To Make 'The Godfather' His Way, Francis Ford Coppola Waged A Studio Battle
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we continue our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year with Francis Ford Coppola. I spoke with him about writing and directing his masterpiece "The Godfather" in November after the publication of "The Godfather Notebook." The book is a reproduction of the notebook he put together as he prepared to make the film. It contains his thoughts about each scene, including the pitfalls he wanted to avoid. The notebook also includes pages from the novel that the movie is based on, Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather," with Coppola's notes in the margins. The movie starts with these words...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")
SALVATORE CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) I believe in America. Americans made my fortune.
GROSS: That's the character Bonasera, who has come to the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone, to ask a favor. Bonasera's daughter was brutally beaten after she resisted two boys who had tried to take advantage of her. Bonasera says he went to the police, like a good American. The boys were tried in court, but the judge gave them a suspended sentence, and they went free that very day. Now Bonasera wants revenge against those boys. The Godfather, played by Marlon Brando, offers this response.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")
MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel or for help. I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife was godmother to your only child. But let's be frank here, you never wanted my friendship, and you were afraid to be in my debt.
CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) I didn't want to get into trouble.
BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) I understand. You found paradise in America. You had a good trade, made a good living, police protected you and there were courts of law and you didn't need a friend like me. But now you come to me and you say Don Corleone, give me justice. But you don't ask with respect, you don't offer friendship, you don't even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter's to be married, and you ask me to do murder for money.
CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) I ask you for justice.
BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.
CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) Let them suffer then, as she suffers. How much shall I pay you?
BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you'd come to me in friendship, then the scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then he would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.
CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) Be my friend, Godfather?
BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) Good. Someday, and that day might never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this gesture as a gift on my daughter's wedding day.
CORSITTO: (As Bonasera) Grazie, Godfather.
BRANDO: (As Don Vito Corleone) Prego.
GROSS: Francis Ford Coppola, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's such an interesting way to start the movie because we're starting the movie by looking at a man, tight close-up of his face. We don't yet know who he is. He's speaking, then it pulls back and then we see he's speaking to Brando, and then we hear Brando speak, you know, Don Corleone. So why did you make that the opening of the movie?
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Well, actually, I was working on the screenplay in a little cottage, one-room cottage, in Mill Valley. And I had begun the sequence with the wedding itself, you know, the looser shots of the people coming, the guests and the 40s and what have you. And I had maybe 15 pages when a friend of mine, a screenwriter named Bill Cannon, his name was, I remember, and he came and visited me. And I said, well, you want to see the first 15 pages?
And he looked at them, he says, you know, Francis, you did such a good opening on "Patton," that was such a striking opening for the "Patton" movie, couldn't you do something more like that, something more unusual, that kind of got you into it? And I thought, well, there was, you know, some truth to that. So after he left, I had the idea to begin in this way, with this very, very close shot of the supplicant undertaker, Bonasera, and then slowly reveal out of the darkness this - the Don's studio as opposed to the brightly-lit wedding scene. The various characters - you know, the - Brando himself, his son, Sonny, and what have you. And I rewrote the opening and added it to the screenplay.
GROSS: Are there ideas and images, stories from your own family that you put in that opening wedding scene?
COPPOLA: Oh, absolutely. I knew nothing about five crime families which had recently become exposed to the public with the publication of "The Valachi Papers." But neither did Mario Puzo, who was also Italian-American. But he knew nothing about it, and he wanted to write this book sort of to get some money for his family. He thought it could be commercial, and he did everything on research. He knew nothing. He never had met any of these figures, and he advised me never to meet them, which I never did.
GROSS: (Laughter) What about after the movie? Did you meet any of them then?
COPPOLA: You know, I always - Mario Puzo was just a wonderful man. And I always took his advice to heart. And once when I was working on "Godfather Part III," which in my mind was the death of Michael Corleone title, I was in this video truck which had only one door. And there was a knock on the door and a fellow who was, you know, sort of helping me and guarding me, as it was, came in and says John Gotti is here and would like to come pay his respects.
And, you know, I remember Mario Puzo saying never, never know them, never meet them, never be a friend of theirs because they're very charming. And I said, well, tell him I can't possibly do it. I'm busy, in the middle of something. And the fellow went out and told him and he just went away. You know, I always thought of these figures of the crime family sort of like the old myth of vampires, which a vampire can only come into your life if you invite him to step over your threshold.
