Monday, March 26, 2012
Merging art and commerce
— Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, March 18, 1972
By Edward Copeland
Picture this: The war Michael Corleone returns from at the beginning of The Godfather isn't World War II, but Vietnam. Perhaps Kay Adams looks more like a flower child (Diane Keaton had been a Member of the Tribe in the original Broadway production of Hair after all). Try to fathom what poor Fredo would be experimenting with once they sent him off to Las Vegas. If Paramount Pictures steamrolled over Francis Ford Coppola from the minute he agreed to direct the film, these things might not be theoretical flights of fancy. On the commentary track of The Godfather DVD, Coppola tells how when he climbed aboard the project, Paramount handed him a completed screenplay that the studio had developed, much as they financed the writing of the novel, with Mario Puzo. Only for some bizarre reason, while setting the story's beginnings in 1945 satisfied Paramount for the 1969 novel (which, remember, wasn't the blockbuster best seller yet as production plans began), it didn't work for a studio looking to make a quick feature on the cheap. The screenplay given to Coppola moved the events to the 1970s, added hippies and, according to Coppola, this quintessentially New York story would be filmed in Kansas City (though later in the commentary, Coppola refers to a plan to shoot it in St. Louis). "There was none of that post-war ambiance," Coppola said, which was one of the major attractions for him to the project in the first place since he didn't like the novel with its graphic sex and general tawdriness until he discovered the story of the family buried underneath the trash. I imagine that few people out there now have endured the actual reading of Mario Puzo's novel, which, awful as it is, spent 67 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Coppola's commentary, recorded in 2004, tries to be as nice as possible about the book because Puzo became a close friend right until his death in 1999. Pauline Kael's review of the movie goes into a lot of detail about the novel before she even starts writing about how good she thinks the movie turned out to be, but a few of her words give you who haven't read it a much better idea than my fuzzy memory of it could conjure.
"The movie starts from a trash novel that is generally considered gripping and readable, though (maybe because movies more than satisfy my appetite for trash) I found it unreadable.…Mario Puzo has a reputation as a good writer, so his potboiler was treated as if it were special, and not in the Irving Wallace-Harold Robbins class which, by its itch and hype and juicy roman-à-clef treatment, it plainly belongs.…The novel…features a Sinatra stereotype, and sex and slaughter, and little gobbets of trouble and heartbreak.…Francis Ford Coppola…has stayed very close to the book's greased-lightning sensationalism and yet has made a movie with the spaciousness and the strength that popular novels such as Dickens' used to have.…Puzo provided what Coppola needed: a storyteller's output of incidents and details to choose from, the folklore behind the headlines, heat and immediacy, the richly familiar. And Puzo's shameless turn-on probably left Coppola looser than if he had been dealing with a better book…"
Of course, Coppola had a long way to go and many battles to wage before that finished film could win Pauline's seal of approval.
Before we delve deeper into some of the behind-the-scenes brouhahas, I do want to pause for a moment to mention the one detail of the novel still trapped in my brain that convinced me the book stunk. Admittedly, this stretch of Puzo's work thoroughly amused friends of mine around the same age (junior high), who found the entire sequence hysterical. On the commentary, Coppola raises this, though he can't bring himself to talk about it in clinical detail, other than to say the lengthy plot point stood as a key factor in his thinking long and hard about whether or not he wanted to make a film version of this book. Now, the movie does show that James Caan's Sonny Corleone gets laid a lot, but that's nothing compared to Puzo's description of Santino. In the novel, covered over many pages, readers learn that Sonny isn't just a lothario, he happens to be a well-endowed lothario. Apparently, when standing at full attention, Sonny proves to be so mammoth in size that his mistress (who eventually will give birth to Andy Garcia for The Godfather Part III) requires corrective gynecological surgery because just having sex with him disfigures her vagina. (She needed the surgery or Baby Andy Garcia might have just slid out like a bowling ball through the return, dangling between her legs by the umbilical cord.) I know what you are thinking — did the Farrelly brothers help Puzo write The Godfather? I have no evidence to support such a rumor, though Peter was 15 and Bobby was 13 when the novel came out, so the two had hit the correct age for that kind of humor — and with The Godfather turning into such a huge hit, who could blame them for never wanting to abandon that mentality? Anyway, Coppola wisely decided that the film could leave out that part of the story, but what he did do borders on genius. He alludes to it by a simple, visual gag by unnamed female wedding guests after they spot Sonny sneaking off with his mistress for an assignation.
