The Godfather at 50: Francis Ford Coppola was under so much pressure, crew member was sure he’d ‘shot himself’

The Godfather celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. The crime classic is often regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made, if not the greatest. But the movie had a famously troubled production, under the direction of relatively untested filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. According to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which documented the New Hollywood era of filmmaking, Coppola caused ‘turmoil and chaos’ on the set, as he battled the studio to bring his vision to life.

He was close to being fired, was turning in footage that was mocked by executives, and on one occasion, convinced his crew that he had killed himself out of frustration. The first battle was the casting. He wanted newcomer Al Pacino to play Michael Corleone, and Marlon Brando–who was at the time experiencing a career lull–to play Don Vito Corleone.

Head of Paramount Stanley Jaffe, described in the book as ‘prematurely bald and pugnacious’, wasn’t having it–‘He slammed his fist on the table and announced that the actor would never play the Don as long as he was the head of the studio’.

The matter was escalated to the top of the food chain. Charles Bluhdorn, the head of Gulf + Western, the conglomerate that had bought Paramount, called Brando a ‘crazy guy’, and refused to sign off. But he was convinced after Coppola showed him some test footage of Brando in makeup as the Don. “This is terrific,” Bluhdorn said.

The battle took four months, but Coppola got the actors he wanted. But he hadn’t yet shot a single frame of the movie, and had already alienated himself from the executives. The leads were paid $35,000, while Brando made $50,000 and Coppola himself was paid $110,000.

Filming began in 1971, and crew members quoted in the book said that Coppola was immediately out of his depth and had to be ‘nudged along’. “It had gone terribly, and I was in deep, deep, deep trouble,” the director said. According to him, he came close to being fired on at least four separate occasions. “If you don’t finish on time today,” a Paramount executive told Coppola on the day that they shot the cannoli scene with Clemenza, “You’re not gonna come to work tomorrow.”

The film’s underlit visuals and Brando’s performance became contentious issues. Producer Robert Evans was quoted to have called Coppola an ‘imbecile’ for not being able to get a performance out of Brando. “That’s the most overacted, worst played scene I’ve ever seen,” he said, referring to the scene in which the Don brings Sonny’s body to the undertaker.

“It was hard for Francis because everybody wanted to pull his pants down,” cinematographer Gordon Willis said. “He was not well-schooled in that kind of moviemaking. He had only done some kind of on-the-road running around kind of stuff.” Things got so bad that during the Don’s funeral scene, fellow director Martin Scorsese, who was visiting the set, claimed to have seen Coppola sitting on one of the tombstones, crying.

Things went from bad to worse one day, when Pacino took an unexpected turn in the Corleone house set, and blundered into an unlit hallway. Coppola screamed at Willis why the hallway wasn’t lit, and when the DP asked for more time, Coppola stormed off set, looking for a replacement for Willis. When he couldn’t find one, he ‘marched to his office’ and slammed the door close. He proceeded to pound it with his fists, and Fred Gallo, the AD, thought, “Oh my God, he’s shot himself.”

The Godfather wrapped production after six months, during which Coppola was threatened by the actual mob, in addition to being under constant pressure from the studio. But it would only be the start of another battle, as he clashed with Evans over the edit. Ultimately, the film became a runaway hit, breaking numerous box office records and scoring nine Oscar nominations. Coppola returned to direct two sequels, and recently recut the third film drastically. He has overseen a special 50th anniversary restoration for The Godfather, which is playing in theatres around the world.

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