COPPOLA: But if you don't invite him, then he - then they won't.
GROSS: I'm sure people who were in the mob would be very flattered to hear that comparison to vampires (laughter).
COPPOLA: Well, you know, unfortunately, they are Italians and Americans, but they were not human beings that acted beyond being like animals, in my opinion.
GROSS: Did you worry, though, that the film was setting the wrong example because the characters became such heroes of popular culture and there were Italian-Americans who felt that, like, you were discrediting Italian-Americans?
COPPOLA: Well, you know, in truth, I was worried about so many things during the making of...
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.
COPPOLA: ...That movie.
COPPOLA: You know, I was, like, about 29 when I started. I had two kids and one about to be born. I had absolutely no money. I was making what had become a more important film than it was when I got the opportunity because the book had continued to become more and more important. And I had no power and yet I had real opinions on how it should be done. And I was always just trying to bluff the studio to let me, you know, do it my way. And it was just the most frightening and depressing experience I think I've ever had.
GROSS: I'm sorry to hear it. Thank you so much for making the movie in spite of that. So you write that when you actually - you were invited to direct the movie by the studio, by Paramount.
COPPOLA: Right and...
GROSS: Then you sat down and read the book, and you write (reading) I read it eagerly but barely finished it.
And you almost didn't make the movie because you didn't really like the book in spite of the nice things you said about Mario Puzo. What didn't you like about the book?
COPPOLA: Well, I had thought from its title and intriguing logo and the name Mario Puzo that this was a kind of an Italian intellectual writer, like a kind of, you know, more - something - and it was going to be a piece about the subject of power. And while, indeed, it was about power, I found the book itself more like a kind of best-seller attempt, like an Irving Wallace book.
People don't remember it, but maybe a third, if not more, of the book concerned this young woman, Lucy Mancini, and her private anatomy problems and the love affair with the doctor who fixed them. And I just couldn't believe how low-class that was. But that was, you know, not included in the movie, and so it didn't harm the remaining part, which we all know.
GROSS: Did you ever tell Mario Puzo your thoughts about the novel?
COPPOLA: Sure. He knew. And, you know, he had written a beautiful book called "The Fortunate Pilgrim," which he felt was the best book he ever wrote, which also was about immigrants. But it was very respected by writers. And it was a beautiful book, but it didn't make money. And, you know, like so many Italian immigrants he adored his children. He wanted to give his children some - you know, a better life, and he wrote this hoping it could make a lot of money for himself.
GROSS: It did (laughter).
COPPOLA: And it did.
GROSS: Yeah. The Mario Puzo novel "The Godfather" is set in the '70s. The movie, "Part I," is set - you know, starts out in the mid-1940s, just after World War II. Why did you want to change the time that it was set in?
COPPOLA: I didn't change the time. That's the way the novel is. The novel starts out exactly - I was very loyal to the novel after I had derived what the movie would be. And it was set in the '40s. That was one of my first arguments with the producers, was I felt it should be set in the '40s. They had wanted and really had a script set...
GROSS: Oh, they wanted it set in the '70s.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
COPPOLA: And you know why, of course. If you make a movie during the contemporary period that the movie's being made, you don't have to have special cars. You don't have to have special costumes. You don't have to spend all of that money trying to create a period.
GROSS: I see. OK. So that was one of your first fights with the studio.
COPPOLA: Very big fight because they had planned to use this script - I mean, the script had hippies in it because it was being - going to be set in the '70s. And the studio was just - had this young director who was hired mainly because he was Italian-American and they figured that would possibly be good in terms of saying, well, an Italian made the film. And also, I was - had some acclaim as a screenwriter, and they knew the script needed to be worked on. So they figured they'd get a free rewrite out of it, which they did. And also, I was young and had no power, so they figured they could just boss me around, which they proceeded to begin to do.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Francis Ford Coppola. And his newly published book is called "The Godfather Notebook." But as he says, it's actually an old book. It's the book he wrote for himself. It's his notes to himself on the making of "The Godfather." So we're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Francis Ford Coppola. And his newly published book, "The Godfather Notebook," is his notebook of notes to himself when he was setting out to make the film.
