Al Pacino gathered with co-stars Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia and George Hamilton in the screening room at Paramount recently to watch Francis Coppola’s reconstituted Mario Puzo’s The Godfather: Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. He’d long ago made peace with any shortcomings that Godfather III had when compared to the first two films of the trilogy that made him a superstar and remain two of the best American films ever made. And yet, he admitted he was immediately drawn in by the new and improved version. It stirred memories of a shoot in Italy he said was the “least painful” of three arduous Godfather films, and said he was immediately struck by a quickened pace and improved focus that was evident in the very first frames.
“Francis changed the opening scene, which is now about Michael getting in business with that archbishop in the Vatican,” Pacino told Deadline. “It had never started there; that scene was 35 to 40 minutes into the film and I think people got lost before by a muddled trajectory. Now, for some reason, there is a better sense of focus. Film is like magic and it constantly surprises me how people who understand it can cut out a closeup or trim a scene and make such a difference.” One of those changes was to drop the scene where a broken Corleone unceremoniously fell off a chair and died, this after the scene in which Corleone lost his beloved daughter, taking everything he valued, in an instant.
“When he showed it to us I saw that opening and breathed a sigh of relief because I knew it was better,” Pacino said. “The trajectory was always there, from that scene in The Godfather when Michael says, ‘It’s my family, Kay, it’s not me,’ and then this smart, college grad war hero gets caught up in the rush after his father was threatened, and he has to live with something he couldn’t find a way out of. In Godfather III, he’s a guy trying to keep everything going. He had a natural ability for business and manipulation and a Machiavellian gift that made him the boss of a crime family even though I never felt he was comfortable being a stereotypical gangster. Now came an opportunity for redemption from the church, as well as this new outlet for his skills that would give his family the respectability he wanted. And then he’s constantly thwarted, even in the confession he makes about killing his brother Fredo, to that priest who’s soon to become Pope. Soon, he suffers a diabetic attack brought on by the stress of having been screwed by the so-called Church in a massive betrayal of inordinate size. And then, to lose his daughter, which Francis smartly set at the opera? Godfather II had tragic undertones, but of all the ways to lose your daughter, to do it in the arena of assassinations that he was part of, then lose his daughter because of him…it’s operatic and he’s completely broken.”
Pacino told Deadline he was pleased when Coppola told him that Paramount had blessed his long desire to create a new Godfather III cut. Even though the film received seven Oscar nominations, it paled compare to the memory of its predecessors. Pacino believes the film benefits from something that wasn’t there before: enough time to find the best version of the film in the editing room. Even after Pacino himself lunched with Paramount chief Frank Mancuso to press for a postponement of a Christmas 1990 release, the studio wouldn’t budge. It was a race to the finish, not helped by the abrupt exit of Winona Ryder from the role of Michael’s daughter Mary Corleone. Coppola tapped his teen daughter Sofia to play the young woman smitten with her first cousin, Sonny Corleone’s ambitious gangster son (Garcia). Some press and reviewers were merciless toward her, and a father’s guilt and regret were major motivators in his desire to re-cut the film and acquit her performance. Even as she went on to a highly successful career as a writer-director. I recall an early New York press screening where some applauded when Mary Corleone was shot by an assassin’s bullet meant for her father, in what was scripted as one of the most shattering and tragic scenes in the entire three-film franchise.
The new cut is 12 minutes shorter; Coppola made 363 picture changes, eliminating and adding shots with a different beginning and ending, alchemy that better focuses the storytelling and quickens the pace. While she had cameos in her father’s films — the first came when she was an infant in The Godfather as Connie and Carlo Rizzi’s son in the baptism scene — Sofia Coppola was a neophyte actress when she stepped in to play Mary, and paid a high price for a high profile role in her father’s film. Her naivete has been put to best advantage in the new version that starts a limited theatrical release tomorrow, followed by the Blu-ray and digital release December 8. Coppola has tinkered under the hood on past works including Apocalypse Now and The Cotton Club. But he clearly had a personal stake in making the Godfather finale stand on better footing alongside the first two installments.
Pacino refuses to compare the third film with the other two. Instead, he sees the improved finale as most comparable to the Martin Scorsese-directed The Irishman, the Best Picture nominee he starred in alongside Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and many of the cast members who made that director’s mobster classics including Goodfellas and Casino.
