Every year or so, the American movie industry comes up with a talented new young director whose current flick is hailed as the greatest piece of goods since The Birth of a Nation; he usually finds himself an overnight celebrity, the darling of TV talk shows and magazine profiles. Few deserve such treatment and even fewer manage to survive it. The latest of Hollywood’s directorial darlings is a portly, bearded, fast-talking 36-year-old dynamo named Francis Ford Coppola (pronounced Cope-uh-lah), who made headlines this year by being nominated for five Academy Awards—and winning three of them. In the history of the awards, only the venerable Walt Disney received more nominations (six) in a single year. Coppola was also named best motion-picture director of the year by the Directors’ Guild of America.
Unlike most of the other boy geniuses, however, Coppola might actually be every bit as talented as the reviewers say he is. His present eminence rests largely on having made The Godfather Part II an even bigger artistic success than the original Godfather, which, in addition to grossing a staggering $285,000,000, has been acclaimed by most serious movie critics here and abroad as the greatest gangster picture ever made. For the first time in Hollywood history, a sequel to a tremendously successful motion picture has surpassed the original in critical estimation and is likely to do the same at the box office.
Just three years ago, Coppola was broke and so little in demand that he was reportedly only fourth or fifth on Paramount’s list of possible candidates to direct what the studio envisaged all along as no more than a big-budget thriller to be carved out of Mario Puzo’s sprawling best-seller. Since The Godfather, Coppola has become the one person in the movie industry more in demand than Clint Eastwood. “If he took all the offers now coming his way in any one week,” a studio executive recently said, “he’d have to work uninterruptedly for the next 50 years and might get to be rich enough to buy up Fort Knox.”
The wonder is not that Coppola is so young to be in such a position but that it look Hollywood so long to find out about him. Francis remembers his childhood as an agitated series of crises, with much shouting, passion and tears. His father, Carmine, was a virtuoso flutist who played with several leading orchestras, including Arturo Toscanini’s celebrated NBC Symphony. Unable to achieve recognition as a composer, he moved the family back and forth across the country in pursuit of his career, which was finally capped with an Oscar for the score of Godfather II. Francis’s older brother, August, a writer, was handsome, brilliant and popular with girls; his sister, Talia, an actress (she played Connie, Michael Corleone’s sister in both Godfathers), was the baby of the family. Francis retreated for a while into a fantasy world in which, for hours on end, he played with puppets, watched TV and read comic books.
He aspired to playwrighting but quickly changed his mind when he saw his first Eisenstein film, Ten Days That Shook the World, at the age of 17. “On Monday I was in theater,” Coppola has said, “and on Tuesday I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
At UCLA’s film school, Coppola won the Samuel Goldwyn writing award and at 22 he landed a job as a staff writer with Seven Arts, a major production company, where he directed a low-budget horror picture for producer Roger Corman. Coppola’s master’s-thesis film, You’re a Big Boy Now, a knockabout farce with a rock score, brought him to the attention of Warner Bros., which signed him to direct a musical, Finian’s Rainbow. It flopped. Mostly on his own, Coppola put together The Rain People, a film he wrote and directed about a pregnant woman who leaves her husband, despite the fact that she loves him, because she doesn’t want to be married anymore. The movie antedated women’s lib and is now considered to have been ahead of its period, a polite way of saying that it didn’t make much money. But by that time, Coppola had also co-authored the screenplay of Patton, for which he won an Oscar. He was barely 28 and the odds were he’d make it big, if he just stuck around long enough.
By 1969, however, Coppola had had enough of Hollywood’s chaotic financing methods, antiquated production techniques and rigidly entrenched craft unions. He talked Warner’s into letting him set up his own production company, American Zoetrope, and moved to San Francisco, where he proposed to turn out high-quality, low-budget features. The company’s first project, THX 1138, a futuristic script directed by his friend George Lucas that has since become a cult classic, all but sank it. Warner’s canceled its contract, leaving Coppola stranded under a mountain of debts, from which he quickly extricated himself with The Godfather, followed not only by Godfather II but by its rival for best-picture honors in the 1974 Oscars competition, The Conversation.
Today, Coppola’s only worry is deciding what to do next. He has enough money to indulge himself and he has a number of projects that have been sitting on his desk and/or maturing in his head for years. In addition to Lucas, whom he prodded into writing and directing the enormously successful American Graffiti—which he produced after the script had been rejected by 11 studios—Coppola has gathered around him in San Francisco a small army of young, supremely talented individualists. They swarm in and out of the Coppola Company headquarters, an old eight-story San Francisco office building that Coppola is restoring. Coppola listens to everyone and overlooks nothing.
Some people feel this may be his undoing as an artist. Coppola willingly delegates authority and listens to advice, but he clearly feels capable of undertaking just about anything interesting that comes his way. He has also set up his own distribution company, has acquired a small legitimate theater, where he plans to produce and direct his own plays as well as those of others, is wheeling and dealing in real estate and publishes a biweekly magazine called City that aspires to do for the San Francisco region something of what New York does for its area. He enjoys a warm home life with his artist wife, Eleanor, and their three small children, as well as an active social one with a wide circle of friends and cronies whom he calls “the family.” To find out more about this artist-mogul, Playboy assigned contributor William Murray to track him down on his home grounds and interview him. Murray reports:
“Getting to see Francis Ford Coppola these days is about as difficult as setting up a tête-à-tête with the Godfather himself. It took weeks and dozens of long-distance phone calls, filtered through the usual guard screen of secretaries and superefficient business managers, before a meeting was finally arranged.
“I finally caught up with Coppola at his house, a light-blue, turn-of-the-century, 28-room mansion with a magnificent view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The huge rooms are stocked with gadgets, including an old jukebox, a player grand piano, hi-fi equipment and a fully equipped projection room. It was exactly the sort of palazzo I’d have envisioned for a self-exiled Hollywood tycoon, but I hadn’t been in the place more than 20 minutes before I realized that, far from being a self-advertisement for power and success, everything in the house reflected the highly personal, even eccentric tastes of Francis or Eleanor Coppola.
“The first thing Coppola did was to make me a cappuccino on his own espresso machine, imported from Turin. We sat and sipped coffee. Everything was moving at such a leisurely pace that I couldn’t imagine at first how I’d ever be able to get a real conversation under way with him.
“I needn’t have worried. The minute I switched on my tape recorder, Coppola came to life. This was work. First, he corrected the position of the machine, then he fiddled with the volume and tone controls till he had them set to his satisfaction. Finally, he allowed me to question him. All you have to do with Coppola is get him going. After that, the problem is slowing him down, much less stopping him; I got the feeling he could have been a tremendous politician or an eloquent preacher. We talked for several hours that first day, then continued the next two days at his office.
“Our final session was held at his home. Coppola, wearing an Arab caftan that failed to conceal his bulk, ushered me into one of the Bay Area’s largest backyards, where a Moorish-style pool is heated to body temperature. He leaped into the water and for the next five minutes he moaned—very loudly. What if the neighbors complain? he was asked. ‘It’s my pool,’ he answered, ‘and I’ll moan if I like.’ Sipping a cup of espresso while standing in the water, he added: ‘Y’know, I like this. It’s my idea of real decadence.’