So the book that was just published, "The Godfather Notebook," is what you describe as your prompt book. And you say this is the kind of book that usually, like - what, like, stage managers used with, like, lighting cues and exits. You also have your notes to yourself. You have summaries of each scene and you have what you call the core idea of each scene. This is an idea that you borrowed from Elia Kazan.
So I want to play a scene, and then I'm going to ask you what the core idea was. So this is a scene at the wedding early in the film. And Michael, played by Al Pacino, is explaining to his girlfriend Kay, played by Diane Keaton, that his father knows the famous singer Johnny Fontane, who has just showed up at the wedding. And Kay says, like, gee, how does your father know him? And then Michael explains. And in explaining, he explains a little bit about the family business.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")
AL PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Now, when Johnny was first starting out, he was signed to this personal service contract with a big band leader. And as his career got better and better, he wanted to get out of it. Now, Johnny is my father's godson. And my father went to see this man. And he offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go, but the band leader said no. So the next day, my father went to see him, only this time with Luca Brasi. And within an hour, he signed a release for a certified check of $1,000.
DIANE KEATON: (As Kay Adams) Well, how'd he do that?
PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
KEATON: (As Kay Adams) What was that?
PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. That's a true story. That's my family, Kay. It's not me.
GROSS: That's my family, Kay. It's not me. So what was the core idea of that scene?
COPPOLA: Well, Michael's dressed in the uniform of a Marine, and Kay is clearly his non-Italian - or WASP, as Mario would say - girlfriend. And the core of the scene was - so it means he's serious about her. And the core of the scene is that Michael discloses that his family, as charming as they may appear, are really murderers.
GROSS: So in your notebook, you write that clearly Johnny, the singer, is a movie star. And you write, should you cast the only star in the movie in that role, and - though Brando was already a star, so...
COPPOLA: But Brando wasn't cast yet.
GROSS: Oh, he wasn't cast yet. OK. So were you thinking of casting Eddie Fisher? Did I read that right?
COPPOLA: Yeah, for Johnny Fontane, I liked very much Eddie Fisher, although he was not Italian. But I also liked Vic Damone. I had several thoughts.
GROSS: And what happened?
COPPOLA: I don't remember what happened with Eddie Fisher, but Vic Damone politely declined. Vic Damone was known to, you know, know that Frank Sinatra was not so happy about the reference. And, you know, they were afraid.
GROSS: Afraid of retribution from Sinatra or from people Sinatra was connected with?
COPPOLA: All the above.
GROSS: In each scene in your notebook, you have a list of pitfalls you might fall into. And perhaps the most common one that you're worried about is cliche. What were your - some of your biggest worries about turning the material into cliches?
COPPOLA: Well, having been raised in the family of Italian-Americans who - all of them were accomplished musicians. They weren't gangsters, certainly. But so much of the detail of life - what the bottle of anisette looked like, the fact that they would sometimes send out for Chinese food - I knew a lot of stuff through living with my father and my uncles and my family that I used those details in the film. And my fear was that, you know, Italians were always a talk like the people - like the Marx Brothers, Chico Marx.
And there were so many cliches related to us as the culture of our family that I certainly - you know, and also I knew that the Italian-American didn't speak with an Italian accent. One of my big arguments with the studio was saying, well, you know, he wouldn't speak - he would speak more with a Brooklyn accent that'd be more like Eddie Carbone in "A View From The Bridge," you know? So I knew things just by having lived them that I could avoid cliches.
GROSS: You also wanted to avoid the dialogue sounding too "Guys And Dolls"-y. So what were your fears there?
COPPOLA: Well, just that, you know, Italian-Americans were always portrayed in the movies, even onstage, a certain way - gangsters were. And I knew different because that was - those were my family. My father was the first flute of the NBC Symphony, so he was, you know, certainly a man of great culture and education. But, you know, he also - the food he ate and what it was like in our home was something I could borrow and invest in the film to give it authenticity.
GROSS: If I'm not mistaken, it was your grandparents who were the immigrants in your family.
COPPOLA: Yes, yes, all four. My mother's family were from Naples, and my father's family was from what's called Lucania or otherwise known as Basilicata.
GROSS: Did you know them?
COPPOLA: Yes. Oh yeah, they...
GROSS: I wasn't sure, like, how long they lived.