In Kael's review, she writes that Puzo claims that he wrote the novel "below my gifts" because he needed the money (other stories report that Puzo was drowning in gambling debts at the time). Coppola, Kael similarly said, told everyone he took the film for the money. Though he never makes that case on the DVD commentary, most stories sound different depending on the storyteller and evidence exists that Kael had the story correct when she penned that Coppola sought the cash so he could make the movies that he wanted to make. In Kael's opinion, Puzo taking the dough turned out a much worse result than Coppola doing it for the money did. "(Coppola) has salvaged Puzo's energy and lent the narrative dignity," Kael opined. First, he had to land that job. Mark Seal wrote a fascinating look of the events surrounding the making of the film in the March 2009 edition of Vanity Fair titled "The Godfather Wars." In it, he chronicled Coppola's initial reluctance to take the job as well as Paramount, which back then had the oil company Gulf & Western as its parent, considering selling the property instead of ponying up the money to make it. According to Seal's article, Coppola's chief cheerleader for the job at Paramount was Peter Bart, then vice president in charge of creative affairs at the studio. Bart later would run Variety before leaving as the once powerful trade paper went into its death throes, with its probable mercy killing appearing imminent any day now.
"Bart felt that Coppola would not be expensive and would work with a small budget. Coppola passed on the project, confessing that he had tried to read Puzo’s book but, repulsed by its graphic sex scenes, had stopped at page 50. He had a problem, however: he was broke. His San Francisco–based independent film company, American Zoetrope, owed $600,000 to Warner Bros., and his partners, especially George Lucas, urged him to accept. “Go ahead, Francis,” Lucas said. “We really need the money. What have you got to lose?” Coppola went to the San Francisco library, checked out books on the Mafia, and found a deeper theme for the material. He decided it should be not a film about organized crime but a family chronicle, a metaphor for capitalism in America."
When Robert Evans, then-head of production at Paramount, heard what Coppola thought the story should be, Evans thought the young director had lost it. More importantly, he feared that Paramount execs above him such as studio president Stanley Jaffe would sell the rights. Burt Lancaster had offered $1 million for them because he lusted after the role of Don Corleone for himself. The top studio brass weren't as hot as Evans on making the film anyway. Seal's account says "the studio bosses didn’t want to make the movie. Mob films didn’t play, they felt, as evidenced by their 1969 flop The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas as a Sicilian gangster." Evans employed a last-ditch maneuver in hopes of keeping The Godfather, Seal recounts further. "(H)e dispatched Coppola to New York to meet with (Gulf & Western Chairman Charlie) Bluhdorn. Coppola’s presentation persuaded Bluhdorn to hire him. Immediately, he began re-writing the script with Mario Puzo, and the two Italian-Americans grew to love each other.'Puzo was an absolutely wonderful man,' says Coppola. 'To sum him up, when I put a line in the script describing how to make sauce and wrote, ‘First you brown some garlic,’ he scratched that out and wrote, ‘First you fry some garlic. Gangsters don’t brown.’'" Crisis averted. Now Coppola and Paramount just had each other to fight, especially about casting.