“Back in the living room, Coppola, his robe billowing about him, pirouetted, gavotted and jigged without a trace of self-consciousness to a record of carnival music that he’d brought back from Rio, where he’d gone to unwind for a couple of weeks. Then, I think, I saw the key to Coppola: He throws himself completely into everything he does, whether it’s work or play. The man is a block of pure energy, with the powers of concentration of a leopard stalking prey. If anyone can pull off what he proposes to do to the film business, I’m convinced he can and I came away hoping he’d succeed.”
Interview by William Murray
Coppola: This is my last interview.
Coppola: I decided recently that enough is enough. Basically, there’s only one story I can tell and I’ve told it. I think it’s time I kind of go on my way out of respect for the public.
Playboy: All right, let’s start with your recent Oscar haul for Godfather II. How did it feel to walk away with so many awards?
Coppola: Two years ago, I went to the Academy Awards ceremonies feeling blasé, not caring. I thought Godfather I would win most of the awards, but how important was the Oscar, anyway? Then it became clear that Cabaret was running away with the awards, and I suddenly started wanting to win desperately. When I didn’t, I got very depressed. I figured I’d never make another film that would win an Oscar; I was going to go off and make small, personal films, the kind that rarely win awards. I had wanted to leave a winner.
This year, I thought Chinatown would clean up. I had two pictures nominated—Godfather II and The Conversation—and I figured that would split my vote. I was intrigued with the idea of losing twice after coming so close, which might be a record in itself. So when it all happened, I was so elated I didn’t know what to do. I never expected Best Picture. I felt Godfather II was too demanding, too complex. But when it won, I felt the members were telling me they appreciated the fact that we’d tried to make a film with integrity.
Playboy: What did you think when Bert Schneider, the producer of the antiwar documentary Hearts and Minds, read a telegram from a Viet Cong representative?
Coppola: Many people voted for Hearts and Minds as best documentary, not because it was a great film—it wasn’t, particularly—but because of what the film said. And so when Schneider accepted the award, it was certainly appropriate for him to comment on what the film was saying. It wasn’t as if they were giving him an award as best tap dancer only to have him turn around and give a political speech. The academy was sanctioning that documentary, was rewarding it for the message it conveyed. So his statement was really a response to that.
Playboy: The incident caused quite an uproar. How did you personally feel about it?
Coppola: Imagine, in 1975, getting a telegram from a so-called enemy extending friendship to the American people. I mean, after what we did to the Vietnamese people, you’d think they wouldn’t forgive us for 300 years! Getting this positive, human, optimistic message was such a beautiful idea to me—it was overwhelming. If the telegram had said, “You Yankee dogs have been killing us for 30 years and now we’ve got you, so screw you!” I wouldn’t have read it. But it didn’t say that.
As for the uproar caused by Frank Sinatra’s reading the disclaimer expressing his and Bob Hope’s reactions, well, men at that point in their lives can’t understand what a message like that really means. They’re not interested in the truth; they still think all Communists are bad, less than human. When people are against something, they don’t even listen.
Playboy: Your career as a director has been made by the two Godfather movies, and most of the critics seem to have recognized what you were trying to do with them, but none has had a kind word for the novel nor for its author, Mario Puzo. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, in fact, calls the book trash. Could you have made two fine movies out of trash?
Coppola: When I was first offered the project, I started to read the book and I got only about 50 pages into it. I thought it was a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff. I got to the part about the singer supposedly modeled on Frank Sinatra and the girl Sonny Corleone liked so much because her vagina was enormous—remember that stuff in the book? It never showed up in the movie. Anyway, I said, “My God, what is this—The Carpetbaggers?” So I stopped reading it and said, “Forget it.”
Four or five months later, I was again offered the opportunity to work on it and by that time, I was in dire financial straits with my own company in San Francisco, so I read further. Then I got into what the book is really about—the story of the family, this father and his sons, and questions of power and succession—and I thought it was a terrific story, if you could cut out all the other stuff. I decided it could be not only a successful movie but also a good movie. I wanted to concentrate on the central theme, and that’s what I tried to do.
So the fact is, it wasn’t a piece of trash. Like me, Mario went after the money at first. He’s very frank about that. But if the two movies are strong, it’s because of what Mario originally put in his book that was strong and valid. Mario himself, by the way, doesn’t think The Godfather is his best book, but it’s the only one of his novels that sold really well. I have great respect for Mario. He created the story, he created the characters, even in Part II, which I wrote more of than Part I. But all the key elements go back to his book.
Playboy: Did you work together on the screenplays?
Coppola: Never, I would do the first draft and send it to him and he would make corrections and rewrite and change anything he wanted to and send it back to me, and then I’d rework it again, and it went back and forth. We work in totally different ways. He’s much lazier than I am, which I think he’d admit. What we mainly have in common is that we both like to play baccarat and shoot dice. I like Mario very much.
Playboy: Since you weren’t a famous director at the time, why did Paramount approach you about making the film?
Coppola: The book hadn’t yet made an impression. A lot of directors, including Richard Brooks and Costa-Gavras, had already turned it down. At that time, I had an interesting reputation as a director who could make a film economically. Also, I was a writer and I was Italian, so I seemed like an intelligent shot.
Playboy: Had you heard about The Godfather before reading it and hating it?
Coppola: Yes, and it’s a strange story. One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting around my home in San Francisco, reading The New York Times, and I saw an ad for a new book. Couldn’t tell what it was about from the book cover—it looked kind of solemn. I thought it might be an intellectual work by some new Italian author named Mario Puzo, so I clipped the ad. I was just going to inquire about it. Right then, Peter Bart, a friend of mine, came by with someone I’d never met before: Al Ruddy, who later became producer of The Godfather but at that time had nothing to do with the project. We started talking and Peter mentioned a book he’d just heard about: The Godfather, by Mario Puzo. He explained what it was about. I had no interest in filming a best-seller, so I said, “No kidding—I just noticed an ad for it.” At that very moment, the phone rang. It was Marlon Brando. I’d contacted him to ask if I might send by the script of The Conversation, which I’d written with him in mind. He was just calling to say, “Sure, send the script over.”
That all happened in one afternoon. Several months later, Al Ruddy was named producer of The Godfather. I received my first offer to direct it and Marlon Brando would shortly have the lead. It still seems bizarre to me that the various elements came together that day in my home.
Playboy: Once you’d decided to direct the film, how did you get Brando for the title role?