“The Irishman had the same people, but looked at them with a different lens, a different story,” Pacino said. “That worked well for Marty because you weren’t comparing it to Goodfellas or Casino. Godfather, The Death of Michael Corleone is also different and hard to compare to the other two, including the tragic place this leads to. I’m glad Francis had a chance to do this and I hope it’s going to resolve things for Sofia. I love that girl, and at the time, it was a big thing. Imagine, a teenager being dragged over the coals like that, in her father’s film? There wasn’t an Internet then but there is now and I hope they are decent to her, and more understanding. I do think the injury to his daughter was a real motivator for Francis. He probably just stared at the painting for a good long time, trying to figure out. And then, boom, he found it.”
Here, Coppola generously wades back into Godfather mythology for Deadline readers, which clearly we will ask him to do again in two years, when the 1972 classic The Godfather turns 50.
DEADLINE: Each time these wildfires hit the Napa region I’m always concerned for you. How bad was it?
FRANCIS COPPOLA: It was hairy and it was close and we were evacuated for three days but we were spared, although many of our neighbors were not. This time it took a terrible toll on the wineries and the people, they lost everything. They lost their homes. Meadowood was totally destroyed. If the climate isn’t dealt with in some way, sooner or later it’s going to get us and if we have a fire event like this every year which is what they’re predicting…not unlike like the hurricanes or the tornadoes or flooding…it will get us. It’s scary. That’s why we’re very hopeful that a new President will look at the climate issue more closely. The irony about the climate thing is it’s not the Earth that’s in danger. The Earth has survived many ice ages and incredible changes of climate. It’s the human race that will be extinct. Not the Earth, which will go on.
DEADLINE: How long has this been an annual crisis, where you are helpless to do anything but cross your fingers and pack a bag?
COPPOLA: Only four or five years. There have always been fires in a forested area like we have here, but this was scary. A lot of nice people lost everything.
DEADLINE: You followed through on what you told me you would do two years ago, re-cut, re-order and rename the third Godfather installment to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone. You did a number of things that make this film a more satisfying watch. One was to give a posthumous nod to the original novel author who became your frequent collaborator on The Godfather screenplays. Hollywood doesn’t often treat the writer with such respect, but you put his name in the new title.
COPPOLA: Well, in this particular case, Mario Puzo was the one who came up with the idea of calling the film The Death of Michael Corleone. But I’ve been a screenwriter for so long, I know that in making a so-called adaptation, it’s the original author who usually does the heavy lifting. To write a completely original screenplay is hard work. I think it’s outrageous to call a film…the possessive credit that the Director’s Guild has fought and negotiated to put that name on top, when it’s the writer. Someday, I would love the idea of being able to call a movie Francis Coppola’s Megalopolis, because I really did do the heavy work, the hard work. But when I adapted it from a book, I feel that privilege belongs to the original author. You’ll see that very often I credited that, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. Maybe it’s a little sly on my part. Because that means when I finally get the pleasure of saying Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, I’m entitled to it because I wrote it as an original story.
DEADLINE: The second and third Godfather films weren’t based on Puzo novels. You found those movies between you, based on his first novel, which he wrote to be overtly commercial.
COPPOLA: When I read The Godfather I was not impressed and in fact turned it down. I didn’t know who he was and I didn’t read his other books. I went and I read The Valachi Papers and then I went to the local library and I took a bunch of books out about the mafia and I read the whole real history of the mafia in New York, the five families. So I knew a lot about the mafia. If you remember the original Godfather it was mostly focused on the story of a character called Lucy Mancini and the fact that her private parts were overly large and caused good distress to her, and she finally had surgery.
DEADLINE: She was Sonny Corleone’s mistress, who was in the movie but without mention of that gynecological issue where well-endowed Sonny Corleone was the only sexual partner who satisfied her. It was an odd detour for a mob story…
COPPOLA: You know, it was this ludicrous story that was featured prominently in the novel. When I saw the book’s ad, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, with that puppet, I thought that it was going to be some intellectual Italian author’s novel on the dimensions of power, I was interested. When I realized it was just this sort of potboiler from some American guy, I dismissed it. It’s only when I met Mario — he was this wonderful, familiar kind of uncle, real and funny — that I became so attached to him.
DEADLINE: Sonny Corleone’s mistress plays into the third film through their son Vincent, who was played by Andy Garcia, and ultimately becomes The Godfather, so there indeed was lineage to the original novel.
