Restore “The Godfather” to its original glory (still dark)

After 50 years, Francis Ford Coppola is still not done with “The Godfather” – and it’s not over with him either.

Coppola proved himself with this detective epic, which won three Oscars, including Best Picture, grossed millions at Paramount Pictures, and influenced half a century of cinema in the process.

But times have changed. It’s not like the good old days. And yet “The Godfather” continues to age like a contented gift sitting cheerfully in his garden.

In an effort to preserve “The Godfather” for future generations, Paramount, Coppola and his colleagues at American Zoetrope already worked together on repaired and revitalized versions of the film just 15 years ago, in what was then presented like “The Coppola Restoration”. ”

Now, for the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather,” which opened in New York on March 15, 1972, Coppola and those studios have produced a new restoration. This latest edition has been created with higher quality film sources, improved digital technology and some 4,000 hours spent repairing smudges, tears and other defects. (It hits theaters on Friday and on home video March 22.)

As Coppola explained last week, “The whole thing is trying to make it look like the original screening of ‘The Godfather,’ when it was only two weeks old, not 20 or 50.”

Coppola, now 82, said he never tires of scrutinizing the film. But naturally, each time he spends reflecting on “The Godfather” brings back a range of emotions and memories – the pain of its tense production and the pride of its meteoric success.

“You have to understand that as a filmmaker, I didn’t really know how to do ‘The Godfather,'” he said. “I learned to do ‘The Godfather’ by doing it.”

Speaking in a video interview alongside James Mockoski, the film archivist and restoration supervisor for American Zoetrope, Coppola discussed the new work on “The Godfather”, the scenes he wanted to keep dark and the scenes which were almost cut – and even worked in a plug for his latest ongoing film, “Megalopolis”. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Why was a restoration effort like this necessary?

FRANCOIS FORD COPPOLA The studio system, which was so good at doing so many things, has always been weak on this issue of preservation. “The Godfather” was a strange success in its time. But Paramount was completely unprepared for this success. Suddenly, he found himself playing in New York in five theaters, because there was such a demand to see it, and then in other places all over the world. Instead of saying, let’s preserve the original negative because it’s going to be a valuable asset, they’ve basically worn it down to something terrible because they’ve used it to make so many prints. The impressions started to be so different from what the movie should really look like.

JAMES MOCKOSKI There isn’t a great impression of “The Godfather” from the original version. So what we leaned on was Gordy [the film’s cinematographer, Gordon Willis] approved catering. Other than that, we would have no idea what the movie actually looked like when it was initially released.

COPPOLA And this is further complicated by the fact that Gordy Willis deliberately used an extremely dangerous creative technique. It flirted with being underexposed – which is a sin – in some parts of the frame. If the actor wasn’t on his bearings, if he was a stone’s throw away from where Gordy thought he was going to be, he could be in complete darkness. It was beautiful, but it was very unforgiving.

How did you research the portions of film that were used for this restoration?

MOCKOSKI We found a few more from previous restorations. Paramount found it in other [film] cans. They made an effort to tinker with the first two films [made for television and titled “The Godfather Saga”] and when they cut the film, it ended up in other boxes.

Is there any unused footage from “The Godfather” that you’ve never been able to locate?

MOCKOSKI “Godfather”, because of his success, they kept everything. Paramount had control of films like “The Conversation” [the 1974 Coppola drama]. And when it was locked and in distribution, they took everything he shot that didn’t end up in the film and they sent it to the stock footage department. So we have nothing but what you see. Later, we kept everything from “Apocalypse Now”, “One From the Heart” and everything in our vaults.

[A spokeswoman for Paramount confirmed this, adding that the studio has 36 shots from “The Conversation” in its stock library.]

Is there anything about this restoration that you are still not completely satisfied with?

MOCKOSKI There are still things in the wedding scene that were of degraded quality. But overall, in this restoration, you can hardly say that.

How does it feel to scrutinize every frame of “The Godfather”?

MOCKOSKI It’s fun to see things frame by frame, because you’ll see things no one actually sees. When they fade or crossfade, you’ll see someone with a shingle. There’s a scene — the old gentleman who sings the song at the wedding, his dentures are starting to fall out.

It’s a film that, by design, is meant to be very dark. How do you know if you are looking at an image that is too dark or not dark enough?

COPPOLA We had a first meeting between me, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavoularis [the production designer] and Anna Hill Johnstone [the costume designer] on what the style was going to be. We talked about the use of dark and light. [In the first scenes] Don Corleone’s office would be really dark compared to the almost overexposed and bright photograph of the wedding. It was deliberate. I know, and any really thoughtful person knows, what’s important in the frame.

MOCKOSKI It is also a danger when it is retransferred. Everyone wants to put their fingerprint on it and do something new. With new technology, we are trying to shed more light on it. You have this beautiful opening and they want to see all the details and the woodwork. Well, that’s not the point. It’s not “Godfather”.

Was that the kind of thing you were paying close attention to when making the original movie?

COPPOLA I can’t say that it was in my nature to worry about photographic details. “The Godfather” was a very difficult experience for me. I was young. I got pushed around and pushed back. I bluffed a lot. I was just glad I survived the “Godfather” experience and wanted nothing more to do with it. I didn’t even want to direct “Godfather II”.

Have you ever tired of watching “The Godfather”?

COPPOLA No never.

MOCKOSKI I’m still nervous about showing him because he might be like, “Ah, but you know, what I’d love to do that I couldn’t do is make these changes — —” and here is another cut. But he sat there and watched. He never tires of it and he will have the most beautiful stories. [To Coppola] You told me in the last review that they didn’t want you to shoot the scene where Brando has a heart attack.

COPPOLA It was cut from the script. Paramount figured that when you pass by the cemetery, you’ll know he’s dead. But I stole this [scene] by arriving a little early at the wedding and having the tomatoes in the same place. Brando said let me do this trick I do for myself [children]. And he did the orange peel trick. It was his idea and he saved me. Thanks to Marlon Brando and Dean Tavoularis for purchasing the tomatoes. We had to fly them in from another place and it was a big scandal to see how much they cost for a scene cut from the script.

Do you have the slightest desire to reissue “The Godfather” in the way you redesigned “The Godfather Part III” to “The Godfather, Coda”?

COPPOLA “Godfather”, I would say there is no change I want to make. There are photos that I have and that I change and others that I will not touch. But there is no golden rule to know which ones. Ask me now, a movie, whether I’m going to change it or not. Do you have one of my films you want to tell me about?

Um – I just rewatched “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” a few weeks ago. How about that?

COPPOLA There are no changes for “Dracula”. It’s the cut. “Dracula” is a finished film.

“The Godfather” has already lasted 50 years. If this were to turn out to be the movie you’re best known for, are you at peace with that?

COPPOLA I think it’s already the movie I’m best known for. If you ask everyone why I should even be considered important, they’ll say “The Godfather”. Maybe “Apocalypse Now” is a close second. “Apocalypse Now” is a more unusual and interesting film, in some ways. But I always made films that I didn’t know how to make and I learned from the film itself. That’s why my career is so weird. I assure you that “Megalopolis” is the most ambitious, most unusual and most bizarre film that I have ever attempted and I have no idea how to do it. And I like it, because I know it will teach me.

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