COPPOLA: No, yeah, my - the most charismatic character, whom all of the uncles - they were all boys. My father's father had seven boys, and those were my - of course, my uncles. And they all imitated my grandfather, including my father - all his little gestures and his little sardonic remarks and his - the way he would hold the little Italian cigar. That was from this grandfather who was unusual. But he died when I was about 5. I remember him. He was ravaged by diabetes, but he always, you know, would feel - he was blind at that point - but he would feel the kids' faces and give us a Tootsie Roll he had in his pocket.
GROSS: About the character Clemenza who is, like, very heavy, that he's not only a heavy, he's - he weighs a lot. He's heavy (laughter).
GROSS: And he, like - he's the one who's cooking the sauce in the movie.
GROSS: And you write about him in your notes that he has to be believable as the type that would be everybody's favorite uncle but also a killer. Did you have an uncle who resembled him in any way?
COPPOLA: I did. I had - they were twins, and they were both a little heavyset, and they were the least accomplished of all the boys. My grandfather's sons were fine musicians and excellent engineers and - but the twins kind of were not, but they were the youngest. And to us kids, we loved them because they - we could always get them to take us to the movies. We could always fool them into driving us somewhere. And they weren't like Clemenza in that they were favorite uncles but also killers.
The funny thing - a note that is fun is that when I wrote the scene of Clemenza cooking - I can cook. So when I wrote the scene of Clemenza describing how to make a tomato sauce with the trick of meat sauce is that you put a tablespoon of sugar. But I said - in the dialogue, I said, well, at first, you brown some sausage and then you blah, blah, blah (ph). And the note from Mario on the script said, Francis, gangsters don't brown, gangsters fry. (Laughter) So he - so that's how Mario was. He was always, like, you know, correcting with notes on the page. And he was one - it's true, you know, gangsters would never say brown.
GROSS: My guest is Francis Ford Coppola. We'll talk about casting Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, and how Coppola had to fight with the studio to do it, after we take a short break. Something we won't have time for on today's broadcast is the part of the interview in which Coppola talked about working with composer Nino Rota on the music for "The Godfather." But we do have that for you as an extra on our podcast. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Francis Ford Coppola. We're talking about writing and directing his masterpiece, "The Godfather." A reproduction of the notebook he put together in preparation for making the movie, the notebook he carried around and referred to throughout the shoot, has just been published. It's called "The Godfather Notebook." It includes his notes to himself and his annotated pages from the Mario Puzo novel that the film is based on.
So you write to yourself in "The Godfather Notebook" (reading) with "The Godfather," there is always the possibility of immediate and sudden violence. That's certainly true. You had to decide how explicitly violent to make it. What was your conversation with yourself about how the violence should be handled?
COPPOLA: Well, I - I confessed that I was very impressed with Arthur Penn's "Bonnie And Clyde," and...
GROSS: I thought about that when watching Sonny Corleone get shot.
COPPOLA: Without a doubt. And I thought that the effects, the depiction of violence in "Bonnie And Clyde" always had an imaginative twist to it that it's one thing to see someone shoot someone, but if there's a detail - the way the blood turns into mist or the way, you know, something that you have - and I saw that in "Bonnie And Clyde" - I thought was just absolutely wonderfully done.
And I looked up who had done the special effects. And that wonderful man, A.D. Flowers his name was, who worked on "The Godfather" and on "Apocalypse Now," and he was just the most - you know, in the film industry, you deal with a lot of people on the crew who are sort of geniuses in the rough, you know, the way they come up with ideas for special effects and what have you. And I've been blessed to have those people help me in making these films. And films are a tremendous collaboration, as you know. It's not - it's not a one-man show by any means.
GROSS: OK. Well, perhaps the most, or at least one of the most memorable scenes implying violence in "The Godfather" is the horse's head scene. It's the scene...
COPPOLA: That's a good example because it's not done in the movie the way it's done in the book.
GROSS: Yes. OK, so why don't you set up what happens? Like, what happens in that scene?
COPPOLA: Well, there's a famous movie producer who is proud of his stable of beautiful stallions and priceless - a horse could cost a half a million dollars or more in the '40s. And they've asked the - him to cooperate with their request to give the singer the role. And what happens famously is that the producer wakes up, and he sees a shadow in the - I'll describe it the way it is in the book. He sees a shadow, and he opens his eyes and he looks and he sees the severed head of his beloved and prized stallion that has been decapitated.
