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Posts Tagged ‘The Godfather’

“Any writer that’s listening to me right now, you’ll gain a lot more knowledge by studying editing than you will by studying screenwriting. Screenwriting is something inside of you, it’s what you’re going to do. It’s going to be dictated by so many other things. Watch how movies are built. That’s where it really comes together.  Watch how movies evolve through the process of editing.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

Of course, the catch—22 is how can you watch a movie be edited unless you”re working on the movie? Here are to three places to start:
1) Read the post: How Great movies are Made (and Why ‘The Godfather’ was Once a Pile of Spaghetti in the Edit Room) 

2) Watch this video featuring Water Murch who was ADR supervisor on The Godfather.

3) Watch The Godfather once again.

4) Buy these books on editing:
In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing by Michael Ondaatje

P.S. If you know if some resources showing how a movie evolves in the editing process send that info my way. If I recall correctly, the original script for Annie Hall and the finished film are one of the best examples of being radically different creations. A movie salvaged in the editing. It went on to win four Oscar awards including Best Picture and Best Writing.

Scott W. Smith 

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Francis Ford Coppola‘s prompt book for The Godfather 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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“It’s true I rewrite a lot. You know, I don’t have that kind of talent that, you know,  I saw of kids who could draw beautiful pictures…my talent is I just try and try, and try and try again, and little by little it comes to something that I think is okay.”
Five time Oscar winning writer/director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather)
Inside the Actor’s Studio interview with James Lipton

Related post: That Time William Goldman Got a ‘C’ in Creative Writing

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“At a writing workshop, purely as a courtesy, I attended the poetry workshop presented by a friend, University of Hawaii professor Steven Goldsberry…Perhaps the most useful advice Goldsberry gave was to encourage writers to consider every sentence to be a joke, and to remember that jokes end on the punch line.

“This is useful to screenwriters struggling with issues regarding both dialogue and description. Don Corleone in The Godfather does not say: ‘He won’t be able to refuse the offer I’m going to make.’ The punch line in this sentence has to be ‘refuse.’ That’s where the drama resides. That’s the most powerful word, the one carrying the greatest stress. With the sentence ending on the punch line it becomes among the most timeless lines ever uttered in any movie: ‘I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.'”
UCLA Screenwriting Chairman Richard Walter
Essentials of Screenwriting

P.S. After I wrote this post I found out that Professor Goldsberry earned his PhD from the University of Iowa—all roads may not lead back to Iowa, but a whole bunch of them do. Goldsberry also wrote The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #16 (Richard Walter)
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Keeping Solvent & Sane

Scott W. Smith

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I don’t know the context in which Francis Ford Coppola said the below quote, but it offers a contrast to the post where I mentioned that Rod Serling said that be began writing with a theme in mind.

“Sometimes you never really quite understand what the movie’s about until you go into a matinée screening at the Oriental Theater on a Thursday afternoon.”
Francis Ford Coppola
As quoted in Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434

Coppola has had an amazing career, but I can’t help but wonder if not quite understanding what kind of movie you’re making is part of the hit and misses he’s had in his career. And perhaps why people are little confused by some of his films. But keep in mind that even the ambiguous Apocalypse Now, Coppola was nominated for an Oscar for his script.

It also seems to me from Coppola’s interviews and film commentaries that it is clear that on his three Oscar-winning scripts (Patton, The Godfather, The Godfather II) that he was aware of themes of the movies he was writing.

Scott W. Smith

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“Criticism is often wrong, as we know through history. Carmen, which is now the most popular opera in the repertoire, was a tremendous flop [when it premiered]. Why did they hate it?”
Francis Ford Coppola

“What I look for with critics is more that they’re going to write about something I did and I’m gonna read it and not make those mistakes again, I’m gonna learn something from it. Often, though, they don’t do that: they say, “It’s a muddled mess.” “It’s pretentious.” I can’t learn a lot from someone saying “It’s pretentious.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Movieline interview with Kyle Buchann

Being a big name film writer/director must feel somewhat like being the head of a Mafia family.Someone is always gunning for you. I don’t know if they have a class in film school these days to equipment young people with the down side of success, but they should. After a week of blogging about the movie The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola I’ve learned a lot about Coppola and his 40 year career.

And perhaps the thing I’ve learned most is my conformation that if you’re looking for respect, the Internet isn’t the best place to look for it. (Even if you have a handful of Oscars.) Since Saturday’s are my slowest days, I’ve decided to try something a little different and write a little Internet drama loosely based on some of the conversations I’ve read as people discussed Coppola and his work.

Blogger Post: Francis Ford Coppola is the greatest writer/director in the history of cinema.

Reply 1: Really? Are you nuts? Take away The Godfather I & II and what did Coppola really do over the last forty years?

Reply 2: REALLY? R U SERIOUS?

Reply 3: Yeah, it’s like that Orson Wells guy who everyone makes a big deal about just because of Citizen Kane.

Reply 4: Coppola is exactly like Orson Wells, fat and hocking wine in his later years.

Reply 5: Shut up.  Coppola rocks.

Reply 6: Coppola isn’t even the greatest writer/director in the greater Bay area.

Reply 7: The Godfather Part II is really just self-indulgent crap. The Godfather is his only masterpiece.

Reply 8: Yeah, and what did Neil Armstrong really do after he walked on the moon?

Reply 9: Aren’t you guys forgetting Coppola did Apocalypse Now?

Reply 10: Overrated.

Reply 11: Rumblefish, The Outsiders, The Conversation?

Reply 12: Overrated, overrated, overrated.

Reply 13: Who cares? (And for the record it’s Rumble Fish)

Reply 14: I loved Dracula.

Reply 15: Dracula bites.

Reply 16: U SUCK

Reply 17: Are you guys forgetting that Coppola has won five Oscars?

Reply 18: Yeah, but what has he done this week?

Reply 19: Besides the Oscars are meaningless and just the product of  a misogynistic, racist, capitalistic society.

Reply 20: Still The Godfather is pretty good.

Reply 21: The Godfather would have been better with Danny Thomas instead of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.

Reply 22: Who’s Danny Thomas?

Reply 23: Who’s Francis Ford Coppola?

Spend five minutes on the Internet and you’ll find that kind of uplifting conversation. Better to spend five minutes working on your script. But all that to say that if you’re looking to write the great American screenplay so that the world will love you and your work, think again. If you’re looking for unconditional love get a golden retriever.

From a perspective of increasing views The Godfather posts this week have been popular and I’ll compare them tomorrow with the spike I got from writing out Kevin Smith a while back. Coppola vs. Smith, tomorrow on Screenwriting from Iowa. And Monday we’ll look at Coppola, Castro and Capitalism.

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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