Based on the novel by Mario Puzo and regarded by many as the GOAT, The Godfather is more than just a mob drama. From its iconic dialogues to its bloody gritty violence, from family loyalty to heart breaks— this film gets everything spot on in its 175 minutes run time. Not only is the first film regarded as a masterpiece, the immediate sequel (although we wish we could forget the third part), by many, is considered better than its predecessor. But, there’s a lot more to it than you would imagine. Subtleties and behind the scenes drama were all running parallel to what was unfolding on screen and just like everything in this world, everything happened for a reason.
When news hit the streets that a crime drama featuring angry Sicilian Italians was hitting their nearest cinemas, test audiences and big guys at Paramount pictures thought that it glorified the underworld mafia. So much so, the Italian-American association objected against the film from hitting cinemas and the producers even received threats from the ACTUAL mafia. Initially, Francis Ford Coppola was also against making the film and rejected it multiple times, before reaching an agreement with Paramount on making it an allegory of American capitalism. The filmmakers also reached some compromises with the Italian-American association such as not using the word “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” in the film. Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola (let’s call him FFC) made alterations to the script and instead opted to show the darker, depressing and grittier side of the mafia. It’s safe to say that if this film were to release today, the reception would pretty much be the same.
With every other film in this world, casting stories are THE “behind the scenes stories” we love the most. But the winner for the best casting story has to go to The Godfather. Hear me out. Remember Connie’s abusive and absolute shit bag of a husband Carlo Rizzi? Played by Gianni Russo, he went through quite the drama to land that role. You see, before becoming an actor, Gianni was part of Frank Costello’s gang (an ACTUAL Italian-American crime boss of the Luciano crime family) in New York. However, he got some sense into him and left the gang to pursue a career in acting. This is where it gets crazier. Gianni was so hell-bent on landing the role of Carlo, he used his connections to land that role and even went beyond by hiring his own crew to make his audition tapes. Marlon Brando (Don Corleone), was against giving that role to someone who had no experience in acting and naturally, Gianni went to Brando and threatened him. Brando thought Gianni was only just acting and that simple act proved as a blessing in disguise, convincing Brando that Russo would be the perfect fit for an intense role like this. Talk about method acting.
Marlon Brando also had somewhat of an unorthodox audition. While auditioning, he decided to amp up Vito and make him look like a bulldog. For this, he stuffed cotton balls into his lower jaw and instantly grabbed everyone’s attention. Paramount was initially against having Brando for the role and instead were looking for other A-list actors but when they saw his tape, they didn’t have any doubts for who would be Don Corleone. During filming, the prosthetics team made a specialised mouthpiece for Brando.
Vito Corleone’s character was closely based off of two actual New York mob bosses, Joe Profaci and Vito Genovese. Many of the events in Puzo’s novel are based on actual incidents that occurred in the lives of Profaci, Genovese, and their respective families. However, Brando used another mob boss, Frank Costello (yes that one), as a reference to model his acting.
Another character where comparisons were drawn from was Johnny Fontane to the king of swing, Frank Sinatra. However, according to Mario Puzo, the character was not based on Frank Sinatra, but it was widely assumed that it was, making Sinatra furious. When he met Puzo at a restaurant, he screamed vulgar terms and threatened Puzo. Due to this backlash, Fontane’s role in the film was scaled down to a couple of scenes. The name Corleone in Italian roughly means Lionheart. Although a city in Italy, the name was chosen by Puzo to show the fierceness and ruthlessness of a lion (call it a spirit animal) and establish themselves as the Kings of New York.
Paramount execs were also not happy with FFC helming the role of director. There was intense friction between Paramount and FFC, and Paramount frequently tried to have him replaced, citing his inability to stay on schedule, unnecessary expenses, and production and casting errors. Coppola actually completed the film ahead of schedule — in just 62 days — and within budget. Paramount was also against the idea of setting the film as a periodic drama and even REJECTED the iconic puppet strings logo. FFC wanted to pay a tribute to Puzo’s work and fought to keep the logo we love and recognise anywhere. If only producers today give creative freedom to their directors.
Subtleties throughout the film signified some key information for audiences. If you’ve noticed in the entire trilogy, each opening scene starts with some form of family gathering. The first part starts with the wedding of Connie and Carlo, the second part starts with the funeral of Vito’s father, Antonio, and the third part starts with Michael receiving the Order of St. Sebastian from the Catholic Church. It’s a great way of resembling that the Corleones, although united, have some form of tragedy and darkness lurking around waiting to pounce.