Well, when I had to direct that, I thought, well, gee, you know, maybe it would be interesting if at first the man, you know, to trick them, to make them think something else that maybe he had been mortally wounded. He wakes up and he feels something weird. And he uncovers the sheet and there's some blood and maybe his leg has been shot off or he's been castrated or, you know, let the audience think something else has happened. And then as he panics and flings the bloody sheets away, it then reveals the severed head of the horse.
GROSS: In your notebook, you keep a list of pitfalls of things that you're afraid to fall into.
COPPOLA: That I should avoid.
GROSS: That you should avoid. So your pitfall to not fall into for this scene, you write (reading) if the audience does not jump out of their seat on this one, you have failed. Too much in the Corman horror film tradition would be a mistake.
And you had worked for Corman early on in your career.
GROSS: You write (reading) one must find the perfect balance of horror without losing the thread of the overall film. Deliver it and get out.
So you wanted a kind of horror element but not to make it kind of, like, a cheap horror film.
COPPOLA: Yeah, and also everyone knew - they had read the book. That was one of the famous scenes of the book. So how could I mislead them to think that maybe what they thought was going to happen wasn't going to happen for a second? And that's why I put the horse's head in the sheets so that he could think the blood was his own blood at first.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Francis Ford Coppola. And he has a newly published book that's basically the book that he used as his Bible when he was starting to make "The Godfather." So it's his notes to himself, it's the chapter synopses, it's the pitfalls to avoid. And it's his notes in the margins of Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather." This is all combined together in one kind of fascinating notebook.
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Francis Ford Coppola. And he's just published the notebook that includes his notes to himself when he was making "The Godfather." And it's called "The Godfather Notebook."
So casting Marlon Brando was just such a really brilliant stroke - and stroke of luck as you were able to get him. And I want to play what Mario Puzo told me in 1996 when I interviewed him about casting Brando - about how Brando got cast in the movie. So can I play that for you? And then...
COPPOLA: Of course.
GROSS: OK. So this is Mario Puzo, who wrote the novel "The Godfather," speaking with me in 1996 about casting Marlon Brando.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MARIO PUZO: I'm the guy that picked Brando.
GROSS: You did pick Brando?
PUZO: Oh, sure. I wrote him a letter, and he called me up and we had a chat. And then I tried to get Paramount to take him, and they refused. And then when the director came on the picture, I talked to the director Francis Coppola, he managed to talk Paramount into letting Brando play the role. But it was my idea to cast Brando, which caused me a lot of trouble before we finally got done.
GROSS: What did you say in your letter to Marlon Brando when you were inviting him to play the part?
PUZO: I think it was something like help, they're going to kill - they're going to kill me. They're going to cast, I think it was Donny - Danny Thomas as the Godfather...
GROSS: Danny Thomas? Wow.
PUZO: Yeah. Well, he was going to buy Paramount so he could play the role. At that time, Paramount wasn't really worth that much. And Danny Thomas was very rich off television. And I read an item he was going to buy Paramount Pictures so he could play the Godfather.
So that scared me so much I wrote a letter to Brando. I knew some people who knew him, so, you know, I had an entree. And he gave me very good advice. He said no studio will hire me. Wait until you get a director and then talk to the director. And he's quite right. When I talked to the studio, they swore they would never hire Brando.
GROSS: OK, Francis Ford Coppola, you are the director. I suppose Puzo talked to you and you made it happen. Can you pick up the story from there?
COPPOLA: Well, it's true that Mario had always liked the idea of Brando. But, you know, Mario was often at Bay Shore. He was not really on the scene so much as - even a lot of my work with him was my sending him drafts and him writing notes. So although he had posed the idea of the Godfather being Brando, I don't even know if he told me that 'cause I just was hit by a whole bunch of ideas from the studio. Danny Thomas was one, Ernest Borgnine - it was a whole bunch of ideas. Even Carlo Ponti was suggested.
And finally I came down to the thing about the character - of that character was that, you know, you couldn't find anyone new, as we had done for all the other parts. Al Pacino was totally unknown. Johnny Cazale was, well - Bobby Duval was (unintelligible). So a lot of new people got big parts. But, like, a man who was supposed to be in his 60s couldn't be new and, like, had never been in anything before because what was he doing all those years? So finally, with my colleague in casting, Fred Roos, we said, well, who are the two greatest actors in the world? So we said, well, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando.
