12 March 2022 |

The Godfather almost never happened

By Trung Phan

Francis Ford Coppola overcame 6 huge obstacles to make the classic film.

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Monday, March 14th, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere for The Godfather. Let’s just say I’ve gone down a savage Godfather-related YouTube rabbit hole in the past few days.

Based on hours of random video consumption, I wanted to share some good stuff:

  • 6 reasons why The Godfather almost never happened

  • Storytelling gems from The Godfather script

  • Meme dump: The Godfather edition

PS. I started a column with Bloomberg Opinion last week. Here’s my first article: What would a crypto war bond look like?


The Godfather

This is the least controversial sentence I’ll ever write: “The Godfather is really f***ing good”. Don’t take my amateur word for it. The 1972 classic regularly ranks at the top of critic and fan polls:

As a cultural force, few movies can match The Godfather’s influence. Quotes from the film — and its two sequels — are ubiquitous:

  • “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

  • “Don’t ever takes sides against the family again. Ever.”

  • “Revenge is a dish that tastes best served cold.”

  • “It’s not personal…it’s strictly business”.”

  • “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

And yet, the movie was almost never made. Director Francis Ford Coppola had to overcome one obstacle after another to finish the nearly 3-hour epic about an Italian crime family.

If you need motivation to see a creative project through, just remember all the things that almost held back one of the greatest films ever:

1. Hollywood in decline: The American film industry dominated culture from the 1930s through the 1950s. In the 1960s, the rise of TV started chipping away at film’s influence and old studio moguls were leaving the game.

Meanwhile, the blockbuster film was losing steam. One salient example: The Sound of Music was a smash hit in 1965 but when the same team tried to recreate the musical magic with Julie Andrews in 1968, it completely flopped.

There was concern that the film medium itself would disintegrate into irrelevance like vaudeville theatre did in previous decades. In fact, 1969 and 1970 posted some of the lowest filmgoing numbers on record.

2. Corporate influence: With Hollywood’s declining fortunes, film studios fell into the hands of conglomerates (which didn’t have the best taste).

In 1966, Jack Warner sold off a large part of Warner Bros. to Kinney, a company that owned funeral parlours and parking lots.

Paramount Pictures — the studio that made The Godfather — was also acquired in 1966…for only $600k. The buyer: Gulf + Western Industries, a conglomerate that built a fortune on manufacturing and natural resources before acquiring 60+ companies across every industry (in the 1980s, the company sold its non-media assets and what remained was acquired by Viacom in 1994).

To flee the declining industry and corporate influence, Francis Ford Coppola teamed up with a random guy named George Lucas in 1969 to form an independent film studio called American Zoetrope. They were based in SF to get away from the traditional Hollywood studio system in LA.

Together with some other random director friends named Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, they became known as “The Movie Brats”. As explained by Indie Film Hustle:

These brats didn’t cut their teeth as part of the Studio System. They learned their craft at film school. They were raised for the most part on TV. Coppola went to UCLA, Lucas, and Milius at USC, Scorsese at NYU, and De Palma at Columbia.

Spielberg was a different kind of brat; he didn’t wait until college to start making movies. He started at age 11. This group of talent took Hollywood (and the world) by storm and their box office success boggles the mind.

In the 1970s, the Movie Brats would go on to make The Godfather (Coppola, 1972), American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973), Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973), The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), Carrie (DePalma, 1976), Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) and Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979).

3. Mobster films had a bad rep: In 1970, Paramount Pictures was ranked a lowly 9th among film studios. However, it was able to score a hit with Love Story. The film was based on America’s #1 best-selling book at the time and made $106m on a budget of only $2.2m.

As it happened, Paramount also owned the rights to another top-selling book: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Puzo’s road to writing the book has a wild back story per The Annotated Godfather:

  • In 1965, Puzo was 45-year old semi-failed author

  • He owed $20k in gambling debts, so an editor suggested he use the “Mafia” themes from his previous books for a new commercial project.

  • Puzo wrote a 10-page treatment and received a $5k advance. He actually didn’t know any mobsters so had to do deep research to finish the project.

  • In 1967, he had completed 60 pages and hype around the book made its way to Paramount. The studio optioned the book for $12.5k and gave Puzo a max payout of $80k if a film was made.

  • In 1969, Puzo finished the book and it became a smash: it spent 67 weeks on NYT’s bestseller list. Paramount securing the film rights for only $80k is considered “the prime deal for a best seller in modern film history” per Variety.

  • Paramount did throw Puzo another $100k to write the script, though. 1

Looking to capture lightning twice, Paramount Senior VP Robert Evans — supported by Paramount’s VP of Production Pete Bart — moved fast to make a film adaption of The Godfather book.

Evans was a larger-than-life character that came out of nowhere to lead Paramount’s film division. Here’s how NYT described his life in a 2019 obituary:

A women’s pants salesman comes to Hollywood and jumps into the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, drawing the attention of an A-list actress. With her help, he begins an acting career, which leads lickety-split to the top job at Paramount Pictures. He helps deliver masterworks like “The Godfather” and “Chinatown.” A cocaine blizzard, legal spats and financial ruin come next.