If you love oranges or any form of oranges, you might wanna look away from this. Oranges are known to be a beautiful gift from mother nature which we savour in various forms. FFC went a bit far with this one. All the death scenes, and I mean ALL death scenes, were foreshadowed by an orange. This orange took the form of just plain orange, an orange billboard, juice or just a slice of it to show that death is impending on a certain character; Don Corleone dying in his orange garden, Sonny driving past a billboard showing oranges and getting ambushed by Barzini’s men, etc. Production designer Dean Tavoularis claims it was a coincidence, that the fruit was used to brighten up an otherwise darkly-shot film. But it occurs far too many times throughout the three movies for it not to have been done intentionally.
And speaking about darkly-shot scenes, there was a stroke of brilliance by cinematographer Gordon Willis. He earned himself the nickname “The Prince of Darkness” since his sets were so underlit. Paramount execs initially thought that the footage was too dark until persuaded otherwise by Willis and FFC that it was to emphasize the shadiness of the Corleone family. He also insisted that every shot represent a point of view. He did this by setting the camera about four feet off the ground, keeping the angle flat and even. Director FFC managed to get him to do one aerial shot in the scene when Don Corleone is gunned down, telling Willis that the overhead shot represented God’s point of view. So whatever you see in the film, is in fact, from someone’s or something’s POV.
Improv is a key part of any film. It brings out real emotions, feelings, lines and actions that actors do, which directors appreciate. For a film with such depth and characters with such complexities, it is natural that actors fall into the ring of improvisation. In the hospital scene, Brando had real tears in his eyes when his son Michael pledges himself to Vito. James Caan, who plays Sonny Corleone, actually throws the FBI photographer to the ground. The extra’s frightened reaction is genuine. He also came up with the idea of throwing money at the man to make up for breaking his camera. As he put it, “Where I came from, you broke something, you replace it or repay the owner.” Sonny beating up Carlo by the dumpster and using the garbage can was also a completely improvised scene. The famed cat that Don Corleone plays with was in fact, a stray around the set. One of the most iconic lines in the movie — Leave the gun, take the cannoli — was also improvised. The line in the script only had actor Richard Castellano as Clemenza say “Leave the gun” after the hit on the mobster who ratted on the Corleones. He was inspired to make the addition after FFC inserted a line in which the character’s wife asks him to buy cannoli for dessert. The opening wedding scene was also inspired and brought to life by pure improvisation by the extras. It was done to add a sense of reality to the wedding scene (and because he only had two days to shoot it), FFC had the cast freely act out and improvise in the background. He then shot specific vignettes amongst the action.
Genuine reactions from actors bring out the best delivery to the audiences. In fact, directors love to see genuine reactions from actors, as its the most natural form of scene engagement. One such reaction was the infamous bloody ‘horse head’ scene. The frightened screams of actor John Marley in the horse head scene are not acting. They’re real because the actor expected to be waking up next to a fake horse, not a bed full of real blood and guts. Yeah, that’s right, it was a real horse head.
“When that one is slaughtered, send us the head.” — Dean Tavoularis
“One day, a crate with dry ice came with this horse’s head in it.” — Francis Ford Coppola
Animal rights activists even protested this and sent heated letters to the guys at Paramount. FFC went onto say:
“There were many people killed in that movie, but everyone worries about the horse. It was the same on the set. When the head arrived, it upset many crew members who are animal lovers, who like little doggies. What they don’t know is that we got the head from a pet food manufacturer who slaughters two hundred horses a day just to feed those little doggies.” — Francis Ford Coppola
He’s not wrong you know.
For quite some time after the conclusion of the trilogy, there was a buzz around Hollywood that a fourth part could be on its way. FFC and Mario Puzo would team up once again and co-write a film for the new century, but the unfortunate passing of Puzo in 1999 put all plans on hold. Italian-American crime family dramas saw themselves at the door of the ‘Golden Age of Cinema’ and were replaced by CGI filled mega-blockbusters and unnecessary trilogies (looking at you X-Men). However, there is a glimmer of hope. Trends in audience viewing habits and exhibition methods have opened the door for classic era films to make a return. The Irishman, although a long and complex film, proved that there is a chance for films of the Golden Age to make a return through an alternate viewing experience. FFC, actually let's ditch that, Francis Ford Coppola has had no intentions of making a return and take on the helm of director. During an interview with GQ in 2012, when asked about a potential revival of the series, Coppola responded by saying:
“For me? At my age? Being on a big, expensive movie that has a producer who’ll want to give me notes? They don’t have enough money on earth to give me to spend a year doing that.”
It will be hard, it will be a massive gamble, but if Paramount really pulled out their chequebooks (who are also in desperate need of a studio saving hit after failures with the Terminator series) and convinced the A-listers, it could be a massive win-win situation for everyone involved, including us. And of course, they would have to tingle the taste buds of Coppola — making him an offer he couldn't refuse.
P.S: this is how I see Paramount begging Coppola.