene Hackman (Mississippi Burning) as a surveillance expert who becomes entangled in a fatal corporate conspiracy. The thriller was Coppola’s first contribution to a short-lived cinematic partnership, with Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) and William Friedkin (The French Connection), known as the Directors Company. “It started with a conversation, ironically, with Irvin Kershner [Eyes of Laura Mars],” revealed Coppola as to the origins of the story. “We were talking about eavesdropping and bugging and he told me about these long distance microphones that could be used to overhear what people were saying.” The discussion between the two directors was instigated by a Life magazine article on surveillance technician Hal Lipset. “[Francis] had the idea to fuse the concept of Blowup  with the world of audio surveillance,” stated Oscar-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The English Patient). “The central character, Harry Caul – loosely inspired by Harry Haller in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf – is an ordinary bourgeois person who is suddenly plunged into a world over which he has no control.” Murch continued, “You know, he’s been hired by the Director [Robert Duvall] of a faceless Corporation to tape the conversations of a young couple who may or may not be having an affair. But since you only know what he knows, you never really discover the whole story of what happened. You just make assumptions. And because he’s a sound man, over the course of the film, you, the audience, naturally begin to hear the world the way he hears it.”
Though the tale was fictional, real life events crept into the plotline. Walter Murch explained, “The story that Harry’s rival, Bernie Moran [Allen Garfield], tells at the party in Harry’s loft how Harry bugged the neighbours’ phones when he was twelve, that’s actually a story about Francis when he was twelve.” Murch added, “Every filmmaker is a kind of voyeur. It just so happens that Harry’s voyeurism is very narrow – only the sound spectrum. But as soon as you become a filmmaker you are always looking for subject matter and looking at new ways of seeing things…I think it was easy for Francis to understand Harry Caul and his craft, out of his own experience.” The singular perspective of the tale made the movie a tricky editing assignment. “The Conversation was limited by its somewhat linear time frame and by the nature of Harry Caul’s singular point of view. You only have scenes in which Harry Caul is present.” Complicating the situation for Walter Murch was the production of another film which Francis Ford Coppola was directing. “A peculiarity of the project was that a good ten days worth of material was never filmed. Francis and his production team just ran out of time and money to shoot the entire script, and he had to go off to do pre-production on The Godfather: Part II.” The lack of footage caused Murch to be inventive. “When you have restricted material you’re going to have to restructure things from the original intent, with sometimes felicitous juxtapositions.” Walter Murch carried on to say, “In the end, the only additional shot we had to film, to make it all work, was the close-up of Harry’s hand pulling the reel of tape off the tape recorder, so we could reveal that Meredith [Elizabeth MacRae], the woman who seduces him at the party, has stolen the crucial tape. In fact, the idea of Meredith as an agent of the Corporation was created in post-production; it clarifies and shapes the whole story.”
“In the original filmed version,” stated Murch, “when Harry decodes the tape he’s made of Ann [Cindy Williams] and the young man, Mark [Frederic Forrest], he immediately uncovers the line, ‘He’d kill us if he got the chance.’ He then goes to return the tape to the Director. As an experiment we divided the scene in two. In the first part we had Harry working on the tape in a routine way, without uncovering the key line. The next day he goes to deliver the tape to the Director. But the fact that the Director’s assistant – a very young Harrison Ford [Raiders of the Lost Ark] – seems a little too anxious to get his hands on the tape, gives Harry – and us – pause. Harry takes it back to his studio to listen to it more closely. Now we have the second half of the scene where he uncovers the fateful line – which now has greater meaning in this new context. This structure allows the audience to follow the train of events more clearly. But it took us some time to realize that there was a problem and then figure out what to do about it.” Walter Murch was impressed with Coppola’s daring sense of filmmaking. “Francis was interested in following an anonymous persona and really investigating the fabric of his life. It was a courageous act on his part never to flesh out the story of the murder that finally happens.” The post-production veteran observed, “In the end , the film was a delicate balance between a character study of this rather colourless man – Herman Hesse’s Harry Haller – and a dramatic mystery of a corporate takeover and murder – a [Alfred] Hitchcock kind of idea. It was very much in Francis’ mind, from the beginning, to try to make an alloy of Herman Hesse and Hitchcock, to forge an unlikely alliance between those two sensibilities. The struggle for the film, at every level, was how to achieve that balance.”
“The decision to make The Conversation right after The Godfather turned out to be creatively the right thing to do,” remarked Murch. “Strategically it was wonderful, since both The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II – very, very different films – were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1975. People thought, ‘This guy can do everything!’” Other Oscar nominations for the film which grossed $4.5 million domestically were Best Sound and Best Original Screenplay; at the BAFTAs it was awarded with Best Editing and Best Sound Track while competing for Best Actor (Gene Hackman). The Cannes Film Festival presented the thriller with the Palme d’Or along with the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury – Special Mention; the Golden Globes handed out nominations for Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Drama (Gene Hackman) and Best Screenplay. Coppola received a Directors Guild of America Award nomination as well one from the Writers Guild of America for Best Original Screenplay – Drama. In 1995 The Conversation was added to the list of films preserved by the National Film Registry.
