After 50 years, Francis Ford Coppola is still not done with The Godfather – and it’s not over with him either.
Coppola proved himself with this detective epic, which won three Oscars, including Best Picture; earned millions of dollars for Paramount Pictures; and influenced half a century of cinema in the process.
But times have changed. It’s not like the good old days. And yet The Godfather continues to age like a contented gift sitting cheerfully in his garden.
In an effort to preserve The Godfather for future generations, Paramount, Coppola and his colleagues at American Zoetrope previously worked together on repaired and revitalized versions of the film just 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 a new restoration. This latest edition has been created with higher quality film sources, improved digital technology and some 4,000 hours spent repairing smudges, tears and other defects. (It hits theaters on Friday and on home video 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 or 50.”
Coppola, now 82, said he never tires of scrutinizing the film. But naturally, each time he spends reflecting on The Godfather brings back a range of emotions and memories – the pain of its tense production and the pride of its meteoric success.
“You have to understand that as a filmmaker, I didn’t really know how to do The Godfather,” he said. “I learned to do The Godfather by doing it.”
Speaking in a video interview alongside James Mockoski, the film archivist and restoration supervisor for American Zoetrope, Coppola discussed the new work on The Godfather, the scenes he wanted to keep dark, and the scenes that nearly got cut – and even worked in a plug for his latest film in progress, Megalopolis. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Q: Why was a restoration effort like this necessary?
COPPOLA: The studio system, which was so good at doing so many things, has always been weak on this issue of preservation. The Godfather was oddly successful in its time. But Paramount was completely unprepared for this success. Suddenly it found itself playing in New York in five theaters, because there was such a demand to see it, and then in other places around the world. Instead of saying, let’s preserve the original negative because it’s going to be a valuable asset, they’ve basically worn it down to something terrible because they’ve used it to make so many prints. The impressions started to be so different from what the movie should really look like.
MOCKOSKI: There isn’t a great copy of The Godfather from the original version. So what we leaned on was Gordy [the film’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis] approved catering. Other than that, we would have no idea what the movie actually looked like when it was initially released.
COPPOLA: And that’s further complicated by the fact that Gordy Willis deliberately used an extremely dangerous creative technique. It flirted with being underexposed – which is a sin – in some parts of the frame. If the actor wasn’t on his bearings, if he was 2 feet from where Gordy thought he was going to be, he could be in complete darkness. It was beautiful, but it was very unforgiving.
Q: How did you research the portions of film that were used for this restoration?
MOCKOSKI: We’ve found quite a bit more since previous restorations. Paramount found it in other [film] cans. They made an effort to tinker with the first two films [made for television and titled The Godfather Saga]and when they cut the film, it ended up in other boxes.
Q: Is there any unused footage from The Godfather that you were never able to locate?
MOCKOSKI: Godfather, because of his success, they kept everything. Paramount had control of movies like The Conversation [the 1974 Coppola drama]. And when it was locked and in distribution, they took everything he had shot that didn’t end up in the film, and they sent it to the archival 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 spokesperson for Paramount confirmed this, adding that the studio has 36 shots from The Conversation in its stock library.]
Q: Is there anything about this restoration that you are still not completely satisfied with?
MOCKOSKI: There’s still some stuff in the wedding scene that was downgraded in quality. But overall, in this restoration, you can hardly say that.
Q: How does it feel to scrutinize every image of The Godfather?
MOCKOSKI: It’s fun to see things frame by frame, because you’ll see things that no one actually sees. When they fade or crossfade, you’ll see someone with a shingle. There’s a scene — the old gentleman who sings the song at the wedding, his dentures are starting to fall out.
Q: This is a movie that by design is supposed to be very dark. How do you know if you are looking at an image that is too dark or not dark enough?
COPPOLA: We had a first meeting between me, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavoularis [the production designer] and Anna Hill Johnstone [the costume designer] on what the style was going to be. We talked about the use of dark and light. [In the first scenes] Don Corleone’s office would be really dark compared to the almost overexposed and bright photograph of the wedding. It was deliberate. I know, and any really thoughtful person knows, what’s important in the frame.
MOCKOSKI: It’s also a danger when you transfer him back. Everyone wants to put their fingerprint on it and do something new. With new technology, we are trying to shed more light on it. You have this beautiful opening, and they want to see all the details and the woodwork. Well, that’s not the point. It’s not Godfather.
Q: Were these the kinds of things you paid particular attention to when making the original film?
COPPOLA: I can’t say that it was in my nature to worry about photographic details. The Godfather was a very difficult experience for me. I was young. I got pushed around, and I pushed back. I bluffed a lot. I was just glad I survived the Godfather experience, and I wanted nothing more to do with it. I didn’t even want to direct Godfather II.
Q: Are you ever bored of watching The Godfather?
COPPOLA: No. Never.
MOCKOSKI: I’m still nervous to show him because maybe he’ll be like, “Ah, but you know what I’d like to do that I couldn’t make those changes —” and here’s a different cut. But he sat there and watched. He never gets tired of it and he will have the most beautiful stories. [To Coppola] You told me in the last review that they didn’t want you to shoot the scene where Brando has a heart attack.
COPPOLA: It was cut from the script. Paramount figured that when you pass by the cemetery, you’ll know he’s dead. But I stole this [scene] by arriving a little early at 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 Tavoularis for purchasing the tomatoes. We had to fly them in from another place, and it was a big scandal to know how much they cost for a scene cut from the script.
Q: Do you have any desire to re-release The Godfather in the way you remodeled The Godfather Part III into The Godfather, Coda?
COPPOLA: Godfather, I would say there is no change I want to make. There are photos that I have and that I change and others that I will not touch. But there is no golden rule to know which ones. Ask me now, a movie, whether I’m going to change it or not. Do you have one of my films you want to tell me about?
Q: I just rewatched Bram Stoker’s Dracula a few weeks ago. How about that?
COPPOLA: There are no changes for Dracula. It’s the cut. Dracula is a finished movie.
Q: The Godfather has already lasted 50 years. If this were to turn out to be the movie you’re best known for, are you at peace with that?
COPPOLA: I think that’s already the movie I’m best known for. If you ask everyone why I should even be considered important, they’ll say The Godfather. Maybe Apocalypse Now is a close second. Apocalypse Now is a more unusual and interesting movie, in some ways. But I always made films that I didn’t know how to make and I learned from the film itself. That’s why my career is so weird. I assure you, Megalopolis is the most ambitious, quirky, bizarre movie I’ve ever attempted, and I have no idea how to do it. And I like it, because I know it will teach me.