Interview by Ana Maria Bahiana
It’s much easier to cook than to make films”, Francis Ford Coppola is saying over a cappuccino that remains untouched, getting colder by the minute, on the table of Paramount Picture’s commissary. “I’m always happy when I cook. You have all those wonderful ingredients around and it only takes a few minutes to cook. And when you bring it out everybody is happy and they say, ‘Oh, Francis, it’s nice!’ When you make a film, you go through hell and people go, ‘Ah, I don’t know, / don’t like this. ’ ”
Coppola’s last season in hell has just been completed: 120 days between Rome, Sicily and New York putting together-amidst star defections, cast crises and budgetary tribulations – the third and final act in the Corleone family saga, The Godfather Part III, a film that, to begin with, Coppola didn’t want to make. “But I also didn’t want to make number two ”, he admits with a grin. “I felt I had told the whole story and that there was nothing more to say. But films, you know, have a life of their own; they kind of make you make ’em. ”
In this particular case, Paramount’s generous carte blanche policy and Coppola’s passion – one could even say jealousy – for his characters combined to create an offer he couldn’t refuse. Now, after another sleepless night completing the final editing stages, it’s up to the canolli and cappuccini of the “authentic Sicilian high tea” with which Paramount is celebrating the first screenings of The Godfather Part III. And, of course, also up to the American critics who, after much agonizing over Coppola ’s last, sombre instalment of his “American royalty ” trilogy, were basically left with one crucial dilemma: Is a flawed masterpiece still a masterpiece?
Coppola says that, from now on, he’s on hold. He doesn’t want to read the newspapers – or, better yet, he wants to “go read the paper in the morning without being terrified of what I’ve done wrong”. He wants to travel in Europe and play with his granddaughter. And cook. “You know, just little, modest things ”, he says with a really wide smile.
The Godfather Part III is an end of a cycle, a tale of maturity and atonement, pretty much like Shakespeare’s King Lear. Is this your impression?
First of all, I didn’t know I was going to make three Godfather films. When I made the first one, many people criticized it heavily because they said, “You’re glorifying gangsters, making them nice. The people we know in reality are really very disreputable, terrible people.” I was very concerned about that.
Then, I realized that I really had approached the Corleones more as a royal family. The Godfather is the story of a great king who had three sons, and each got a different part of his palace. Michael got his cunning, Sonny his hot temper and Alfredo his sweetness. So, I was already thinking of the movie as a kind of a story of a king.
When I started working on this one, I kind of felt The Godfather Part IIhad said all I could say. I didn’t know where to begin. It gets harder the more you do, because you have less to work with. So, I looked for inspiration to Shakespeare and the great artists of the past. Although we will never be on their plane, it’s still all right to look to them for guidance. I did; I looked to King I^ar.
Lear had a successful career as a king and he had done hard things in his life. Now, if I could make Michael like King Lear… But I didn’t try to go too far with the analogy, because I also found inspiration in Greek tragedy and Italian opera. As in all classic stories, the daughter always represents purity, like Gilda in Rigoletto. I remember that when I was a child, I was always so heartbroken at the end of Rigoletto because he lost his daughter, his only love.
Which touches on one of the main controversies surrounding The Godfather Part III: the casting of your daughter, Sofia, in the crucial part of Michael Corleone’s daughter, Mary. Why did you choose Sofia?
Well, Sofia was cast at the last minute. We had been hoping to have Winona Ryder play the part, but Winona began to be delayed on her film Mermaids. I had wanted Winona so much because I felt she had the youth, the innocence and the acting experience that I was looking for. So, I refused to replace her and we kept stalling while we waited for Winona. Then, on the day Winona arrived, she was ill, so they said, “Winona can’t do it.” I had no alternative and I didn’t know what to do.
Now my daughter, who had been visiting the set, was about to go back to college and she was in the shower apparently. I suddenly thought, “Let’s get Sofia down here and get her in; she’s got to do it.” And Sofia came.
Sofia didn’t really have aspirations to be an actress, although she had done some little things. She’s interested in clothing and fashion design. But she said, “I’ll try”, and she was very brave.
