The film is based on Mario Puzo's The Godfather; a novel that remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 67 weeks and sold over nine million copies in two years. Published in 1969, it became the best selling published work in history for several years. Paramount Pictures originally found out about Puzo's novel in 1967 when a literary scout for the company contacted then Paramount Vice President of Production Peter Bart about Puzo's sixty-page unfinished manuscript. Bart believed the work was "much beyond a Mafia story" and offered Puzo a $12,500 option for the work, with an option for $80,000 if the finished work were made into a film. Despite Puzo's agent telling him to turn down the offer, Puzo was desperate for money and accepted the deal. Paramount's Robert Evans relates that, when they met in early 1968, it was he who offered Puzo the $12,500 deal for the 60-page manuscript titled Mafia after the author confided in him that he urgently needed $10,000 to pay off gambling debts.
In March 1967, Paramount announced that they backed Puzo's upcoming work in the hopes of making a film. In 1969, Paramount confirmed their intentions to make a film out of the novel for the price of $80,000,[N 1] with aims to have the film released on Christmas Day in 1971. On March 23, 1970, Albert S. Ruddy was officially announced as the film's producer, in part because studio executives were impressed with his interview and because he was known for bringing his films in under budget.
Evans wanted the picture to be directed by an Italian American to make the film "ethnic to the core". Paramount's latest mafia based movie, The Brotherhood, had been a box office bomb; Evans believed that the reason for its failure was its almost complete lack of cast members or creative personnel of Italian descent (the director Martin Ritt and star Kirk Douglas were both Jewish). Sergio Leone was Paramount's first choice to direct the film. Leone turned down the option to work on his own gangster film Once Upon a Time in America. Peter Bogdanovich was then approached but he also declined the offer because he was not interested in the mafia. In addition, Peter Yates, Richard Brooks, Arthur Penn, Costa-Gavras, and Otto Preminger were all offered the position and declined. Evans' chief assistant Peter Bart suggested Francis Ford Coppola, as a director of Italian ancestry who would work for a low sum and budget after the poor reception of his latest film The Rain People. Coppola initially turned down the job because he found Puzo's novel sleazy and sensationalist, describing it as "pretty cheap stuff". At the time Coppola's studio, American Zoetrope, owed over $400,000 to Warner Bros. for budget overruns with the film THX 1138 and when coupled with his poor financial standing, along with advice from friends and family, Coppola reversed his initial decision and took the job. Coppola was officially announced as director of the film on September 28, 1970. Paramount had offered twelve other directors the job with The Godfather before Coppola agreed. Coppola agreed to receive $125,000 and six percent of the gross rentals.
Coppola and Paramount
Before The Godfather was in production, Paramount had been going through an unsuccessful period. In addition to the failure of The Brotherhood, the studio had usurped their budget for their recent films: Darling Lili, Paint Your Wagon, and Waterloo. The budget for the film was originally $2.5 million but as the book grew in popularity Coppola argued for and ultimately received a larger budget.[N 2] Paramount executives wanted the movie to be set in then modern-day Kansas City and shot in the studio backlot in order to cut down on costs. Coppola objected and wanted to set the movie in the same time period as its eponymous novel, the 1940s and 1950s; Coppola's reasons included: Michael Corleone's Marine Corps stint, the emergence of corporate America, and America in the years after World War II. The executives eventually agreed to Coppola's wish as the novel became increasingly successful. The studio heads subsequently let Coppola film on location in New York City and Sicily.
Gulf & Western executive Charles Bluhdorn was frustrated with Coppola over the number of screen tests he had performed without finding a person to play the various roles. Production quickly fell behind because of Coppola's indecisiveness and conflicts with Paramount, which led to costs being around $40,000 per day. With the rising costs, Paramount had then Vice President Jack Ballard keep a close eye on production costs. While filming, Coppola stated that he felt he could be fired at any point as he knew Paramount executives were not happy with many of the decisions he had made. Coppola was aware that Evans had asked Elia Kazan to take over directing the film, because he feared that Coppola was too inexperienced to cope with the increased size of the production. Coppola was also convinced that the film editor, Aram Avakian, and the assistant director, Steve Kestner, were conspiring to get him fired. Avakian complained to Evans that he could not edit the scenes correctly because Coppola was not shooting enough footage. Evans however was satisfied with the footage being sent to the west coast, and authorized Coppola to fire them both. Coppola later explained: "Like the godfather, I fired people as a preemptory strike. The people who were angling the most to have me fired, I had fired." Brando threatened that he would quit if Coppola were fired.
Paramount wanted The Godfather to appeal to a wide audience and threatened Coppola with a "violence coach" to make the film more exciting. Coppola added a few more violent scenes to keep the studio happy. The scene in which Connie smashes crockery after finding out Carlo has been cheating was added for this reason.