Each one had a difficulty for that part. Olivier was British. He was perfect age. He looked like - he looked like one of the real guys, a Genovese. And Brando was only 47 years old. He was extremely handsome, as always. He had long, flowing blond hair. And most important, he had just been in some pictures, notably one by the great Pontecorvo called "Burn!" That was a huge flop, tremendous financial flop. So the studio felt that Brando was supposedly difficult to work with, sort of irresponsible, you know, would cause big delays. The film was only budgeted for $2.5 million. You have to understand. It wasn't like we could throw money around. And my decision to make it in the '40s and have period cars and shoot in New York was already impacting the cost.
So that's one of the reasons why I was so unpopular. But they also hated my casting ideas. They hated Al Pacino for the role of Michael, and they hated Marlon Brando for the role of the Godfather. And I was told categorically by the president of Paramount - he says, Francis, as the president of Paramount Pictures, I tell you here and now Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture, and I forbid you to bring it up again.
GROSS: But you won. How did you win?
COPPOLA: Well, when he said I forbid you to bring it up again I, like, feigned that I just fell on the floor on the carpet and, like, you know, as if, you know, what - and then I said, what am I supposed to do if you tell me I can't even discuss it? How can I be a director if I - if the part I think should be cast - that you won't even let me talk about it? And they said, all right, we'll tell you it this way. One, if he will do the movie for free. Two, if he will put up - if he'll do a screen test. And three, if he'll put up a million-dollar bond that he will in no way have any misbehavior that causes the - you know, the overrun of the picture budget. Then you can do it.
So I said, I accept (laughter), you know? So at least they were saying if I did three things - have a screen test, if I could get him to do the movie for nothing, and if I could have him put up a million dollars, which is absurd. But at least I said I accept, meaning OK, now I can talk about it.
GROSS: So did he do the movie for free?
COPPOLA: No. I called him up, and I said to Marlon, Marlon, you know, of course this is an Italian-American. You know, wouldn't it be fun if we could, like, do a little experiment and kind of improv and see what playing an Italian might be like? That was my way to talk to an actor essentially asking for a screen test, but I didn't put it in those ways.
And I knew that if I could do something with this little screen test that was convincing, the absurd idea of him doing it for nothing - although they didn't pay him much more than nothing. I think they paid him scale, which was an insult. And obviously, the putting up a bond to prevent misbehavior was, you know - sometimes, you know, you say you accept terms meaning that you just have a way to continue. So the important thing was to do some sort of a little screen test that I could get on tape and show to all these executives.
GROSS: So you played this kind of little trick. And he did improv on - or whatever on film for you. What did he bring to that audition that he didn't realize was an audition?
COPPOLA: Well, I had always heard the rumor that Marlon Brando didn't like loud noises and he always wore things in his ears, so I took a couple of my colleagues from San Francisco from this period of, you know, having young filmmakers all - have them come. And I told them all to dress in black. And no one was to speak. We would do sign language. And so we descended on Marlon's house early in the morning. He wasn't up.
And these dinges (ph) went to different corners and set up their cameras. And I also brought a whole bunch of, like, Italian salsiccia and little Italian cigars and provolone and little things, and I put them in dishes around just without even saying what I was doing. And then the door opened. They said he was going to wake up, and the door opened. Out came this beautiful man in a Japanese robe with long (laughter) flowing blond hair. And I'm - we're shooting all of this. And he came out, and he didn't talk very much.
He - you know, he's - Marlon was a brilliant man, and he just knew what was going on instantly. And he - I remember he came and he took his hair and he rolled it up and made it sort of like a bun in the back. And then he took shoe polish and he made - and he was mumbling the whole time. And he made shoe polish - and made his hair black. And then he put on the shirt that I had brought. And I remember him folding the lapel - those guys always - their lapel is always folded, he said.
And right in front of my eyes - but then he said, oh, he's shot in the throat in the story, (imitating Brando) so he should talk like this. You know, his throat. And he started doing that. And right in front of my eyes, he transformed himself into this character. And I couldn't believe it. And then he started picking up the sausage and eating it. And he just gravitated to the props and was using it to create a kind of Italian-ness the way he did it. And the whole time he was just going like this, he was going (imitating Italian accent) - he wasn't saying anything, which was funny because his phone rang. This was his home. His phone rang, and he picked up the phone and went (imitating Italian accent). I said, my God, who was that who called? What are they going to think? But when it was all done, I had this tape and it was quite remarkable.