Since they thwarted Burt Lancaster's dream of playing Vito, Coppola and crew would need an actor to play the don. During discussions, according to Coppola's commentary track, they determined that the Don needed to be played by one of the world's greatest actors and Coppola narrowed that list to two men — Brando, who being in his 40s at the time was younger than the sixtysomething Corleone, and Laurence Olivier, who was in the right age range, seen in the photo at the left as he looked in 1973 in a television production of The Merchant of Venice playing the original Shylock. When casting The Godfather though, representatives described Olivier's health to them as precarious, almost implying the bell would soon toll for the actor. Of course, this wasn't the case and Olivier recovered soon enough that when Brando won the best actor Oscar for 1972 for playing Vito, Olivier held one of the other four nominations for Sleuth and didn't die until 1989. While Brando did get the part, the studio fought like hell to prevent it. His reputation as difficult and eccentric superseded his reputation as brilliant in their collective minds and it took a screen test, makeup tests and many promises that he'd be on his best behavior before Paramount agreed to let him play the part. Aside from his usual pranks on the set (such as in the scene when two men carry Vito upstairs on a gurney and he secretly added hundreds of pounds of weights beneath the sheet to watch them struggle), Brando actually stayed on his best behavior. Brando saved his only stunt for Oscar night when the world met a Native American woman who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather. (Digression: Coppola won Oscars for adapted screenplay three times: for the first two Godfathers and for Patton. Twice, the films also won best actor and both times, the actors refused to accept the Oscar — though George C. Scott announced in advance he wouldn't if he won and had said the same when nominated for The Hustler.) Imagine another scenario, one Paramount considered before Coppola's hiring. At one point, they seriously planned to cast Danny Thomas as the senior Corleone. I don't know if the film's title would have changed to Make Room for Godfather.
Casting Vito turned out to be a breeze compared to many names floated to play Michael before Coppola was involved and the director and Paramount displaying equal intransigence about who should play Michael. From the beginning, Coppola visualized the actors as certain characters in his head, going so far as to bring them down to American Zoetrope's San Francisco offices before any discussions with the studio. In his mind, Sonny always looked like James Caan and no one but Al Pacino played Michael. Back when it looked as if Danny Thomas would be playing the Don, the Gulf & Western CEO approached Warren Beatty not only to take the part of Michael but to produce and direct the film as well, Beatty told Mark Seal. This was 1970, not even a full three years since Bonnie and Clyde. Beatty said to Bluhdorn, "Charlie, not another gangster movie!" Film lovers reaped the rewards of Beatty refusing that offer, not only because ultimately it would lead to Coppola and Pacino in The Godfather but because instead Beatty teamed with Robert Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Other actors considered for Michael, some who actually received offers and turned them down included Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O’Neal, David Carradine and Jack Nicholson. One thing became clear: Once Paramount determined that it would make the film, it fought about everything. They hated the idea of Pacino as Michael. Evans told Coppola that Pacino was too short for the part and that "a runt" couldn't play Michael. Caan called up Coppola before the film started and informed him that the studio and just offered him the part of Michael. Not only had Coppola always envisioned Caan as Sonny, he viewed the character as the Americanized one and that Michael should look more traditionally Italian which Pacino did and Caan did not, especially since Caan's ancestry was Jewish not Italian. The studio relented long enough to get production started, though Coppola just knew he'd be fired at any time so, as an insurance policy, he scheduled Michael's killing of Sollozzo and police Capt. McCluskey (Al Lettieri, Sterling Hayden) for the first week of filming. Coppola credits this memorable sequence, seen in the clip below, for selling the studio on Pacino and saving his job — temporarily, but the director continued to feel at risk as the studio tried to undermine his ideas at nearly every turn.
