The Lives of Francis Ford Coppola
New York magazine|December 21, 2020-January 3, 2021
The director on recutting The Godfather Part III and an epic, chaotic career—which he’s not done with just yet.
By Bilge Ebiri

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA is trolling me about our resemblance. “This guy looks like I did 30 years ago,” he says when my bearded face appears for the first of our Zoom calls. Coppola, 81, might be grayer now, and he hasn’t technically made a new film in nearly a decade, but that hasn’t stopped him from releasing a steady stream of material. This month comes one of the most extensive recuts of all: a new edition of 1990’s The Godfather Part III, now called Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. It’s shorter, leaner, and certainly clearer, with a new ending that, ironically, lets Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone live. Recently, Coppola discussed the power of editing, his family, and the many dramatic arcs of his career.

Let’s talk about … well, I still can’t help but call it Godfather Part III. What prompted you to go back to it?

A third Godfather was not something I had thought necessary. But I had a very happy collaboration with Mario Puzo [the author of the book The Godfather and a co-screenwriter of the films]. He was like an uncle figure to me. He came up with that idea that we should call the film The Death of Michael Corleone and that it should be a coda or an epilogue. When I suggested that to Paramount, they said, “No, it has to be called The Godfather Part III.” And I realized that was also probably because that meant there could be a four, and a five, and … But I didn’t have the clout that I had had years earlier, when Godfather was such a success.

It was a big, complicated movie. When we were ready to shoot the daughter’s scenes, we had been stalling because Winona Ryder didn’t show up. Then she dropped out. Paramount was pushing hard to put in a name actress, but it was very important to me that it be a teenager; you should see the baby fat on the girl. Sofia had been in some little films for me, as all my children had. So I asked her to come in. She didn’t particularly want to, but she did it. When the picture came out, the press came after Sofia so much. It was just like the story: The bullets that killed the daughter were really meant for the father. I felt that I did this to her. Of course, Sofia went on to have a wonderful career of her own, but it must have hurt her terribly to be told, “You ruined your father’s picture,” when in fact she hadn’t.

The film was quite successful at the time, financially and critically.

At first, the picture had a good reaction, but then, little by little, the opinion of Godfather Part III started to erode. I was haunted by how I had missed the boat, so to speak. What was wrong with the picture? I felt the story wasn’t clear. And the story was really interesting. You probably don’t know this, but at that time, there was a guy named Charlie Bluhdorn, who was the head of Gulf and Western, and he bought Paramount, but what no one knew was that the Paramount studio was [linked to] the Vatican. The Vatican had a huge real-estate company called Immobiliare under Archbishop Marcinkus, who was somewhat corrupt or involved with some very corrupt people. [Bluhdorn owned both Paramount and part of Immobiliare.]

Charlie Bluhdorn told me all of this stuff to amuse me, I guess. And so I thought, Wouldn’t it be ironic if I used what Charlie Bluhdorn had told me about the Vatican’s involvement? The more I learned about it, the more corrupt it seemed. But I hadn’t really made that clear enough in the first cut. A lot of people didn’t know, I think, what was going on in terms of the business story. I hadn’t started the film right where it should have started, which is the deal that Michael Corleone was involved in with the Vatican.

It’s amazing how changing just a few minutes can have such a huge impact on a movie.

Movies are an illusion, and the emotion that the audience gets out of the movie doesn’t really come from the movie; it comes out of themselves. I have seen movies change from devastating to wonderful in my life. And it could be made in a day, the audience reaction. When we previewed The Godfather Part II in San Francisco, we had a terrible reaction. That night, I made 121 changes, which is unheard of, because to make an editorial change when the film already has music and everything is really hard. We went three days later and previewed it again in San Diego, and it was night and day. I mean, if you make a car, and the thing is not quite in there, it won’t go. Then you do one little stupid thing, and suddenly it goes. This is the nature of all complex constructions.

I was watching George Lucas’s documentary about you not long after I’d rewatched Hearts of Darkness, your wife’s documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. One thing that stood out to me in both of those films is that you seem very stressed when you’re on set.

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