Behind Francis Ford Coppola’s Magic, the Work: ‘The Godfather Notebook’

No one other than Coppola could have directed The Godfather, because the mental effort to work Puzo’s world into film is on the level of science fiction.

When actor Alex Rocco died in July 2015, I felt a twinge of sadness for the passing of the man who was a key part in my favorite scene from The Godfather (1972). While the movie impacts everyone differently, there was something hilarious yet awesome in Rocco’s portrayal of Moe Green and his righteous indignation when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) offers to buy him out. My friend William and I often trade the dialogue back and forth: “You goddamn guineas really make me laugh.” or “He was banging cocktail waitresses two at a time.” Or “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Greene. I was making my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders.”

The Godfather was, and always will be, associated with the man who took Mario Puzo’s novel and turned it into what many consider the best or perhaps the second-best film of all time (often losing to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane). Francis Ford Coppola has written, produced, and directed over 40 films, but he will always be known for The Godfather. And yet, almost half a century after its debut, I found myself in the remarkable situation recently of learning more about Coppola and the making of the film than I had previously known, thanks to the release of Regan Arts’ The Godfather Notebook.

What makes The Godfather so great? A million answers and platitudes have been offered by every auteur and film theorist, but after reading The Godfather Notebook, the answer is clear as f***king day: Coppola. He didn’t just adapt Puzo’s work and then co-write the screenplay with him; he dissected and analyzed the novel, and then arranged the film like a composer based on the material in the book that he believed told a particular type of story. Drawing from his theater background, Coppola designed a “prompt book”:

I began the notebook by dividing the novel into five acts, and then subdividing those into fifty sections, or scenes, each separated in the binder by a numbered tab. These were divisions I elected to do; in other words, I wasn’t necessarily following the chapters in Mario’s novel. Sometimes my sections corresponded to the actual chapters of the book, but sometimes not.

Then, Coppola added a cover sheet for each of the 50 sections that included five topics: 1. synopsis, 2. the times, 3. imagery and tone, 4. the core, and 5. pitfalls. The result is this “notebook” — a gorgeous hardcover that includes Coppola’s initial thoughts about the film, wonderful black and white and color photographs from the set, his handwritten notes from rereading the novel, and ideas about how major scenes could be adapted to a film.

To fully understand the level of detail that Coppola expected in his film, here are his notes on “The Times” for the initial scene in the film:

My first concern is a sense of the times. The last Saturday in August, 1945. The Japanese have just surrendered.”

The guests are relieved and anxious to enjoy themselves on what is probably the first big affair since the end of the war. Their sons are safe.

There are teenagers in suits and party dresses. There is a general shortage of young men, and many that are present are in Military Uniform, a source of pride and activity among their parents. Few of the guests, other than the principles of the Wedding are in formal attire, but occasionally, there is some old Italian in a tux, here or there. Perhaps, Luca Brasi, is wearing an outmoded tux, even tails?”

There are lots of pretty young Italian girls, who probably cluster around the servicemen.

The notes feel personal and more like a diary than a notebook where we can see a young Coppola writing a screenplay based on his own Italian American experiences; followed by commentary on the novel. For a particularly vivid example, I read Coppola’s handwritten notes on the scene where Michael kills Sollozzo (page 152 of the original novel): “Important: the audience knows he is NOT following Clemenza’s instructions;” “TIME STOPS SHORT” (“And the expression on his face, in his eyes, held such confident outrage, as if now he expected Michael to surrender or to run away, that Michael smiled at him as he pulled the trigger.”); “IMAGE: MIST OF BLOOD”; “Really close” (red ink) (“and his right hand shoved the gun almost against Sollozzo’s head”); “HIT HARD AND BLOODY”; “HIS FORK FROZEN MID-AIR”; “FROZEN TIME;” “IMAGE: Blood all over the waiter’s white jacket;” “HITCHCOCK”

Two elements of The Godfather Notebook particularly stand out. First, the value and power of these photographs cannot be overstated. There are many famous stills taken from the original film, but to see iconic photographs with Coppola adds a new element. The director standing behind Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), while filming the scene with Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) at the beginning of the film; Coppola having a seemingly normal conversation with Brando leaning against the front bumper of a car, during the pivotal scene where he is shot during an assassination attempt; and a wonderfully candid shot of Brando, Bonasera, and Coppola in the mortuary scene where Brando shares a smile with Sonny Corleone (James Caan) who is supposed to be dead … again, these photos actually made me love the movie even more.

The second key feature of Coppola’s notebook is that it shows just how much the director was, and is still, regarded as a visionary. I’m convinced that none other than Coppolla could have directed this film, because the mental effort to work Puzo’s world into film is on the level of science fiction. Case in point: the “horse’s head” scene with Jack Woltz (John Marley). This is the original scene from page 67 of the novel:

On this Thursday morning, for some reason, he awoke early. The light of dawn made his huge bedroom as misty as a foggy meadowland. Far down at the foot of his bed was a familiar shape and Woltz struggled up on his elbows to get a clearer look. It had the shape of a horse’s head. Still groggy, Woltz reached and flicked on the night table lamp … Severed from its body, the black silky head of the great horse Khartoum was stuck fast in a thick cake of blood. White, reedy tendons showed. Froth covered the muzzle and those apple-sized eyes that had glinted like gold were mottled the color of rotting fruit with dead, hemorrhaged blood. Woltz was struck by a purely animal terror and out of that terror he screamed for his servants …

Here are Coppola’s notes (on three of the five topics) included in the cover sheet for this scene (with original spelling mistakes):

SYNOPSIS: Woltz wakes up very early in the morning and finds something damp in his bed. He turns on the light and finds that he has blood on his hands. He traces the wetness of the blood, until he sees the head of his $600,000 race horse, Khartoum, has but (sic) severed from the body and put in his bed.

He is absolutely terrified.

IMAGERY AND TONE: Perhaps a silent move from the exterior of the house with noone around (interestingly like the hospital of later scene) … Into the house, through some of the main rooms, almost like some unwelcome intruder’s point of view (Luca?) — noone around; the time — early in the morning — up the stairs; noone around. Into the bedroom; Woltz is asleep: we could kill him. Some slight is beginning to illuminate the room. I don’t see the shadow image as in the Puzo screenplay. How could that be. Rather I like the idea of him waking, and eventually feeling something wet. Then feel the wetness, and seeing it is blood, and he (and we) thinking it is his, then he quickly sits up, already in a level of terror from the blood in his hand, and sees the severed gory head of Khartoum. His scream should be enormous, and continuous for a long, long hysterical time. Somehow this might make the audience understand that Woltz realizes it could have been him.

PITFALL: “That it is not horrifying enough. If the Audience does not jump out of their seat on this one, you have failed. Too much in the Corman Horror film tradition, would also be a mistake. One must find the perfect balance of Horror without losing the thread of the overall film. Deliver it, and get out.

The Godfather Notebook is a stupendous book and wonderful gift to any serious fan of the original film, but its utility is much greater than that. The Godfather Notebook must become the reference volume for any and every aspiring screenwriter and director. While the actual film is all the evidence one might need of Coppola’s eternal legacy, this notebook shows us that even in an age of utter media saturation, the creative spirit must still be awoken through deep reading, margin scribbles, and meticulous research.

And blood. Plenty of blood.

RATING 9 / 10