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A Master at Work: Lessons Learned from “The Godfather Notebook”

We dig into Francis Ford Coppola’s notes to learn lessons from a master at the peak of his power.
The Godfather Notebook
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on May 14th, 2017

The late great Mike Nichols is reputed to have said that “directing is like having sex; you rarely have a chance to see others do it.” Apocryphal or not, the quote demonstrates a maddening discovery many aspiring directors make in the course of their study: for all the well-meaning how-to books and superficial making-of interviews, genuine records of great directors’ thinking and process are hard to find. Most artists prefer to hide their brushstrokes, allowing their work to speak for itself. The student is thus left with only finished films, most of which are designed to conceal the laborious efforts expended in their making. As a result of this secrecy, many are left feeling that a well-directed film is a mysterious work of alchemy, sprung fully formed from the visionary mind of a genius.

Now, on the occasion of its 45th anniversary, we have the opportunity to lift the veil on one of the finest films ever made: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Last December, Coppola published The Godfather Notebook,” a massive coffee-table tome containing his detailed, handwritten annotations on the original Mario Puzo novel, as well as scene-by-scene breakdowns of the entire film. Coppola has said that the notebook, which he built over months of preparation, was his “bible” throughout the production, his only mooring amid the harrowing process of realizing the film. It is a truly unique document, full of unfiltered and incompletely formed expressions of Coppola’s incomparable directorial instinct. One finds in its pages, not the posthoc recollections of a wizened auteur but a record of the moment-by-moment thought process that would give rise to a true cinema classic. Here’s what we learned.

Think in Themes

Among Coppola’s copious notes, a clear trend emerges in the types of insights he was attempting to record: throughout the text, Coppola sought specific details that illustrated the broader themes with which he was concerned. In fact, his entire process of adaptation from the Puzo novel was characterized by a distillation of the narrative down to what he saw as its most central theme: succession. Despite not liking the novel on his first read-through, Coppola found that a second reading brought this theme to the fore; all that was inessential, he writes, “fell away.” A lengthy, lurid description of Sonny Corleone’s sexual encounter with Lucy Mancini, for example, is marked in the text with a dismissive “O.K.” But a moment shortly thereafter in which Tom Hagen beckons Sonny to come see his father is underlined and emphasized. Once Coppola had decided upon his theme, the process of adaptation became a matter of discovering and amplifying only those aspects of the sprawling story that demonstrated it. All subsequent decisions, down to the minute details of costume and performance, could be directed toward this end.

Be Terrified

The extensive work of preparation found in the notebook was in part the due diligence of a careful director, but Coppola confesses in the introduction that he mostly created it out of “profound fear.” Still early in his career and faced with the imminent bankruptcy of his production company, American Zoetrope, Coppola undertook the making of The Godfather overwhelmed with anxiety and self-doubt. To make matters worse, Paramount objected to many of his major decisions, including the casting of Al Pacino, and threatened throughout the shooting of the film to have him replaced. The notebook and all the careful thought and consideration it represented became a bulwark for Coppola against what he calls the “downs and downs” of production. “I must say I’ve never approached a project without fear,” he writes. Torturous though this process must have been, there seems little question that this fear-driven preparation helped to make The Godfather the classic it has become. The key was Coppola’s choice to use the fear as an impetus to action, rather than allow it to paralyze him.

Let it Incubate

Amid the churn of hastily produced, minimally considered content that now floods the internet, it’s easy to forget that great ideas can require weeks and months to materialize. The seemingly menial work required for Coppola to assemble the notebook would strike many as a colossal waste of time, but he viewed it as an essential process of creative gestation. Reflecting on the “prompt books” used by theater stage managers that inspired him to build the notebook, Coppola writes:

“The building of the prompt book took hours, and the tedious activity of cutting, reinforcing, and organizing the pages provided many meditative hours during which one could use the other side of the brain to roam over the ideas and essential themes of the playwright’s intention. That was very much the way I configured The Godfather Notebook; I based it on this idea.” 