COPPOLA: Great plays always seems to have a bastard in them. I immediately seized on that. Lucy Mancini, who Sonny is with at the wedding, had a baby, and that baby was the character Vincent, Sonny’s illegitimate son. I thought that brought Shakespearean complexity to it.
DEADLINE: How did the writing process work between you and Puzo? Beyond the novel, what did he come up with as a storyteller that helped most in the two sequels?
COPPOLA: To be honest, I don’t want this to appear negative but I don’t think he was really much of a screenwriter. I think he had an idea of what a screenplay ought to deliver but he didn’t write his screenplays with the same method that he used to write his books. So basically I would write the screenplay pages and send them to him and then he would do whatever he wanted to them. A famous example is when in the first Godfather, I had Clemenza say, ‘First you brown some sausage and then you…’ and he says, gangsters don’t brown, they fry. First you fry some sausages. And so he was constantly doing things like that, which were pretty important because it gave a personality to the thing that I was incapable of giving it.
And for actual plot ideas, I think he did many. I’m trying to think of one of the story…you know, we were both sort of troubled that we had to write a third piece and we weren’t prepared for it. There was stuff in the book that could have been another movie, which was what Mario used to call the happy years. What were the happy years? The happy years were when we killed everyone and nobody killed us. That was the period that went from Vito Corleone as the young grocer who started to stick up for people in the neighborhood, to when he becomes what he is at the Godfather I, when he was the acknowledged powerful family head. That transition, which Mario did cover in his book, there was that to be had. But the important person in all of this was Charlie Bluhdorn. Do you know who Charlie Bluhdorn is?
DEADLINE: The industrialist who ran Gulf + Western, which bought Paramount…
COPPOLA: Right. He was this interesting guy…he was not very old, only about 36 as he’s starting to build what became the first conglomerate. He did this by just a talent of buying and selling. You know, buying up all the sugar in the Dominican Republic and all this astute trading. He told me an astounding bunch of things that were on point, just talking to me, and it was that Paramount Studios and the actual studio property in Hollywood… we never used that when we were making The Godfather. That was separate. Bob Evans and those people had their office on Crescent Avenue in Beverly Hills and the studio was there and it was rented as a facility but was never used and in fact, Paramount didn’t own it. What had happened was he said, do you know that Paramount Studio is owned by the Vatican? I said, what do you mean? He said the Vatican has a big real estate company called Immobilare, which means real estate in Italian. They owned real estate all over the world and it’s all run by an Archbishop Marcinkus. And there was this other mysterious figure that was an intimate of Charlie’s named Michele Sindona.
DEADLINE: The Italian banker who died of cyanide poisoning days after he was convicted of crimes including ordering the murder of a lawyer assigned to liquidate his failed banks…
COPPOLA: There were other names Charlie mentioned and I don’t know why he was telling me all this; he wasn’t telling me to make a movie out of it for sure, but he was describing how basically he had been involved in sort of quasi-illegitimate business with the Vatican! I thought that was unbelievably extraordinary and the fact that no one knew that the Vatican owned Paramount Studios, the real estate at all. He eventually bought it back but the whole time during The Godfather, they didn’t own Paramount Pictures.
So when it became time to decide what a third Godfather would be, I always saw it as something that would be a coda, the summing up of ideas in the two movies. And I thought it would be an interesting story if Michael, in his desire to do the final step to make his family legitimate and only in legitimate businesses which would mean, pay off all the old crime family debts and obligations, and reward them with great generosity, way beyond what they could have expected, and to be out, once and for all. Which was I think a promise he must have made, if I know Michael Corleone, to himself, that one day he would do that. He would do it for his children, this boy and this girl that was all he had left of his marriage with Kay, which obviously meant a lot to him but which she basically pulled the plug on. She was not going to be married to a man who murdered people and stuff.
And this was the thing in Michael’s heart, to one day be absolved, and that the family would be out and his daughter and son would be out and only in legal businesses. Which would be in Las Vegas or wherever, but which would not have anything to do with crime. So if that was his dream, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if, in his attempt to use the church as a vehicle of being absolved, of doing good, charitable works through the church for poor and for suffering, and it’s in Sicily because his father escaped as a penniless hunted kid from Sicily. It was sort of like what Kirk Kerkorian did for Armenia. Kerkorian was a tough businessman, but when it came to Armenia, his heart was as big as it could be. He wanted to be the benefactor of Armenia, which he was and the people of Armenia appreciate what he did.
