Francis Ford Coppola

“Leave the gun, take the Canoli.”

In the mid-Seventies Francis Ford Coppola was Hollywood’s new God. He had made one of the most successful films of all time, THE GODFATHER, won the Golden Palm in Cannes for THE CONVERSATION and both this film and THE GODFATHER II were nominated for an Oscar as Best Film. No goal seemed too ambitious for Coppola: he was wealthy, owned a studio in San Francisco, a newspaper and a theatre, as well as a vineyard in the Napa Valley. If Coppola ever came close to his dream of living like Cosimo Medici in the 20th century, then it was in those days in March 1975.

The two first GODFATHER films are extraordinary testimonies to the way the nation viewed itself in that era; they were audience hits and enjoyed critical acclaim, and hefty tomes have been written on them, not to mention countless articles. Both films were commissioned within the studio system, yet they remain highly personal, almost private works.

Nowadays, looking back his name has come to symbolize grandiose battles and magnificent defeats more than an intimate perspective. Yet the element that links all his films together is an attempt to tap into his/its own emotional inner world in every story he tells. The more successful he is in this endeavour, the more striking is the film. It is astounding to note that he arguably succeeded in going farthest with the films that he began with the most distance: the first two parts of the GODFATHER-trilogy and a few years later APOCALYPSE NOW.

Perhaps it is easiest to understand Coppola – his character, his obsessions, his art and his dreams – by concentrating on these small moments. For although many figures – Michael (Al Pacino) in THE GODFATHER or Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) in APOCALYPSE NOW, as well as Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) in THE CONVERSATION – are surrounded by full-blown plots and stories, they remain loners, decidedly private figures. To cite Michael Ondaatje, it is if they were one-way mirrors through which they can peer out, rarely revealing themselves and often at war with the outside world. If you wanted to describe Coppola’s films with an image, you would have to image a single shot, a close-up of a humane, deeply human face against a panorama of incredibly violent historical action. The background and foreground would be engaged in constant interactions – without ever tipping out of balance.

The two early GODFATHER films explore, each in their own distinct way, the issue of dealing with power and the way in which it deforms every individual within society. It is precisely this subject-matter that constituted a lifelong focus for Coppola, who always resisted the Hollywood movie machine, yet at the same time was uniquely skilled in exploiting it and ultimately was almost crushed by it.

Superficially THE GODFATHER tells the story of the Corleone family, their businesses and entanglements, their power struggles, both with competitors and between the four brothers. THE GODFATHER is replete with explicit violence, gruesome murders and ice-cold killings: the murder of Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) for example, the horse’s head in the bed of Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) or the assassination of Sonny (James Caan) in the middle of the street. In this respect Coppola was exploring avenues that were new to Hollywood and had just been discovered in Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967).

However if we look to the real heart of the film it tells the story of the youngest son: Michael, who initially is still an outsider (he is the only one in the family to attend college and wears an American army uniform) and ultimately assumes responsibility for the entire Corleone family – the story of a metamorphosis. Two scenes where Coppola’s vast directorial skill is revealed. The first is set inside, in one of those dark brown panelled rooms that dominate the universe of THE GODFATHER and are deployed by set designer Dean Tavoularis to convey the psychological world of the film too. The old Don (Marlon Brando), Vito Corleone, is lying in hospital after an attempt on his life, and Michael has only managed to prevent a second attempt on his life with an enormous effort (notching up a black eye into the bargain. The brothers and their capos Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Clemenza (Richard Castellano) are discussing what to do.

The discussion goes back and forth, but doing what is unavoidable seems impossible: simply getting rid of corrupt policeman McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) and drug dealer Solozzo (Al Lettieri). The scene, dominated by rapid cuts, develops into a calmdolly. Michael has kept quiet so far but now he speaks up: “gotta get Solozzo.” Clemenza will set up the meeting. And then “I’ll kill them both.”

The dolly is slightly from below and amidst the laughter of the others Michael shows his true face: as hard as nails when the family’s existence is at stake and resolved coolly and calculatingly to adopt unconventional approaches if need be. When the next cut shows a close-up of the revolver (cutoff) that is to be used to carry out the deed, the transformation is complete. Michael will have to leave America, and when he returns from his hiding place in Sicily, he is a different man.

At first glance less spectacular, but all the more artful for that is the moment when Michael’s old father hands over the reins of power to him. It is a simple conversation in a garden in late summer, his father in casual clothes, Michael in his shirt sleeves, they are drinking wine and eating olives. Vito mulls on his life but breaks off again and again to give Michael instructions about the business.

