Francis, we can make history. A sequel better than an original has never been done before, but you can do it—you’ve got the formula for Coca-Cola! You can make the kind of fortune that will subsidize your work far into the future…
Francis is Francis Ford Coppola, coauthor and director of the biggest grossing film in history, The Godfather, and he can cut through the showbiz shtik (in this instance from Charles Bluhdorn, board chairman of the conglomerate parent of Paramount Pictures) as masterfully as if it were film. As it happened, Coppola accepted those blandishments and has in the process become the single most powerful creative artist in Hollywood.
The original Godfather earned $285 million, extracting Coppola from $500,000 personal debt. It also fulfilled a career that included (unprecedented at the time) a graduate degree in film from UCLA and started with what then (1962) were called “nudies,” like The Peeper. In the interim years Coppola produced American Graffiti; directed this year’s winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix, The Conversation, a deeply-felt personal indictment of the wiretap mentality; and bought an interest in the Cinema 5 moviehouse-distribution empire. Meanwhile, Coppola personally had escaped Hollywood with his family to become a sort of dilettante Da Vinci of San Francisco, directing local dramas and operas, restoring blocks of real estate and publishing a cultural magazine called City.
Thus, the $1 million guarantee, the 15 percent of the net, the bonus of a Lear jet plus the artistic autonomy Bluhdorn offered him for the Godfather II sequel became irresistible. Just now in release, the monumental 3-hour, 20-minute picture challenged critics (The New Yorker, for example, attended three screenings) but has the biggest exhibit advances ever. “It is a more serious film,” says Coppola, “a more cold and frightening vision.” It is both prologue and epilogue to the original, chronicling the Corleone family’s embattled arrival in America from Sicily to its tragic end in Lake Tahoe.
Coppola’s own personal family is inextricably involved—with source music by his father, a flutist with Toscanini’s old NBC orchestra; his sister, actress Talia Shire, once again as Connie Corleone; and even his mother playing extras on the far-flung locations. Like Michael Corleone’s wife, Coppola’s artist wife, Eleanor, and the three Coppola kids are insulated from the family business. And though he still considers himself “primarily a writer,” Francis is not impervious to flattering rumors that he might eventually take over a major studio. “It is very tempting,” concedes Godfather director Coppola, “to have access to real power.”