A small moment in cinematic history took place at the close of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, staged in New York City.
The Godfather’s cast, and director Francis Ford Coppola, reunited to celebrate the film’s legacy, 45 years down the line; reflecting on what it’s like to be part of what’s frequently considered the greatest film of all time.
Organised by Robert de Niro, one of the founders of Tribeca, the panel also saw Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire all in attendance.
Conversation during the panel was largely dominated by the idea that The Godfather was a significant risk to pull off — relying on the talents of a young, untested director, an unknown actor in Pacino, and a source material widely regarded as unfit for the screen.
Indeed, Coppola described Mario Puzo’s bestseller as “a bit of a potboiler”, stating, “I was disappointed in the book when I first read it because it’s very long.” The director was then forced to fight tooth and nail to cast Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, with the actor admitting he’d done more screen tests for the role than he could remember, including after he was given the part. But Pacino was the only one right for the role, Coppola insisted, as, “I just saw his face. Everywhere we went, all the girls lit up for Al, for some reason.”
Pacino himself was less enthused by the part, even suggesting to Coppola that he shouldn’t fight so hard for him (“It’s OK. We’ll work again. There are other things to do.”), with him having far more interest in the role of Sonny Corleone (James Caan), a part Robert de Niro also auditioned for before playing the young Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather II.
After a shaky start to the shoot, Pacino was convinced, “It’s over! This is the worst film ever made!” Recalling hearing people giggling at his performance, Pacino was taken aside by Coppola for a pep talk, showing him early footage of his performance and telling him, “to get your chops together.”
The director then shifted the film’s famous restaurant scene up in the schedule, as Paramount looked for reasons to fire Pacino, so that both actor and director could prove the studio wrong — which they certainly did.
Coppola, too, seemed under constant threat of being given the boot by Paramount; he recalled being told he was going to be fired that weekend, after rumours had spread that the production was troubled. The director reacted by (and he wasn’t sure whether this was allowed) finding 12 of his “naysayers” and firing them on the spot, in true Godfather style.