I imagined that that’s what Michael really wanted, and the irony that he does that with the church which is more corrupt than he is, and always has been, was too good. And the fact that this was all stuff I really knew about because Charlie Bluhdorn told me…if you noticed in the credits where I say, Dedicated to Charlie Bluhdorn, because he told me all this stuff. I didn’t know anything about what was really going on, all the very specific details of what really happened to Archbishop Marcinkus, the real priest who was sort of as depicted by the Donal Donnelly in the movie.
And even what happened when there was a new Pope, right in the middle of all of this financial skullduggery, this new Pope I am told was ready to bust everybody and then he suddenly just dies mysteriously out of nowhere, it just was too perfect for me to ignore. So I took the story in that direction, and Mario got wind of it. We hadn’t worked it out, we didn’t know what the story was; we just knew what Charlie had told me and I was just repeating what I could remember because he told this all to me. He was an interesting man, Charlie Bluhdorn, and listening to him. He’s like those people you meet and can’t help but admire them despite the fact that you know they’re sort of villainous. I remembered everything Charlie told me and I was very impressed with him and I thought there was a sort of irony to the fact that I would use what in fact Paramount’s own role in this scandalous story was in the movie. I thought that there was a kind of justice in that.
DEADLINE: That lent itself to the two devastating developments you and Mario came up with in Godfather II, one that Michael killed his brother Fredo who betrayed him, and the other Kay’s admission that she aborted Michael’s unborn male son because, as she said, all this had to stop. The notion of using the Vatican for forgiveness of unforgivable things was undeniable connective tissue between the movies.
COPPOLA: But those were not things that Mario was really 100 percent sold on. He was not sold on the idea that it was Fredo who was the sort of traitor. He had a lot of trouble swallowing that and finally he only agreed to it on the condition that Fredo would not be killed [during] the time while his mother was alive. And when the mother was dead it was all right that Fredo paid the price for what he had done to endanger the whole family. And the idea of Kay getting an abortion and that the kid she lost was not a natural still childbirth but an abortion, that was my sister Talia’s idea.
DEADLINE: Talia Shire, who played Michael’s sister Connie, whose husband Carlo beat her up to ignite Sonny’s temper and got him gunned down at the Long Beach Causeway toll plaza. How did Mario Puzo feel about the abortion bombshell?
COPPOLA: He was funny about that, because he was a real family man and to really understand Mario, was to know that he loved his family, he loved his kids, he loved his wife, he loved his home in Bay Shore. That meant everything to him. And he loved his mother, apparently the woman who gave him all this wisdom about you can’t be a real man unless you’re a good father, and a lot of the things the Godfather says, and then later on well, I did take a look at his book, The Fortunate Pilgrim, probably his best novel and a character like the mother is in it.
DEADLINE: The burden of guilt over Fredo and the brutal end of Michael and Kay’s marriage all play out in The Death of Michael Corleone. Did you really have no idea these were threads you might pick up in a third movie, while you were making Godfather II?
COPPOLA: I had no idea, whatsoever. In fact, I looked at The Godfather II and saw what I had, like the image drawn by the little boy, a picture of the limousine that took him to school and he had this little baby girl. I saw what Michael had, and thereby understood what he had lost. He loved Kay, you know. Kay represented to him this dream that one day he would be out of it. He would have achieved the goal, which was to one day be totally legitimate. He had promised her that he would do that and somehow he was not quite able to just pull it off. It’s so confusing when you work on these things. You use stuff that’s personal to you. When I was a little kid, I was not the promising child. I had an older brother that I just looked up to because he not only was handsome and brilliant, he was also really good to me. Took me everywhere, explained things to me. And I had one little ace in the hole that no one knew about. Sometimes my father would take us on a fishing trip. Well, he tells the story and I went on this fishing trip and no one on this party boat, where everybody paid to try to catch big fish. No one caught anything, but I caught a lot of fish. And my secret was that every time I put the line in, I said a Hail Mary, and I would catch a fish. And then I would say another Hail Mary and I would catch a fish. I caught all of these fish, and that was how I did it.