On April 14, 1970, it was revealed that Puzo was hired by Paramount for $100,000, along with a percentage of the film's profits, to work on the screenplay for the film. Working from the book, Coppola wanted to have the themes of culture, character, power, and family at the forefront of the film, whereas Puzo wanted to retain aspects from his novel and his initial draft of 150 pages was finished on August 10, 1970. After Coppola was hired as director, both Puzo and Coppola worked on the screenplay, but separately. Puzo worked on his draft in Los Angeles, while Coppola wrote his version in San Francisco. Coppola created a book where he tore pages out of Puzo's book and pasted them into the book. There, he made notes about each of the book's fifty scenes, which related to major themes prevalent in the scene, whether the scene should be included in the film, along with ideas and concepts that could be used when filming to make the film true to Italian culture. The two remained in contact while they wrote their respective screenplays and made decisions on what to include and what to remove for the final version. A second draft was completed on March 1, 1971 and was 173 pages long. The final screenplay was finished on March 29, 1971, wound up being 163 pages long, 40 pages over what Paramount had asked for. When filming, Coppola referred to the notebook he had created over the final draft of the screenplay. Screenwriter Robert Towne did uncredited work on the script, particularly on the Pacino-Brando garden scene. Despite finishing the third draft, some scenes in the film were still not written yet and were written during production.
The Italian-American Civil Rights League wanted all uses of the words "mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" to be removed from the script, in addition to feeling that the film emphasized stereotypes about Italian-Americans. The league also requested that all the money earned from the premier be donated to the league's fund to build a new hospital. Coppola claimed that Puzo's screenplay only contained two instances of the word "mafia" being used, while "Cosa Nostra" was not used at all. Those two uses were removed and replaced with other terms, which Coppola felt did not change the story at all. The league eventually gave its support for the script.
Puzo was first to show interest in having Marlon Brando portray Don Vito Corleone by sending a letter to Brando in which he stated Brando was the "only actor who can play the Godfather." Despite Puzo's wishes, the executives at Paramount were against having Brando play the part due to the poor success of his recent films and his short temper. Coppola favored Brando or Laurence Olivier for the role, but Olivier's agent refused the role claiming Olivier was sick; however, Olivier went on to star in Sleuth later that year. The studio mainly pushed for Ernest Borgnine to receive the part. Other considerations were George C. Scott, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn, and Orson Welles.
After months of debate between Coppola and Paramount over Brando, the two finalists for the role were Borgnine and Brando, the latter of which Paramount president Stanley Jaffe required to perform a screen test. Coppola did not want to offend Brando and stated that he needed to test equipment in order to set up the screen test at Brando's California residence. For make-up, Brando stuck cotton balls in his cheeks, put shoe polish in his hair to darken it, and rolled his collar. Coppola placed Brando's audition tape in the middle of the videos of the audition tapes as the Paramount executives watched them. The executives were impressed with Brando's efforts and allowed Coppola to cast Brando for the role if Brando accepted a lower salary and put up a bond to ensure he would not cause any delays in production.
From the start of production, Coppola wanted Robert Duvall to play the part of Tom Hagen. After screen testing several other actors, Coppola eventually got his wish and Duvall was awarded the part of Tom Hagen. Al Martino, a then famed singer in nightclubs, was notified of the character Johnny Fontane by a friend who read the eponymous novel and felt Martino represented the character of Johnny Fontane. Martino then contacted producer Al Ruddy, who gave him the part. However, Martino was stripped of the part after Coppola became director and then awarded the role to Italian singer Vic Damone. Damone eventually dropped the role because he did not want to play an anti-Italian American character, in addition to being paid too little. According to Martino, after being stripped of the role, he went to his godfather and crime boss Russ Bufalino who then orchestrated the publication of various news articles that talked of how Coppola was unaware of Ruddy giving Martino the part; that, when coupled with pressure from the mafia who felt Martino deserved the role, led Damone to quit as Fontane. Either way, the part of Johnny Fontane ended up with Martino.
Robert De Niro originally was given the part of Paulie Gatto. A spot in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight opened up after Pacino quit the project in favor of The Godfather, which led De Niro to audition for the role and leave The Godfather after receiving the part. After De Niro quit, Johnny Martino was given the role of Gatto. Coppola cast Diane Keaton for the role of Kay Adams due to her reputation for being eccentric. John Cazale was given the part of Fredo Corleone after Coppola saw him perform in an Off Broadway production. Gianni Russo was given the role of Carlo Rizzi after he was asked to perform a screen test in which he acted out the fight between Rizzi and Connie.
Nearing the start of filming on March 29, Michael Corleone had yet to be cast. Paramount executives wanted a popular actor, either Warren Beatty or Robert Redford. Producer Robert Evans wanted Ryan O'Neal to receive the role in part due to his recent success in Love Story. Al Pacino was Coppola's favorite for the role as he could picture Pacino roaming the Sicilian countryside and wanted an unknown actor who looked like an Italian-American. However, Paramount executives found Pacino to be too short to play Michael. Dustin Hoffman, Martin Sheen, and James Caan also auditioned. Caan was well received by the Paramount executives and was given the part of Michael initially, while the role of Sonny Corleone was awarded to Carmine Caridi. Coppola still pushed for Pacino to play Michael after the fact and Evans eventually conceded, allowing Pacino to have the role of Michael as long as Caan played Sonny. Evans preferred Caan over Caridi because Caan was seven inches shorter than Caridi, which was much closer to Pacino's height. Despite agreeing to play Michael Corleone, Pacino was contracted to star in MGM's The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, but the two studios agreed on a settlement and Pacino was signed by Paramount three weeks before shooting began.
