They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Francis Ford Coppola had bugger-all interest in directing a sequel to The Godfather, but he couldn’t turn down the cheque in front of him. After all, $1,000,000 was a record-breaking deal for a director.
Taking the money would mean climbing back into bed with Paramount studios and Bob Evans, who’d helpfully fired him three times from the first film. At one point, Evan’s had a second director trailing him, who could pick up the pieces when Coppola inevitably fucked up.
The Godfather had put Francis Ford Coppola to the top of the heap, though, the dynamic leader of the new Hollywood elite, artist and commercial dynamo in one heavily bearded package.
It was certainly how he liked to see himself.
He could use that money to help make small personal films, building his production house, Zoetrope, into a studio he and his friends had dreamed of.
When he finally accepted the offer, even through the haze of his blossoming megalomania, he probably didn’t realise that he’d be making the best film of his career.
Paramount was going to make it anyway. They announced the sequel only a month after the first movie opened. Mario Puzo had been commissioned for $150,000 to write a script provisionally entitled DON MICHAEL, THE DEATH OF MICHAEL CORLEONE or THE SON OF DON CORLEONE.
Bob Evans stated that Coppola would be involved with the production.
This was news to Coppola. He was more interested in making THE CONVERSATION and other potential Zoetrope projects.
“When you’ve got a recipe to make Coca-Cola,” whinged Paramount Boss Charlie Bluhdorn, “You make Coca-Cola.”
Coppola suggested an interested Martin Scorsese, but Paramount were adamant about retaining the on-fire Coppola. “You were the star of The Godfather,” insisted Paramount executive Peter Bart. “Give me any terms.” Well, they asked.
Coppola had three demands; firstly, that he be allowed to make THE CONVERSATION; secondly, that he has complete creative control over the project (and that Bob Evans be allowed nowhere near it) thirdly, that the title be The Godfather Part II.
It was the third one that flummoxed Paramount. A numbered sequel was utterly unheard of, yet, Coppola insisted that the second movie be inextricably related to the first so that he could edit them together if necessary.
A nervous Bluhdorn rubber-stamped the deal. The budget would be $8 million.
Just as they did on THE GODFATHER, Coppola and Puzo would collaborate by working separately but trading notes. Coppola started modifying an earlier idea for another film about a ‘father and a son at the same age while adapting the Vito Corleone back story from Puzo’s original book.
A lot of the early onus fell on Puzo, as Coppola concentrated on THE CONVERSATION, though not before he devised a wish list of events.
Earlier ideas seemed less harsh on Michael; he isn’t cold enough to have his henchman kill Fred, plucking up the moral fortitude to do it himself. Other rejected ideas included a Sammy Davis Jr-Esque jester-cum-political go-between.
Coppola’s research was meticulous, devouring histories of the Cuban revolution and the Mafia. Hyman Roth’s “We’re bigger that US Steel” is a straight quote from the powerful Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky.
The pair enjoyed the collaboration. The only real point of contention was poor Fred. Coppola wanted him dead, Michael’s ultimate sin; Puzo disagreed.
The compromise was perfect: Fred was untouchable until Mama Corleone kicked the bucket. The plot point that Coppola did have problems with – ever the old traditionalist at heart – was Kay’s aborting Michael’s baby, suggested by his sister Talia Shire. As Michael; ruefully notes to his mama, “Times are changing.”
Coppola was also having difficulty re-assembling his original cast – all of whom felt done over by their original deals.
Al Pacino played hardball to get $500,000. He was paid $25,000 for the first movie. Richard ‘Clemenza’ Castenallo also played hardball. He was demanding a salary increase and that his wife rewrite his dialogue. Clemenza was soon being written out of the script.
Equally hard to convince was cinematographer Gordon Willis, ‘The Prince of Darkness, who’d crafted the iconic dark look of the first movie but had clashed bitterly with Coppola.
To ensure his return to the family, Willis would now be earning more than most of the actors. Coppola’s father Carmine was easier to convince, who’d now share the musical direction with Nina Rota.
Of all the new arrivals to the cast, the most eyebrows were raised by Method acting guru Lee Strasberg (whom former pupil Al Pacino had firmly pushed for as Hyman Roth). The most vital role still to fill was the young Vito Corleone.
Discounting the idea of getting Brando to lose weight, Coppola set his sights on Robert De Niro, having been mightily impressed by his original GODFATHER audition for Sonny and his recent performance in MEAN STREETS.
Ever the method man, De Niro screened the original movie over 50 times to nail the nuances of the younger Vito Corleone. He went to the same dentist as Brando to get the same bulldog mouthpiece (“but smaller”).