Coppola: I must have interviewed 2,000 people. We videotaped every old Italian actor in existence. But it became apparent that the role called for an actor of such magnetism, such charisma, just walking into a room had to be an event. We concluded that if an Italian actor had gotten to be 70 years old without becoming famous on his own, he wouldn’t have the air of authority we needed. Robert Evans, who was in charge of production at Paramount, wanted Carlo Ponti, which was an interesting idea: Get someone already important in life, that sort of thinking. But we finally figured that what we had to do was hire the best actor in the world. It was that simple. It boiled down to Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando, who are the greatest actors in the world. We went back and forth on it, and I finally called Mario to ask him. He told me that, ironically enough, he’d been thinking of Brando as the Godfather all along and had, in fact, written him a letter to that effect over two years before. Brando seemed too young, even to me, but sometimes when you go out on a limb and connect with someone—Mario, in this case—you say, “It’s God signaling me.” So we narrowed it down to Brando. He had turned down the role in The Conversation some months earlier, but after he’d had a chance to read The Godfather, he called back and said he was interested, that he thought it was a delicious part—he used that word, delicious.
Playboy: Were the studio moguls pleased?
Coppola: Hell, no. Ruddy liked Brando, but he said flatly that the studio heads would never buy it. We got in touch with Evans, pitched Brando and listened to him yell at us for being fools. By now, the book was becoming more and more successful, and it was outstripping me in terms of my potency as a director. It was getting bigger than I was. And they were starting to wonder if they hadn’t made a big mistake in choosing me as the director.
Time passed, the book got bigger, the budget increased and I refused to send them any new casting ideas. Besides Brando, I already had it in my mind that I wanted Al Pacino, Jimmy Caan, Bobby Duvall, and so on. So a big meeting was scheduled with Evans, Stanley Jaffe, who was then the young president of the studio, and assorted lawyers.
Halfway into the meeting, I made another pitch for Brando. Jaffe replied, and these are his exact words, “As president of Paramount Pictures, I assure you that Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture and, furthermore, as president of the company, I will no longer allow you to discuss it.” Boom. Final. Maybe from his point of view, at that time, it made sense. Paramount, before Love Story, had made a number of flops. And Brando’s track record was even worse. But I insisted they hear me out, and Evans persuaded Jaffe to give me five minutes. I stood up as if I were a lawyer pleading for someone’s life and went through all the reasons I thought only Brando could play the part. After I’d finished, I pretended to collapse in a heap on the floor.
So Jaffe finally relented, but he gave me certain conditions, the main one being that Brando take a screen test. I’d won. Now all I had to figure was how to get Marlon Brando to take a screen test.
Playboy: How did you?
Coppola: Well, you have to realize that despite our telephone conversation, I was still scared shitless of Brando. So I called him and said I wanted to explore the role with him. At which point he jumped in and said he wasn’t entirely sure he could play the role, and if he couldn’t, he shouldn’t, so why not get together and try it out? Wonderful, I said, let’s videotape it. Fine, he said.
Playboy: So he never really agreed to take the screen test?
Coppola: No. But he’s a fantastic guy, so I’m sure if I’d been up front with him and told him the spot I was in, he’d have done it.
Playboy: How did the non-screen test go?
Coppola: I got a video recorder from some friends and showed up at Brando’s house the next morning with a photographer and an Italian barber I’d already picked for the role of Bonasera, the undertaker in the film. I’d dressed him in a black suit and asked him to memorize the speech at the beginning of the movie, where Bonasera asks the Godfather for a favor. But I kept him outside. Brando met us in his living room, wearing a Japanese kimono, hair tied back in a ponytail. I just started videotaping him. He began to slide into character. He took some shoe polish and put it in his hair. His speech changed: “You t’ink I need a mustache?” I was anxious to make an intelligent comment, so I said, “Oh, yeah, my Uncle Louis has a mustache.” He dabbed on a phony mustache and, as I videotaped him, he reached for some Kleenex. “I want to be like bulldog,” he mumbled, and stuffed wads of it into his mouth. He kept talking to himself, mumbling, and finally said, “I just wanna improvise.” I told my guys to keep quiet; I’d heard that noise bothers him. He always wears earplugs when he’s working.
Then, without warning, I ushered in my barber friend, who went up to Brando and launched right into his speech. Brando didn’t know what was going on for a moment, but he listened and then just started doing the scene. It was my shot. The thing worked, I had it down on tape. I’d watched 47-year-old Marlon Brando turn into this aging Mafia chief. It was fantastic.
Later, when I showed the tape to Evans and Jaffe, their reaction—and this is where I give them credit—was instantaneous. They both said he was great.
Playboy: How was it, working with Brando?
Coppola: Well, we all wanted to impress Brando with the fact that each of us was special in some way or other. Jimmy Caan was always trying to make him laugh, Al Pacino would be moody and try to impress him with his intensity, and when Marlon would sit down to talk about Indians or politics, Duvall would sit behind him and do Brando imitations. I got along very well with Marlon. One of the most affectionate, warm men I’ve ever known. He’d come in late once in a while, but he’d make up for it with his sense of humor.
Playboy: What’s an example of his sense of humor?
Coppola: Besides “mooning” actors on the set? Well, there’s this scene in Godfather I where they’ve brought Brando home from the hospital, and the orderlies are supposed to carry him up the stairs in a stretcher. The actors couldn’t manage it, so I asked a couple of muscle-bound guys on the set—real physical-fitness types—to do it. They bragged that it would be no problem for them; so while they were off being costumed and made up, Brando got the other guys to load the stretcher with 1,000 pounds of lead weights. So these two guys swagger out, pick up the weighted stretcher with Brando on it—and don’t let on that they can hardly lift the thing. Well, about four steps up, they both yell, “Jee-sus, does he weigh a ton!” and they drop the stretcher, which breaks up everybody on the set. That sort of thing went on all the time.
Playboy: Was it all as much fun as that?
Coppola: No, that’s hindsight. If you’d checked with the crew while we were filming, they’d have said The Godfather was going to be the biggest disaster of all time. The French Connection came out while we were filming, and people who’d seen the film and who saw the Godfather rushes implied that our film was boring by comparison. There were rumors that I was going to be fired every day. I was trying to save money during that time, sacking out on Jimmy Caan’s couch. A bad period for me. I couldn’t get to sleep at night. When I did, I had nightmares of seeing Elia Kazan walk onto the set, come up to me and say, “Uh, Francis, I’ve been asked to.…” But Marlon was a great help. When I mentioned the threatening noises, he told me he wouldn’t continue the picture if I got fired.
Playboy: Were you given your head by the studio, were you allowed to improvise, or did you have to stick faithfully to the script?
Coppola: I wasn’t given my head, by any means. A lot of the energy that went into the film went into simply trying to convince the people who held the power to let me do the film my way. But there was some spontaneity. For instance, Lenny Montana, who plays Luca Brasi, the mafioso in the picture who calls on the Godfather to thank him for being invited to the wedding—that’s before he gets his hand pinned to a bar with a knife, of course—is not a professional actor, and he was terrified of playing the scene with Brando. We shot the scene a dozen times, but he froze on every take and forgot his lines. We finally gave up. Later, I wrote a new little scene where he was at the party, before his visit to the Godfather, practicing his speech perfectly over and over. We shot that and kept one of the scenes with Brando where Brasi froze, and it made the whole thing work well with the context of the story.
