There’s no doubt that The Godfather will remain one of the most widely-adored films of all time for decades to come. Equally, there would be no surprise if, in a hundred years when digging up the best and brightest of 20th-century cinema, that the film’s director Francis Ford Coppola will be equally as revered for his contributions. While the film remains one of the director’s most brilliant works, the reality remains that he was very nearly fired from his role.
Scrolling through the greatest films of the century, and even today, many directors have suffered a similar fate — axed by the production team before the film can see the light of day. It feels strange to imagine another director filling in to enact someone like Coppola’s vision, but that very nearly happened on The Godfather’s set as the filmmaker pushed his bosses to the edge. In fact, associate directors were sent to the set in advance of Coppola being removed…that was until one scene saved his neck.
Released in 1972, The Godfather was the moment that the world took notice of Francis Ford Coppola. His epic mafia extravaganza was a subtle and sophisticated affair and lacked the firepower Paramount Pictures were expecting. The director had only secured the job following the success of his previous movie, The Rain People, and wasn’t even the first choice for the directorial role. The job had previously been offered to Arthur Penn, Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks and Costa-Gravas, who all turned it down before Coppola got the nod.
Now famed for its use of subtlety, Coppola’s film was beginning to look like a bore-fest when Paramount began previewing the project. The heavy-dialogue and gentle use of violence had left the executives worried they had a flop on their hands. They wanted blood, guts, sex and drugs and Coppola’s use of understated menace and intrigue was struggling to land in the smoky offices of Paramount.
As such, the studio continually threatened to fire Coppola. It was nothing new and the director seemingly took no notice of the threats and, instead, used them to continue his work in defiance. However, that didn’t stop Paramount sending stand-in directors to monitor the progress of the film. It was a way for the studio to not only impose their threatening behaviour, but also get the lowdown on the running of the project.
Considering Coppola’s affinity with the script, the cast and the choices which had already underpinned so much of the production, it’s hard to imagine him ever being kicked off the project. However, that was exactly what was happening until one scene saved his bacon.
When shooting the scene where Michael Corleone murders Sollozzo and McCluskey, the audible gasps on set and the intensity of Pacino’s performance convinced the stand-in directors and the studio that their worries were misplaced. It was clear that Coppola had it under control and his vision was being enacted to the letter. It remains one of the most arresting scenes in the film and one can understand how it would allay any fears for the production.
Watch The Godfather scene that saved Francis Ford Coppola’s job, below.