“It seemed like such a terrible idea that I began to be intrigued by the thought of pulling it off,” said Francis Ford Coppola who warmed to the prospect of doing a sequel to The Godfather. “When I considered that we’d have most of the same actors, and the scenes we might be able to develop in depth, I started feeling it really might be something innovative.” The Godfather: Part II (1974) crosscuts between the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) establishing himself in 1920s New York and his son Michael (Al Pacino) expanding the family business into pre-revolutionary 1958 Cuba. “The second film goes further than the first one. It’s much more ambitious and novelistic in its structure,” stated the director. “If you got off on the wrong foot with it, I can imagine that it would be like a Chinese water torture to sit through. But it’s a more subtle movie, with its own heartbeat. It was very tough on some of the actors, especially Al Pacino [Dog Day Afternoon].” Coppola explained further, “The role of Michael is a strange and difficult one; it put a terrific strain on him. It was like being caught in a vise. In the first picture, he went from being a young, slightly insecure, naïve, and brilliant young college student to becoming this horrible Mafia killer. In The Godfather: Part II he’s the same man from beginning to end.”
“I had to fight a lot of wars the first time around,” stated Francis Ford Coppola when comparing the production of the original with its cinematic counterpart. “In The Godfather: Part II, I had no interference. Paramount backed me up in every decision. The film was my baby and they left it in my hands.” Normally priding himself on not making the same picture twice, Coppola found himself being drawn back to the Mafia saga for both financial and creative factors. “One of the reasons I wanted to make The Godfather: Part II is that I wanted to take Michael to what I felt was the logical conclusion. He wins every battle; his brilliance and his resources enable him to defeat all of his enemies. I didn’t want Michael to die. I didn’t want Michael to be put into prison. I didn’t want him to be assassinated by his rivals. But, in a bigger sense, I also wanted to destroy Michael. There’s no doubt that by the end of this picture, Michael Corleone, having beaten everyone, is sitting there alone, a living corpse.“ He added, “I had considered some upbeat touch at the end,” confessed the filmmaker, “like having his son turn against him to indicate he wouldn’t follow in that tradition, but honesty – and Pacino – wouldn’t let me do it. Michael is doomed.” A second reason why Coppola chose to do the sequel was to respond to criticism that he glamourized organized crime. “I felt I was making a harsh statement about the Mafia and power at the end of The Godfather when Michael murders all those people then lies to his wife and closes the door. But obviously, many people didn’t get the point I was making. And so if the statement I was trying to make was outbalanced by the charismatic aspect of the characters, I felt The Godfather: Part II was an opportunity to rectify that.” Another thing that the moviemaker wanted to rectify was the submissive portrayal of women in the original. “In The Godfather: Part II, I was interested in developing a more contemporary, political view of women in the person of his wife, Kay [Diane Keaton] and in her symbolic statement of power when she had her unborn child killed.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) remarked, “I think The Godfather: Part II was a self-conscious attempt to show the devolution, the tearing apart of the family, by the very things people thought in the first film held it together. One of the most chilling, heartrending sequences in movies is Bobby De Niro as the young Vito Corleone killing the local Mafia guy…and then holding his son in his arms and saying, ‘Michael, your father loves you very much.’ At the very instant in his life when he moves to save the lives of his children, he damns himself.” Francis Ford Coppola does not find it surprising that the criminal syndicate originating from Sicily was able to expand beyond the Italian island. “America was absolutely ripe for the Mafia,” declared the director. “Everything the Mafia believed in and was set up to handle – absolute control, the carving out of territories, the rigging of prices and the elimination of competition – was here. In fact, the corporate philosophy that built some of our biggest companies and great personal fortunes was a Mafia philosophy.”
Made on a budget of $13 million, The Godfather: Part II grossed $48 million domestically; it was awarded with the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Art Direction & Set Decoration, Best Original Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay while receiving nominations for Best Actor (Al Pacino), Best Supporting Actor (Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strasberg), Best Supporting Actress (Talia Shire), and Best Costume Design. At the BAFTAs the Mafia saga won Best Actor (Al Pacino) and contended for the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Editing, and Most Promising Newcomer to a Leading Film Role (Robert De Niro); the Golden Globes presented it with nominations for Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, Best Actor – Drama (Al Pacino), Best Original Score, Best Screenplay, and Most Promising Newcomer – Male (Lee Strasberg). Francis Ford Coppola was lauded by theDirectors Guild of America as well by the Writers Guild of America when he and Mario Puzo were presented with the trophy for Best Adapted Screenplay – Drama. Following in the footsteps of its acclaimed predecessor, The Godfather: Part II was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1993.