As for Brando himself, what an improviser! I told him at one point that I didn’t really know how to shoot his final scene, just before he dies. What could we do to make his playing with his grandson believable? He said, “Here’s how I play with kids,” and took an orange peel, cut it into pieces that looked like fangs and slipped them into his mouth.
Playboy: Orange peel along with the Kleenex?
Coppola: Right. And I thought, what a ridiculous idea. Then suddenly I saw it: Of course! The Godfather dies as a monster! And once I’d seen him with the orange-peel fangs, I knew I could never shoot it any other way.
Playboy: How about Pacino, who really had the major role in both movies? How was he cast?
Coppola: We were ready to go into production before we found our Michael Corleone. The studio guys wanted Jimmy Caan to play him. I love Jimmy, but I felt he’d be wrong for Michael—and perfect for Sonny. Other people suggested Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal. But all I could see was Al Pacino’s face in that camera. I couldn’t get him out of my head. Even when I read the book, I kept seeing him as Michael. I nearly got fired over insisting on him, but it worked out in the end.
Playboy: That’s an understatement. After The Godfather went on to unparalleled success, what got you interested in doing a sequel?
Coppola: Initially, the idea of a sequel seemed horrible to me. It sounded like a tacky spin-off, and I used to joke that the only way I’d do it was if they’d let me film Abbott and Costello Meet the Godfather—that would have been fun. Then I entertained some Russian film executives who were visiting San Francisco and they asked me if I was going to make The Godfather Part II. That was the first time I heard the phrase used; I guess you could say I stole the title from the Russians.
In short, it seemed like such a terrible idea that I began to be intrigued by the thought of pulling it off. Simple as that. Sometimes I sit around thinking I’d like to get a job directing a TV soap opera, just to see if I could make it the most wonderful thing of its kind ever done. Or I imagine devoting myself to directing the plays of a cub-scout troop and having it be the most exciting theater in the country. You know that feeling when something seems so outrageous, you just have to do it? That’s what happened to me.
Then after I started thinking about the idea, when I considered that we’d have most of the same actors, the scenes we might be able to develop in depth, I started feeling it really might be something innovative.
Playboy: Do you, like some critics, think Godfather II is a better film than Godfather I?
Coppola: The second film goes much further than the first one. It’s much more ambitious and novelistic in its structure. If you get off on the wrong foot with it, I can imagine that it would be like a Chinese water torture to sit through it. But it’s a more subtle movie, with its own heartbeat. And it was very tough on some of the actors, especially Al Pacino.
Playboy: Is it true that you had to stop shooting for two or three weeks when you were on location in Santo Domingo because Pacino was exhausted?
Coppola: Yes. The role of Michael is a very strange and difficult one and it put a terrific strain on him. It was like being caught in a kind of vise. In the first picture, he went from being a young, slightly insecure, naïve and brilliant young college student to becoming this horrible Mafia killer. In Godfather II, he’s the same man from beginning to end—working on a much more subtle level, very rarely having a big climactic scene where an actor can unload, like blowing the spittle out of the tube of a trombone. The entire performance had to be kind of vague and so understated that, as an actor, you couldn’t really be sure what you were doing. You had the tremendous pressure of not knowing whether your performance would have a true, cumulative effect, whether you were creating a monster or just being terrible. The load on Al was terrific and it really ran him down physically.
Playboy: You obviously had a lot more control over Godfather II than Godfather I, didn’t you?
Coppola: Absolutely. I had to fight a lot of wars the first time around. In Godfather II, I had no interference. Paramount backed me up in every decision. The film was my baby and they left it in my hands.
Playboy: It would have been stupid of them not to, after all the money the first one made.
Coppola: But Paramount was fully aware of some of the chances I was taking and went along. I guess they had to, but they did.
Playboy: One of the most important areas you explore in Godfather II is the connection between Mafia operations and some of our legitimate big-business interests. Are you saying that some corporations are no better and no worse than organized crime?
Coppola: Right from the very beginning it became clear, as I was doing my research, that though the Mafia was a Sicilian phenomenon, there was no way it could really have flowered except in the soil of America. America was absolutely ripe for the Mafia. Everything the Mafia believed in and was set up to handle—absolute control, the carving out of territories, the rigging of prices and the elimination of competition—everything was here. In fact, the corporate philosophy that built some of our biggest industries and great personal fortunes was a Mafia philosophy. So when those Italians arrived here, they found themselves in the perfect place.
It became clear to me that there was a wonderful parallel to be drawn, that the career of Michael Corleone was the perfect metaphor for the new land. Like America, Michael began as a clean, brilliant young man endowed with incredible resources and believing in a humanistic idealism. Like America, Michael was the child of an older system, a child of Europe. Like America, Michael was an innocent who had tried to correct the ills and injustices of his progenitors. But then he got blood on his hands. He lied to himself and to others about what he was doing and why. And so he became not only the mirror image of what he’d come from but worse. One of the reasons I wanted to make Godfather II is that I wanted to take Michael to what I felt was the logical conclusion. He wins every battle; his brilliance and his resources enable him to defeat all his enemies. I didn’t want Michael to die. I didn’t want Michael to be put into prison. I didn’t want him to be assassinated by his rivals. But, in a bigger sense, I also wanted to destroy Michael. There’s no doubt that, by the end of this picture, Michael Corleone, having beaten everyone, is sitting there alone, a living corpse.
Playboy: Is that your metaphor for America today?
Coppola: Unlike America, Michael Corleone is doomed. There’s no way that man is ever going to change. I admit I considered some upbeat touch at the end, like having his son turn against him to indicate he wouldn’t follow in that tradition, but honesty—and Pacino—wouldn’t let me do it. Michael is doomed. But I don’t at all feel that America is doomed. I thought it was healthy to make this horror-story statement—as a warning, if you like—but, as a nation, we don’t have to go down that same road, and I don’t think we will.
Playboy: A number of critics feel that you and others—including, perhaps, Playboy, with its series on organized crime—helped romanticize the Mafia in America. How do you respond to that?
Coppola: Well, first of all, the Mafia was romanticized in the book. And I was filming that book. To do a film about my real opinion of the Mafia would be another thing altogether. But it’s a mistake to think I was making a film about the Mafia. Godfather Part I is a romance about a king with three sons. It is a film about power. It could have been the Kennedys. The whole idea of a family living in a compound—that was all based on Hyannisport. Remember, it wasn’t a documentary about Mafia chief Vito Genovese. It was Marlon Brando with Kleenex in his mouth.
Playboy: Where do the films depart most radically from the truth?
Coppola: Where you get into the mythic aspects of the Godfather, the great father who is honorable and will not do business in drugs. The character was a synthesis of Genovese and Joseph Profaci, but Genovese ordered his soldiers not to deal in drugs while he himself did just that on the side; Profaci was dishonorable at a lot of levels. The film Godfather would never double-cross anyone, but the real godfathers double-crossed people over and over.
Playboy: Still, you won’t deny that, whatever your intentions, Godfather I had the effect of romanticizing the Mafia?
