Francis Ford Coppola Breaks Down His Most Iconic Films: The Godfather, Apocalypse Now & More

Fifty years after its the­atri­cal release, The God­fa­ther remains a sub­ject of live­ly cinephile con­ver­sa­tion. What, as any of us might ask after a fresh semi-cen­ten­ni­al view­ing of Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la’s mafia mas­ter­piece, is this movie about? We need only ask Cop­po­la him­self, who has our answer in one word: suc­ces­sion. In the recent GQ inter­view above, he also explains the themes of oth­er major works with sim­i­lar suc­cinct­ness: Apoc­a­lypse Now is about moral­i­ty; The Con­ver­sa­tion is about pri­va­cy. Such clean and sim­ple encap­su­la­tions belie the nature of the film pro­duc­tion process, and espe­cial­ly that of Cop­po­la’s nine­teen-sev­en­ties pic­tures, with their large scale, seri­ous­ness of pur­pose, and prone­ness to severe dif­fi­cul­ty.

“What we con­sid­er real art is a movie that does not have a safe­ty net,” Cop­po­la says, and that applies with­out a doubt to movies like The God­fa­ther and Apoc­a­lypse Now. Much as Orson Welles once said of his own expe­ri­ence mak­ing Cit­i­zen Kane, the young Cop­po­la went into The God­fa­ther igno­rant of more or less every­thing involved in its con­tent but life in an Ital­ian-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. But he had, in the­ater school, learned the tech­niques of “out­wit­ting the fac­ul­ty,” and deal­ing with the high­er-ups at Hol­ly­wood stu­dios turned out to require that same skill set. He thus found a way to include every ele­ment ruled insis­tent­ly out by the exec­u­tives, from New York loca­tions and a peri­od set­ting to per­form­ers like the then-unknown Al Paci­no and then-washed-up Mar­lon Bran­do.

Bran­do did­n’t take part in The God­fa­ther Part II, but he did show up at the end of Apoc­a­lypse Now for a vivid­ly mem­o­rable turn as the pow­er-mad Colonel Kurtz. As Cop­po­la remem­bers it, “when Bran­do arrived, he looked at me — he’s so smart — and he said, ‘You paint­ed your­self in a cor­ner, did­n’t you?” The actor meant that the sur­re­al qual­i­ties of the film had reached such an inten­si­ty that no con­ven­tion­al form of res­o­lu­tion could pos­si­bly suf­fice. This was the result of the fact that, as Cop­po­la puts it, “one of the things that make a movie is the movie: it con­tributes to mak­ing itself.” In oth­er words, as Cop­po­la and his col­lab­o­ra­tors shot each scene (a process that famous­ly result­ed in over one mil­lion feet of footage), the very film tak­ing shape before them sug­gest­ed its own direc­tion — in the case of Apoc­a­lypse Now, toward the ever dark­er and stranger.

Always can­did about his pro­fes­sion­al strug­gles, Cop­po­la has also been gen­er­ous with tech­ni­cal and artis­tic expla­na­tions of just how his pic­tures have come togeth­er. God­fa­ther fans will delight in his direc­tor’s-com­men­tary tracks on the first and sec­ond parts of that tril­o­gy; as for The God­fa­ther Part III, Cop­po­la released a new edit (in the man­ner of Apoc­a­lypse Now’s Redux and Final Cut) called The God­fa­ther Coda: The Death of Michael Cor­leone in 2020. He dis­cuss­es that project in the GQ inter­view, and also his work-in-progress Mega­lopo­lis. Hav­ing described The God­fa­ther as essen­tial­ly a Shake­speare­an tale, he’s now reach­ing fur­ther back in time: “Would­n’t it be inter­est­ing if you made a Roman epic but did­n’t set it in ancient Rome — set it in mod­ern New York?” He also lets us in on Mega­lopo­lis’ sur­pris­ing key word: not mega­lo­ma­nia, nor ambi­tion, nor pow­er, but sin­cer­i­ty.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Cast­ing of The God­fa­ther with Cop­po­la, Paci­no, De Niro & Caan

Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Hand­writ­ten Cast­ing Notes for The God­fa­ther

What Is Apoc­a­lypse Now Real­ly About? An Hour-Long Video Analy­sis of Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Viet­nam Mas­ter­piece

How Wal­ter Murch Rev­o­lu­tion­ized the Sound of Mod­ern Cin­e­ma: A New Video Essay Explores His Inno­va­tions in Amer­i­can Graf­fi­ti, The God­fa­ther & More

Great Film­mak­ers Offer Advice to Young Direc­tors: Taran­ti­no, Her­zog, Cop­po­la, Scors­ese, Ander­son, Felli­ni & More

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Robert L says:

    The god­fa­ther movie shows Cop­po­la lack of under­stand­ing of how the amer­i­can mob worked. If some sicil­ian guy came to the usa back then and killed a mob boss even if one of the amer­i­can boss­es was stu­pid enough to make a deal with him that wld be ben­e­fi­cial for him and his crime fam­i­ly what wld hap­pen was the entire amer­i­can mob wld turn on that sicil­ian kill him and his entire crew kill any mob boss that helped him and have the sicil­ians whom back then were noth­ing when com­pared with their amer­i­can coun­ter­parts kill every­one con­nect­ed to him over there. Also the scene were the cor­leone fam­i­ly under­boss goes to fake switch sides and gets killed. An under­boss im amer­i­ca back then was a per­son whom in the­o­ry can replace the boss in case any­thing hap­pens so and under­boss has to be a must trust­ed smart man not a mum­bling idiot and cld nev­er switch sides once you are a made man in a fam­i­ly you leave that fam­i­ly only when your dead. Good­fel­las and Casi­no have a more real plot.

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