The making of The Godfather
It’s now considered a movie classic, says Peter Bart, but the filming was a fiasco of ego and insecurity
FROM THE MOMENT The Godfather hit the best-seller list, early in 1969, Bob Evans and I knew that the rules of the game would change. As the heads of production at Paramount, we had been dealing with this underdog project — a manuscript by an obscure author, Mario Puzo, which had been transformed into a gripping screenplay by a still-obscure writer-director, Francis Coppola. But now The Godfather had become, by Hollywood standards, a hot property. "I suppose we should be thrilled about this," I told Evans, "but I feel a chill, not a thrill."
Within days, my chill seemed prescient. Million-dollar offers to buy the book arrived from top producers like Dino De Laurentiis and stars like Burt Lancaster. Next came the second-guessing from the hierarchs in New York. Every top executive at Paramount and at Gulf & Western, the parent company, was now poring through The Godfather and knew exactly who should direct the film and star in it.
When I reminded everyone that Coppola was already working on the script, the news elicited a uniform indifference. Why put a lightweight director on a heavyweight film? I was asked. My colleagues had also conveniently forgotten that I had assigned the producing job to Albert S. Ruddy, a savvy young producer who I felt had the toughness and dedication to pull off what was becoming an increasingly controversial project.
Ruddy, a tall, shambling guy who affected a mobster-like voice, had a great appreciation of the absurd and a willingness to laugh off setbacks, traits that would save us both. Our plan was to bring in The Godfather for somewhere between $5 million and $6 million. The key was to forge an inexpensive deal with Marlon Brando, whose career was ice cold, then bring aboard some gifted young actors to fill out the cast.
When this plan became public, other, "better" casting ideas again came pouring in. Various agents proposed everyone from Sonny Tufts to Anthony Quinn to play Vito Corleone. As weeks of indecision rolled by, it became clear that the company had been immobilized by the dazzling worldwide success of the novel.
"It’s time to bite the bullet," I finally said to Evans. "Let’s send Coppola to talk to Bluhdorn." Charles Bluhdorn, the chairman of Gulf & Western, was known to his associates as the Führer. He was a coarse man with a guttural accent, frenzied energy, and the instincts of a true gambler. "And then let’s send in Ruddy," I said. "We have a plan, so let’s press all the buttons."
"A Charlie meeting will be a massacre," Evans replied.
As it turned out, Bluhdorn reacted enthusiastically. Coppola eloquently spun out his approach to a father-son story, explaining how the creation of a Mafia dynasty was analogous to the building of America. Ruddy was, typically, more direct. "We’re going to make a terrifyingly realistic movie about the kind of people you understand and love," he told the chairman. It was a calculated risk: Bluhdorn was sensitive about rumors that he was dealing with shady financiers who had ties to the Mob, but he took it in good humor.
The issue of casting was the next barrier. At the first mention of Brando’s name, Bluhdorn launched into a tirade that he was "box-office poison." When Coppola said he favored Al Pacino for the role of Michael, Stanley Jaffe, the 30-year-old president of Paramount, snorted that "the Pacino kid" was too young and inexperienced. Evans advocated Jimmy Caan for Michael Corleone, Bluhdorn proposed Charlie Bronson for Vito, and, again, chaos prevailed. Offers went out to Jack Nicholson, David Carradine, even Danny Thomas. Screen tests were shot in New York with a range of film and TV actors.
Coppola confided to me that he had organized his own surreptitious screen tests in San Francisco and had invited Jimmy Caan, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton to participate. Next Coppola tried an even shrewder ploy. He went to Brando’s house on Mulholland Drive, atop Hollywood, with a skeleton crew, telling the actor that he wanted to shoot some trial footage in an effort to get a "take" on the character of the Godfather.
Brando, attired in a kimono to conceal his girth, welcomed the young director. He had read the book again and felt that, whoever played the part, the actor should speak in a slurred manner — he had been shot in the throat at one time and his soft gravelly voice would carry more authority.
To Coppola’s delight, Brando had started to get into the part. He stuffed Kleenex into his mouth, causing his jaw to jut out. He blackened his hair with shoe polish and put on a jacket with a rolled-back collar. When he started speaking his lines, Marlon Brando had become the Godfather.
BRANDO WAS OFFERED actor’s scale up front and 5 percent of gross receipts when the film grossed $50 million. Brando’s attorney, Norman Gary, pleaded for at least $100,000 to help the actor avoid tax delinquency. In exchange Brando agreed to return his points in the movie — a deal which would ultimately cost him at least $11 million.
Still, no one could agree on the rest of the cast. Coppola, having won on Brando, was vehemently demanding Al Pacino for the pivotal role of Michael. Evans disagreed. "The guy’s no gangster," Evans told Coppola. With four weeks left before the start of shooting, the debate continued. Evans realized he had no movie unless he gave his blessing to Pacino, but insisted that Caan get the role of Sonny.