By setting upon the painstaking task of building the notebook, Coppola provided himself with both the immersion and incubation necessary for creative insight.

Find the Core

Inspired by a piece of advice from Elia Kazan, Coppola attempted to distill the emotional, dramatic, and thematic core of each scene to a single sentence or pair of sentences. Like identifying a theme for the project at large, this process of uncovering the core of each scene allowed Coppola to focus his decision-making and ensure that what was truly essential to the text survived the travails of production. The heart of the opening wedding sequence, for example, is to “introduce the Don, and gradually reveal the breadth of his power, [and] make clear his relation to Michael. Establish the fusion of family and business.” Watching the film, these goals are obvious, but that only attests to the focus of Coppola’s direction. The sequence could just as easily have devolved into a distracting set piece or empty prologue. By crystallizing his intentions, Coppola turned it into an efficient and effective piece of storytelling.

Anticipate Pitfalls

In addition to establishing his goals for every sequence, Coppola was careful to anticipate how things could go wrong. Each scene in the notebook contains a list of potential pitfalls; moments, Coppola writes, that “I could do wrong and later bitch about, all the things that when I saw the movie would make me say, ‘Oh, my God, no.’” Such warnings range from general pacing concerns (“Boring,” “Too fast”) to possible clichés and stereotypes (“Italians who-a talka lika-dis”) to moral and aesthetic transgressions (“Losing a basic ‘humanity’ to these people”). Great filmmaking is as much a matter of avoiding egregious mistakes as making bold decisions, and Coppola’s extensive focus on what could go wrong undoubtedly saved the Godfather from the failings of prior and subsequent mafia films.

Treasure Tension

Certain words appear over and over again in Coppola’s marginalia, including “power” and “pace,” but none appears so often as “tension” – or rather, “TENSION.” Despite The Godfather’s patient pacing, tension is the film’s lifeblood, and Coppola was determined to extract every ounce of it from the original novel. If cinema is life with all the boring bits cut out, Coppola’s screenplay for The Godfather was Puzo’s novel shorn of all the scenes that lacked tension. While novels can get away with lengthy exposition and indulgence of characters’ mental lives, film thrives on present dramatic action, and the task of a great director is the carefully manipulate the level of tension throughout these moments. For Coppola, this effort began before he typed a single word of the screenplay, and it shows in the final product.

Trust First Impressions

Directors are often careful to have a pen in hand upon first reading material, no doubt because one’s first impressions of a screenplay or novel represent the closest thing to the reaction an audience will later have to the story. Through the interminable course of pre-production, production, and post-production, it can become increasingly difficult to recall and preserve these impressions – which is why it’s so vital to record them. Although the final version of the notebook contains many layers of notes in many colors of pen, Coppola was careful to put down his very first reactions to each scene, knowing that they would form the basis of later creative decisions.

Guide the Viewer

The great filmmaker and teacher Alexander Mackendrick once noted that “what a film director really directs is the audience’s attention.” This maxim is at the heart of Coppola’s approach in the notebook. At each turn, he highlighted the details, visual and emotional, that were essential to emphasize, while similarly passing over or discarding those passages that were inessential. Part of what helps a great filmmaker pare down the many options he or she has for shooting a scene is determining what precisely is important; otherwise, films would be shot in proscenium wide shots, with all elements equidistant from the lens. Iconic lines from Puzo’s novel (“Leave the gun; take the cannoli.”) are preserved in our memories in part because Coppola singled them out for emphasis in his original reading. Likewise, vast swaths of exposition, such as the backstory of Luca Brasi or the nature of the interfamily conflict with the Tattaglias, are distilled to their vital elements. All throughout the notebook, Coppola made the early decisions about how to guide the viewer’s attention toward what mattered and away from what didn’t.

The Godfather Notebook” is a treasure in its totality and important addition to the library of any aspiring filmmaker.

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