Coppola: I felt I was making a harsh statement about the Mafia and power at the end of Godfather I when Michael murders all those people, then lies to his wife and closes the door. But obviously, many people didn’t get the point I was making. And so if the statement I was trying to make was outbalanced by the charismatic aspects of the characters, I felt Godfather II was an opportunity to rectify that. The film is pretty rough. The essence of Godfather I is all Mario Puzo’s creation, not mine. With Godfather II, which I had a greater part in writing, I emerged a bit to comment on the first film.
But the fact still may be that people like Marlon and Jimmy and Al too much. If you were taken inside Adolf Hitler’s home, went to his parties and heard his stories, you’d probably have liked him. If I made a film of Hitler and got some charismatic actor to play him, people would say I was trying to make him a good human being. He wasn’t, of course, but the greatest evil on earth is done by sane human beings who are miserable in themselves. My point is that you can’t make a movie about what it’s like inside a Mafia family without their seeming to be quite human.
Playboy: What about those who say not that the Mafia is romanticized but that it simply doesn’t exist?
Coppola: When people say the Mafia doesn’t exist, in a way they’re right. When they say it does exist, they’re right, too. You have to look at it with different eyes: It’s not a secret Italian organization, as it’s portrayed. The most powerful man in the Mafia at one time wasn’t Italian—he was a Jew. Meyer Lansky became powerful because he was the best at forging their common interests—that’s just good business practice.
Playboy: Except that, as far as we know, A.T.&T. hasn’t killed anyone in pursuit of its business.
Coppola: Who says? Who says?
Playboy: Have you got something on A.T.&T.?
Coppola: A.T.&T. I don’t know about, but I.T.T. in Chile? I wouldn’t bet my life that it hadn’t. And it’s not just business. How about the Yablonski murders in that coal miners’ union? That was just the union equivalent of a Mafia hit. How about politics? Assassination of a president is the quickest way to bring about lasting and enormous social change. What’s the difference between the United States’ putting a guy like Trujillo in power so our companies can operate in the Dominican Republic, and the Mafia’s handing the Boston territory to one of its capos? Then, after 20 years, either guy gets a little uppity and either organization feels free to knock him off.
Playboy: Do you have any stories to tell about how the real Mafia reacted to the Godfather films?
Playboy: And you wouldn’t tell if you had any?
Coppola: No, I would. But the fact is I got some terrific advice from Mario Puzo. He told me that, in his experience, Mafia guys loved the glamor of show business and that, if you let them, they’d get involved. So Mario told me that I’d probably be contacted and when I was, I should refuse to open up to them. I shouldn’t take their phone number, I shouldn’t let them feel they could visit me. Because if there’s one thing about them, it’s that they respect that attitude. If you turn them off, they won’t intrude into your life. Al Ruddy, the producer, was out having dinner with a lot of them, but I wouldn’t participate in any way whatsoever with them.
Funny thing is, I’ve never been very interested in the Mafia—even though some important guys in the Mob have the same name as I do. “Trigger Mike” Coppola was one of Vito Genovese’s lieutenants, I think. Terrible man.
Playboy: Any relation?
Coppola: You mean Uncle Mike? No, of course not. Coppola is a common Italian name.
Playboy: One Hollywood person who has been mentioned in connection with the Mafia is Frank Sinatra. How are your relations with him, considering that most people believe he was the model for Johnny Fontane, the singer-actor in The Godfather?
Coppola: I met Sinatra several times before filming started. They were very friendly meetings, since I never liked the idea of exploiting a fictionalization of a man, any man—and I told him so. I let him know that I didn’t like that part of the book and that I’d minimize it in the film. Sinatra was very appreciative. Then he turned to me and said, “I’d like to play the Godfather.”
Coppola: It’s true. He said, “Let’s you and me buy this goddamned book and make it ourselves.” I said, “Well, it sounds great, but…”
Playboy: Didn’t Sinatra yell at Puzo once when they met in a restaurant?
Coppola: That incident was caused by some guy trying to make points with Sinatra by introducing the two of them very provocatively. Puzo never meant to embarrass him in person, and he told me he thought Sinatra behaved very understandably, considering the way they were introduced. But the fact remains that Mario, who is a very fine writer, was going broke with several good novels out, so he set out to write the biggest best-seller in history. He was going to do anything he had to in order to get off the merry-go-round. So he wrote the perfect commercial book. And exploiting celebrities like Sinatra was something he felt he had to do. In the film, the Sinatra character plays a very small role. I’d have cut it out altogether if I’d had the power.
Playboy: Godfather II was supposedly cut down from almost six hours. What did we miss?
Coppola: My heart was really in the Little Italy sequences, in the old streets of New York, the music, all that turn-of-the-century atmosphere. I had great scenes in the script that we couldn’t include in the movie: There was one where Enrico Caruso showed up in the neighborhood and sang Over There to get guys to enlist for World War One; I had scenes of Italians building the subways, of young Vito courting his girl and joining his friends for music and mandolins and wine… But it all got too long and too expensive.
Playboy: Have you ever considered re-cutting the movies into one giant film?
Coppola: It’s an exciting thought, and it’s just what I plan to do, believe it or not. In two years, I’m going to take both pictures, look over all the outtakes and recut them any way I want to, into one film. You don’t often do that, because there’s a certain inertia: Once a film is done, it’s done, and you tend not to want to open things up again.
I’ve had an idea for a film I want to make, which I’d call Remake. I’d buy a film—any film—decide what I felt about it, then recut it, maybe shoot some things and make it into a whole new work.
Playboy: Some critics have charged that in cutting Godfather II, you gave the picture a jerky, disjointed quality.
Coppola: Oh, they’re full of baloney. They think a movie has to be what the last four movies were. There isn’t a critic out there who knows what he’s talking about. There may be three. Most are special-interest critics.
Coppola: Meaning that there’s a lot of extortion and blackmail practiced by critics. A lot of them force the filmmaker to participate in certain things that accrue to the critics’ advantage under the implied threat of a bad review.
Playboy: Can you be more specific?
Coppola: No, because of course I’m not saying they’re all that way. But suffice it to say that if this sort of extortion continues, it may blow up in the biggest scandal the field of criticism has known. It’s corrupt right down to the bottom. And I’m speaking as one who has enjoyed generally good favor from the critics.
Playboy: Which critics do you admire?
Coppola: Pauline Kael of The New Yorker. When she writes about a film, she does it in depth. When I make a bad picture, I expect her to blast me higher than a kite and I’ll be grateful for that. I like Time’s Jay Cocks, who’s a friend; Steven Farber and Playboy’s Bruce Williamson, who have liked some of my films; and Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic, who often hasn’t.
Playboy: Your last three films, Godfather I and II and The Conversation, have been negative. Does that mean you’ve become more of a pessimist about life?
Coppola: Really, I’m not a negative person. Just the opposite. Starting now, I’m going to try to let the other side of me be more evident in my movies. It’s funny, but I’ve noticed that very often filmmakers reflect things in their movies that are the opposite of what they really feel. I know some men whose films are highly sexual but who lead very tame home lives.