Obviously, she caused quite an unnecessary commotion. I mean, it is true that I was using her more like an Italian realist director would, as a real person who happens to be in a fictional situation.
Mary is, of course, essential to the story. A man like Michael Corleone, in ever)’ great tragic tale of kings and stuff, always has a part of him that is a sinner, that is evil, and another that is pure and innocent. The daughter symbolizes that and, in the end, when he loses her, he loses that innocent, pure part of himself.
Since Godfather II, you have been making Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), more and more, the focus of your story. In this film, he is the centre of a major moral dilemma. Why Michael?
When I began this story, in the first Godfather, I felt that Michael had always been a good man. He was the one in the family who wanted to be legitimate. He was a Marine and he didn’t want to go into his family business. Yet, circumstances forced him to protect his family.
I always felt there must be more about Michael that could make him turn into a murderer. Many of us really wouldn’t be able to do this. So, there is this dynamic within his personality. There is something horrible about him, something murderous in the tree of his existence.
But I think that when a man maybe gets older, he wants very much to be a good man, wants to do good things and leave good things for his children. He wants to confess and be redeemed for his sins, and the Church becomes an opportunity for him to become legitimate, to become good.
The Catholic church plays a key role in your film and, clearly, a not very flattering one. Why did you pick up religion to portray the moral dilemma, the delicate balance between good and evil?
First of all, the Catholic religion has confession, where you can be redeemed for your sins. I thought that it was very powerful for a man to wish to be redeemed.
And, of course, the Vatican represents thousands of years of a very strange history and politics like any institution. I thought it would be very interesting if, the higher Michael tried to go to redeem himself, the more and more he got closer to what is the real Mafia, the real power.
Also, all the Godfather films had one thing in common, which is a thread of history running through them. In the first Godfather; it was the end of World War II; in the second, the Cuban Revolution.
When I began to read about the history connected with the Bank Ambrosiano scandal and the death ofjohn Paul I – and I don’t know the truth about either -1 felt that perhaps the Vatican was very arrogant in not allowing the investigators from Rome. If a powerful institution like the Church says they don’t have to answer anything, that allows us to imagine whatever we will!
This film, of course, is purely fictional. And I think it is a very spiritual film with a great love for spiritual matters. It is a religious film in terms of the real principles of Christianity.
Is it true that, in its inception, this third Godfather was pretty much Mario Puzo’s idea?
Not really. Mario had been involved in a number of drafts that were done with other producers and other directors. Then he called me and said, “Why don’t YOU do The Godfather?” I didn’t want to, but I looked at his script and, well, Mario’s dialogue is wonderful but it wasn’t about Michael Corleone, and I really felt that this is Michael Corleone’s story all along. The script I read had a lot to do with Colombian drug lords and was sort of an acdon picture. I said that I thought people wanted something a little more serious, and I told him to focus on Al Pacino and write him a big role.
Then I got a call from Mr Mancuso [Frank Mancuso, president of Paramount Pictures] and he said, “Well, you can do that.” So, I said I’d try, and I did. I brought him a report that said I would like to make it as a kind of King Lear and that it had a big part for Al. It would be a story of business, of finance, and the higher levels of the finance in the world and what the real Mafia is: people in the world who run everything and have absolute power without having to account to anyone about it.
You once said that the tragedy of the Corleones is the tragedy of America. Now that you have completed the Corleones’ saga, and that America seems to be, again, at critical crossroads in its history, do you still see that parallel?
When I finished the first Godfather, and it was, as I said, heavily criticized, I realized that it was true that it wasn’t really about gangsters. It was more about a cycle of stories, about family and loyalty. And I also noticed that Michael Corleone, the second-generation Italian-American, reminded me of America itself. The Mafia, of course, comes from years and years in the past but, when it was planted in American soil, it found real strength. Michael represented the kind of phases that America was going through. In Godfather //, if you remember, Michael was becoming very cold and self-righteous and suspicious, and he had people murdered, even his own brother! He was like how America was in that period: paranoid, suspicious and violent, as we perhaps experienced with the presidency during Watergate.
