Fifty years since his mobster epic first hit the big screen, Francis Ford Coppola’s name is these days synonymous with The Godfather – but it wasn’t always that way. While the film, directed and co-written by Coppola, has long been considered one of the greatest movies ever made, its production found the director under serious pressure, battling with the studio, his crew, and all kinds of other external forces to get his vision on screen. In the early ‘70s, a down-on-his-luck Coppola ploughed on with the shoot even while feeling he was constantly on the verge of being fired – an experience he elaborated on in a major new Empire interview, in the upcoming Godfather 50th anniversary issue.

“I mean, different things saved me at different times,” he tells Empire of avoiding the chop while making the movie. “I remember watching the Oscars with my friend Marty Scorsese, and when I won the Oscar for the script of Patton, Marty said to me, ‘Well, I guess they’re not going to be able to fire you right away, because you just won the Oscar for a screenplay.’ That saved me, and each week something else saved me.”

Even when the studio saw – and loved – the famous restaurant scene in which Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey, the director continued to feel the axe swinging over his head. “After Marlon [Brando’s] first day, the big rumour was I was going to get fired that week because people watching the film, running it, felt the scene was too dark, you could hardly see him, and that he mumbled. When I said, ‘Give me a chance, it’s his first day, let me go through a second take,” they said, ‘No, you can’t.’ Then someone said, ‘The reason they don’t want you to do it is because this weekend they’re going to put a new director in.’”

How did Coppola survive, then? He took a leaf out of Michael Corleone’s book – in the middle of his own moviemaking baptism, he took down everyone who was plotting against him before they got a chance to strike. “I just immediately fired all the people who were in my team who were lobbying to get me out,” he explains. “I went up there and shot the scene a second time, and saved myself, basically, by firing all the people who were working to fire me. It was very much like that: it was touch-and-go the whole production. There was the perception that I had some power. But I really had no power at all.”

If his experience on the first film was “a nightmare”, come the equally-lauded sequel, Coppola was the Don – and he had everyone on his side. “A lot of people have the theory that you do your best work when you’re under tension. I don’t think so,” he says. “The Godfather Part II, I had a lot of power, and it was a bigger, more complicated and difficult film to do, and there was no-one firing me because I was then powerful. I was the boss. That was one of the smoothest productions I ever worked on.”

Empire – March 2022 cover

Read Empire’s full Francis Ford Coppola interview – talking the film’s eventual success, its connection to Coppola’s own family, and how he looks back on it five decades later – in the March 2022 issue, on sale Thursday 20 January. Or pre-order a copy online here.

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