Archive for April, 2010

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) quoting fatherly advice
Ranked #58 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes

After the screen success of The Godfather the studios were interested in making a sequel. Wrtier/director Francis Ford Coppola, who did not enjoy the process of making The Godfather, was not as thrilled with repeating the experience and turned down their offer. The studios told him they couldn’t  believe he had found the secret formula but was not interested in making more of the product. Eventually Coppola agreed to produce the film finding a new director and then circumstances changed and once again he was leading The Godfather family, writing and directing the sequel.

“The Godfather Part II had taken upon itself a very ambitious structure  which was that it was going to tell its story in two entirely different time periods basically going back and forth in a kind of parallel structure between them. Actually, this was an idea before I knew I was making this Godfather Part II, I wanted to write a screenplay about a man and his son but both at the same age—like let’s say 30 years old— and tell the parallel story. Finally, I found myself doing The Godfather Part II—I basically just took that notion and conceived of Part II as having two time periods told against each other.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather Part II DVD Commentary

Coppola basically wrote the contemporary parts that were set in Miami, Lake Tahoe and Cuba while the older sections in Italy and New York were taken from Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. The Godfather Part II was nominated for 11 Academy Award winning 6, including Best Screenplay from Adapted Material for both Coppola and Puzo. The Godfather Part II is listed #32  on AFI’s !00 Years…100 Movies—1oth Anniversay Edition. And Michael Corleone is listed as the #11 top villian in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villians. Not bad for a film Coppola didn’t initially want to make.

(Though personally, I must add that I think Pacino as Tony Montana—Scarface— could take Pacino as Michael Corleone any day of the week. Unless Montana was all coked-up.)

Scott W. Smith

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“In both of my Mafia books (The Godfather, The Last Don), I’ve wanted to show the parallel between the normal business world and the Mafia. Both operate with power. They crush their opposition. Hollywood can be as ruthless as the Mafia and just as clannish.
Mario Puzo
Interview by Robert Fleming

Though we usually refer to The Godfather movie as simply The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola was very gracious to have the opening title card be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. While the film is identified with the many giants that helped create the trilogy including Brando, Pacino, De Niro and Coppola himself, the creative process all started with Puzo and his novel.

Puzo was born to a poor immigrant family from Italy in New York City back in 1920. He was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, served in the Air Force during World War II, and used the G.I. bill to attend night classes at New York’s New School for Social Justice. He published his first short story when he was 30 and his first novel when he was 35. He worked for an extended time in pulp journalism where he heard various anecdotes about the Mafia and hoped to write a book on the subject.

“The reason I wrote The Godfather was to make money… I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks, and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was time to grow up and sell out, as Lenny Bruce once advised.”
Mario Puzo

Puzo got a $5,000 advance and it took him three years to write The Godfather. It was published in 1969 and became a number one New York Times Bestseller. He worked as a screenwriter on three Godfather movies with Coppola and won two Oscar awards. He wrote other novels and screenplays after The Godfather, but The Godfather proved to be his day in the sun.

But before the Godfather movies were made, before the paperback rights sold for $410,000, before 10 million copies of the book were sold, and before the book was even written Puzo was just another writer that needed to make a little more than he was making.

“I’d published two novels for which I’d received very fine reviews—especially the second one, The Fortunate Pilgrim, and I didn’t make any money (both books netted him a total of just $6,500.) …and I looked around and said, ‘Gee. I’ve got’—you know, I was working as a government clerk, and then I was working on the magazine…’I have five kids and I thought, I’d better make some money.'”
Mario Puzo
Larry King Live
August 2, 1996

Puzo also wrote an autobiography The Godfather Papers & Other Confessions. He died in 1999.

Scott W. Smith

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I first became aware of Francis Ford Coppola’s prompt book for The Godfather at Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story. The book is several inches thick and contains Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather with note after note by Coppola as he details what parts he wants to extract and emphasize in the movie. The prompt book was the foundation for which he wrote the script.

Coppola explains that the prompt book is a tradition carried over from his theater days. (Before Coppola got a master’s in film at UCLA, he received a theater degree from Hofstra University.) Coppola also says he based his prompt book on one that Elia Kazan had done for A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan has written several books about his life and films including  Kazan on Directing and there are many other books that gleam insights from him that I’m sure was an encouragement to Coppola during his own difficult time of getting The Godfather made.