I had this childish idea the Virgin Mary liked me and was going to look out for me…because my own mother was not too sure about me, my feeling was, and she used to have me look in the mirror and she’d say, oh, Francis, you almost look as handsome as your brother but you have these big lips. Bite your lips, there now you look just like your brother. My mother wanted me to have plastic surgery on my lip, that’s the kind of sweet but childish young woman she was. And I felt my mother really didn’t want me. But it didn’t matter because I had this almost magical connection with the Virgin Mary. So I gave that to Fredo. That’s where that comes from. Even in The Conversation, it comes. I was not a religious kid, I’m not an organized religion person. I know too much about the Catholic Church to believe in organized religion. But I did believe in some of those things, and it gave me a kind of magic that I attributed to the fact that somehow she liked me.
DEADLINE: Why was it so important for you to take another crack at the third Godfather film? What needed improvement after three decades?
COPPOLA: Two things. When I did want to call it The Death of Michael Corleone at the time, Frank Mancuso ran Paramount and he was very kind and supportive of me, while at the same time he tried to be a good executive. And was adamant we not call it anything but The Godfather Part III. Because his role in this was to turn it into a franchise, that would lead to part four and part five.
You have to realize that when I first made The Godfather Part II, I didn’t want to. I told them I would work on the script and I would choose the director, I would help the director, I would produce it, but I wouldn’t direct it. So finally when I went to them and said OK, I have the script, I call it The Godfather Part II, and I have chosen a director. And when they asked me who that was and I said his name is Martin Scorsese…they said, absolutely not! Everybody said absolutely not. That’s crazy now, and obviously I knew what I was talking about; Martin was sufficiently younger and was just starting to gain traction in the so-called commercial film industry. I was instrumental in telling Ellen Burstyn about him for the movie he made with her. But when that happened, I just was fed up with the whole idea. I said, forget about it. And then Charlie Bluhdorn himself called me and I didn’t know why. I was still dealing with Bob Evans at the time, and Charlie said, tell me Francis, what do you want? I’ll give you anything you want. I said OK, I want three things.
A, I want Bob Evans have nothing to do with the production. I don’t have to work under him, I don’t have to share what I’m doing with him or get his notes. I’m totally free of that pressure I felt on the first one. Number two, I want a million dollars. That was, to me a million dollars, I probably didn’t have $10,000 in the bank at that time. And number three, I want it called The Godfather Part II. And they literally came back to me and said OK, you do the picture, no Bob Evans, you’re the boss, you don’t have to deal with him. Number two, you have the million dollars. But we can’t agree to call the movie The Godfather Part II. I said, why not? And they said, because everyone in marketing has confirmed that the audience is going to think that it’s the movie they all have seen already, and that this is just the second half of it. I said, that’s crazy, and, well, if I can’t call it The Godfather Part II I’m out. And then finally they gave in.
So once the Part II was successful, suddenly every movie in Hollywood was, Rocky V, Mission: Impossible III, just a bumper crop of parts I, II, and III and IV. And so, 16 years later, after my financial tribulations and my adventure with my studio where I almost lost everything, I needed the money [and gave on the title] because there was no chance that they wanted to call the picture anything but The Godfather Part III.
And my mission was not to make another cog in the machine. I personally never thought that The Godfather was the kind of story that could justify a whole bunch of movies. It seemed to me sequels, even in the literary form and in trilogies and tetrologies like The Alexandria Quartet and The Sea of Fertility, you’re telling the same story over and again and the last one is usually the weakest. You’re repeating and running out of gas. An adventure is different; you just keep coming up with new adventures, new villains, and it goes on forever.
So I never thought that The Godfather was the type of dramatic work that could be expanded into a million movies. I made the movie as a coda, enveloping and explaining the two movies, which is why in the third film there was the big scene with the Archbishop where he confesses to killing his own brother, and you realize how painful that is to Michael.
But there was a moment in Godfather III where the die was cast and was me saying to everyone, I’m not going to do anything other than a coda. That is, I cut Michael’s hair. That was a big deal on the set. I called Dick Smith, this wonderful legendary makeup person who was of tremendous help to me during the first two movies. When I said I wanted to cut Michael’s hair to a short salt/pepper crew cut that military men sometimes have, it was greeted by rebellion. Dick Smith said if you do that Francis, I’m going to resign. That’s such a mistake. And even Diane Keaton called me. You can’t cut Al’s hair! It is long and still beautiful and it was one of the many attributes that people found him so attractive. I knew that but I knew that by doing that it was a point of no return. And I did it and I didn’t know why I was so sure I was right to do it that I would even go up against someone I was so grateful to as Dick Smith, which was the end of our relationship. He never spoke to me again.
