this feature focused on the tumultuous process the producers of The Godfather
found in trying to get their film off the ground. It involved run-ins with the real life mafia, threats, firings, allegations and deals all before Francis Ford Coppola
had even been able to film his first take. Today we are investigating the second part of this fascinating making of by focusing on the filming of the picture itself. Francis Ford Coppola is today a household name within the film industry pretty much off the back of his seventies output alone which included four films which most people would agree are all masterpieces or at least close to that standard anyway, listed in chronological order as The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II
and Apocalypse Now.
In 1971 however with two flops to his name as a director he was perhaps not expecting to be invited to both write and direct the bestselling adaptation of The Godfather.
Not that he was ever the first choice mind. By the time the project had arrived on Coppolas desk it had already been turned down by over half a dozen other directors including Arthur Penn
(Bonnie and Clyde),Sidney Furie
(The Icpress File
), Richard Brooks
(Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
) and Fred Zinnemann
.) Due to the tight budget and the companys obvious desire to make a cheap and easy gangster picture, it was perhaps not surprising that directors of such artistic integrity had refused to sign up for the task. Coppola however needed the money and his Academy Award winning Screenplay for the film Patton
was just about enough for producer Al Ruddy to convince Paramount
that Francis could get the job done. Whilst the war with the real life Mafia was taking place off screens, Coppola was facing his own battle in trying to exert his vision on the screen. Casting was a major issue. Paramount needed some star value to bring in the major bucks but much to their annoyance Coppola was more wound up in trying to present an authentic and layered piece of drama. How dare he! Both he and charismatic producer Al Ruddy
wanted Al Pacino
to play the role of Michael Corleone
from a very early stage but the reaction to this wish was not deal with very enthusiastically. Whereas Coppola saw Pacino as posessing the right look and intensity needed to play the role convincingly, what most other people or the people that mattered saw anyway was a 5ft 6 short arse with very little credentials to his name. Disregarding the important Italian ethnicity of the character, Paramount suggested that Robert Redford
should play the role. Coppola had to explain that among other things Redford was blonde and would thus look quite ridiculous trying to pass off as a character of Sicilian heritage. Paramount perhaps didnt take on board Coppola's logic in the way in which he had hoped however when soon afterwards filming tests began with their next choice Martin Sheen
looking beyond stupid with a black wig and dark Sicilian make-up (A part of me actually wishes that we had got to see such a sight on the big screen.) Eventually it was George Lucas's
wife Marcia who was busy cutting the tests who convinced Coppola to use Pacino insisting that he was the only actor whose eyes address the camera. Coppola agreed but kept the idea of Pacino to himself whilst he filmed screen tests for the role of Sonny Corleone.
Although James Caan
was already cast in the role the idea was that if Pacino was turned down then Caan could take his place and they then would have someone free to play his role. Around 4,000, people auditioned including none other than Robert De Niro
who at the time was looking for a desperate break in the industry. Watching all the young actors around him start to make a name for themselves including Dustin Hoffman
and Christopher Walken
, De Niro was terrified of being left behind and so pulled off a uniquely manic audition for the role of Sonny which impressed Coppola but apparently didn't present the right dynamic for the character. De Niro was no doubt gutted but Coppola kept his audition in mind when he had to cast someone in the sequel as the young Don Corleone.
Eventually producer Robert Evans
reluctantly accepted Pacino but by this stage there was another problem. Pacino, having been told by Ruddy that he had no real chance of playing Michael had done what most reasonable actors would have done in his situation and sought out another project entitled The Gang That Couldnt Shoot Straight
. Although Pacino was eager to quit the project to star in the Godfather, MGM
werent so keen and quite rightly refused to cancel the actors contract. In the end Evans claims that he had to pull strings with his criminal contacts inside the construction unions in order for them to release the actor but even this came at the cost of having to give up the screen rights to one of Harold Robbins
novels. Surely by this stage they must have been asking themselves whether if it was all really worth the hassle. The casting of Marlon Brando
did also not go down too well. The studio wanted a Laurence Olivier
type to bring a certain noble sensibility to the character and though no-one denied that Brando could pull out a tremendous character performance when he tried, the negatives seemed to easily outweigh the positives when it came to casting him. After all: *He was notorious for causing trouble on set particuarly for his infamous behaviour on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty.
