Coppola, one of the Bay Area’s own, sits for a tribute at the 1972 Festival to discuss his predirectorial work as a screenwriter, the success of The Godfather and the plans for its upcoming sequel.
by Ben Friedland
In October of 1972, Francis Ford Coppola, dressed in an orange velvet suit, appeared at the San Francisco International Film Festival for a retrospective of his work. Even though Coppola himself explained that he felt he was too young for this kind of honor—“I still consider myself a young man. I’ve made mistakes, and I hope to do much better as time goes on,” he said—the rest of San Francisco felt differently. The Palace of Fine Arts was standing room only, and a few people were even caught sneaking into the lobby from the Exploratorium. Outside the Palace, a crowd of young filmmakers and film buffs crowded the entrance, hoping that a few ticketholders might leave and free up seats inside.
Coppola, a famed Bay Area resident and champion, has been a guest at the Festival several times over the years—in 1975, he collected the St. Francis of Assisi Award, presented by Mayor Joseph Alioto; in 1980, he appeared alongside Akira Kurosawa at the screening of Kagemusha, for which he helped find backers to finance; and in 1995, he came as producer of the Opening Night film My Family/Mi Familia. But it was his 1972 Craft of Cinema tribute that provided the most public insight into his mind and work.
Coppola, who happened to be prepping Gottfried von Einem’s opera The Visit of the Old Lady for the San Francisco Opera Company, appeared for a tribute after an hour of clips. The 32-year-old director shared stories about how he got into the movie business, his already lasting impact on the industry and his approach to directing, which, he said, involves giving actors more freedom than they’re used to.
“I’ll give them a chance to try anything. Like Marlon Brando. I’d seen all his movies, and, even when the movie was a flop, I liked what he did. Everyone told me I should assert myself with him. It occurred to me that maybe I should listen to him instead.
“A lot of things in The Godfather were Brando’s ideas. It was his idea to put those orange peels in his mouth for his death scene. At first it sounded ridiculous to us, and when he actually did it, the boy who played his grandson wouldn’t come near him. So Brando and I and the boy’s father and mother all had lunch with him, and we all had orange peels in our mouths so he would get used to them.”
By 1972, Coppola had emerged as one of America’s best new directorial talents. Even early on, as a film student at UCLA, he had a reputation as a revolutionary filmmaker. His first real work came during an apprenticeship with Roger Corman, which led to his debut film Dementia 13. In the meantime, he had also become a prolific screenwriter and was sought out by major studios to punch up their scripts. He was working on six scripts a year in those early days and most notably wrote This Property Is Condemned, Is Paris Burning? and, of course, Patton, for which he won an Academy Award for screenwriting.
However, Coppola said, the Patton job didn’t come easy. He needed work but didn’t know a thing about Patton. “I thought he was a Civil War general,” Coppola admitted at his tribute. But the young writer was crafty and, hearing the producer of the film was a former general, “I shaved off my beard and cut my hair. He says to me: ‘Do you have military experience?’ I said yes. What I didn’t say was that I played the tuba in the New York Military Academy band. So I got the job, and just read all the books about Patton I could.”
But it was with The Godfather, in 1972, that Coppola catapulted into the spotlight of stardom. More than 35 years later, The Godfather has become an American classic, the kind of film that others are measured against. At his tribute, Coppola talked at length about the film and the much-anticipated Part II. His Festival appearance, in some ways, marked the end of the early part of his career, a body of work that would become a benchmark for American filmmakers of his time.
Coppola explained that once it became clear that The Godfather was a hit, Paramount attempted to sign him up for a sequel called The Death of Michael Corleone. “It was a terrible script, so I refused. But when they told me that I could do my own script, direct and choose my actors—who will all be the same—I began to get interested in the project.
“There was more movie to be made,” he said. “I left out a lot of The Godfather because I was afraid it would get too long. But what if the second film is about Michael Corleone, and at the same time about his father when he was his age? Except it would be [on] the streets of New York. So that the two films, taken together, would start in the middle of the story, then go back to the beginning, and then the end.”
Of course, an audience member asked about the film’s famous horse’s head sequence, and Coppola could not suppress his annoyance. “I can’t understand why there’s so much outrage about that with human beings dying like flies. I realize that in the film they didn’t really die. But the same outrage existed about that sequence in the book. The animal lovers went wild.
“What happened is that we got that head from a pet food factory that slaughters 200 horses a day to make food for all the little doggies in the country. If you remember, in the book a baby was thrown into a furnace and no outcry was raised about that. I’d kill 200 horses rather than one baby.”
Coppola also had plenty of advice for filmmakers that rings true today. He said he never reads what he has written until he has finished a complete draft. “If a writer looks back, he’ll get so discouraged he’ll never finish. But by the time he completes 50 or 60 pages, he finds himself doing nice things. And I end up doing many drafts.”
Coppola also recommended working with the same collaborators time and again, because it offered opportunities for unrehearsed play. “You have a chance to do things you have hunches about, even if you’re not sure they’ll work out,” he said. “I like to put people in situations, electric situations, where things might happen, and then record them.”
The director would go on to win four more Academy Awards and be nominated nearly a dozen times. His filmography is a staggering list: The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and more. This Fog City maverick has never lost his passion for cinema.