Playboy: Why, in both Godfather films, are your female characters so submissive and acquiescent?
Coppola: That was how the women were represented in the original book and, from what I know, it was the role of women in the Mafia fabric. In Godfather Part II, I was interested in developing a more contemporary, political view of women in the person of his wife, Kay, and in her symbolic statement of power when she had her unborn son killed.
Playboy: If Kay was such a liberated and defiant woman, why did it take her so long to leave Michael when she was no longer happy with him?
Coppola: It may seem like a long time, but actually they’re together only six or seven years. How many people do we know who stay together unhappily for 15 years or more before they finally split? Also, during the Fifties, there were a lot of forces that tended to keep men and women together way beyond the point when they should have parted. Think of how many husbands have kept their wives and held their families together by promising that things would change just as soon as they became vice-presidents or had $100,000 in the bank or closed the big deal. I’ve strung my own wife along for 13 years by telling her that as soon as I was done with this or that project, I’d stop working so hard and we’d live a more normal life. I mean, that’s the classic way husbands lie. Often the lies aren’t even intentional. And it’s easy to string a woman along for years by doing exactly that. Michael lies to Kay in that way and she believes him at first—because she wants to believe him.
Playboy: Why do people tend to get sucked in by their own lies? Do they just sell out to the system?
Coppola: Well, people like myself, who decide that it’s necessary to work within a system in order to be able either to change it or eventually to go off on their own to subsidize the kind of work they believe in, inevitably become changed by the process, if they go along with it. I know a lot of bright young writers and directors in Hollywood who are very successful—some of them I gave jobs to four or five years ago—and they’re making a lot of money; but they’re no longer talking about the things they used to talk about. Their conversation now is all about deals, about what’s going to sell and what isn’t. And they rave about their new cars and their new $400,000 houses. They don’t even see or hear the changes in themselves. They’ve become the very people they were criticizing three years ago. Like Michael, they’ve become their fathers.
Playboy: You don’t think the same thing could happen to you?
Coppola: Sure, it could happen to me. One of the reasons I live here and not in Los Angeles is that I’m trying to keep my bearings. I have nothing against Los Angeles; it’s a terrific center of talent right now, with the finest actors and certainly the best musicians and top people in every area, but there’s always been a kind of collective madness that takes place in Hollywood, and it’s very attractive and seductive, but you could lose yourself in it.
Playboy: With the power and authority you wield, do you find it hard to keep a grip on your ego?
Coppola: Well, I’m 36 now, but I directed my first play in 1956—which is nearly 20 years ago—so I haven’t been overwhelmed by power overnight. But sure, everyone has that problem. Let me give you an example: Al Ruddy, who’s a nice guy but who’s more of a wheeler-dealer than I am, used to walk onto the Godfather set now and then to suggest that an actor wear a hat for such and such a scene. I’d say, “No, I already thought this scene out, thanks, anyway.” And no sooner would the sentence be out of my mouth than I’d think, fuck it, he’s right, the actor should be wearing a hat. But I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, change it. If it had been George Lucas or someone like that, I’d have accepted the suggestion. But there are some people you can’t take criticism from, perhaps because you feel threatened.
Playboy: How would you feel threatened?
Coppola: The artist’s worst fear is that he’ll be exposed as a sham. I’ve heard it from actors, directors, everyone. I remember hearing Peter Sellers say, “Someday they’re going to uncover me and realize I’m just a fake.” Deep down, we’re all living with the notion that our success is beyond our ability. In the last couple of years, I’ve grown more confident that I have ideas, that I can solve problems. That’s as much as I’ll give myself for now.
Playboy: Do you ever feel uneasy about the power you have to influence other people’s minds through film—or in other ways?
Coppola: I had a thought about that, a little fantasy that goes like this: I’m getting to be an influential person in San Francisco; what if I and five other powerful guys with cigars got together in a smoke-filled room to decide who would be the next mayor of San Francisco? We do it because we’re good guys and we really want the city to be wonderful for everybody. Then I thought, what’s the difference between five good guys holding that kind of power and five bad guys? Just good intentions, and intentions can be corrupted. And it’s not just, say, in the political field. Let me make a statement about power: From now on, I’m determined to give tremendous thought to the impact any project I undertake will have on the public. It may sound wordy, it may sound obvious, but very few filmmakers ever really do that.
Playboy: Did you think that way about The Godfather?
Coppola: No. How could I? I’ve spoken about the circumstances surrounding that project. But if the picture seems to some to be irresponsible because it celebrates violence, that was never my intent. In fact, there’s very little actual violence in the film. It occurs very quickly. It’s just that the violence happens to characters you like. If I were to roast 50 people alive in The Towering Inferno, it would be less horrible than shooting up a guy you’ve come to know and believe in. I once saw a fistfight in a New York restaurant that was modest by movie standards. But I’d never seen anything so frightening; they were real people.
Playboy: How will this determination to consider public impact affect your next film?
Coppola: My next project is going to be delicate in that context. It’s going to be a film about Vietnam, although it won’t necessarily be political—it will be about war and the human soul. But it’s dangerous, because I’ll be venturing into an area that is laden with so many implications that if I select some aspects and ignore others, I may be doing something irresponsible. So I’ll be thinking hard about it.
People are hungry for film now, susceptible to it because it reaches them on an emotional level. We’re living in a time when things are changing quickly: Zip, there went the Catholic Church; zoom, that was the traditional family unit you just saw go by. People aren’t sure of what they are feeling or what to believe in, so film can be a very influential medium now. Millions of people watched The Godfather around the world, each person spending three hours in a dark theater. Imagine how valuable that time with them is. It’s priceless, and yet a filmmaker has it. I think that’s an extraordinary thing.
Playboy: Do you feel that Hollywood directors in the past have been irresponsible in propagating stereotypes, in exerting the wrong kind of influence over the public?
Coppola: Perhaps to some extent, but American films have followed the stereotypes, not set them. I read somewhere recently that the American film was responsible for our view of what an Indian was. But it isn’t. The American film merely echoed and amplified the image that already existed in the national consciousness. It reinforced attitudes people already had about Indians when they first came here. The people who write films and the people who direct them have also been programmed. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t have the courage to try to break the mold, but it takes more courage and more originality than most people have.
Playboy: Isn’t Hollywood much more open to new ideas, new ways of doing things than it used to be?
Coppola: Yes, but it’s chaotic. There’s no leadership, maybe because the country itself has no leadership, either. Making movies is a great, complex, writhing crap game. No one is running anything and the only priority is the one that’s become uppermost in America today: to make a profit.
Playboy: When you started out in your career, did you have to do work you were ashamed of, just to make a profit?