GROSS: People were afraid in the studio that Brando would be hard to work with and he would create problems.
GROSS: Did any of that happen?
COPPOLA: Not at all. He was a joy to work - you know, you don't talk a lot to Marlon. You sort of just give him - like, I would take a cat and put it in his hands or I would have some Italian props or - you know, you don't direct him by talking about acting. What he likes to hear is make it more angry, make it less angry, make it sweeter. You know, he doesn't want to have any acting kind of talk.
But he knows, obviously, what he's doing. And, you know, I'd had the blessing of having the cast together for about three days, so all of the actors - we got together. We had - the first thing we did was to have a dinner up in Patsy's Restaurant around a table with Marlon sitting - when they all met him for the first time sitting as the father and Al to his right and Jimmy to his left and Bobby Duvall. And my sister, Tali, was serving the Italian food. And they just did an improv together as a family. And that - when that was over, they were a family.
GROSS: Was it Brando's idea to stuff his cheeks or that he'd look really jowly?
COPPOLA: Yes. He said he wanted to look like a bulldog.
GROSS: So the studio didn't want you to cast Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone. So how did you win that one?
COPPOLA: Absolutely. Well, the problem is that when - I had known Al a little bit before. So when I read "The Godfather" book as - I had him pictured in my mind. I saw him walking through Sicily with the two shepherds with their shotguns. And I couldn't get that out of my mind. I couldn't see Ryan O'Neal, who is what Paramount's first choice was. And I couldn't see Bob Redford.
And, of course, you know, it's true that Sicilians are often blond and blue-eyed because of the French presence in Sicily for, you know, over a hundred years. But I saw Al Pacino, and I just wouldn't give up on him. And I began to realize that - you know, that Bob Evans, who was the chief executive - and - you know, he was very tough on me. But I have to always say when I speak of Evans he's not without talent. He definitely is a man with talent. It's just that he's - he wanted really a Michael that was better looking, taller guy like him. I wanted Michael to be more of like a southern Italian, more like me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Francis Ford Coppola. And his newly published book "The Godfather Notebook" is his notebook of notes to himself when he was setting out to make the film. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Francis Ford Coppola. And his newly published book is actually an old book. The new book is called "The Godfather Notebook." It's an old book because it's the book of notes he kept for himself when he set out to make "The Godfather." And reading the book and watching the movie as a companion - you know, as companions to each other is really a fascinating experience.
So I want to ask you about the final scene of "The Godfather," where Michael basically draws the line between what's business and what's family. Kay wants to know if it's true that Michael killed Carlo, his brother-in-law, his sister's husband. And Michael says, you know, I'm not going to talk to you about business. There's a line between family and business. But then he tells her, just this once I'll tell you. And he lies to her and says, no, I didn't kill him.
COPPOLA: But that's been set up throughout the movie. If you even - even in the scene we discussed before when he goes to ask her to marry her, he says it's just this one time I'll tell you something. But I won't - well, when he tells her the story about your brains or the - your signature on the contract, he always limits it that he's telling her these things because he loves her but that will be the end of that, that she shouldn't ask him any more. So at the end, you know, that is the final lie. And he closes the door on her...
GROSS: Exactly. I mean, literally, like, he walks into another room where there's a business meeting about to take place in their home.
COPPOLA: Well, it's the meeting of him becoming the Godfather. They're kissing his hand and just as the door is closed.
GROSS: Right, and somebody else comes over, one of his men comes over and shuts the door, basically shuts the door on her. So the last shot we see is of his wife getting shut out.
GROSS: And it's a really interesting place to end the movie. I don't think that's how the novel ends.
COPPOLA: No. The novel ends with a scene that, indeed, we did shoot, which is Kay going to church lighting candles for him. But...
GROSS: Hoping to save his soul.
COPPOLA: Yeah. You know, but because that thread of don't ask me about my family, don't ask me about my business, don't ask me, don't - I'll tell you this, but I'm not going to tell you any more - he finally says to her, all right, I will answer this just one time. I will answer it, but then I will never again. And then he - and she says did you kill him? And he says no. He lies to her. And then the - and I just felt emotionally that when he - that door gets closed on her just as the other, what they call caporegimes are kissing his hand, that that was the ending. And to go to her lighting candles was anti-climactical (ph), so I ended it there.