“I guess when I was in the Philippines, people thought of me as a crazy person, and then it became the thing to do just to make fun of me,” reflected Francis Ford Coppola regarding the production fiasco of Apocalypse Now (1979), which became so legendary that years later a documentary was released on the subject called Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). George Lucas and John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) developed the screenplay, loosely based on the literary classic by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, which transferred the setting from colonial Africa to the Vietnam War; Lucas left the project to pursue his science fiction epic Star Wars (1977) leaving the directorial responsibilities to Coppola. American soldier Capt. Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent up a river with orders to assassinate U.S. Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has established his own tribal community. “Most people who tackle Conrad get lost in the jungle,” observed Francis Ford Coppola. “The Lucas-Milius script simply took the metaphor of the boat going up the river and the name Kurtz, and though I put in several scenes which made use of Heart of Darkness, it was never my intention to do a literal adaptation of the book.” The filmmaker sees Willard’s journey “as a metaphor for the voyage of life, during the course of which each of us must choose between good and evil.”
“A storm came in off the South China Sea, split, and one part hit one obscure town, the other part hit another obscure town two hundred miles away and both were our main sets,” recounted Francis Ford Coppola of the devastating impact of Typhoon Olga. Outside of the natural disasters there was a fundamental problem that confronted the filmmaker. “I had gotten totally sucked into the problems of setting up the big scenes. But in movies, people aren’t interested in just seeing helicopters fly by, or seeing explosions. They want a story and character interaction. I finally realized that the script wasn’t really engaging, that it didn’t weave the characters and themes together into some high point which then resolved itself.” The production budget spiraled from $13 million to $30 million. “I’m clavier with money because I have to be, in order not to be terrified every time I make an artistic decision.” Adding to the cost of filming and contributing to the shooting schedule which lasted 238 days was a major casting change. “I think Willard’s passivity was one of the reasons Francis, who started out with Harvey Keitel [The Piano] in the role of Willard, switched to Martin Sheen after a month of filming,” remarked Walter Murch who was one of four film editors involved in the project. “It seems strange now, in hindsight, but the spark of Francis’ desire to do Apocalypse was an understandable attraction to a big, formulaic action film with bankable stars. So Apocalypse rumbled down that unlikely road for about a month, until Francis, to his regret but also to his credit, must have realized, ‘I can’t pull off this distanced, formulaic kind of filmmaking, I have to get intimately involved in it.’” Production shut down for about a week upon the arrival of Marlon Brando who was overweight and dissatisfied with script. The impasse between the actor and the director was breached thanks to the source material. “Suddenly, after reading Conrad, Brando wanted to be Kurtz,” stated Walter Murch. “But many scenes had already been shot, and his character was being referred to as Colonel Leighley.” Some creative sound editing was required to rectify the situation which involved re-recording the dialogue.
“In the briefing scene where Willard gets his mission,” began Murch, “the characters are looking straight at the camera when they talk to Willard. If they are doing that, the mathematically correct thing would be to have Willard looking at the camera too. Instead he’s looking to left side of the lens, which is correct according to conventional film grammar. Yet you never feel the general is looking at the audience; you believe he’s looking at Willard. But when Willard finally does look at the camera, at the end of the scene, you feel he’s looking at the audience and thinking, ‘Can you believe this?’” Francis Ford Coppola is quick to point out that, “No opinion is expressed about the U.S. Army in Apocalypse. All those scenes are so flamboyant – surfing in the middle of combat – though there were elements of the Army that did things not unlike that. But I wanted to express a universal theme about soldiers out of control.” Asked about the conclusion of the picture, the director replied, “The ending reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland; I wanted to end the movie, ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’”
Reflecting on the cinematic experience, Francis Ford Coppola remarked, “Everyone was against me. I was doing something on a subject that no one dared touch, with my own money, and I was getting all of this flak. I collapsed.” Featuring the acting talents of Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), Harrison Ford, Frederic Forrest (The Rose), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Sam Bottoms (The Outlaw Josey Wales), Laurence Fishburne (What’s Love Got to Do with It), Scott Glenn (The Silence of the Lambs) and Albert Hall (Beloved), Apocalypse Now was far from a box office hit as it grossed $79 million domestically. However, the Vietnam War epic experienced better luck on the awards circuit; at the Oscars it won Best Cinematography and Best Sound while contending for Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Best Art Direction & Set Decoration, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The BAFTAs awarded the movie with Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall) along with nominations for the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Actor (Martin Sheen), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Production Design, and Best Sound Track; the Golden Globes presented it with Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall) and Best Original Score as well as a nomination for Best Picture – Drama. Other nominations for Apocalypse Now included Best Edited Feature Film from the American Cinema Editors, Best Original Screenplay – Drama by the Writers Guild of America, and a nod from the Directors Guild of America. At the Cannes Film Festival, the movie won the FIPRESCI Prize Competition and the Palme d’Or. Two decades later, the Vietnam War tale was inducted into the National Film Registry and in 2001 a new theatrical version with an additional fifty minutes of footage was released under the title Apocalypse Now Redux.
1980 marked the inauguration of Zoetrope Studios in Hollywood; unfortunately, the life long ambition of Francis Ford Coppola would be quickly dismantled by the production of his ninth directorial effort.
Continue to part three.
For more on Francis Ford Coppola and his body of work visit the online home of American Zoetrope.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.