Robert Evans didn't like Nino Rota's score. Coppola decided to start playing rough with the studio. His certainty that he could be fired any moment freed him in a way so he began telling them to fire him each time the studio wanted to change something important to him. That music qualified as one of those for Coppola. Evans wouldn't budge, so they agreed to let a screening decide. The audience loved the movie so much, no one even noticed the score, if you can believe that. Another time, the studio complained that the film didn't have enough "action" in it and told Coppola that they planned to send an action director to the set to see how to pick it up. To beat them to the punch, so to speak, he came up with the scene where Connie (Talia Shire) gets into a huge fight with Carlo (Gianni Russo) when she intercepts a phone call from a woman and assumes he's cheating on her. She starts throwing every dish in the apartment at him. Coppola's young son even got in on the fun — handing objects to his aunt from offscreen for her to let fly. If the studio wasn't bitching about scenes they didn't see, they'd whine about ones that they told him should be coming out. On the commentary track, Coppola refers specifically about a studio hack that he doesn't name since the man has died who constantly appeared on the set saying, "We don't need that scene" or "That scene has been cut." Fortunately, on some sequences, Coppola covered the sequences with two cameras so when this man showed up to try to stop the famous scene of the Don's death in the garden while playing with his grandson, Coppola was able to shut off one to appease him while the second camera continued to work. The studio particularly hated that scene because of the costs associated with flying in the tomatoes and the hack's belief that just cutting from the previous scene to Vito's funeral would make the point just as well. The other incident when Coppola believed his firing was imminent concerned the scene where Brando as the Don met with Sollozzo. The studio only would tell Coppola that something dissatisfied them about the scene. Coppola offered to reshoot it, but he was informed that wouldn't be necessary so he knew what that meant. Then, on the commentary, he offers one of his many pieces of advice that he directs specifically for young filmmakers. They'll never fire you on a Wednesday. They'll always wait until Friday, wanting to use the weekend for a smoother transition. Coppola realized he wasn't just making a movie. If he famously described the making of Apocalypse Now as Vietnam, then shooting The Godfather paralleled mob warfare so Coppola hit them before the studio could whack him. Coppola fired four people that day — assistant directors and others that he suspected as being the traitors, and threw Paramount into disarray. With those four gone, he reshot the scene, Paramount didn't object any longer and Coppola didn't get the axe. The final battle over the film came down to the editing process itself. Coppola wanted to cut the film in his San Francisco studios, Paramount wanted to cut it in L.A. Evans relented, but warned Coppola that if he turned in a movie with a running time longer than 2 hours and 15 minutes, they'd move editing to Los Angeles. The first cut ran 2 hours and 45 minutes. Coppola got brutal, removing anything that added color or could be considered extraneous. When done, he had trimmed it to 2 hours and 20 minutes. He took his chances and delivered that to Paramount in L.A. Evans complained that he cut all the color and best stuff and they were moving the editing to L.A.. Coppola realized they would have done that no matter what, but they basically put back everything he cut and then some ending up with the cut we know that's just five minutes short of three hours.
Once the film had finished and it became abundantly clear that Coppola had made a hit for Paramount, they loved him. Its very limited opening weekend in merely six theaters took in $302,393 (an average of $50,398 per screen). That calculates today to $1,646,978.41 on six screens for a $274,491.86 per screen average. As The Godfather became a bigger hit, Coppola didn't get to enjoy its early success because now that Paramount valued him so much, Robert Evans begged him to come help re-write Jack Clayton's troubled adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford. For three weeks, Coppola says he was "pulling his hair out" trying to fix that. In the end, Coppola doesn't think that Clayton used any of his revisions in the dreadful Gatsby adaptation, which might end up looking better once Baz "Short Attention Span" Luhrmann releases his 3D version of Fitzgerald's masterpiece.
"I felt so embarrassed…I was very unhappy during The Godfather. I had been told by everyone that my ideas for it were so bad and I didn't have a helluva lot confidence in myself — I was only 30 years old or so — and I was just hangin' on by my wits…I had no idea that this nightmare was going to turn into a successful film much less a film that would become a classic."
