[…] I thought that if I could first work on the story on a set of blueprints – a plan – I would then be able to sleep at night. I would feel that at least I would be taking a step forward, that doing it this way would help me get a handle on how to do the script.
I was sort of blindly looking for a structure to organize myself in order to get the most out of the subject.
And the notebook was the result of that. – Francis Ford Coppola
“Fuck you” is the word we say (or feel if you hide what you feel) if someone does not agree with our opinion. And one opinion that is widespread across cinephiles is giving the distinction of “The Godfather” as the best movie ever, at least in American cinema. A mention of another movie as the best is met with a legion of cinephiles proposing their arguments in favour of this masterpiece.
The movie was almost directed by famous director Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On The Waterfront), he rejected it.
The movie’s source material, the novel by Mario Puzo of the same name, was regarded in his first read by Coppola as “more of a potboiler” and with its focus on the plot of a character, Lucy Mancini. Coppola removed most of it from the film altogether.
He almost did not do the movie, but beggars can’t be choosers or so he thought and accepted it.
What is the right way to adapt a book? How would you approach adapting a book? Many would simply write the story as it is and by changing minimal dialogue, remove characters, scenes. But also staying true to the story written on paper.
What if you knew the process of how one of the greatest directors of all time went about adapting one of the best movies in cinematic history?
What if the process involves writing your thoughts on the margin?
The thoughts that are your intuitive ideas in your mind while reading the source material.
Coppola did just that by creating a “Godfather Notebook” for himself. In fact, in it, we have “every opinion and idea” that the filmmaker has of the novel and his approach to direct the adaptation. It is the Bible for “The Godfather” movie.
It has the potential to be the bible for directors and screenwriters alike.
There’s a method to this madness. The notebook was Coppola’s method to capture the madness of a story that now is one of the greatest cinematic achievements.
The method should be followed all across the filmmaking spectrum when writing a screenplay.
We will analyse the scenes from the classic in further blog posts. With no outside analysis, but just the director’s approach to the story. Let’s first ease into the mindset of the mighty.
PROLOGUE – The Mindset of The Master.
1. How to create your own Bible for your movie.
- You write the screenplay for your movie onto individual pages. If adapting a novel then cutting the pages of the text and glue each onto a larger sheet of 8 ½” x 11″ three-hole, loose- leaf paper.
- The text glues onto the centre of the paper so there is white space in the margins for the most important thing, your intuitive notes.
- The building of the Bible would be tedious given the individual glueing of your screenplay onto the larger sheet, but it would be well worth it.
2. Find the right environment to work.
“I took my huge notebook, bought a big brown satchel I could lug it around in, got my Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter and blank paper, went to the Caffe Trieste in North Beach in San Francisco, and set myself up in the afternoons to work on this project.” Coppola describes, “I loved it; I was living a dream. I was in a café where there was lots of noise and Italian being spoken, and cute girls walking through, and that was my dream; it was La Bohème for me.” – Francis Ford Coppola
- He made the movie at a time where there were less technological distractions. We live in an age of interruption of our senses at any given time. We have accepted this reality as a way to advance our tryst with information that comes easily in the form of internet.
- A click and there it lies in front of you. But when you are making a film, it requires commitment, perseverance and the need for “deep work”.
- Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work” defines it as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
- So the highest order of cognitive effort for your story requires the right environment and the right environment requires the right mindset. A mindset that keeps distraction out of your room, be it any, smartphones, internet or humans.
- High-Quality work produced = (time spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
- So we need to have the right environment that mixes well with our deliberate focus on the task at hand, creating a compelling story.
3. Add small details in your story to make it gripping
- The goal of a story is to grip the audience’s attention and not let it waver. The enemy of the filmmakers now is the attention span of the audience which is diminishing with the passing decade or so they say.
- Coppola himself was an Italian American and the novel sprung up memories of his childhood as one.
Wherever I saw an opportunity to include the fact that Italian Americans behaved a certain way, I made a note of it.
4. A good story is the best blueprint.
- It’s perfectly normal to feel fear for your project. Any creative endeavour prompts self-doubt, fear as many of the negative emotions in the act of creation.
- We are not alone, Coppola is the living example of this as he explained his fear in this touching introspection.
In truth, I think that I made the notebook out of profound fear. It’s important to learn at the root of it all, I was terrified. I always felt that I could know a bad performance from a good performance or fake a way to make something look good, but if I were wrong in the script, then that’d be as wrong as I could be.
- A good script, in the end, feels like a step forward on the long journey that a filmmaker undertakes in realising his dream on screen i.e. the story.
5. NEVER GIVE UP
- The fear of failure can paralyse your senses, it can clutch you in its wrists and stare at you becoming insignificant. Writing the script is just the start of a journey filled with roadblocks and obstructions. The filming of it is a mountain to climb unto itself.
- A great director is the one that weathers through it all. And creating this notebook can provide you with the support you so desperately would need.
- Coppola admits the importance of having his notebook as an anchor throughout the “downs and downs” of the filming. He holds it dear and has stated that he would “never part with it or sell it”.
- The notebook will serve as a multilayered roadmap for you to erect the film and the script would become nothing but for the eyes of the production and the actors.
- Instead of relying on your memory you would have all your ideas about a particular scene written on this notebook which you shall carry with you.
The next blog post will discuss Coppola’s approach to adapting the source material. This account is the closest we can get to get inside the mind of a genius.
Further, we will dissect his brain in his approach to direct the 50 scenes he has listed.
With this series, I hope to learn about filmmaking one scene at a time, and I hope that my documenting this process will help filmmakers and cinema lovers such as you to get a peek inside the process of making a masterpiece.