“When I started On the Waterfront, I was what they call unbankable. Nobody would put up money for me because I had had a series of box office failures…. One of my happiest moments was when I got the Academy Award for On the Waterfront.”
Elia Kazan
Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films Interviews with Elia Kazan
Jeff Young

In the below video, Coppola discusses part of the process that he went through in writing the script for The Godfather;

“On page 79 of the book we have the actual shooting of the Don. Whenever I felt there was a really important part of the book that was going to be in the movie I would sit there with my ruler and really underline—so this details the shooting. My margin notes are; THE SHOOTING! GREAT DETAIL. The Don is the main character of the movie, so as in Pyscho , we are totally thrown when he is shot. How would Hitchcock design this? Hitchcock was such a master about manipulating information for the audience, usually telling you things so that you were equipped to enjoy what you were seeing —rather than withholding information, he would give you information.”
Francis Ford Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“I was in great danger of being fired.”
Francis Ford Coppola (reflecting on the third week of shooting The Godfather)

One of the best things I learned in film school was from a professor who said in a nice Brooklyn accent, “Everybody on the set believes they can direct the picture better than you.” That’s true of student films, and it was no different for Francis Ford Coppola when he was directing The Godfather.

He overheard in a bathroom crews members saying things like, “Ah, what do you think of this director? Boy, he doesn’t know anything.” The studios didn’t like Coppola’s choice of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone. They preferred Robert Redford to Al Pacino as Michael. They didn’t like the lighting of the DP Gordon Willis. By the third week of shooting he thought he was going to be fired. So, in Mafia-like fashion, he fired four key crew members that he thought were “traitors” and conspiring against him, which forced the studio to keep him on the picture.

“I was very unhappy during (the shooting of) The Godfather, I had been told by everyone that my ideas for it were so bad— and I didn’t have a hell of a lot of confidence in myself—I was only about 30 years old or so. And I was just hanging on by my wits. You know I had no indication that this nightmare was going to turn into a successful film, much less a film that was to become a classic. So I always feel for young people working—remember that those times when you feel that your ideas aren’t good— or people are putting down your ideas, or you’re getting fired, that those are the same ideas that you’re going to be celebrated for 30 years later. So you almost have to have courage.”
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather DVD Commentary

It would probably be good to edit the words “almost have to have” from that last line and replace it with the word “must.” As in, “So you must have courage.”

The Godfather won three Academy Awards—Best Picture, Marlon Brando as Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Mario Puzo and Coppola won for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards and has been named by Entertainment Weekly and Empire Magazine as the greatest movie ever made.

Scott W. Smith

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 "You like race horses? I love 'em. Beautiful, expensive Racehorses. You are looking at six hundred thousand on four hoofs...I bet even Russina Czars never paid that kind of dough for a single horse."
Jack Woltz (John Marley) in The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

If you’ve never seen The Godfather there is a major hole in your film history knowledge. Write a note to screenwrtier/ director Francis Ford Coppola begging for forgiveness, buy a bottle of his wine (unless you’re under 21), and watch that film before you read this post. (After all, it is #2 on the AFI’s 100 years 100 Movies list.)

The horse’s head scene is not only the most memorable, the most visceral scene in The Godfather trilogy, it is one of the most memorable in film history. It’s also the one scene that, to me, technically makes the least sense. I’ve watched The Godfather many times and there is no doubt that the scene works every time.

My problem is a logical one. How did they get the horses head in the bed without waking the Hollywood studio head who was sleeping in it? Sure we could jump through some hoops and say he was drugged and all and anybody ruthless enough to do such a heinous act could figure out how to pull it off.

Still, it just seems like a flaw. Maybe I’m the only one who this bugs. And this is not to take anything from one of the greatest films ever made. I have the deepest respect for Coppola as a writer and a director. There is no screenwriter I have written about on this blog that I’d rather sit down and have a meal with than Coppola. (Okay, maybe Billy Wilder, but that’s kind of hard these days.)

If anything, it shows the genius of Coppola as a writer and director to change what was originally written by Mario Puzo in the book so that it would have the maximum impact on the audiences. Here’s how Coppola explains the scene on The Godfather DVD commentary:

“Interesting about the horse’s head scene— that was at the time a very, very famous scene in the book, and the way it’s described in the book Woltz wakes up and he looks and the horse’s head is there on the bedpost. And I just felt it would it be more horrible not to just have the horse there, but that he feels something wet in his bed and he turns down the sheets and he sees blood. And at first he thinks, ‘my god it could be me, I’ve been stabled or something.’ And as he pulls the sheet he sees the horse’s head right under the covers, so it’s quite different than in the book in the film—it’s maybe more effective, I’m not sure. I think that moment of doubt, that maybe it was his own wound bleeding maybe contributed to the horror.”

