After 50 years, Francis Ford Coppola still isn’t done with “The Godfather” — and he isn’t done yet.
Coppola made his bones with that crime epic, which won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, made untold millions of dollars for Paramount Pictures, and influenced half a century of filmmaking.
But times have changed. It’s not like it used to be. And yet “The Godfather” continues to age like a contented don happily sitting in his yard.
In efforts to preserve “The Godfather” for future generations, Paramount, Coppola and his colleagues at American Zoetrope collaborated on repaired and revitalized versions of the film as recently as 15 years ago, in what was then billed as “The Coppola Restoration .”
Now for the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather”, which opened in New York on March 15, 1972, Coppola and these studios have produced another restoration. This latest edition was created using higher quality film sources, improved digital technology and some 4,000 hours spent repairing blemishes, tears and other flaws. (It will be released in theaters on Friday and on home video on March 22.)
As Coppola explained last week, “The whole thing is trying to make it look like the original showing of ‘The Godfather’ when it was only two weeks old, not 20 years or 50 years old.”
Coppola, now 82, said he never tire of researching the film. But of course every time he thinks about “The Godfather” brings up a range of emotions and memories – the pain of his fraught production and the pride of his runaway success.
“You have to understand that as a filmmaker, I didn’t really know how to make ‘The Godfather,'” he said. “I learned how to make ‘The Godfather’.”
Speaking in a video interview with James Mockoski, the film archivist and restoration supervisor for American Zoetrope, Coppola discussed new work on “The Godfather,” the scenes he wanted to keep dark, and the scenes that almost got cut — and even worked in a plug for his latest movie in progress, “Megalopolis.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Why was such a restoration effort necessary?
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA The studio system, which was so good at doing so much, was always weak on this matter of preservation. “The Godfather” was eerily successful in its day. But Paramount was very unprepared for that success. Suddenly it was in New York in five theaters, because there was so much demand to see it, and then in other places around the world. Instead of saying let’s keep the original negative because it will be a valuable asset, in fact they have worn it down to something terrible because they used it to make so many prints. The prints were starting to look so different from what the movie should really look like.
JAMES MOCKOSKIA There is no great print of “The Godfather” from the original release. So what we relied on was Gordy’s [the film’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis] approved restoration. Other than that, we’d have no idea what the movie really looked like when it was originally released.
COPPOLA And this is made even more complicated by the fact that Gordy Willis deliberately used a creative technique that was extremely dangerous. He flirted that it was underexposed – which is a sin – in parts of the frame. If the actor was out of place, if he was two feet from where Gordy thought he would be, he would be in total darkness. It made it beautiful, but it was very brutal.
How did you go in search of the film parts that were used in this restoration?
MOCKOSKIA We have found something more since previous restorations. Paramount found it in other [film] cans. They did their best to cobble together the first two films [made for television and titled “The Godfather Saga”] and when they cut the film, it ended up in other cans.
Are there any unused footage of “The Godfather” that you’ve never been able to find?
MOCKOSKIA ‘Godfather’, because of its success, they saved everything. Paramount Controlled Movies Like “The Conversation” [the 1974 Coppola drama] And when that was locked up and in distribution, they took whatever he shot that didn’t make it into the film and sent it to the stock footage department. So we have nothing but what you see. Later we kept everything from “Apocalypse Now”, “One From the Heart” and everything in our vaults.
[A spokeswoman for Paramount confirmed this, adding that the studio has 36 shots from “The Conversation” in its stock library.]
Something in this restoration that you are not yet completely satisfied with?
MOCKOSKIA There are still things in the wedding scene that were of poor quality. But in general you can hardly see that with this restoration.
What’s it like to scrutinize every frame of “The Godfather”?
MOCKOSKIA It’s nice to see things frame by frame, because you see things that no one really sees. If they fade or dissolve, you see someone with a clapboard. There is one scene: the old gentleman sings the song at the wedding, his dentures begin to fall out.
This is a movie that, by design, is supposed to be very dark. How do you know when you’re looking at an image that’s too dark — or not dark enough?
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COPPOLA We had an early meeting between me, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavouaris [the production designer] and Anna Hill Johnstone [the costume designer] about what the style would become. We talked about using dark and light. [In the first scenes] Don Corleone’s office would be very dark, compared to the nearly overexposed, magazine-bright photography of the wedding. That was conscious. I know, and any really thoughtful person knows, what is important in the frame.
MOCKOSKIA That is also a danger if we transfer it again. Everyone wants to put their fingerprint on it and do something new. With the new technology, it tries to bring more light into it. You have a beautiful opening and they want to see all the details and the wood paneling. Well, that’s not the point. That’s not “Godfather”.
Were these the kinds of things you paid close attention to while making the original movie?
COPPOLA I can’t say it was my nature to worry about photographic details. “The Godfather” was a very tough experience for me. I was young. I was pushed and I pushed back. I bluffed a lot. I was just glad I survived the experience of “The Godfather” and I didn’t want anything more to do with it. I didn’t even want to direct ‘Godfather II’.
Are you ever tired of watching “The Godfather”?
COPPOLA No never.
MOCKOSKIA I’m always nervous about showing him because maybe he’ll say, “Ah, but you know what I wish I could do is make these changes –” and here comes another cut. But he would sit there and watch it. He never gets tired of it and he will have the best stories. [To Coppola] You told me when we did the last review that they didn’t want you to film the scene where Brando has a heart attack.
COPPOLA That was cut from the script. Paramount thought if you go to the graveyard, you know he died. But I stole that [scene] by being a little early to the wedding and having the tomatoes in the same place. Brando said let me do this trick I do for myself [children]† And he did the orange peel trick. It was his idea and he saved me. Thanks to Marlon Brando and Dean Tavouaris for collecting the tomatoes. We had to fly them in from a different place and it was a big scandal about how much they cost for a scene that was cut from the script.
Do you have any desire to re-edit “The Godfather” the way you do? reformed “The Godfather Part III” into “The Godfather, Coda”†
COPPOLA ‘Godfather’, I would say I don’t want to change anything. There are some pictures I have that are changing and some I won’t touch. But there’s no rule of thumb about which ones those are. Now ask me, a movie, if I’m going to change it or not. Do you have a movie of mine that you want to ask me about?
Uh – I rewatched “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” a few weeks ago. How about that?
COPPOLA There are no changes to ‘Dracula’. That’s the cut. “Dracula” is a finished movie.
“The Godfather” has been around for 50 years. If it turned out to be the movie you’re most famous for, would you be okay with that?
COPPOLA I think it’s already the movie I’m most known for. If you ask anyone to name why I should be considered important at all, they’ll say “The Godfather.” Perhaps “Apocalypse Now” is a close second. “Apocalypse Now” is in some ways a more unusual and interesting movie. But I always made films that I didn’t really know how to make and learned from the film itself. That’s why my career is so weird. I assure you, “Megalopolis” is the most ambitious, the most unusual and the strangest movie I’ve ever tried and I have no idea how to make it. And I love that because I know it will teach me.