Now, I felt, is a new time for America. This America, instead of moving right away into violent action, must become reflexive. America must really tell the truth about what it has done over the years and sort of rise above it. There must be a new, reflective America, an America that’s prepared to take part with the other countries honestly and not just in this self-righteous kind of mood that Michael Corleone was into. The Michael Corleone of this story is more trying to deal with the truth, confessing to be redeemed, and I feel that the United States will do that.
You know, we are in a difficult period right now. Our armed forces are in another country and it’s the old America wanting to act. But I also believe there are people here who are starting to realize that this is a time for reflection, an era of spiritual maturity. So, I tried to show Michael being less of the paranoid instigator of violence and more someone confessional, trying to find new meaning, trying to make a place for himself spiritually. I don ’ t know if that is a correct analogy for our country, but it would be wonderful if it could be.
What do you feel is the reason behind the enduring appeal of the Corleone saga, not only in America, but all over the world?
I don’t know exactly. I think that maybe the Corleones became like an American royal family. People are interested in a family with this kind of power and wealth. And because we don’t have a royal family, perhaps the fascination has to do with that.
Also, people have always been fascinated with outlaws and bandits. But I don’t know the real answer.
What makes A1 Pacino so special to you?
I think primarily his intelligence. He’s a very talented and very intelligent actor, as he’s always been, even when I knew him years
ago. Like all actors, he’s spoiled, he doesn’t want to wake up in the morning, he’s not comfortable, etc., but I always knew that the way to deal with Al is with his intelligence.
Now that he’s approaching 47,48, he’s also gotten a wonderful technique so he can come in and do things effortlessly. He’s a wonderful American actor now. You can truly see a combination of his intelligence and his experience.
Did the fact that The Godfather Part III was one of the anticipated films of the year in any way jeopardize the project?
Much of the time I was very’ depressed and very frightened. I would be frightened on Monday, I’d get encouraged on Tuesday, and depressed Wednesday. It was kind of a very up or very down experience for me.
However, there were times when I was very excited and thrilled with the beautiful photography that I saw being done. Don’t forget, I didn’t make this film alone. I had around me some of the greatest artists of our time: A1 Pacino and [costume designer] Milena Canonero and [director of photography] Gordon Willis and [production designer] Dean Tavoularis, so I was in good company.
Your whole career could also be described as a roller-coaster ride, with peaks of wonderful filmmaking and troubled periods plagued by financial problems and accusations of excesses. How do you reconcile your ups and down? Is it the industry’s or your own fault that they happen?
Certainly it has to be my fault because I don’t know’who else’s fault it could be. But I think my career shows I always try to do something in a different style. If you look at a list of my films – Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish, One From the Heart, The Godfather – they’re all very different in style. When I make a film, I enjoy very much experimenting and seeing what 1 can learn. Some styles the public has enjoyed, but it’s like food: if I were to give you some food you aren’t familiar with, you might be put off by it. So I think my roller-coaster career has been partly related to the fact that I don’t have one consistent style in my work.
As for my excesses, I have always tried to be a professional film director and the only examples in the twenty odd films where I had excessive budgets were when it was my own money. When I made Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart., I financed them, and I said, MI love this. I want to do this. It’s my money. I’ll do it! ” But whenever I deal with someone else’s money, as in this case Paramount Pictures’, I am as scrupulous and as not excessive as I can be.
All in all, my career is like any of our lives: it has ups and downs. And at least I try always to do something that’s a little beyond my reach, so that I’ll try my best. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I almost succeed, but I think this is what life’s all about.
But do you, as an artist who has to deal with the intricacies of money and power, defend yourself from the corruption that comes with them, and that you portray so well in your Godfather cycle?
Well, I’ve been spared from the corruption of money for a very long time. As for power, as of the last eleven years I’ve just been pedalling very hard to hang on to my life. If I do have a period in which I know some power and money, I will watch out that it does not corrupt me.
CINEMA Papers, March 1991, Number 82, pp. 14-20