Francis Ford Coppola’s unimpeachable 1970s run is like no other, and it’s responsible for the filmmaker being one of six people in the world who have won two Palme d’Ors and a host of Oscars (he’s won five and was bestowed the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 2011; the three ‘Godfather’ films alone make up for nearly 30 nominations). Between 1971 and 1979, the director delivered “The Godfather,” “The Godfather: Part II” and “Apocalypse Now.” But sandwiched between “The Godfather” films, and coming out in the same year as ‘Part II,’ is the relatively underseen “The Conversation.”
Cinephiles know the film, obviously, but at the TCM Festival in a conversation with Coppola recorded by The Q&A podcast and hosted by Ben Mankiewicz, it’s clear that even devoted TCM fans didn’t know the film (during the conversation, Mankiewicz asks who has seen the film and half of a packed house had never watched it).
READ MORE: 5 Things You Might Not Know About ‘The Conversation’
A psychological thriller about a surveillance expert and the moral dilemma he faces after witnessing a murder, the movie stars Gene Hackman, features John Cazale and has appearances by Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Robert Duvall. Given our current climate of surveillance, spying and lack of privacy, “The Conversation” is even more prescient. But Coppola didn’t stop there in the conversation and discussed great stories about the ‘Godfather’ films and “Apocalypse Now” and even his Roger Corman-produced debut “Dementia 13.” Here are a few highlights.
Despite all its success, Coppola called “The Godfather” a “nightmare”
Filmmakers like Costa-Gavras, Peter Bogdanovich and Elia Kazan turned it down, according to Coppola. But the director says he was hired because he was “young and unproven and …could be pushed around” and bullied around by Paramount.
“[The Godfather] was nightmare for me,” he said, explaining he had no money, two kids and a studio completely unhappy with every decision including not wanting Al Pacino or Marlon Brando to star in the film. “To say they were unhappy with what I was doing and my decisions and choices… I really was waiting to get fired on ‘The Godfather’ every week. It was such an unpleasant experience to be unwanted.”
READ MORE: Francis Ford Coppola On Cinema: Its Possibilities, His Failures Turned Successes, Industrial Sausage Movies, And More
Coppola had much more leverage with ‘Part II,’ but didn’t want to make the movie
He floated the idea of Martin Scorsese directing the sequel so he wouldn’t have to, and Paramount turned down the proposal flat. So Coppola made outrageous conditions like asking for total control and $1 million dollars, a huge amount of money at the time, but to his surprise Paramount acquiesced. Strangely enough, the one sticking point was calling the film ‘Part II,’ which the Paramount execs vehemently objected to.
“There was no possibility that I would want to do a second film,” he said of his initial thoughts. “I wasn’t that interested in gangsters…I dodged [a] bullet because I thought the film was going to be disaster.” Eventually, Coppola received all his demands and then obviously directed the picture.
He wanted Marlon Brando for “The Conversation” years before it was made.
Despite the rumors, Coppola says making “The Conversation,” a film he made in between ‘Godfather’ films, wasn’t a stipulation that Paramount allowed him; he just made the film on his own during that period. He’d also had “The Conversation” written well in advance of his success in Hollywood.
“At the time, before ‘The Godfather,’ a year and a half before, I had the script of ‘The Conversation’ [complete],” he explained. “No one was interested and oddly, in fact, I sent it to Marlon Brando to play the [lead] part in ‘The Conversation’ and I got a phone call where I actually spoke to Marlon, which was a huge thrill. He told me it he admired it, but it wasn’t for him. This was before ‘The Godfather.’ ”
READ MORE: Retrospective: The Films Of Francis Ford Coppola
As you’ve likely heard before, his main inspiration was Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (also the inspiration for Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out”), but another key was the input from another filmmaker. “What was so meaningful to me was [‘Empire Strikes Back’ director Irvin Kershner‘s] encouragement. He said, ‘That’s a good idea, you should try and do that.’ So with the vision of wanting to do something like ‘Blow Up’ and [Kershner] encouraging my surveillance idea, I [began writing the script].”
Despite his ’70s run of the aforementioned films, Coppola said that period was rough and that he was a “miserable, depressed and insecure person” (being on the hook for $35 million for “Apocalypse Now” surely didn’t help). Listening to Coppola is always fascinating, so dive into the full 40-minute talk.