Restoring ‘The Godfather’ to Its Original (Still Dark) Glory
After 50 years, Francis Ford Coppola still isn’t finished with “The Godfather” — and it isn’t finished with him, either.
Coppola made his bones with that crime epic, which won three Academy Awards, including best picture, made untold millions of dollars for Paramount Pictures and influenced a half-century of filmmaking in the process.
In efforts to preserve “The Godfather” for future generations, Paramount, Coppola and his colleagues at American Zoetrope previously worked together on repaired and revitalized versions of the film as recently as 15 years ago, in what was then billed as “The Coppola Restoration.”
Now for the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather,” which opened in New York on March 15, 1972, Coppola and these studios have produced a new restoration. This latest edition was created with higher-quality sources of the film, improved digital technology and some 4,000 hours spent repairing stains, tears and other flaws. (It will be released in theaters on Friday and on home video on March 22.)
As Coppola explained last week, “The whole thing is trying to get it to look like it did at the original screening of ‘The Godfather,’ when it was only two weeks old, not 20 years old or 50 years old.”
Coppola, now 82, said he never tired of scrutinizing the film. But naturally any time he spends reflecting on “The Godfather” brings back a range of emotions and memories — the pain of its fraught production and the pride of its runaway success.
“You have to understand, as a filmmaker, I didn’t really know how to make ‘The Godfather,’” he said. “I learned how to make ‘The Godfather’ making it.”
Speaking in a video interview alongside James Mockoski, the film archivist and restoration supervisor for American Zoetrope, Coppola discussed the new work on “The Godfather,” the scenes he wanted to keep dark and the scenes that almost got cut — and even worked in a plug for his latest film in progress, “Megalopolis.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Why was a restoration effort like this necessary?
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA The studio system, which was so good at doing so much, was always weak at this question of preservation. “The Godfather” was uncannily successful in its time. But Paramount was very unprepared for that success. Suddenly it found itself showing in New York in five theaters, because there was such a demand to see it, and then in other places all over the world. Instead of saying, let’s preserve the original negative because it’s going to be a valuable asset, they basically wore it out something awful because they used it to make so many prints. The prints started to be so unlike what the movie really should look like.
JAMES MOCKOSKI There isn’t a great print of “The Godfather” from the original release. So what we relied on was Gordy’s [the film’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis] approved restoration. Other than that, we wouldn’t have a clue of how the film really looked when it was originally released.
A Look Back at ‘The Godfather’
The first film in the epic crime drama was released 50 years ago.
COPPOLA And this is further complicated by the fact that Gordy Willis deliberately used a creative technique that was extremely dangerous. He flirted with it being underexposed — which is a sin — in parts of the frame. If the actor was not on his mark, if he was two feet away from where Gordy had thought he was going to be, he might be in total darkness. It made it beautiful, but it was very unforgiving.
How did you seek out the portions of film that were used in this restoration?
MOCKOSKI We found a bit more since previous restorations. Paramount found it in other [film] cans. They did an effort to cobble together the first two films [made for television and titled “The Godfather Saga”] and when they cut the film, it wound up in other cans.
Is there any unused footage from “The Godfather” that you’ve never been able to locate?
MOCKOSKI “Godfather,” because of its success, they did keep everything. Paramount had control of films like “The Conversation” [the 1974 Coppola drama]. And when that was locked and in distribution, they took everything he shot that didn’t wind up in the film and they sent it to the stock footage department. So we don’t have anything other than what you see. Later on, we kept everything from “Apocalypse Now,” “One From the Heart” and everything in our vaults.
[A spokeswoman for Paramount confirmed this, adding that the studio has 36 shots from “The Conversation” in its stock library.]
Anything in this restoration that you’re still not completely satisfied with?
MOCKOSKI There’s still stuff in the wedding scene that was of degraded quality. But overall, in this restoration, you can hardly tell that.
What is it like to scrutinize every single frame of “The Godfather”?
MOCKOSKI It’s fun to see things frame by frame, because you’ll see things that no one actually sees. When they do a fade or dissolve, you’ll see someone with a clapboard. There’s one scene — the old gentleman singing the song at the wedding, his dentures start falling out.
This is a movie that, by design, is supposed to be very dark. How do you know when you’re looking at an image that’s too dark — or not dark enough?
COPPOLA We had an early meeting between myself, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavoularis [the production designer] and Anna Hill Johnstone [the costume designer] on what the style was going to be. We talked about the use of dark and light. [In the first scenes] Don Corleone’s office would be really dark, compared against the almost overexposed, magazine-bright photography of the wedding. That was deliberate. I know, and any really thoughtful person knows, what’s important in the frame.
MOCKOSKI That’s also a danger when we retransfer it. Everyone wants to put their fingerprint on it and do something new. With the new technology, it’s trying to put more light in it. You’ve got this beautiful opening and they want to see all the details and the wood paneling. Well, that’s not the point. That’s not “Godfather.”
Were these the kinds of things you were paying close attention to during the making of the original film?
COPPOLA I can’t say that it was my nature to be worried about photographic detail. “The Godfather” was a very tough experience for me. I was young. I got pushed around and I pushed back. There was a lot of bluffing I did. I was just glad I had survived the experience of “The Godfather” and I wanted nothing more to do with it. I didn’t even want to direct “Godfather II.”
Do you ever get tired of watching “The Godfather”?
COPPOLA No. Never.
MOCKOSKI I’m always nervous to show him because maybe he’ll say, “Ah, but you know what I’d like to do that I wasn’t able to is make these changes ——” and here comes a different cut. But he would sit there and watch it. He never gets tired of it and he’ll have the greatest stories. [To Coppola] You told me when we did the last review that they didn’t want you to shoot the scene where Brando has a heart attack.
COPPOLA That was cut from the script. Paramount figured, when you cut to the cemetery, you’ll know he died. But I stole that [scene] by getting a little early at the wedding and having the tomatoes in the same place. Brando said, let me do this trick that I do for my own [children]. And he did the orange-peel trick. It was his idea and he saved me. Thanks to Marlon Brando and Dean Tavoularis for getting the tomatoes. We had to fly them in from some other place and it was a big scandal of how much they had cost for a scene that was cut from the script.
Do you have any desire to re-edit “The Godfather” in the way you reshaped “The Godfather Part III” into “The Godfather, Coda”?
COPPOLA “Godfather,” I would say there’s no changes I want to make. There are some pictures that I have and am changing and some I won’t touch. But there’s no rule of thumb as to which those are. Ask me now, a movie, if I’m going to change it or not. You have a movie of mine you want to ask me about?
Uh — I just rewatched “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” a few weeks ago. How about that?
COPPOLA There are no changes to “Dracula.” That is the cut. “Dracula” is a finished movie.
“The Godfather” has already endured for 50 years. If it should turn out to be the movie you’re best known for, are you at peace with that?
COPPOLA I think it’s already the movie I’m most known for. If you ask everyone to name why I should be at all even considered of importance, they’ll say “The Godfather.” Maybe “Apocalypse Now” is a close second. “Apocalypse Now” is a more unusual and more interesting movie, in some ways. But I was always making films that I actually did not know how to make and learning from the film itself. That’s why my career is so weird. I assure you, “Megalopolis” is the most ambitious, the most unusual and the weirdest film I’ve ever attempted and I have no idea how to make it. And I love that, because I know it will teach me.