Coppola has said that he felt Evans “needlessly meddled” in The Godfather’s production2 but Evans deserves credit for ultimately green-lighting the film.

There was one huge problem when Evans first started the project, though.

No director wanted to take on the project. Remember, this is before The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

Mob and criminal enterprises were not sexy content. Paramount even tried to make a a Sicilian mobster flick in 1968 with mega-star Kirk Douglas (The Brotherhood). It bombed hard.

4. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t want to do it: As Evans recalled of the project, “here I sit controlling the biggest book in the world, yet my company won’t make it and I can’t find a f**cking maestro to direct it.”

Twelve directors rejected the project including Coppola, who did not like the studio’s angle on The Godfather. He wanted an “intellectual film about power and succession” but the project was a “pseudo-Hollywood, Frank Sinatra story” that glamourized the mafia.

In fact, an Italian-American civil rights group protested the portrayal of Italians in the book and proposed film project. One of the leading activists was Anthony Colombo (his father was head of one of the Five NY Mafia Families). Colombo threatened to stonewall the production and, in the end, the words “mafia” and the Sicilian term La Cosa Nostra were “expunged” from the script, per The New York Times.

Paramount realized that Coppola — who is Italian-American — could deflect some of the criticism (previous Hollywood mob films were done by non-Italians). So the studio made a push to get him on board.

In the early 1970s, American Zoetrope — the film studio started by Lucas and Coppola — was struggling financially. While The Godfather was much more Hollywood than Coppola wanted, you know the saying: beggars can’t be choosers.

Lucas called the project a “life boat” and urged Coppola to “take the project, do whatever they want…get the money and we can do whatever we want.”

5. Dealing with the suits: Coppola agreed to do the project but wanted to focus the story around the concept of “family” and — this will sound familiar to HBO dramedy fans — succession (or as Coppola called it, “a king and his three sons” aka Vito and Michael, Sonny and Fredo).

The film later became a metaphor for American capitalism.

The corporate suits nominally yielded to Coppola’s vision but — as the book became more and more of an international smash — they started meddling in the production.

Paramount pushed for a “low budget, just get it out the door” type of film to capitalize on the book’s popularity. The studio pinched pennies in a number of ways:

  • They wanted the film set in contemporary times (1970s) vs. a period piece (1940s) so the set design and costumes would be cheaper

  • They wanted to film in St. Louis instead of New York, also to save dough

But that wasn’t even the worst meddling…

6. The cast: What I’m going to write seems unfathomable. The studio did not want the following actors in the film:

  • Marlon Brando: In 1955, Marlon Brando won Best Actor for On The Waterfront (“I coulda been a contender”). However, over the next decade and a half, his star fell and he gained a reputation as a toxic colleague. Coppola — and Puzo — wanted him for the lead, though. The studio initially balked, saying they’d only do it if Brando worked for free and if the actor put up $1m bond in the event that his misbehaviour delayed the project. Brando ended up making a bit more than “scale wage” on the film.

  • Al Pacino: A successful stage actor at the time, Coppola fought very hard to get Pacino the role as Michael Corleone (which he would reprise in the 2 sequels). The studio wanted Robert Redford. Based on the book’s description of Michael (tall, blonde, handsome), Redford actually made sense. But Coppola pushed and pushed for Pacino and it obviously worked out. 3

The rest of the main cast — Diane Keaton (Kay Adams), James Caan (Sonny Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Taila Shire (Connie Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagan) — was also not very well known. Coppola scratched and clawed to get them on the film.


Reflecting on the experience in 2016, Coppola said that dealing with the studio was “just the most frightening and depressing experience I think I’ve ever had. I had no power, and yet I had real opinions in how it should be done.”4

While filming the project, Coppola had to send daily footage to the studio team so they could keep tabs. They bitched the entire time: “Brando mumbles too much”. “The lighting is too dark”. “The angles aren’t good”. “The music sucks”.

Paramount even had a director waiting to take over the project if Coppola strayed too far. Ultimately, one scene saved him and the project. At the mid-point of The Godfather, Michael Corleone goes to a restaurant to confront two antagonists. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s one of Hollywood’s most iconic scenes:

The head of Gulf+Western loved the scene. And, from there, Coppola was allowed to complete the project. The film — which cost $7m to make — premiered on March 14th, 1972 and went on to pull in $287m at the box office.

The film also did very well at the 1973 Academy Awards.

But even that positive day had some hiccups. Brando didn’t show up to accept his Best Actor statue. He skipped the festivities to protest the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films. Sacheen Littlefeather — a Native American actress — went on stage in his place, refused the award and made a political statement.

When the film won Best Picture, a single Paramount producer (Albert S. Ruddy) went on stage and didn’t thank Coppola or the actors.

Coppola did get some shine, though. He accepted the award — for himself and Puzo — for Best Adapted Screenplay while rocking a baller green jacket.

In sum: everything about The Godfather is just surreal. Author Jenny M. Jones puts it perfectly in her book The Annotated Godfather:

“One can’t help but marvel [at how The Godfather] ever got made, when every conceivable obstacle stood in its way:

A writer who didn’t want to write it [Puzo].