De Niro then packed his bags for Sicily for a few months to get a handle on the dialect.
Deep in pre-production, Al Pacino- who had approval on the rushed-out script – decided he didn’t like it and wouldn’t do it.
With the project standing with a gun to its head, a panicked Coppola flew his star to the Zoetrope office in San Francisco. He spent the weekend tightening up the script to Pacino’s satisfaction.
“It takes a leap of faith to make these kinds of movies,” said Coppola 25 years later. “Al sort of forced me to really tune it up. Years later I said to him, ‘Gee, Al, were you really now going to do the film?’ He said, ‘No, I was just trying to get you to rewrite the script and make it better.'”
Just as Michael Corleone gathered his family around him, the Coppola clan decamped en masse to the Kaiser estate, the set – and inspiration – for the Corleone compound in Lake Tahoe. As filming began in the freezing October – everyone had to wear thermals under their costumes – Francis’s wife and main support system, Eleanor, was becoming increasingly depressed with the bleakness of the surroundings.
Worse, a work-fried Francis, never entirely immune to the charms of the opposite sex – Maria Lucas once described him as a “pussy fiend” – was rumoured to be dabbling with an assistant.
The family would still be the source of inspiration for Coppola. The picture Michael’s drawn by his son is one that Coppola was given by his own son, Gio.
At least Francis was getting on better with Gordon Willis. With less pressure, the two men had more “room to express ideas”. The look of the modern scenes would be even darker than before.
“He always worked right on the edge of where the exposure would fall apart,” Coppola explained of his cinematographer. “It’s a very dangerous way to be because if the actor was in the wrong place, there wouldn’t be any light on them.”
The painstaking setups would have an adverse effect on Pacino’s temper.
“Lumet shot SERPICO in 18 days,” complained Pacino. Director and star would have at least one big bust-up before they’d left Nevada.
The shooting of the final flashback scene, the surprise party for Don Vito, had to be quickly rewritten when it became apparent that Coppola’s frantic negotiations with Brando would fail. Brando was still furious at his original deal for THE GODFATHER.
“I was constantly negotiating with him to participate,” Coppola explained. “Right up to the last day, I thought he was going to be in the last scene.”
With the cast assembled and with a returning James Cain – getting paid the same amount for one morning’s work as he did for the whole of the first movie – Coppola was forced to admit defeat and work around him.
Paramount’s owner, Gulf + Western, had suggested the Dominican Republic as a substitute for Cuba – they owned most of it. The crew were instantly hit with weather problems, causing continuity trouble for Gordon Willis.
The production started to veer off schedule.
Lee Strasberg arrived in poor health, the legendary actor not entirely comfortable with the repetitive demands of filmmaking. A worried (and intimidated) Coppola approached Elia Kazan – forever tarnished by naming names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee) about replacing him in the role.
Kazan refused, and Strasberg’s cough was incorporated into the character.
Worse was to come. Al Pacino collapsed. Having hardly stopped working since making THE GODFATHER and now feeling the Method pressure of being the morally bankrupt focus of its sequel. Pacino now developed pneumonia.
Filming round to a halt. Nothing was done for two weeks, and Pacino’s frailty meant that the work rate was even slower when he arrived back on set.
This gave Dean Tavoularis’ production team more time to prepare the magnificent sets for the 1920s New York sequences. For six months, they’d been turning a small Ukrainian corner of NYC into Little Italy circa 1917.
This was the section that Coppola had been looking forward to, revelling in the shared history with his fictional counterpoints – both families emigrating simultaneously.
The mini-operetta includes the song ‘Senza Mama’, a hit at the time for Coppola’s maternal grandfather. Another scene – eventually deleted – involved the young Clemenza and Vito meeting the gunsmith (and fence) Augustino Coppola and his flute-playing son, one Carmine Coppola.
As delighted as the real Carmine Coppola was by this, Francis’ parents were reportedly less than happy with their son’s antics with his assistant.
The Apocryphal story in Peter Buskin’s EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS has the Coppola parents berating their son about his infidelity, with Francis Coppola screaming back, “I’ll carry on with anyone I want to carry on with.”
The noise carried into the microphones Coppola had set up to make communication easier with Willis, the argument blaring out across the PA speakers for all to hear.
Coppola and De Niro agonised over giving De Niro the thin, authoritative Vito moustache for his later scenes.
“There was a whole thing back and forth, about whether to make this commitment,” says De Niro. “Finally I said, ‘Why don’t we flip coin?’ We did, and so I got to have a moustache.”
The few Sicilian scenes were supposed to be easy; a sunny little excursion to end the project. Inevitably, the traditional – and vital – glorious Sicilian weather never materialised.