In March 1971, Coppola was finally given the green light to shoot his film. Coppola had won most of his casting battles, yet he still — understandably — felt under siege. His cinematographer, Gordon Willis, was innovative but cantankerous. His editor, Aram Avakian, was secretive and vaguely critical.
Then there were rumblings from the Mob itself. Several of the bad boys found their way onto the set. A peace treaty was arranged, but Evans received a threatening phone call, and a bomb scare cleared out the Gulf & Western Building.
The atmosphere on the set was chaotic. Coppola’s screenplay ran to 163 pages, which was roughly 40 pages too long. Willis, his cameraman, was behaving disrespectfully toward his director. "You’re not using your actors right," he declared in a loud voice. Brando was mumbling his dialogue, still finding his way into his character.
The next flash point was prompted by the dailies. The first scenes were so dark that both Evans and I simultaneously removed our glasses, checking that we hadn’t been wearing sunglasses. "I can’t understand Brando and I can’t see the actors — other than that the work is great," Evans said, his voice laden with sarcasm.
As the movie moved into its second and third weeks, my primary concern was that Coppola was isolating himself. I called him every day in an effort to extend support. "If you wanted to go for that exaggerated dark look, why didn’t you prepare us for it?" I asked. "I’m on your side. I would have prepared my colleagues."
"I’m fixing it. Willis is an asshole."
"But he’s your asshole. You hired him. Talk to people, Francis. This is not the time to brood; it’s the time to lead."
"Things are getting better," he replied.
But they weren’t. Members of the supporting cast were feeling the angst. Duvall told friends he was persuaded that Coppola would be fired within two or three weeks. Pacino was drinking heavily every night, convinced he would be fired the next day.
The day after my conversation with Coppola, a palace coup broke out. To my astonishment, Jack Ballard, a Paramount executive, announced on a conference call that Coppola "wasn’t up to the job." He wanted Avakian, the editor, as the director.
"What the hell’s going on?" I demanded of Evans. "I’m not willing to throw Coppola to the wolves, are you?"
Evans seemed distracted.
"This whole situation is getting to be like a Mafia plot," I continued. "Ruddy’s people in New York believe Avakian is sabotaging the dailies."
"Francis can deliver. I know he can," Evans said. "We’ve got to restore order, otherwise the movie will unravel."
"Please call Coppola," I said. "Tell him that the studio is behind him. And I’m telling Jack Ballard to crawl into a f---ing hole." While Evans may have had mixed feelings about his director, he now sprang into firm support mode. Not only did he calm the edgy Coppola with the appropriate reassurances, but he also told the corporate team to back off.
Coppola responded well to Evans’s vote of confidence. I visited the set fairly often now and was pleased by the emerging camaraderie. Coppola was managing Brando with special respect and patience.
"Francis is starting to act like a director," Ruddy told me. "In good ways and bad ways."
EVANS AND COPPOLA had "differences" about the running time of the movie. Coppola had delivered a print at two hours and 10 minutes, which Evans correctly felt was too stark. Coppola’s curt response was that Evans wanted to add material that he had cut so Evans could claim credit for "saving" the movie.
Coppola went into an angry sulk. Evans had become obsessive about the subtle moments and nuances in the film that the director had overlooked in his editing. He felt that if he could seclude himself in an editing room, his vision of The Godfather would be vastly superior to the one that Coppola had delivered.
"You’ve delivered a trailer, not a movie," Evans snapped at one point.
"Bob Evans’s ego is running rampant," Coppola told anyone who would listen, including the press.
Though Evans had not previously suffered back pain, he was now in such agony that he needed to remain on a hospital-type gurney. The bed was wheeled in and out of the editing room, where Evans remained during 18-hour days. Back in San Francisco, Coppola read an item in a gossip column about Evans’s new mission in life — that he was working night and day to salvage The Godfather. Coppola reacted by firing off an irate letter, insisting that his film did not require "salvaging." Steadfast, Evans kept working. Now and then Coppola would glimpse some scenes and give his comments. A few times a week, Evans would summon me to the editing room and we would exchange ideas.
One evening Evans and I ran about 90 minutes of the re-edited film. After the screening we both sat in silence for a while. "I think it’s becoming a movie," he said.
I was in a daze. "It’s really taking shape," I said in a noncommittal voice.
When I got home, I went to my den and tried to sort out my feelings. Amid all the noise and rancor, an absolutely brilliant movie was somehow coming together. Had I become lost in self-delusion? I wondered. Or was this nightmare somehow becoming a transcendent experience — one that could change the lives of everyone involved? I decided not to share my ruminations with any of my colleagues.
From Infamous Players, by Peter Bart. ©2011 by Peter Bart, reprinted by permission of Weinstein Books.