The making of The Godfather was a fight from start to finish. Director Francis Ford Coppola was yet to cut his teeth, so the power was immediately in the hands of producers, executives, and financiers — the people with the money. As well as having to fight to have Marlon Brando in the cast and strive to keep his job as director, Coppola also had to battle tooth and nail to keep The Godfather as a period piece.
Speaking to Howard Stern, Francis Ford Coppola opened up about how his convictions were put to the test during the making of The Godfather: The 1972 crime drama is one of the most artfully devised and enthralling films of the 1970s. To this day, it is still celebrated as a towering cinematic achievement, although, according to Coppola it could have been a very different film. “The script was set in modern times – then the ’70s. It wasn’t set in the ’40s, because it’s cheaper to make a movie when it’s not period,” the director revealed.
The Godfather was a chance for Coppola to test his mettle, but as a relative newcomer, he had little authority in the film world at this time. “So I came on, this young guy who had no cloud at all, and said: ‘I want to make it period in New York.’ They wanted to make it ’70s in like St. Louis or somewhere cheaper.” Thankfully, Coppolla managed to convince the producers to follow his vision, pushing the production over budget in the process. Still, the end result speaks for itself.
But the setting wasn’t the only thing Coppola had to fight for. Speaking to NPR, the director also recalled pleading with Paramount to let him cast Marlon Brando in the role of Don Vito Corleone: “When [the Paramount president] said, I forbid you to bring it up again, I, like, feigned that I just fell on the floor on the carpet and like: ‘What am I supposed to do if you tell me I can’t even discuss it? How can I be a director if the part I think should be cast, that you won’t even let me talk about it?’”.
Eventually, the Paramount executives gave in to the director’s pleas, allowing him to cast Brando on three conditions: “‘One, if he will do the movie for free. Two, if he’ll do a screen test. And three, if he’ll put up a million-dollar bond that he will, in no way, have any misbehaviour that causes the overrun of the picture’s budget.'” Coppola agreed and Brando was offered a measly $100,000 for taking the role that would make him immortal.