It’s a scene that lasts only one minute*, but that is embedded on audiences for a lifetime. Yes, the horse’s head on the bedpost does make more sense and is more plausible, but would have been far less effective. (Remember Hitchcock thought those that spoke in terms of plausibility were boring.)

The lesson here is the drama of the reveal trumps logic.

*And for the directors out there, the horse’s head scene consists mostly of one long take of dolly shot, followed by three quick shots reaction shots after the revel of the horse’s head.  Filmmaking at it’s best.

Related post: Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl in Ohio
The Francis Ford Coppola Way

Scott W. Smith

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Before Dana Fox was named by Variety in 2007 as one of the 10 Screenwriters to Watch, she was Dana Fox from upstate New York. (Because she’s a relatively new writer it’s hard to find many interviews with Fox, but one implied she spent time on a farm as a youth, which is always a nice contrast to Hollywood. Besides I needed another F-word for my title.) Fox got her undergraduate degree in English at Stanford and then earned her master’s at the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. That’s when she first tried her hand at screenwriting and set her on course.

She spent two years as a writer’s assistant for Al Gough and Miles Millar who were creating the TV show Smallville, and also worked with screenwriter John August (Big Fish). Her first film was The Wedding Date in 2005, followed by What Happens in Vegas (which starred Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz and pulled in $80 million) , and earned a co-writing credit on Couples Retreat starring Vince Vaughn.

I first read the phrase “The Fempire” in a 2008 article by Peter Howell describing the self-designated title of screenwriters and friends Diablo Cody (Juno), Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), and Fox.  (Playwright-turned-screenwriter Liz Meriwether is a recent addition.)

I heard a screenwriter recently say that you have to buy your way into Hollywood one way or the other. In Fox’s case it was a combination of an education that included Stanford and USC which I’d guess was between $150,000-200,000. in total expenses, which put her in a position to be a low-paid writer’s assistant where she could get coffee for the writers for several years.

“I’m a believer in paying your dues. I won’t say, ‘I have two degrees; I shouldn’t be getting your latte.’ Because I paid my dues when I got to the table, I actually had something to say.”
Dana Fox

The Wedding Date may not be at the top of your Netflix choices, but that’s what launched Fox’s career and I know more than one writer that would like to see their name in the credits with Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney.

Scott W. Smith

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In 2001, William Goldman, who wrote the novel and the screenplay for The Princess Bride, recorded a DVD commentary for the fairly tale movie having not seen the film since it first came out in 1987.  Here are a few excerpts;

“The novel was around for a long, long time before it was finally made into a movie and I never thought the movie would happen and I was wrong.”

“It’s very hard to make a quality movie. Every time you come out with one it’s a miracle, because everything is conspiring against you.”

“The book was written in ’73 and in ’74 20th Century Fox decided to make  a movie, but they weren’t sure it was a movie. But we stuck a deal, they bought the book and I owned the screenplay. And they would buy the screenplay if they decided to make the movie. ..I did a draft for myself, and I did a draft for them…and the studio liked it and we would have come out in ’75 except the studio head got fired. And when that happens, when the new studio head comes in he is determined that anything that the old studio head got greenlit as they say would never get made, because if it did get made and was a hit, people would snicker at him knowing that it wasn’t his movie…The movie almost got made two or three times.

(Note: The film was finally made about ten years after that initial start and released in 1987. It would be hard to imagine the movie as we know it without with the cast Rob Reiner put together including;  Andre the Giant, Wally Shawn, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin,  Robin Wright Penn.)

“Even as you look at it now (The Princess Bride) is an odd movie. And I’m just thrilled it got made. That’s a big deal for me. This is my theory…movies are successes because people like them, movies are failures because people don’t like them. Everything else is mythology. All the stuff you read about this movie being a hit, this movie is a flop—total bull. They have no idea before a movie opens what’s going to happen. And this movie, people that went to it loved it., and they would tell their friends…By the time it came out on cassettes it was the hit it should have been I think when it was in theaters. We’re lucky this all happened because when you have a movie that you like and it doesn’t find the audience you hoped for it’s heartbreaking. Because you don’t get it that many times.”

“One of the things about (The Princess Bride/ 98 minutes) is it’s short. George Roy Hill said if you can’t tell your story in an hour fifty you better be David Lean. I think movies are disgracefully long now. I think part of it is director’s ego. I think part of its people think if it’s long it’s equated with important  which is total madness.  I thought this movie went right along, we didn’t really leave anything out.    This is what we wrote, this is what we shot, this is what you saw.

William Goldman
Two-time Oscar winning screenwriter (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

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