*He was not a box office draw. *He was famous for off-screen romances which always turned out sour and ended up effecting the shoot. Coppola and Mario Puzo
however were desperate for Brando to play the part. Puzo had even written a letter to the actor explaining why he would be so perfect for the role:
Dear Mr Brando, I wrote a book called THE GODFATHER which has had some success and I think you're the only actor who can play the part Godfather with that quiet force and irony the part requires. I'd love you to read the book and like it well enough to use whatever power you can to get the role. I'm writing Paramount to the same effect for whatever good that will do. I know this was presumptuous of me but the best I can do by the book is try. I really think you'd be tremendous. Needless to say I've been an admirer of your art. Mario Puzo
Paramount agreed to cast Brando but only on the condition that he provide a screen test. This was somewhat akin to asking a director like Mike Leigh to agree to make a film about fairies and the studio no doubt hoped and most likely expected that upon hearing such a request Brando would flat our refuse and continue his journey south towards his Hollywood decline.
Brando surprised everyone however with just how dedicated he was, even offering to perform a screen test on his own accord before he had even been asked. Through his passion for the role and because he perhaps realised that he needed a good role very quickly before he ended up slipping into complete obscurity, Brando showed total commitment and helped rather than hindered throughout the entire shoot. He helped the actors bond, executed jokes in order to lighten the atmosphere (no the word joke was not a typo) and gave his full support to Coppola during an increasingly stressful time for the under pressure director.
And Coppola was indeed under a hell of a lot of pressure. With thoughts of Oscars and commercial success a million miles from his mind, Coppola's only aim during the shoot appeared to be focused around survival. Crew members would openly mock him and some even plotted to get him fired. Coppola was given no respite from the executives at Paramount either who were underwhelmed by the early dailies which showed the dark and brooding shots of Don Vito Corleone offering favours on the day of his daughters wedding. Although these scenes went on to be iconic; at the time Paramount thought they looked too obscure and alienating and they were convinced that Coppola was taking the film in the wrong direction.
Al Ruddy described how it was the most miserable picture to make and how apparently no-one had enjoyed one day of it.
Coppola would walk into toilets and overhear conversations between crew members about how the film was a joke and how he didnt know what he was doing. He was threatened to be replaced with director Elia Kazan
and even had dreams where Kazan would walk up to him to explain that he was now in charge. It wasnt just Coppola who felt threatened either. Pacino felt in a constant state of unrest which may have however ironically benefited his characters uneasy disposition throughout the first half of the film. It wasnt until Pacino put on an acting clinic in the famous restaurant scene where he kills the Solazzo
character that he could finally relax into his role. The studio loved his slow boiling intensity and as you can see from the scene below; Pacino on form, back in the days when he didnt mistake shouting for emotion, could do so much just with the power of expression.
There were endless conflicts that ensued but after a favourable audience preview Coppola was given the chance to breathe and finish his film in peace. Afterwards he had no illusions about profit or critical acclaim, he was simply glad just to have made it through the film in one piece. So, still expecting to be broke and needing money to provide for his family he accepted to adapt the script for the novel The Great Gatsby
and took to working on it pretty mch straight away never for one minute expecting that The Godfather
would amount to anything more than a complete failure. Having been conditioned into thinking that the film was either too long, too boring or too dark (depending on who happened to be bitching about him or indeed often at him) Coppola was as stunned as anybody to hear on the phone from his wife that the film had become a huge box office smash. And so despite all the chaos that came in between, it seemed that everyone had got what they wanted. Paramount had been gifted a box office smash off a tiny budget and Coppola had been praised for making a fantastic film in the style that he had wanted to make it. So at the end of a very, very dark tunnel lay there rose a wide, welcoming light that has continued to shine brightly ever since.
Thanks for reading and please return for next weeksOther side of Madness
article where Ill be taking another look at the eccentric, enigmatic German filmmaker Werner Herzog
and his general craziness on the set of Fitzorraldo.
P.S. The Godfather Part II
is the better film and you know it!!!!