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Francis Ford Coppola's style of shooting


The right kind of directorial intervention
Walter Murch Film-maker
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So Francis [Coppola] went to considerable trouble and expense on The Godfather, avoiding what he perceived as clichés of Italian screen persona, mainly in the overuse of hand gestures, but other things as well. He wanted a film that was very family-oriented, the family of The Godfather, domestic, and sober, in the sense that the film was perceived as a metaphor for corporate America, but framed in the terms of the Italian mafia, making the observation that the two things aren't that different. So he didn't want to overstate the Italian-ness of it in any clichéd way. Because of his own experience with his family, he believed correctly that the adults in the film would have arrived from Italy, that they would have been born in Italy and come to America. So he didn't want to cast many Italian-American actors in some of the parts. So he brought Italian actors over from Italy. If they didn't know English, he arranged to have them taught English, to the extent that they needed to do it to speak, and instructed them that he wanted them to perform not in any clichéd, overstated way.

On the first day of the first... On the first shot of the first day, he said that his blood ran cold when the actor playing Nazorine, the baker coming to the Godfather at the wedding to ask for the Godfather's help in arranging a marriage between the daughter of the baker and the Italian prisoner of war who was working in the bakery... As soon as the clapstick hit, the actor's hands leapt as if they were separate creatures, from under the table, and he started gesturing in the air, exactly what Francis didn't want. And it was seen as a problem, because this was a talisman, this was the first shot of the first day. He was shooting over Marlon Brando's shoulder, looking at this baker. And as the take was coming to an end, Francis thought, what am I going to do? What's the right answer? And what he did was he said, 'Cut, very good.' And in fact, it was a good performance other than this, the hand gestures.

And he said, 'Very good, however, we have to do another take because I made a mistake. I realised, once the shot was going on, that we have come in in the middle of this scene. Formalities had already been exchanged, but we don't film that. And to set you at ease, Tom Hagen (the Robert Duvall character), would have already poured you a glass of brandy.' So Robert Duvall, pouring a glass of brandy. And they equipped the actor with a shot glass of brandy, filled right to the brim, put it in his hand, and now, action. And of course, he gave the scene, and now the hands were constrained by the fact that he had to balance this glass of brandy, and yet, he isn't thinking, 'The director just told me not to move my hands.' He's thinking, 'The director made a mistake and I'm helping to make things perfect, because I didn't make a mistake.' So it's a model for exactly the right kind of directorial intervention in a problem, which is generally, take the burden upon yourself, you're the one who made the mistake, and find the right answer to the problem that is not going to make the actor think, oh, you know... The old problem of, don't think of an elephant, you know? The actor is not aware that he is being corrected, and the results are there for you to see when you watch the film, you can see exactly what's going on.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola

Duration: 5 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017