Coppola: Well, I’ve done some stuff that hasn’t worked out too well. But I never took on anything with the attitude that it was going to be terrible. It may have turned out that way, but I thought it was great while I was doing it. I was worried about certain films, though. I was worried while I was making them that things were going wrong and I didn’t have the power to change them. During the shooting of Finian’s Rainbow at Warner’s years ago, I was brought in to direct a project that had already been cast and structured. I was also working in a big studio, in a methodology I didn’t understand very well and over which I had no control. I’d express some doubts about the way things were going, and the people around me would say, “It’s going great.” I’ll never get myself caught in that kind of situation again, because I now surround myself with people whose taste I respect and who have the right to hit all the sour notes they want. We had no sour notes on Finian’s Rainbow; everyone kept saying how terrific everything was all the time. They were sincere, their motives were pure. But today I try to work with people who won’t hesitate to say, “We’re making a mistake.” And if after thinking about it I agree with them, we stop and make changes. The one good thing I’d say about the old Hollywood, however autocratic and restrictive it may have been, is that you really got opinions from people who weren’t afraid to give them and you always knew where you stood.
Playboy: You mean from men such as Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer, the men who used to run the studios?
Coppola: Yes, and Darryl Zanuck and David Selznick and all the others. People weren’t afraid to back up their opinions. Today everything is very confused and people kind of float around amorphously. Nobody backs up his hunches. There are a handful of directors today who have total authority and deserve it. And then there are a lot of other directors who really ought to be working with strong producers and strong writers, but they all think they’re Stanley Kubrick. The auteur theory is fine, but to exercise it you have to qualify, and the only way you can qualify is by having earned the right to have control, by having turned out a series of really incredibly good films. Some men have it and some men don’t. I don’t feel that one or two hits or one or two beautiful films entitle anyone to that much control. A lot of very promising directors have been destroyed by it. It’s a big dilemma, of course, because, unfortunately, the authority these days is almost always shared with people who have no business being producers and studio executives. With one or two exceptions, there’s no one running the studios who’s qualified, either, so you have a vacuum, and the director has to fill it.
Playboy: Then Hollywood today isn’t as good a place to make movies as it was when it was dominated by the big studios?
Coppola: There are maybe 10,000 of the finest actors in the world living in Hollywood, and there are fine writers and all kinds of talented people, but it’s a sad, pent-up place. The actors are frustrated; they don’t feel they have anyplace to work. When good actors say work, they mean work that uses the best of their talent, that uses them fully and creatively. And the truth of the matter is that there is nowhere to work that way these days. So they become petulant, they become depressed and they hate themselves for it. I feel that the film business today, with its tremendous potential to make profits, with a huge new audience of people all over the world who love to go to the movies, should be providing not only a product, something it can sell, but a hospitable place for creative people to work. Now, at a time when we stand on the eve of incredible profits, to think that no money, no percentage of any money is being used to provide a really stimulating place for actors and writers and directors to work, that all the energy is going into nothing but deal making, well, that’s incredible to me. L.A. ought to be the acting and theater and film capital of the world, but nothing is happening.
Playboy: Do you think you can make something happen with your own company?
Coppola: What I’m talking about can’t be accomplished by a little company like mine. It would take a major company to really grab this thing by the tail.
Playboy: There are rumors that you actually were offered control of a major studio.
Coppola: Really? Where’d you hear that?
Playboy: From several people. Is it true?
Coppola: Let’s say that I was approached by certain people and there were discussions, but that’s all. Look, I must be honest with you. I’ve just finished a film and I’m 36. I have a good future in front of me and I’m trying to figure out what’s the most exciting, positive way to go on working in films, and taking over a studio might have been a way. But as I see things now, that would take so much energy that I’m not sure it’d be worth it. I mean, if I were running a studio, it might take me 100 B.T.U.s worth of energy to bend something a quarter inch; if I stay independent and use my own resources, those 100 B.T.U.s could bend something a foot. I think events can make the decision for you, though. If someone were to come up to me and offer me the most incredible film company in history and say, “Do what you want, we’re behind you,” then I’d interpret that as a cosmic indication that I should do it.
But look: The average executive of a movie studio may make $150,000 a year, and have a corresponding power over his company. As a film artist, I make much, much more than that and, consequently, have that much more power over my company. I’ve already made a million dollars for directing a film. So what do I do—ask for a million and a half? Perhaps the wisest thing to do is to use all my energies to make a film that grosses some stupendous amount, then go out and buy a major company and change it from the top. But I don’t know. As soon as you become that big, you get absorbed.
Playboy: You mean absorbed into a corporate structure?
Coppola: Yes, and not just in the movie business. Traditionally, our greatest heroes have been creators and inventors. A hundred years ago, what we paraded before the world was something called Yankee ingenuity. Every one of our great cartels and corporations was started by—that is, the original impulse came from—an Andrew Carnegie or a Thomas Edison or a Henry Ford, guys who used their inventive genius to create something better. And we made the best products in the world! And what those men created evolved into cartels, with their rules of property and profit. By the Forties, after the United States had demonstrated that the ultimate result of this ingenuity was our emergence as the most powerful nation in the world, we were being run by huge, entrenched institutions completely hostile to that kind of inventiveness. By 1941, Henry Ford couldn’t have built his cheap car. We might have had a Henry Ford in the Forties. His name was Preston Tucker.
Tucker designed a car that could be built for a fraction of the kind of money the major companies were spending on their new models. It was a safe car, a revolutionary car in terms of engineering, and it was a beautiful car. In every way, it was a much better machine than the stuff the major companies were offering, the companies created by Ford and the others. But Tucker was called a fraud and he was destroyed. If he were alive today, he’d be hired by one of the major car companies and his inventions would be shelved or filtered out to the public as the company deemed economically prudent. Not to benefit the public but the company, and only the company. I’m going to make a film of Tucker’s story someday.
Playboy: Many of the opinions you’ve expressed to us, including this one, reflect the antiestablishment views of the radical movement. Are you politically active?
Coppola: No. Politically, no one knows what I am, including me. I have a lot of very articulate, superradical friends who criticize me for living in a big, expensive house; they apparently believe the world would be a better place if I moved into a shack. I notice, though, that, like me, they send their children to private schools. You see, I believe everybody should live in a nice house. I also believe in public education; until last year, I had my own kids in public schools, but I decided I wasn’t going to sacrifice my children to an egalitarian ideal. The public schools in this city and all over the country are bad. I refuse to make my children guinea pigs to some social ideal, so I’m not going to send them to our crappy schools anymore. The whole school system has to be changed in this country. Just believing in certain things or giving your own money away isn’t going to change anything.
Playboy: What have you done yourself to help bring about change?
Coppola: In a self-sacrificing, personal way, probably nothing. Look, if someone announced next year that everyone should put all of his money in escrow and that we’d elect a board of men and women guided by the highest humanistic principles to administer the money to build homes and parks and educational centers for everyone, I’d do it in a minute. A lot of people would. But if half of the people in the world gave up their money and half didn’t, the givers would be exploited by the keepers. Wealth is the only protection in a society that works on a system of property, of exploiter and exploitee. So that if I gave up what I earn, it wouldn’t really improve anyone else’s situation as much as it would deteriorate mine. There’s no middle ground. If you have money, you’re an exploiter; if you don’t, you’re exploited. We’re in a fish tank in which there are only fish who eat and others who are eaten. If that’s the only choice I’m offered, then I hope to be a fish that eats. We have to drain the tank and get into a newer, higher system altogether.