COPPOLA: I now look at it as a moment of no return. I did the film, but they also had this idea that the film should come out on Christmas. By the time we finished it and were starting to edit, there was not a lot of time to be ready for the release. When a movie’s about to be released, you’re up against all sorts of self-doubt. You’re not sure that it works and you’re not sure what you should do to it to make it work. You hear suggestions – everyone has their two cents, the people who put up the money, and distribute – and you try them. I don’t know that I had final cut, maybe I did, but even when you have final cut, you don’t say I have final cut, I’ll do what I want. You listen. You’re a collaborator and collaboration means sometimes you do something that someone else thought was right, and you say, boy, am I glad I listened to you, you were right.
I was trying to do my best and all this time is with the great pain in my heart because Paramount had sent one journalist from Vanity Fair to come to the set to observe what was going on. But this journalist had already known of the controversy behind my casting of Sofia, and he came out with an article in Vanity Fair.
DEADLINE: This was when Winona Ryder dropped out abruptly, you looked at other actresses and found that your precocious teen daughter had the qualities you looked for in Michael Corleone’s daughter, Mary.
COPPOLA: Tina Brown was the editor at the time of Vanity Fair, which just slammed this decision and said how Paramount was totally against it. I felt it ironic and looked up to the heavens and said, why is it now that I’m fated to experience the very thing that my movie is about? I was thinking of Gardens of Stone, a movie about the mourning of a son in the Vietnam situation, and during the movie I lost my son. And I began to think this was some sort of ironic curse…when I was making Apocalypse Now they were saying oh, he’s just become kind of megalomaniac like Kurtz. And now here I make the movie and literally felt that the attacks and the bullets being shot at my 17-year-old daughter.
She was in the movie because of the baby fat on her. As this 17- or 18-year-old who has a crush on her cousin where you’d say, well, she’ll get over it, it’s natural, that’s what kids go through. That’s what I wanted for the story, but ironically the bullets that killed [Michael Corleone’s] daughter were meant for him and I felt the criticism that was unfairly launched at Sofia was meant for me. I always felt that she had the quality that I wanted in the character and I felt the attacks brutally centered on her. I didn’t know she was going to emerge as the more important film director, an important figure on her own, but she did that despite being attacked as a 17-year-old. And of course, I felt that I was the one that did it to her.
So the combination of that and that I always was annoyed it was called The Godfather Part III when I said, why can’t it be called The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, because that’s what the movie was. It was about the real death of Michael. What is death? First of all, you’re not there. When you’re alive, you worry about death but when death comes you don’t exist, so death is nothing to worry about. It’s probably an eternity of slumber which sounds nice, actually. Death is nothing. It’s when somebody you love dies that you suffer. And here, I wanted Michael to suffer because when you’re in a profession that involves taking the lives of many, there is nothing lower than that. You might take life as a false idea of patriotism, but to take life just for money, my goodness that’s unacceptable. To me, Michael had to suffer the extreme amount one could suffer. Italians always say cent’anni, which means a hundred years and they’re wishing you long life. For Michael, after what happens, long life is the most cruel punishment he could have because a Sicilian never forgets and the idea that at the end of the movie Michael will just go on and have to know what he lost, was the worst punishment.
It’s like in crucifixion in ancient Rome. When you get crucified, that was supposedly the worst way to die they could think of. Why? Because you didn’t die right away. In fact, there was a merciful form of crucifixion that they sometimes did, because crucifixion was somewhat reserved for the worst crime of all which was to be a slave who rebels. That’s why Spartacus was crucified. If they wanted to be merciful, they would break your legs before they crucified you so that you couldn’t use your legs to keep prolonging an agonizing death, and you would just die. A speedy death is more merciful by those people who knew how to inflict horrible deaths. And so for Michael’s sin, not just because he killed his brother but because he killed for business, that to me is unforgivable and I wanted Michael to suffer because Michael was not a superficial person. He was given that gift of intelligence of beautiful human qualities but somehow he deserved a punishment. That’s what I wanted the movie to mean.