GROSS: And we're kind of like her 'cause she loved him, and she believed in him. And we like him a lot at the beginning, I mean, in the sense that, like, he's not part of the killing. He's not connected to the business. He slowly becomes part of it. And we have to keep asking ourselves who is he becoming throughout the film and how do we feel about him?
COPPOLA: Well, I always - you know, when I make a movie I always have to have a theme, preferably in one word that I can - when I made "The Conversation" the theme was privacy. When I made "The Godfather" the theme was succession.
And I taught my children to try to know what that big theme is because a lot - you have to answer so many questions every day, like should she have long hair or short hair? Should she wear a dress or a skirt? Should he have a car or should it be a bicycle? And you know the answer so you just fire them off. But once in a while you don't know the answer. And that's when you say, well, what is the theme?
I remember in the God - in "The Conversation" when we went picking sort of trench coats for the character that Gene Hackman - and I didn't know which one. I didn't want him to look too much like a detective. He wasn't really a detective. And then I said to myself, well, what's the theme? And I said privacy. So there was one coat that was a plastic coat that you could see through. So I chose that.
So your theme, in the case of "Godfather" being succession, I would always know that as long as I was telling a story of the succession of - there was a king and he had three sons and one was very this and one was very that and blah, blah, blah - I knew that - what I was doing.
GROSS: Francis Ford Coppola, thank you so much for talking with us about "The Godfather." Thank you so much for making "The Godfather" and for insisting on the things that you wanted to make it as good as it is.
COPPOLA: Thank you so much and for your wonderful program, which I have enjoyed throughout many years.
GROSS: My interview with Francis Ford Coppola was recorded last month after the publication of his book, "The Godfather Notebook."
Yesterday, we paid tribute to Carrie Fisher. Last night, I thought I didn't hear correctly when I heard the news that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, had just died. But it was true. Reynolds was 84. She starred in the film "Singin' In The Rain" with Gene Kelly, "The Tender Trap" with Frank Sinatra, "The Rat Race" with Tony Curtis. And she played the title roles in "Tammy" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."
I regret that we don't have an interview with her in our archive to play for you. But we thought we'd replay this excerpt of the interview I recorded with Carrie Fisher last month, which takes on a deeper meaning today. It's an excerpt in which she talked about her mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You had a very contentious relationship with her when you were a teenager. And I think that probably continued into your 20s and that, you know, you worked in her Broadway show. You were in the chorus of that. You sang in her Broadway act - you know, in her cabaret act for a while. So you worked together. In some ways, you were very close. In some ways, you were, like very far apart. You were anxious to move away from home.
How did your relationship change as she became an older woman? Like, you're middle-aged, or older. She's in her 80s. Is the relationship still contentious? Has it changed?
CARRIE FISHER: Not at all. I can appreciate. She's an immensely powerful woman. I just admire my mother very much. She also annoys me sometimes (laughter) when she's, you know, mad at the nurses. But, you know, she's an extraordinary woman - extraordinary. There's very few women from her generation who worked like that - who just kept a career going all her life and raised children and had horrible relationships and lost all her money and got it back again. I mean, she's had an amazing life.
GROSS: Your mother's most iconic film is "Singin' In The Rain," you know, one of the great musicals of all time. What are your thoughts about the movie? And if you like it now, did you always, or did it take you a while to appreciate that film, too?
FISHER: No, no, I always liked it. It's brilliant. I mean, to do the transition from silent to sound is a brilliant, brilliant time to focus on. What was interesting to me is that there's three people acting in the movie then. It's two men and a female - and the same with "Star Wars." And both movies were sort of, you know, iconic. They did the AFI 10 top films, and one was "Singin' In The Rain" and one was "Star Wars."
GROSS: That's so great. You were on the list together (laughter).
FISHER: I know.
GROSS: You can hear our entire tribute to Carrie Fisher, which we broadcast yesterday, featuring three of my interviews with her, on our website and on our podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")
DEBBIE REYNOLDS: (As Kathy Selden, singing) I'm singin' in the rain, just singin' in the rain. What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds so dark up above. The sun's in my heart, and I'm ready for love. Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place...
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")
REYNOLDS: (As Kathy Selden, singing) I'm singin' in the rain, just singin' in the rain. What a glorious feeling - I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds so dark...
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.