A studio that didn’t want to produce it [Paramount].

A film no director would touch [12 turned it down].

A cast of unknowns [outside of Brando, who was toxic].

A community against it [Italian-American civil rights groups].

And yet, The Godfather succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations, to become one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces in history.”

Sources: If you have time, definitely watch The Godfather Trilogy: Behind The Scenes and Godfather: The Masterpiece That Almost Wasn’t YouTube videos (shout out to whoever Jack Traven is for uploading these gems). The New York Times also has a great interview with Al Pacino reflecting on the film’s 50th anniversary. And if you got a lot of time, check out Coppola’s recent interview with GQ (the 82-year old is spending $100m of his own money to make a new film epic).


Screenwriting gems from The Godfather

When it comes to The Godfather script itself, Coppola says that Puzo did the “heavy lifting” by writing the book (via The Annotated Godfather):

“My unique value to the film was gained due to my Italian-American upbringing and familiarity with New York Italians in the way that they spoke, their style and particular ambience as well as their priorities”

”As I said, Mario’s novel has done all of the hard work of character and story; however, after reading his first draft, I realized that the actual “moviecraft” would have to be done by me.”

”I wrote the script, mailed it to him in New York, and he sent it back with his handwritten comments on it. We did this back and forth a few times, and it was a good way to work; a good collaboration. His input was crucial and greatly improved the script.”

Speaking of “moviecraft”, the Script Sleuth YouTube channel has a fantastic breakdown of The Godfather script. I recommend watching the whole thing but wanted to flag these 2 items:

American Capitalism vs. The Mafia Life

As noted earlier, Coppola’s version of The Godfather is partly a metaphor about American capitalism and — more broadly — how it contrasts with the Mafia way of doing business.

Throughout the film, there are images highlighting the tension between the two:

  • The very first line in the movie is delivered by a Sicilian undertaker named Amerigo Bonasera (Amerigo, think about it). And he says, “I believe in America”. The scene itself is Bonasera asking Vito Corleone — the mafia don — for a “favor” because the American court system is unable to help him get justice for his daughter (who was sexually assaulted).

  • When we meet the Corleone family, Michael — who is the main protagonist for the entire Godfather series — is wearing a US soldier’s uniform while his family is dressed for a wedding. Michael’s military garb signifies his allegiance to America over this family (small spoiler alert: this allegiance changes by the end of the film).

  • During a mafia hit job, there is a long shot of a wheat field where the crime will take place. In the background, is The Statue of Liberty.

  • During the film’s mid-point, a pivotal scene takes place at a place called Louis Restaurant. The location is a “Italian-American” joint, signifying the two worlds at conflict (this is the same scene that allowed Coppola to finish the project).

Scene agitators

Here’s one more small technique. During many important conversations, loud (or crying) children are introduced into the scene to increase the tension.

As a father of a 4-year old, I can confirm that crying children do in fact increase the tension of any activity…especially those that involve a phone call.


Meme Dump: The Godfather edition

Ok, this first one isn’t a meme but it’s my favourite NBA quote ever. Shaq O’Neal compares himself to Vito Corleone and matches the superstar guards he’s played with — Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade — to each of the Corleone brothers:

“The difference between those three is the Godfather trilogy. One is Fredo, who was never ready for me to hand it over to him [Penny]. One is Sonny, who will do whatever it takes to be the man [Kobe]. And one is Michael, who if you watch the trilogy, the Godfather hands it over to Michael. So I have no problem handing it over to Dwyane.”

Yep, there’s an Instagram account called @TheGodfatherMemes:

And here are a bunch of Godfather references in The Simpson’s:

1

In a 1996 interview with NPR, Puzo said that The Godfather was the first screenplay he ever wrote. After winning 2 Oscar’s (The Godfather I and II), he decided to pick up a book on screenwriting: “And then the first chapter – the book said, study “Godfather I.” It’s the model of a screenplay.”

According to The Annotated Godfather, “Puzo felt excluded from the filming, and Paramount didn’t allow him to see the final cut when he wished to. He grudgingly realized he had no final say over the film….Speculation was that The Godfather Paper, Puzo’s memoirs published just before the film’s release, was going to be an angry expose. It turned out to be fairly tame in the criticism. While he vowed never to do another film unless he had final approval, Puzo did go on to write the screenplay for The Godfather Part II and Part II, and the first draft of Superman, among others.”

2

According to producer Pete Bart’s 1994 memoir, Evans played a crucial role in The Godfather’s post-production: “I watched as a superbly shot but ineptly put together film was transformed into a masterpiece.”

Footnote to Footnote: In 1983, Evans co-produced another Coppola film called The Cotton Club. His co-producer Roy Radin was killed in a murder-for-hire scheme during the film’s production (the motive behind the crime was that Radin cut someone out of the the making of The Cotton Club). Evans was a suspect in the case but ultimately cleared.

4

Producer Paul Bart said of The Godfather in 2006: “Making The Godfather was such an extraordinarily unpleasant experience in every aspect that I’ve avoided thinking about it or talking about 30 years.”