DEADLINE: Sofia grew up to be a formidable filmmaker, but she was 17 when she played Mary Corleone to harsh notices. What was the hardest moment that you had with her, trying to help her sort through that hostile reaction?
COPPOLA: There was nothing I could do. I had caused it. She didn’t want to do the film. She was an art student. When I lost Winona, I was in a tough spot. Winona had taken a picture called Mermaids with Cher and so while we were shooting The Godfather, we were clocking when she would be done, and we needed to know when we could schedule her. Little by little, we used up everything we had that could be shot without her, when Winona arrived in Rome. The next day, she had to work. We couldn’t stall any more.
She showed up with Johnny Depp, who was her boyfriend, and he came as a kind of protector which is understandable. She said she didn’t feel well, she had just gotten off this movie Mermaids…and finally she told me that she wasn’t able to do it, she couldn’t do it, she just wasn’t well.
DEADLINE: You tried to talk her out of withdrawing?
COPPOLA: I said, but Winona, I have nothing to shoot. And I realized that I had no choice but to close the film down for three or four weeks. Sofia had always been with me on movies, Rumble Fish or Peggy Sue Got Married, and I always used to put her in the movie just because it was fun and she was my kid, and she always did fine, she didn’t care. She even had a little stage name she used to use, Domino, and she always was cute in the funny little roles and seemed to have a natural talent. So I said, well, maybe she can do a whole role. She was in Rumble Fish, as Diane Lane’s little sister, and she was very adorable in that. She had a bigger part in Peggy Sue Got Married as Kathleen Turner’s Italian-looking sister.
I had her leave art school and come and do some screen tests. And then I asked people, what do you think? Everyone said, you know, she’s got a very ingenuous quality, she’s not an experienced actress and she certainly doesn’t enunciate her words well. I took a chance. And I don’t think I was wrong because what was looming if I didn’t do it was, Paramount was lining up actresses of a more name quality who could play the part. And they were all like 32 or 33. Annabella Sciorra’s a wonderful actress but she was not a 17-year-old and I wanted it to be a kid. Because the story didn’t make sense to me if she wasn’t a kid…in the sense the father has of his beautiful daughter who is becoming a young woman in his eyes. Any man who has a daughter knows, that’s a beautiful moment that happens because she turns to her father. The girl has to reject her mother at that time, it’s a natural thing. Women go through terrible problems with the daughter at that age, 14, 15, saying I hate you to the mother and stuff. They turn to the father and that’s necessary because one day she will turn to a man and she will become the wife of another man’s family.
These are all real things. My wife was not pleased that I put my daughter in that position. Paramount thought it was child abuse, what I did to her. I said oh, Sofia will come through. I knew that Sofia was an exceptional child, exceptional when she was 5. She didn’t want to be an actress, she wanted to be a painter at the time, she was in art school. I had no idea she’d turn out to be a movie director but it makes total sense to me because she definitely had talent.
It wounded me that she must have suffered, because of me. What parent wants to be responsible for making their child suffer? I can’t think of anything worse than that. That’s akin to what Michael faced at the end of that movie. And why he shouldn’t die. He had to die because it was called Part III, there had to be some conclusion. When you call it The Death of Michael Corleone, you’re entitled then he not die. That’s interesting. That was Mario’s point.
DEADLINE: When we interviewed for our Cannes Disruptors issue two years ago this recut was on your mind and I recall you saying it would acquit Sofia’s performance. Maybe I was predisposed to like it because I’m a father of daughters and I have come to know you a bit, but I felt vastly more comfortable with Mary Corleone than when I first saw it decades ago. She does fit the role of this innocent teen. What did you do?
COPPOLA: A number of things. You always have to understand that movies are a lot of shadows and pictures up there and if they are able to unleash emotion in the audience it is because that emotion is in the audience. Some of it was starting a scene differently and setting it up differently and then not overstaying your welcome. I always explain to my kids that it’s like adjusting an old-fashioned cigarette lighter that won’t light. You pull the wick out, try, and it doesn’t work. You add more fluid but then there’s too much so you have to blow on it. And then the flame doesn’t seem to be strong enough so you keep doing these little stupid things, and then at some point it lights.
