In a Rare Interview, Francis Ford Coppola Opens Up About ‘Godfather’s’ Legacy: ‘I Thought It Was Going to Be a Special Failure’

Popular on Variety

Francis Ford Coppola is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on March 21, almost 50 years to the day “The Godfather” hit theaters. While that film launched his career into the stratosphere, Coppola cemented himself as one of our greatest auteurs thanks to his impressive output in the following years with films including “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now” and of course, the “Godfather” sequels.

The filmmaker is both excited and practical about the honor. When one expresses surprise he doesn’t already have a star on the Walk of Fame, he says: “The way that it works is that when a picture opens, the studio that has financed or distributed it pays to get your name on the street. Since I have either financed or distributed my own movies, I’ve never had the good fortune of having a studio take that event.”

 

He is also quick to point out that George Lucas, his longtime friend and fellow legendary filmmaker, doesn’t have a star. “If anyone deserves a star on the Walk of Fame, it’s George,” he says. “I’ll give him mine.”

At the same time, Coppola admits it’s a special thrill to receive such an accolade, even though he’s “shy” about being singled out. “Although it seems as though I’ve been a rebel against Hollywood, in fact I am a Hollywood creature. I was created by Hollywood and I’m very proud of being part of the Hollywood tradition. If I can be part of this group, this wonderful tradition of Hollywood, it pleases me.”

Coppola certainly earned his place in Hollywood history with “The Godfather,” which hit theaters on March 24, 1972. To commemorate the anniversary, Paramount Pictures re-released the first film in theaters at the end of February and is putting out a 4K Ultra HD release of the trilogy. The restoration was overseen by Paramount and Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, and will be available on March 22.

Coppola’s impressive output in the 1970s includes “Apocalypse Now,” which featured Robert Duvall. Courtesy of United Artists/Everett Collection

Though it’s been 50 years, Coppola says it’s gone by fast. “I can remember so intimately all that went on,” he says of the shoot.

He also has vivid memories of when the film was released. “You’re always so anxious when these movies come out because of those first opinions; you hope it will go well and it’s not in your control,” he says. “But by far the greatest treasure is the test of time. When people are looking at what you did 50 years later, that’s an award in and of itself.”

Bringing “The Godfather” to the big screen is its own famous story that has been told by many. In fact, Paramount Plus will release the limited series “The Offer” — based on producer Albert S. Ruddy’s perspective — in April. Coppola has no involvement with the project and notes, “That’s the point of view of, I guess, the producer but it doesn’t really reflect what really happened, in my opinion.”

Coppola was not initially interested in the project, which was based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel.

“Mario Puzo wrote some beautiful novels, but he wrote ‘The Godfather’ to make money,” Coppola says. “Mario loved his family and he wanted to take care of them, so he wrote a book he thought would be a bestseller, but it was a bit of a potboiler.” Coppola says he looked past the “sensational” elements and focused on this classical, almost Shakespearean story about the father and which of his three sons could succeed him. “I dissected that book very carefully and left out many of the pages, but Mario was all for it.”

In fact, Coppola says one of the best parts of the experience was getting to know Puzo, whom he calls “a wonderful man.” He adds that he has huge respect for all writers: “That’s why his name is above the title. It says: ‘Mario Puzo’s The Godfather,’ it doesn’t say ‘Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather’ because he created it.”

Continues Coppola, “If you look at all my pictures, you’ll always see I put the writer above the title. It’s ‘John Grisham’s The Rainmaker,’ it’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ And it really should be ‘John Milius’ Apocalyse Now.’ Because the writer does the heavy lifting.”

Coppola came to the project after directing films such as the Roger Corman-produced “Dementia 13” and the 1968 musical “Finian’s Rainbow.” He had already won an Oscar for the screenplay of 1970’s “Patton,” though he says he was let go from the project for the very thing he’s most proud of — the opening scene in which Gen. Patton directly addresses an unseen audience of troops.

“I once said the things you do when you’re young that you get fired for are the same things that, years later, they give you lifetime achievement awards for,” he recalls.

Asked if he knew at the time he was making something special with “The Godfather,” Coppola replies bluntly, “I thought it was going to be a special failure. When you make a film going against the grain of what’s going on at the time, those kind of films are tough. You’re not doing what everyone expects or wants you to do.”

Coppola hopes to continue to go against the grain with his next film, the long-gestating “Megalopolis,” which would mark his first film since 2011’s “Twixt.” He says he is hoping to shoot it in the fall, but notes, “If you choose to make a movie against the grain, it’s harder to get financed but it plays for 50 years.”

“The Godfather Part II” was released in 1974 and, like its predecesor, won best picture at the Oscars. Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s been reported that Coppola is planning on investing $120 million of his own money, having sold a portion of his hugely successful wine empire. While little is known about the film’s plot, Coppola will say this: “I’m going to make ‘Megalopolis’ and I tell you that people are going to be scratching their heads saying, ‘Wow, it has so much in it that we didn’t understand at first that we understand now.’ That’s my hope.”

As for the filmmakers he’s excited by today, he of course cites his granddaughter, Gia Coppola, who he notes “represents five generations of the family in the movie business.”

That begins with his grandfather, Agostino Coppola, who built the first Vitaphone sound system; his father, composer Carmine Coppola; sister Talia Shire; nephew Nicolas Cage; and daughter Sofia Coppola.

He also cites Denis Villeneuve and Cary Joji Fukunaga as “wonderful filmmakers on the scale of big-budget films.” He says, “But I don’t think they necessarily get the chance to make the films in their hearts. I think they’re being asked to make movies that are not against the grain. We have an abundance of rich, great talent and I would give them more responsibility because they’re capable of it.”

Not that Coppola has anything against big-budget entertainment — “I liked ‘Deadpool,’ I thought that was amazing,” he notes — but he hopes filmmakers going forward continue to take risks.

“Cinema is supposed to illuminate contemporary life, and make us understand what’s going on. So we need the artists to give us a vision of what’s going on.”

TIPSHEET
WHAT: Francis Ford Coppola receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. March 21
WHERE: 6667 Hollywood Blvd.
WEB: walkoffame.com