Saturday 13 April 2013

Book review: "The Annotated Godfather"

This is post #600.  
The Annotated Godfather was, for me, one of those books you see referred to every so often, but never got around to reading. I can now say, if you like the movie, it's worth the effort.

The Annotated Godfather was compiled by Jenny Jones, who also wrote The Big Lebowski: An Illustrated, Annotated History of the Greatest Cult Film of All Time, which is compulsory reading if you're seriously into the Dude.

The full title of the book is The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay with Commentary on Every Scene, Interviews, and Little-Known Facts. That sums it up nicely. The screenplay in view is the official "Third Draft" (completed on March 29, 1971), which incorporates much of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo's own wording from their final, pre-production draft or shooting script.

While the screenplay is interesting, it's the "Little-Known Facts" that make the book. The Annotated Godfather has has been around since 2007, so those facts have made their way out into the ongoing conversation that surrounds the movie, but it's nice to read them in context.

Francis Ford Coppola arranges a wedding.

Casting and shooting the film were relatively straight-forward, except that the writer didn't want to write it (but Mario Puzo was broke and needed a commercial story), the studio didn't want to produce it, as every gangster picture Paramount had ever made had failed at box office (but the novel was a runaway success and other studios were showing interest), no director would touch the story (twelve directors turned it down, including Coppola, but he was broke and needed a job), the studio didn't want any of the cast, as they were all unknowns, except Brando, and he was considered box office poison (but Coppola outgamed the executives to get what he wanted), and the local Italian-American community banded against the film and amassed a war chest to stop production.

Here are a few quotes from the book, just to give you a taste.
At age forty-five, Mario Puzo owed $20,000 in gambling debts, so he wrote a ten-page book outline entitled Mafia. Eight publishers turned it down.

At a meeting at G.P. Putnam's Sons, Puzo regaled the editors with Mafia stories, impressing them enough to give him a $5,000 book advance. Puzo had never known a mobster or gangster, so he had to do extensive research for the book.

(In 1967) Puzo was so broke, he agreed—against his agent's advice—to accept a deal of a paltry $12,500 option, $80,000 if it was made into a film.

So in April 1969, Puzo was contracted to turn out The Godfather screenplay for an additional $100,000, expenses, and a few percentage points of the profits.

As the 1970s began, Paramount was ranked a dismal ninth among film studios.

Then, over Christmas of 1970, Love Story burst onto the movie scene. With a $106 million return on a $2.2 million investment, Love Story changed the fortunes of Paramount Pictures.

As gangbuster sales of Puzo's book forced Paramount to take another look at their film option, they would try to recreate Love Story's success using the same formula on The Godfather.

Twelve directors turned down the job—many, including Peter Yates (Bullitt) and Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) because they didn't want to romanticize the Mafia. Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man) was too busy. Costa-Gravas (Z) thought it too American.

Robert Evans, Paramount's head of production, sat down with Peter Bart, his creative second in command, to determine why previous organized crime films hadn't worked, and decided it was because Jews made them, not Italians. So, they sought an Italian-American director, a commodity in short supply.

Francis Ford Coppola was born in Detroit in 1939. His father, Carmine, was the conductor and arranger for the Ford Sunday Evening Hour radio program (hence Francis's middle name).

Peter Bart first approached Coppola to direct The Godfather in the spring of 1970. Coppola tried to read the book but found it sleazy.

His father advised him that commercial work could fund the artistic pictures he wanted to make.

His business partner, George Lucas, begged him to find something in the book he liked.

Coppola reread the novel and came to see a central theme of a family—a father and three sons—that was in its own way a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy. He viewed the growth of the 1940s Corleone Family as a metaphor for capitalism in America. He took the job.

With the inexperienced Coppola, Paramount thought they were hiring an Italian-American director who would also come in on budget and be pliable. Although indeed Italian-American, Francis Ford Coppola would not be the director the studio had envisioned.

The first battle was over the picture being a period piece. Coppola was adamant that the film be set in the 1940s.

Paramount had asked Puzo to set the screenplay in the seventies because contemporary films were cheaper to make; no 1940s cars to find, sets to create, costumes to make.

The second battle was over location. Coppola wanted to shoot in New York, an expensive proposition because of the unions. Producer Albert Ruddy had suggested Cleveland, Kansas City, and Cincinnati as possible sites—or perhaps a studio backlot.

In the end the studio gave in, and the film was shot on location in New York.

The third battle, and it was a long and bloody one, was over casting.

I'll stop there, on page 17 of a 260 page book. If I went on, this post would get right out of hand. Buy the book. It makes for fascinating reading—the true story of how Hollywood made a classic film, and it was not by following the rules they teach in film school.

And just while we're here, I couldn't resist this:

No cannolis are mentioned in the book or shooting script, but Coppola included the detail from his memories of the particular white boxes of cannolis his own father would bring home after work. Richard Castellano, as Clemenza, made movie history by improvising the now famous utterance: "Take the cannoli."

For further interesting reading on this subject, you could try Vanity Fair's article called The Godfather Wars.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Again an important lesson in how movie making is a human endeavour - a group human endeavour.