One of the things that we frequently ignore about Francis Ford Coppola is that, as well as being an astonishing filmmaker, he is an incredibly shrewd businessman. He knows how to get stuff done, no matter how impossible the situation. It is this talent for embracing adversity that gave him the grit to make what has since come to be regarded as one of the most important American films of all time, second only to Citizen Kane in its iconic status. I am, of course, talking about 1972’s The Godfather.
Back in 2014, Coppola sat down for an interview in which he shed a remarkable amount of light on the troubled production of The Godfather. It was the film that launched Coppola’s Hollywood career. He’d spent the previous decade making low-budget flicks such as Dementia 13, which earned him some notoriety but only on the fringe scene. With a few films under his belt, Coppola went bout raising money for his own passion projects. This turned out to be a bad move, with the critical and commercial failure of his adaptation of the Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow leaving him on the cusp of bankruptcy.
By the time the opportunity to direct The Godfather came along, he was really desperate. Thankfully, Paramount Pictures decided to take a chance on Coppola, who, in their eyes, seemed more like some bedraggled hippie than a filmmaker. Nevertheless, he was hired and production on The Godfather began. From the off, the film was plagued by tensions between Paramount, Coppola, and his cast. He had to fight hard to get Brando the lead role and, once he did, Brando’s eccentric personality led to even more problems among the cast. Paramount were of the belief that Coppola was the root of the issue and conspired to have him removed. But he was already one step ahead of them.
“Studios typically will only fire directors on a Friday or Saturday,” Coppola recalled. “This way, they can quickly clean up the mess, bring in the new director, and resume production on Monday. Someone had tipped me off that at the end of the week, the studio planned to fire me. So there I was, on the verge of personal bankruptcy, and certain I was about to be very publicly canned from a high profile job.”
“I really didn’t know what to do,” Coppola continued. “So that Wednesday, I fired almost my entire staff. I figured, this way they CAN’T fire me – I am the only one left who knows what’s going on!” Coppola’s plan, despite being a huge risk, worked wonderfully. However, it also left him with just 65 days to complete the entire project: “Looking back, at first I wondered how we were even able to finish the film,” he said. “But now I know that it was the chaotic environment that contributed to the success of the project. We could have never achieved something so great without all that adversity in the mix.” Wise words indeed. I can’t help thinking about all those poor grips and sound recordists though. The Godfather may have been a huge success for Coppola, but what about all those people he fired? I suppose success always relies on somebody else’s failure. Clearly, there is nowhere in which is more true than in Hollywood.