Looking Back on the Making of ‘The Godfather’ With Francis Ford Coppola

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Looking Back on the Making of ‘The Godfather’ With Francis Ford Coppola

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“Oh, gosh, am I bleeding?” Francis Ford Coppola bleated out while ambling around his Napa Valley home, talking on the phone to a reporter.

Though the director of groundbreaking films such as “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather” rarely gives interviews (even ones where actual blood is not shed), he was doing so on this Thursday morning a few weeks ago to promote “The Godfather Notebook.” The nifty document of film history basically takes all of Mr. Coppola’s jottings in the margins of the original novel — as well as his actual screenplay from the first installment of the trilogy — and turns them into a holiday season coffee table book. It has just been published by Regan Arts.

The book shows how he brought Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel to life in a film that would go on to win the Academy Award for best picture in 1973, excising whole portions of the story and highlighting what he believed was a flawed novel’s essence: a narrative of capitalism in America, as seen through the spilled blood and guts of one family.

But for a moment, the topic was blood — his own.

“Broke a glass,” he said, explaining that he had been watching a sports event, went to grab the remote control, and then knocked over the glass.

The cut wasn’t so bad. He felt fine, he said, save for the fact that he was bleeding, and knew there might be consequences if the blood ended up on anything valuable.

“My wife will kill me,” Mr. Coppola said. “Hold on.”

So he put the phone down, went off to dress his wound and then returned for an hour’s worth of questions about the movie he would sort of like to forget, the career he’s mostly left behind and the non-film empire he’s subsequently built.

First, he made it clear that the book was a fairly low-profit venture that he did largely because people around him told him it was time. Then, he carped about his publisher.

“The amount of work that company made me do,” he said, trailing off. “I could get that from a speaking engagement. And it’s constant. I have to do this. I have to do that. I have to write the foreword.”

As well as do this interview. Oh, well. What else was there to do but make the best of it? (The interview has been edited and condensed.)

When was the last time you watched “The Godfather”?

Oh, I don’t know, years ago. For me, the memory of “The Godfather” brings great unhappiness. That movie took 60 days, and it was miserable, not to mention the months after of jockeying over the cut. So my reaction is usually of panic and nausea, but that has nothing to do with how it is for the audience.

Something I liked about reading your book was finding out how methodical you were. There’s a presumption that all great art is the result of a boundless imagination. This book shows that it’s a slog.

It was insecurity. I was so young. I was hired because I was young. A lot of important directors turned it down. Elia Kazan turned it down. Costa-Gavras turned it down, a whole bunch of important directors. So the philosophy was, let’s get someone young, who could presumably be pushed around. Also, I was Italian-American, and that was good, because it meant if the studio got flak they could simply say, “But it was an Italian-American director.” And I was someone they could get for a good cheap price.

How much were you paid?

They offered me two fees: either $75,000 and 10 percent of the profits, or $125,000 and 6 percent of the profits. I had two kids and a third one on the way, so I took 125 and 6 percent. I think I asked for 7 percent and didn’t get it.

When the movie was done, did you immediately know what a hit it was?

I didn’t. Bob Evans, the producer, kept it really close to the vest. He hadn’t shown it to anyone. And I had been so browbeaten, heard I was going to be fired, that they were going to send in an action director. I was shellshocked.

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There was some happiness on set. Diane Keaton has written that she fell in love with Al Pacino making the film.

In the auditions, she indicated he was her favorite, but Paramount didn’t want him. I set up an improv where I took a room at the St. Regis Hotel and I had them order room service. Then I left them alone and I went home, and I’m sure that was the incubation. But it’s tricky. It can backfire. If they break up right during the film. That’s happened to me, too.

Do tell.

Oh, I shouldn’t say. Another movie.

I imagine “The Godfather Part II” was easier.

Part II was a joy. I had total control.

Throughout all this, did you read your reviews?

I learned not to, but I did then. I remember when I did “Apocalypse Now,” Frank Rich said there had not been so big a disaster in years. “Superman” had just come out. I thought, “That was about a guy in a suit flying around, and he’s saying ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the biggest and worst thing!”

What was the most widespread criticism about “The Godfather?”

Of the first? That it was violent and romanticized those guys.

Do you think it did?

In effect, yes. Because the acting ultimately made those people sympathetic, even though their behavior was so terrible. Real Mafia people are animals.

With the third film, the critics really sunk their teeth in.

The third part was not something I wanted to do. I was coming out of a bankruptcy.

Today you’re the founder of a very successful wine business. You don’t direct movies as regularly.

People ask me “What do you like better?” I say, “There’s no comparison.” They’re both very pleasurable, but the cinema remains the most magical thing. Which is why it’s so heartbreaking to see what’s happening to it. If it weren’t for this sliver of independent cinema, there would be nothing left. Doing a movie of more than $3 million on an interesting topic today is nearly impossible. I sometimes say: I didn’t leave the cinema, the cinema went off in its own direction.

Meaning?

The great Hollywood studios who produced such great films along with great entertainment have now been bought up by telecom companies.

So I guess you were not pleased to learn that AT&T was purchasing Time Warner.

I do not think it will pass the regulations.

Are there are movies you liked recently?

Many, actually. I loved “Swiss Army Man.” Totally imaginative. I liked “Mommy” by Xavier Dolan. “Tangerine” was beautiful. So full of life and humor.

There is TV now. Many would argue the advent of Netflix, HBO and Amazon in relation sort of make up for the decline of the movie studio.

Yes. Cinema and television are becoming the same thing. You can’t say I do this for television or movies. They both can be shown in theaters or at home. It can be one minute or a hundred hours, and you can have a screen that’s big and beautiful like the LG OLED screens, which are a miracle.

I noticed recently that you endorsed those. Do you have a deal with them?

I kept buying them, so they said: “Would you make a statement about how much you like them? We’ll give you some televisions.” And I said “Great, because I already ordered them.”

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