Coppola gave several roles in the film to family members. He gave his sister, Talia Shire, the role of Connie Corleone. His daughter Sofia played Michael Francis Rizzi, Connie's and Carlo's newborn son. Carmine Coppola, his father, appeared in the film as an extra playing a piano during a scene. Coppola's wife, mother, and two sons all appeared as extras in the picture. Several smaller roles, like Luca Brasi, were cast after the filming had started.
Before the filming began, the cast received a two-week period for rehearsal, which included a dinner where each actor and actress had to assume character for its duration. Filming was scheduled to begin on March 29, 1971 with the scene between Michael Corleone and Kay Adams as they leave Best & Co. in New York City after shopping for Christmas gifts. The weather on March 23 predicted snow flurries, which caused Ruddy to move the filming date forward; however snow never materialized and a snow machine was used. Principal filming in New York continued until July 2, 1971. Coppola asked for a three-week break before heading overseas to film in Sicily. Following the crew's departure for Sicily, Paramount announced that the release date would be moved from December to spring 1972.
Cinematographer Gordon Willis initially turned down the opportunity to film The Godfather because the production seemed "chaotic" to him. After Willis later accepted the offer, he and Coppola agreed to not use any modern filming devices, helicopters, or zoom lenses. Willis and Coppola chose to use a "tableau format" of filming to make it seem if it was viewed like a painting. He made use of shadows and low light levels throughout the film to showcase psychological developments. Willis and Coppola agreed to interplay light and dark scenes throughout the film. Willis underexposed the film in order to create a "yellow tone." The scenes in Sicily were shot to display the countryside and "display a more romantic land," giving these scenes a "softer, more romantic" feel than the New York scenes.
One of the film's most shocking moments involved an actual, severed, horse's head. Coppola received some criticism for the scene, although the head was obtained from a dog-food company from a horse that was to be killed regardless of the film. On June 22, the scene where Sonny is killed was shot on a runway at Mitchel Field in Mineola, where three tollbooths were built, along with guard rails, and billboards to set the scene. Sonny's car was a 1941 Lincoln Continental with holes drilled in it to resemble bullet holes. The scene took three days to film and cost over $100,000.
Per the request of Coppola, much of the movie was filmed on location. Around 90 percent of the film was shot in New York City or its surrounding suburbs, using over 120 unique locations. Several scenes were filmed at the Filmways Studio in East Harlem. The remaining portions were filmed in California, or on-site in Sicily, except for the scenes set in Las Vegas because there were insufficient funds to travel there. Savoca and Forza d'Agrò were the Sicilian towns featured in the film. The opening wedding scene was shot in a Staten Island neighborhood using almost 750 locals as extras. The house used as the Corleone household and the wedding location was on Longfellow Road in the Todt Hill neighborhood of Staten Island. The wall around the Corleone compound was made from styrofoam. Scenes set in and around the Corleone olive oil business were filmed on Mott Street.
After filming had ended on August 7, post-production efforts were focused on trimming the film to a manageable length. In addition, producers and director were still including and removing different scenes from the end product, along with trimming certain sequences. In September, the first rough cut of the film was viewed. Of the scenes removed from the film, many were centered around Sonny because they did not advance the plot. By November, Coppola and Ruddy finished the semifinal cut. Debates over personnel involved with the final editing remained even 25 years after the release of the film. The film began to be shown to Paramount staff and exhibitors in late December and going into the new year.
Coppola hired Italian composer Nino Rota to create the underscore for the film, including the main theme, "Speak Softly Love". For the score, Rota was to relate to the situations and characters in the film. Rota synthesized new music for the film and took some parts from his Fortunella score, in order to create an Italian feel and evoke the tragic film's themes. Paramount executive Evans found the score to be too "highbrow" and did not want to use it; however, it was used after Coppola managed to get Evans to agree. Coppola believed that Rota's musical piece gave the film even more of an Italian feel. Coppola's father, Carmine, created some additional music for the film, particularly the music played by the band during the opening wedding scene. There are a total of nine instances within the film where incidental music can be heard.
There was a soundtrack released for the film in 1972 in vinyl form by Paramount Records, on CD in 1991 by Geffen Records, and digitally by Geffen on August 18, 2005. The album contains over 31 minutes of music coming from the movie, with most being composed by Rota, along with a song from Coppola and one by Johnny Farrow and Marty Symes. Allmusic gave the album five out of five stars, with editor Zach Curd saying it is a "dark, looming, and elegant soundtrack." An editor for Filmtracks believed that Rota did a great job of relating the music to the core aspects of the film, which the editor believed to be "tradition, love, and fear."