For the simple scene of Vito arriving at the train station, the crew would drive to the location each day only to find it overcast. Eventually, a local explained that the proximity to Mount Etna meant the weather wouldn’t clear for weeks.
Poor little Roman Coppola, playing Sonny Corleone as a child, had his hair painfully curled into shape each day for no reason.
The 11-day Sicily shoot turned into 50.
There was some good news for Coppola, though. THE CONVERSATION won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
By the time the group had filmed the final shot in June 1974 – having miraculously converted a Trieste fish market into Ellis Island Immigration Center – the shoot had gone on for nearly nine months.
It had been a heavy labour indeed for Coppola. Though his ego basked in the responsibility and opportunity to create something meaningful, his Catholic guilt hammered away at him. He wasn’t with his family enough, and when he was, he was overworked and tetchy.
He had yet to finish the movie, and the budget had ballooned to $12 million.
Coppola and his editors Barry Malkin, Richard Marks and Peter Zinner holed themselves up at Zoetrope, trying to cut the two stories together. Early cuts clocked in at over five hours.
“Francis,” argued friend George Lucas after seeing an early cut, “You have two movies. Throw one away, it doesn’t work.”
The test screenings weren’t positive but uncovered the main problem: too many cuts between the past and the present.
The frantic editing continued until the very last minutes, the team working 24 hours a day in shifts.
Somehow, the three-hour opus was delivered on schedule. The film opened in the same five cinemas as THE GODFATHER had two years earlier. Though it did fantastic business – the advance ticket sales had been through the roof – the initial reviews had been scathing.
Audiences disagreed, as did the Academy. Completing against himself for THE CONVERSATION, Coppola personally received three of the six Oscars the movie won; Best Picture, Best Director and (with Puzo) Best Adapted Screenplay. Coppola would once again forget to thank Bob Evans in his speeches.
Robert De Niro beat co-stars William Gatto and Lee Strasberg for the Best Supporting Actor award, and Dean Tavoularis got the nod for Best Art Direction. Best of all for Francis, Carmine Coppola and Nina Rota won for Best Score.
“Thanks for giving my dad an Oscar!” Shouted an elated Coppola as he picked up his Best Director award. Four months earlier, he’d been staring at disaster through his fingers, saying, “If we’d only had two more weeks, [the movie] would have been great.”
Bob Towne, one of the other winners that night for his CHINATOWN script, said that his favourite line in THE GODFATHER PART II is when, having murdered the threatening Fanucci, Vito sits down and tells his eventual heir Michael, “Your father loves you very much.”
The implication’s clear enough: Vito has sinned in order to protect his family. Despite winning all his battles, Michael only manages to tear his apart. It’s the bitterest, most hollow victory imaginable.
Is it the sins of the father being visited on the son – the final shot of Vito is of him puppeteering the infant Michael’s hand to wave goodbye – or has Michael staged his own fall?
“To me, the tragedy of THE GODFATHER,” says Coppola, “Which is a the tragedy of America, is about Michael. By the end of THE GODFATHER PART II, just like America in that period, Michael had become self-righteous, distrusted everyone and was getting more and more like a paranoid person. Like a Nixon.”
While Coppola and co were keen to demonise the bogeyman Nixon, like all the best tragedies, the movie resonates louder with time. Michael is the hawkish aggressor, seeing enemies where he doesn’t have them, winning at all moral costs. He has the strength but is too morally blind to use it in any other way but to consolidate his power further. Michael Moore would be proud. While promoting the original movie, Brando moaned, “The Mafia is so… American.” Or like any other multi-national corporation.
Unlike Michael, Coppola would have little success at empire-building.
His desire to establish and secure Zoetrope as a viable studio would crumble through his won fallibilities. His obsessions with making APOCALYPSE NOW nearly turned into insanity, losing the plot – and lots of money – in the damp darkness of the Philippine jungle.
His lack of financial acumen would leave Zoetrope bankrupt after the awful miscalculations of the pioneering ONE FROM THE HEART. The ego had landed.
Despite losing pretty much everything else, Coppola managed to cling on to his family. Heartbreakingly, in THE GODFATHER PART III, Michael hands his son back the picture Gio Coppola – who died in a tragic boating accident in the mid-Eighties, shattering his father – had once drawn for Francis. Like Michael, Coppola had kept the picture in pristine condition.
His lack of professional clout by the late ’80s was demonstrated during the negotiations for the third GODFATHER movie. As Puzo had done 15 years earlier, he insisted the movie be called THE DEATH OF MICHAEL CORLEONE. Paramount Studios brushed off this nonsense talk of a literary title. The movie would be called THE GODFATHER PART III.