Playboy: You certainly have the money now to afford beautiful things, and you’ve bought plenty of them. You also seem to have a craving for gadgets and expensive toys, like the $50,000 Mercedes you own. What kind of things do you like to spend money on?
Coppola: I’ve spent money on my house because I need space and because I want to enjoy my family. I’ve found that there are some things money can buy that truly make life more pleasant and give you more time to do the things that are really important, such as your work. When I was very young, I thought I needed a lot of things, but I’ve discovered that the more I have, the less I need. I’ve had terrific sports cars in my day, so now I drive a Honda car—not to be cute or anything like that but because I really like it. An XKE pulls up alongside and the guy looks at me in my little Honda. Nothing happens. I’m not jealous, because I’ve had that other car, I know I could have one and I don’t need it anymore. There’s something about possessions, living wealth, that really has to do with trying to prove something to yourself. My lifestyle is going to get simpler and simpler with the coming years.
Playboy: What about that Mercedes?
Coppola: I didn’t buy it. It was a gift, and I hardly ever use it. I also own a private jet. When I bought it, it was because I had once thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be crazy to have a private jet!” I do a lot of things and live in the same fantasy spirit that I write in. It’s all make-believe to me. It’s a fairy tale and I get to do all the things I can imagine. But I find that as I actually do them, I don’t need them anymore. If I keep the private jet, it will be because I’ve found it useful. Even when I began buying things, I’d take whatever I’d bought out of the box and often I’d realize immediately that I really didn’t need it or want it. I gave a lot of things away to people as presents, things I’d bought for myself the day before.
Playboy: What does make you happy, besides your work?
Coppola: What brings me the greatest joy is the company of nice people and to be able to go through all the rituals with them, to eat dinner with them, cook with them, talk with them. I’m very European in that respect.
Playboy: Do you have a lot of people around all the time?
Coppola: No. My wife is a very private person, which is probably why I’m still married to her, because I’m a big consumer of things and people, but I know I can’t consume her, so I could never get tired of her.
Playboy: Is she a big influence on your life?
Coppola: No, I can’t say that. Everybody’s wife is a big influence, but I don’t want to give the mistaken impression that she’s the quiet conceptualizer of my life. I discuss things with her and I think she’s really bright and I respect her values a lot. She’s not interested at all in money or material objects. She’s interested in ideas. The best definition I can give you of my wife is that she’s an impossible person to buy a present for, because there’s nothing she wants. You know what I once gave her for Christmas? The kids were opening their presents and I went into the other room and made her a cappuccino, put it in a box, wrapped it up, brought it out and gave it to her. To this day, she maintains it’s the best present she ever got, because she really wanted that cup of coffee. That’s the way she is.
Playboy: Generally speaking, what kind of women do you like to have around you?
Coppola: I’ve always enjoyed being around women older than myself. My wife is three years older than I am. I’m very attracted to intelligent women.
Playboy: A lot of men in the movie industry use their power and their status as celebrities to play around sexually. Have you ever been tempted along those lines?
Coppola: I’d like to point out that it’s not only the men who play around, as you put it. I know a female casting executive who uses her position just as a man might. It’s incredible how this woman operates. She uses her position to keep five or six men going at one time and she’s just as exploitive of her position as any man might be. I’m convinced that men and women are basically very similar in many more respects than we’ve been brought up to believe. We’ve been taught so-called masculine roles, just as women have been programmed into so-called feminine ones. But the lines aren’t so clearly drawn anymore, partly because of the women’s movement. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with what people do in bed, necessarily. I know a great many heterosexual women who are very masculine in many ways, and many heterosexual men who are very feminine. I include myself among the latter and I always have.
Playboy: Pardon us for mentioning it, but you didn’t really answer our question about playing around. Would you rather not?
Coppola: What can I say? I love women. I can be walking down the street with my wife, and I’ll see a beautiful woman and I’ll pat my wife on the shoulder and say, “Hey, look at her!” But to some extent, the myth about famous movie directors’ being pursued by women is not quite accurate. For one thing, there’s so little time and so much work to be done. I once asked one of my assistants, who’s always with beautiful girls, how he met so many of them. He said, “Easy; I tell them I’m going to introduce them to you.” But he never does. And it would seem to me that although the life of a swinging bachelor might have some temporary appeal, it would be something that would run out pretty fast. I’m happy living with my wife and I enjoy the format of the traditional family. And I love kids. If I had my way, I’d have ten of them. I’ve always been like that. One of my happiest summers was being a camp counselor. Even as a kid, I liked littler kids.
Playboy: Were you happy as a kid?
Coppola: My childhood was very warm, very tempestuous, full of controversy and a lot of passion and shouting. My father, who is an enormously talented man, was the focus of all our lives, the three children and my mother. Our lives centered on what we all felt was the tragedy of his career. He was a very frustrated man, because, though he played first flute for the NBC Symphony under Toscanini, he felt that his own music never really emerged. I worked for Western Union one summer when I was 14 and, for some unknown reason—I still don’t know why—I wrote up a phony telegram to my father telling him he’d landed a job writing the musical score for such and such a film. I signed it with the name of the guy who was in charge of music at Paramount Pictures. My father was overjoyed and yelled, “It’s my break! It’s my break!” And I had to tell him it wasn’t true. He was heartbroken. Is that a terrible story?
Well, at least you know why I was so delirious when he shared the Oscar for best musical score with Nino Rota. Much of what is called source music—the compositions played by marching bands, performed on stage, and so on—in both Godfathers is his, and I used him not because he’s my father but because he’s an excellent composer.
Playboy: When you were younger, did you dream of success on a scale like this?
Coppola: I always dreamed, I always fantasized. While I was in college, I’d tell people I was going to be a famous director, I was going to be rich. People who knew me then tell me they felt it would happen. But I never really believed it would happen, not like this.
Playboy: Would you say the success has come easily to you, or did you have to take risks?
Coppola: I’ve been taking small chances all along. I’ve always been a good gambler and I’ve never been afraid to take a chance. I don’t think the risks I’ve taken have been that dramatic, but even so, there have been times when I’ve stuck my neck out and almost had my head chopped off. But ultimately, I’ve been rewarded. I’ve been treated very well by Hollywood. And I’ve been treated very well by this country. The main reason I’ve been treated well is that I have taken risks, and people have some respect for that.
Of course, when you gamble, sometimes you lose. It goes in streaks. When the streak goes your way, you build on it as fast as you can, utilizing their money, not yours. You try to catch your streak in anything.
Playboy: One last question: You have said you’d never make a Godfather III. But is the story of Michael Corleone really over?
Coppola: Nine times out of ten, people who say they’re never going to do something wind up doing it. Right now, I don’t want to make another sequel. But maybe 30 years from now, when I and all the actors have gotten really old, then it might be fun to take another look.
Playboy, July 1975
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