That’s just like the cut of a movie. You keep at it, you keep trying to eliminate the first part of a scene and just have it come in. Very often with Sofia…when you shoot a scene, every scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end just like a movie but you don’t need the beginning and the middle and the end. Maybe you come in, in the middle or you don’t have to go to the end. You have a scene with Sofia and Al, and it has the first part, the second part, the third part. Maybe you can come in on the second part, not do the first part and try to get the precious part, the moment that you want. I did a lot of that and started the movie with the very beginning which makes clear. I asked the editor, give me the new title and this first scene with the archbishop, discussing the deal, and you realize Michael is going to make a tremendous bequest to the financial division of the Vatican in the name of his father, Vito Andolini. But then he wants to gain control of this Immobiliare corporation. So it’s really clear that everyone in the movie theater understands, and then, why is he doing that?
And so make it clear, he’s doing it for the son and daughter we remember, and the gift makes the family totally legitimate. That’s what he wants. Michael is being honored by the church, and says to his children, oh, please, ask your mother to come, it would be so good to have her. And Kay does come and she’s married, and makes it clear she has come to protect her son, because Michael wants him to be a lawyer, and he wants to be an opera singer. He says if he’s a singer that’s fine; he doesn’t have to work with me but at least he’ll have a law degree, I love music, but so a lawyer you know, he didn’t have to work with me but at least he’ll have a law degree and so back me up on it. She said no, your son can do what he wants. But the daughter is obviously the apple of his eye and he’s got her to give the check and she’s all nervous about it. She’s just a kid, she’s tittering about the older girls who think this is cute and you let the audience imagine what that really means. I just followed my nose to what were the important things of the story and then once I felt I had accomplished them I got out of it and went onto the next thing. And then I told the story as best I could.
DEADLINE: The plot feels leaner, somehow.
COPPOLA: When an audience doesn’t really understand what’s going on they can only tolerate a few minutes of that. They want to be in on what’s going on and to understand that Immobiliare deal was pretty complicated, that the Corleones are going to give the Catholic Church a payment and they’re going to get in return the control of this real estate corporation. That’s complicated, but true, that really is what happened according to what Charlie Bluhdorn told me, but I don’t feel when the audience was watching the other one that they were quite there, understanding that right at the beginning. I think in the new kind of The Death of Michael Corleone, you’re more involved in what’s happening because you can understand it and in the previous cut, you couldn’t. You understand what having Michael’s daughter means to him. I found that by being more editorially savvy and favor the scenes that were important, like when he tells her, I would rather burn in hell than have you suffer. I used the music I hadn’t used, so you know she really is his heart and after what he has done to so-called protect his family, what he’s got left is in her. And therefore he has to lose her. That’s his punishment.
DEADLINE: How did she react when you showed her the new version?
COPPOLA: You know how sometimes times there’s a painful chapter in your life you’ve gotten over? She once told me, how do you think it feels to be told you ruined your father’s movie? Because that’s what they were telling her. There were people who really stuck up for her performance at the time, it wasn’t unanimous by any means there but sometimes with the press, you attack Sofia for being in Godfather III, and yeah, it had a terrible performance. And it becomes the thing to do and it’s what you remember and accept. But then she saw it, I showed it to her and we were alone. She said, well it seems touching, but she said, it’s hard for me to see myself, especially in that moment. Well, she’s a beautiful girl, she always was, and she is still. We’re close to the 50th anniversary of The Godfather and she was the infant. When Sofia turns 50, The Godfather turns 50 and she’s still a beautiful girl at 50 and her daughters are as well. I think she was somewhat relieved…it’s a tense conversation between us. At first her feeling was, don’t even stir the pot because it’ll just be a lot more hurt. I’ll tell you who called her and was very impressed and that was Diane. Diane didn’t know what to expect. She didn’t like some of the things I did in that film, including that I had cut Al’s hair short. Talia, who’s her aunt, was sympathetic or more positive towards Sofia but I think Diane…a lot of people felt that I was an example of child abuse doing what I did to her.
DEADLINE: How did you react to that?
COPPOLA: I didn’t really think of it that way because I had always put her in films. She’s in The Outsiders, Peggy Sue, she’s in The Godfather when she was just 3 weeks old, when she couldn’t say no. I’ve always just put her in pictures and she always does something memorable. It would certainly make this old heart feel better that people lay off of her. I didn’t make any claims about Sofia here; I just feel that if people just discover her without all this baggage attached, and if she was not my kid, people would have said oh, that girl who played the daughter was so touching, a real teenager. Which is what I feel.