Michael attempts over and over again to calm his father down, to reassure him, and finally he leans forward and puts his hand on his father’s knee: “I’ll handle it. I’ll told you I can handle it. I’ll handle it”. The father starts, is silent and looks up at the sky. Then he gets up and sits down in a wicker chair behind his son. The camera now shows both heads in one frame: they are not looking at each other, yet nonetheless focused on each other.

This scene is perfect and yet so simple: the old Don (Brando was not even fifty when he made the film) taking leave of life, young Michael (Pacino was right at the start of his career after his first really important role in Jerry Schatzberg’s THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK) on the verge of taking over the reins of power, the little details that shake both of them, Michael’s concern and care, A tender moment of understanding, a rare moment full of warmth in this film of chilly power.

At the end of the film the father dies and Michael is the new Don. This is also related in an entirely unspectacular manner. Clemenza, who has just been sent by Michael to murder his brother-in-law, Schwager, Conny’s brother, kisses Michael’s hand: Michael is the new Don now. Then the door of the room closes with an audible click (Walter Murch, the sound designer, tried out numerous doors to get this just right). We, the audience, are left outside, shut out along with Kay, Michael’s wife (Diane Keaton). Michael does not simply close the door, but locks up his emotions and spirit in this room.

The consequences this has for him are shown all the more dramatically and strikingly by Coppola in the second part of the trilogy. At the end of THE GODFATHER II, Michael, an old man, abandoned by everyone, is sitting on a chair between piles of autumn leaves by Lake Tahoe (the second part was shot just three years after the first). The red leaves blow around him, he is powerful and rich – but alone. His face reveals only emptiness and exhaustion. Here again a slow Zufahrt, this time more from the rear and from slightly above, then the closing music and credits begin.

The rise and fall of Michael Corleone prefigure parallels to Francis Ford Coppola’s own life. Shortly after this, Coppola transformed his attempt to shoot a commercial Vietnam action film in the Philippines into an even more intensive, radical journey into his own inner world. He risked everything and won a great deal (including two Oscars and a Golden Palme). However the stakes were very high (the film cost 35 million dollars and Coppola risked his entire fortune) – the profits somewhat smaller. His subsequent attempt to establish himself as an “industrial artist” with ONE FROM THE HEART and to revolutionise film technology entirely ended in an artistic and financial fiasco.

Coppola was never again to ascend to the heights he attained in this era – the mid-Seventies. He shot a whole host of smaller films (RUMBLE FISH, THE OUTSIDERS) as well as commissioned works (THE COTTON CLUB, BRAM STOKERS DRACULA), but neither his artistic nor his commercial success were repeated. His son Gian-Carlo died in a tragic speedboat accident during principal photography for GARDENS OF STONE. The third part of THE GODFATHER, which was actually supposed to tell the story of the ’adoptedbrother, Tom Hagen, remained truncated for many reasons. Today however the first two parts of the GODFATHER trilogy are not just masterpieces in their genre; they are part of film history.

“You know what it’s like to be a director?” Coppola once asked ironically. “It’s like running in front of a locomotive. If you stop, if you trip, if you make a mistake, you get killed. How can you be creative with that thing behind you?” And, one might add: How can you be creative without it?

Francis Ford Coppola, director, scriptwriter, producer; born on 7th April 1939 in Detroit, Michigan. In 1959 he completed his degree in theatre studies at the Hofstra University in Hampstead, New York, as a Bachelor of Arts ab. He subsequently studied film at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), working while he was a student as assistant to Roger Corman and is responsible for edits and dubbed versions of various productions by American International Pictures (AIP). In 1971 Coppola was awarded an Oscar for the script he co-wrote with Edmund H. North for Franklin J. Schaffner’s PATTON. After THE GODFATHER I and II, APOCALYPSE NOW and further successes as a producer (George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI) and scriptwriter (Jack Claytons THE GREAT GATSBY), he was among the most influential filmmakers in Hollywood in the mid-Seventies. After the financial fiasco of ONE FROM THE HEART Coppola was forced to sell Zoetrope Studios, which had only just been set up in 1980. Coppola’s awards include seven Oscars just for the first two parts of the GODFATHER trilogy. In 1979 APOCALYPSE NOW was awarded a Golden Palm at the Cannes International Film Festival. Francis Ford Coppola now works as a freelance producer, director, vintner and hotelier.