Tribeca 2017: The Cast and Director of ‘The Godfather’ on Making an American Masterpiece

Coppola, Pacino, Keaton, and more on the legendary casting and production of the 'Godfather' movies.

“I haven’t seen these movies for years – I tend not to see the movies I worked on,” Francis Ford Coppola confessed during the all-star panel discussion (with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Talia Shire) that followed yesterday’s Tribeca Film Festival double-feature of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. “I forgot a lot about the making of it, and I was more in the story, and the story used a lot of family, my personal stuff… So I found it a very emotional experience for myself.”

The making of those films, particularly the first, is not exactly an undocumented process; there have been documentaries and magazine articles and books, many books, up to and including Coppola’s own (indispensable) The Godfather Notebook just last year. Many of the usual stories made their way into the post-movie Tribeca talk: Brando’s screen test, the endless casting sessions, the “family dinner” improv rehearsal, the rumors that Coppola and/or Pacino were perpetually on the verge of being fired. And Coppola told his stories about the trouble he had convincing Paramount to hire Pacino in the first place – but this time, with Pacino chiming in.

The reason for Coppola’s stubbornness about Pacino was simple, he explained: he just couldn’t see it any other way. They’d spent a week together some time before, hanging out at Coppola’s American Zoetrope HQ in San Francisco, talking about another script, a Coppola original (which ultimately didn’t come to pass). So Pacino was still on his mind when he was sent Mario Puzo’s Godfather novel, and “every time I’d read it, I just saw his face. Particularly the part where he’s just walking across Sicily with the shepherds, I just saw, y’know, this handsome young guy with black hair. And once you’ve seen someone during your reading of something, it’s very hard to get that out of your head.”

But to convince the suits, Pacino had to do a screen test. And then another. And then another. “It seemed like I was always testing,” Pacino recalled. “I kept testing after I got the part!”

Coppola concurred; “I remember, once I called him after he had tested six times, and his girlfriend got on the phone and I said, ‘If Al would just come in one more time,’ and she says, ‘What are you doing to him?‘ And she just yelled at me and berated me – ‘You’re torturing him!’

It go so bad, Pacino said, that he was ready to give in – long before his director, in fact. “I was saying to him, ‘Please, Francis, it’s ok! We’ll work again, there’s other things to do.’ He said, ‘No! I want you!’” Pacino shrugged. “Really it’s just a thing with me, I’ll say it because it’s true, you just don’t wanna be somewhere where you’re not wanted. And I even said that to him – I’m not interested in that at all.”

But he was ultimately moved by Coppola’s dedication, and faith in his abilities – particularly since he had no idea how to play Michael Corleone. “I just wanna say this: When a director wants you for a part, you’re lucky, you know. It’s really something. It’s like, somebody likes you, you don’t know why they like you, but they like you. So you sorta like them! And he wanted me so much, I thought, maybe I can play this role.”

Not that Coppola’s confidence contributed to the execs’. “While we were filming, Francis was, y’know, concerned,” Pacino laughed. “I was new to films, I didn’t know what to do, quite. But I had as sense of this character, because I would think about it all the time – I was living on 95th and Broadway, and I walked to the Village and back every day. And I did it thinking about this role, just trying to figure out where could I go with it? I had some idea; of course, I was unable to articulate it to Francis at the time, I just didn’t have the – as you can tell, it’s not easy for me to talk.

“But I would do scenes, and I’d be in the middle of a scene, and I really heard people giggling. Y’know? Snickering. I thought, what is that about? And it was about me! Where did Francis get this guy?”

Those same snickers seemed to haunt the director. Before production even began, he remembered, I had a message to call [my secretary]. She said, ‘Very important: don’t quit, let them fire you.’ I knew immediately what that meant; I didn’t have any money, and I had two kids and one on the way, and I was totally broke. And I knew that if they fired me, then they’d have to pay me, but if I quit, they wouldn’t. So I thought it was all over.”

In a strange way, however, he found it liberating. The possibility of losing his job made him feel better about casting sister Talia Shire as Connie Corleone: “I had sort of felt, ‘As long as I’m gonna get fired probably, my sister should at least get a chance.'”

He didn’t get fired – that time. Then, a couple of weeks into the shoot, “[Associate producer] Gray Frederickson came to me on a Tuesday and said, ‘They’re gonna fire you this weekend.’ I realized, of course they fire the director on the weekend, so the new director has time to prepare, and Monday there’s a new director. And I realized there was a group of around, I dunno, 12 people who were the naysayers, who were the ones who were actively trying to get me fired. So on that Tuesday I fired those 12 people… I’m sure there were lots of phone calls, that were all Can he do this, and even I didn’t know if I had the authority. But I just figured, if they’re gonna fire me, at least I’m gonna throw them into confusion.”

Somehow, he dodged the bullet, finishing the film, making his masterpiece, watching it break box office records and clean up at the Oscars, turning around, making a follow-up, watching it somehow box office records and clean up at the Oscars too. But it was a different time, Coppola admits. “This film could be made today, but it wouldn’t get a go-ahead,” he explained. “The first Godfather cost six-and-a-half million dollars. The second cost 11 or 12 million dollars, which, if you convert that, would take a major studio. But it would never get through the process of getting a greenlight – nothing can get a greenlight unless it’s a movie where you can have a whole series of them.” There were, ultimately, a whole series of Godfather movies, but you get the point. Coppola put a finer point on it thus: “Once Kirk Kerkorian, who owned MGM, asked me, How do you make a film that is successful financially and also artistically, and I said, risk? Nobody wants the risk.”

But they took the risk then, and thank goodness. These films hold up – an opinion shared not only by the enthusiastic audience at Radio City, but by co-star Diane Keaton, who has recently revisited The Godfather in private. “I saw it on my computer,” she laughed. “I did! And I hadn’t seen it for, I think, about 30 years. And I looked at part one, and all I could think of is, it was so astonishing. Francis, it was so beautiful. And everybody is so great in it. And the music is so – every choice you made is just so authentically brilliant! It’s so unusual! I was crying, and that damn Talia, I saw her in that scene where they were fighting and screaming, oh my God, I’m not kidding. Everything was like astonishing to me, and I was totally surprised, because I didn’t expect it, okay? And on a fucking computer!”

The Tribeca Film Festival concludes today. “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” (as well as “The Godfather Part III”) are being re-released on Blu-ray May 9. Photos credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire