Forty-five years after they created the first chapter in the ‘Godfather’ saga, cast and crew reunited to remember at the Tribeca Film Festival
It was an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Not the casts of “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II,” gathering to talk about those two classics of American cinema. And not the ecstatic film buffs who turned out to see them, and those movies, at a Saturday-night event host Taylor Hackford kept rightfully referring to as “historic.”
The fans, of course, were obviously thrilled – during the movies, every character’s onscreen introduction was greeted with applause. But the people who made the movies seemed no less moved afterward.
“Francis, it was so beautiful,” Diane Keaton gushed. “And everybody is so great in it. Every choice you made was so authentically brilliant. “
Rewatching the movies, Coppola admitted, was “a very emotional experience.”
But everything about the Tribeca Film Festival’s closing event was an experience, from the length (the first film began at 1:30 pm – the last patron filed out more than eight hours later) to the venue (Manhattan’s grandest old picture-palace, Radio City Music Hall).
In the end, though, the setting was merely the frame for two masterpieces – and the living legends who, after the double-feature, came out on stage to remember them.
And kept coming. In addition to Coppola and Keaton, attending cast members included James Caan, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Talia Shire and Robert De Niro. (The late Marlon Brando looked down over the proceedings from a framed picture on stage; also present was a sculpture of a horse’s head.)
That gargantuan turnout was in keeping with the epic films, although it occasionally made things unwieldy. Hackford began by asking everyone how they had first come to the project – and by the time everyone had answered, most of the aftershow’s running time had been used up.
Still, there were some great anecdotes.
Coppola, for example, remembered being disappointed by Mario Puzo’s novel at first, calling it a “potboiler” and joking “Much of the book, maybe a third or a quarter of it, was about Lucy Mancini’s anatomy.” (When the reference to the novel’s steamier aspects didn’t bring a big laugh from the audience he quipped “You haven’t read the book.”)
Pacino remembered being offered the part of Michael – and not wanting it. “Right away I’m thinking as an actor, gee, it’s not a good role, Sonny’s the part I can play, it’s got meat on it!” The studio, on the other hand, didn’t want him for role. “It seemed like I was always testing,” he confessed. “I was still testing after I got the part.”
Duvall and Caan mostly remembered pranks on the set, including mooning Brando every chance they got (who responded in kind). Shire – who had asked to audition like everyone else — recalled the delicate situation she was in, as not only a young actress but the director’s kid sister.
“It was tough for me and it was tougher for my brother honestly,” she said. “For a few weeks (his) job as a director was up for grabs and the last thing he needed was a sister who couldn’t figure out what a mark was. One of my first scenes I walked into a camera and knocked it down.”
Her brother admitted he thought she was wrong for the part at first, but only because “I thought Connie was a girl who should be homely — I thought Tally was so beautiful, anyone would want to marry her!”
And although Keaton was cast early on – she ended up reading with about “a hundred Michaels” in the auditions – she’s not sure why. “I got the part but I didn’t understand why,” she admitted. “I still don’t. Then I read that Francis thought I was eccentric. Well. Yeah.”
Not so much eccentric as “interesting,” Coppola hastened to correct, saying that at first he’d found the role of Kay fairly flat. “I thought just the mere casting of you playing the beautiful WASP girlfriend would give it some texture,” he told Keaton.
Once everyone got past the stories of their casting woes, there were other memories, too.
Of how De Niro, hired to play young Vito in the second film, studied Brando’s initial performance “in a kind of scientific way — I had to find spots to do stuff to imitate what he was doing.” Of how both films were really shaped in the editing room – where the baptism massacre of the first movie took shape once the Bach organ music was added, and the rhythm of the second’s storytelling got established by extending the flashbacks.
And of how the hulking Lenny Henry didn’t need any special research to get into the role of the intimidating Luca Brasi.
“Let me put it this way,” Coppola said with a smile. “The scene where he pulls out a gun, and puts bullets in and spins it, I said, ‘Can you pull out a gun and put bullets in and spin it, can you do that?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Are you kiddin’?”
Mostly, though, everyone marveled that the movie got made at all.
The studio never wanted Brando, who it considered a has-been. Once shooting began, a solid core of about a dozen crew members snickered openly at Pacino’s acting, and gossiped about Coppola’s incompetence behind his back, hoping to get him fired. (His response? He fired .)
So it was a kind of miracle that they made the movie they wanted to. Although not as much of a miracle, perhaps, as that same movie being made today.
“The first ‘Godfather’ cost $6.5 million, the second cost $11 or $12 million,” Coppola recalled. “It would never get through the process of getting an OK, or what they call a greenlight, today. Nothing can get a greenlight unless it’s a movie they can get a whole series out of, pretty much a Marvel comics movie.”
And that’s due, the director says, to a very simple reason.
“You know, once Kirk Kerkorian, who owned MGM, asked me ‘How do you make a film that is successful financially and also artistically?'” Coppola remembered. “And I said, ‘You know — But nobody wants the risk.”