Well, maybe directing a movie isn't always fun, at least that's Coppola's recollection of his time on The Godfather. He shot the film for $6.5 million in 52 days, but he admits he felt like an outsider on his own set. (Since it did become a huge blockbuster, Part II received a budget bump to $11 million and they actually got to go on location for shooting.) He speaks honestly about how the great cinematographer Gordon Willis and other crewmembers wondered why Coppola got the job. They didn't quite understand things that he tried but by the sequel, that had all changed. That took some time to happen though. Willis, the man who deserves much of the credit for the film's great look, often shook his head at Coppola's ideas. He particularly disdained high shots, though Coppola made him do some anyway, specifically when they try to kill Vito so you can see the oranges roll into the street and during the Sollozzo killing. Coppola recounts one incident when nature called and as he sat in the bathroom stall, two crewmembers walked in, unaware of Coppola's presence. "What do you think of this director?" one asked the other. "Boy, he doesn't know anything. What an asshole he is!" the other replied. It didn't help Coppola's confidence. Listening to his commentary, it doesn't just illuminate the history of the film's production, you also hear Coppola react to things that still bother him because of the cheap production such as obvious stock footage of cars driving in New York in the 1940s or cheap second unit shots of signs in Las Vegas. The low budget did force some ingenuity on him as well. When it came time to film the sequence where Michael goes to the hospital to see his recovering father and notices the lack of security, they didn't realize until editing that not enough suspense had been built up because where they filmed had such limited space. George Lucas searched through discarded strips of films for shots made of the hospital corridor and they strung them together to give the illusion that it was longer and to increase the suspense. Late in production, there turned out to be several scenes that Coppola realized they needed, the most important being that he'd failed to write a one-on-one scene between Pacino and Brando. Since he was in a frenzy as it was, he called up his friend Robert Towne and he quickly cranked out that memorable scene where Vito tells Michael what to watch out for and expresses regrets that he has assumed his role as don since he never wanted that life for him. He dreamed of a "Senator Corleone" or "Governor Corleone." Finally, Vito sighs, "There just wasn't enough time." "We'll get there, pop. We'll get there," Michael replies. One of the best-written scenes in the entire film came from a screenwriter who received no credit for it. Forget it Robert, it's Hollywood.
The Godfather comes stocked with so many memorable sequences, it's damn near impossible to list them all, but perhaps the most famous one of all, one which Coppola conceived for the movie, remains the most imitated of them all. Coppola himself tried to do variations in both of the Godfather sequels but, as with most things, it's hard to top the original. The ending killing spree montage surrounding the baptism of Carlo and Connie's newborn son with Michael standing by to be the child's godfather came about as a matter of practicality. In the novel, the revenge taken on the heads of the five families and Bugsy Siegel-stand-in Moe Green out in Vegas (played briefly but memorably by the great Alex Rocco) covered about 30 pages or so in the book. In the script, Coppola needed to condense that to two pages. As coincidence would have it, around the same time of the contemplation about how to accomplish this, Coppola's wife gave birth to future Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola. Baby Sofia wasted no time joining the family business, even though she took on the acting challenge of portraying a baby boy. Her birth inspired Coppola to unify the killings around the baptism ceremony, something that seemed even more appropriate once he reminded himself of the specific baptism text. "Do you renounce Satan?" Still, Coppola said that the ingredient that makes the sequence truly work came courtesy of co-editor Peter Zinner who added the organ tract. Play the clip and try to imagine the sequence without that organ. I think Coppola has that exactly right.
Now, one final time I'm going to plug the Vanity Fair article from 2009 by Mark Seal called "The Godfather Wars". It's online and free and I was tempted to use a lot of material from it, but I had to cut somewhere so I didn't get into the really juicy stuff involving the real Frank Sinatra, the real mobsters and the interaction between the Mafia and the studios. Hell, I didn't even go into the story of who the real Johnny Fontane might have been. It's all in there, so it's worth reading. However, I'm not done. The Godfather was a trilogy after all, so I have one more post coming, which mostly will just me talking about what I think about the film itself with a little bit of other gangster-related entertainment thrown it. I give you my word: I'll do my damnedest to make certain that my third part turns out better than Coppola's did. I end with one last bit from Seal's piece, relating to something from the novel and what Mario Puzo said once.
"One of the most quoted lines from Puzo’s novel never made it to the screen: 'A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.' Before his death, in 1999, Puzo said in a symposium, 'I think the movie business is far more crooked than Vegas, and, I was going to say, than the Mafia.'”