By Koraljka Suton
Between his masterpiece The Godfather (1972) and its 1974 sequel, esteemed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola decided to seize the opportunity to do a small-scale movie that was very personal to him, one that he had been narratively developing since the previous decade. A conversation with director Irvin Kershner about surveillance gave rise to an idea that would soon blossom into a palpable story, resulting in a 1969 first draft of what would later become known as The Conversation. Kershner had mentioned the common misconception that the best way to avoid being overheard was to converse in a crowded place, since microphones with gun sights on them that could record selected voices in a crowd were not common knowledge at the time. Coppola was fascinated by the idea of a private conversation between two people being documented in such a way but decided that he would much rather focus on the person doing the eavesdropping than on those whose privacy was being violated. This interesting decision could, perhaps, be attributed to the self-proclaimed science geek’s own former inclination towards eavesdropping devices, which he used to plant around the family home in his youth, so as to be privy to his family’s conversations. We could even take it one step further and assert that his choice of protagonist was an auto-referential one, for it implies placing the focus on the voyeur whose perspective gives him the feeling of having a greater amount of control than those who are being spied on, much the same way a director functions as an observer of conversations, motions and emotions unfolding before him. But, unlike the surveillance specialist, the director really does exert complete control over the process and its development.
This notion of having control, wanting control and, ultimately, falling under the illusion of being in control, is just one of the themes Coppola’s The Conversation brilliantly tackles. We the audience are given the opportunity to follow and gather information about Harry Caul, a surveillance expert hired to record a conversation between two young people in the crowded Union Square. Being the best of the best, Caul is successful in his endeavor, but given the scope of the task at hand, he is left with three incomplete recordings that he must combine into one usable tape, a process which requires a lot of technical sound play if he is to acquire bits and pieces of crucial information. One particular sentence he manages to uncover leads him to believe that the two are in danger and he quickly realizes that his handing in the tapes is the very thing that will get them in harm’s way. What follows is a slow and detailed unraveling of both the puzzle Caul is trying to piece together and of Caul’s internal world. Although labeling himself a man whose job does not require him to understand human nature, but rather just to procure information, Caul’s conscience inevitably catches up with him, as he finds himself not only caring for the fate of the people whose lives his work might have endangered, but also trying to prevent the seemingly inevitable tragedy from happening. Ironically enough, it is precisely his lack of emotional intelligence that renders him unable to correctly interpret the sentence that puts him on his guilt-ridden path of no return, resulting in him going from spy to the one being spied on.
Caul’s inability to fully grasp that which is right in front of his nose, that is to say, in his ears, is fantastically conveyed by The Conversation’s use of sound. In Coppola’s neo-noir thriller, the method used for the disclosure of information is repetition, rather than exposition. We are made to listen to the conversation as many times as Caul decides to play it, either as a recording or in his mind’s eye, which in turn enables us to draw our own conclusions. But there is a catch—we hear the conversation as Caul hears it, we see through his eyes and listen through his ears. Yet, we are unaware of the fact that we have fallen victim to the protagonist’s unreliable perspective, even though it is overtly stated just how poor of a grasp he has on human nature. It is near the very end of the movie that we hear the sentence as it was recorded, and not as Caul had heard it time and time again, a fact that editor and sound-editor Walter Murch corroborated in Gene D. Phillips’ Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola stated that he actually wrote many scenes to be sound-oriented because he had Murch in mind as sound editor. Having gone to the USC Film School with George Lucas, Murch was a frequent collaborator of both Lucas and Coppola, having done the sound for the former’s American Graffiti and THX 1138, as well as for the latter’s The Godfather, The Rain People and Apocalypse Now. And since Coppola was busy working on The Godfather Part II, he hired Murch in one other capacity: “Although the film was about privacy, sound would be the core element in it. So I suggested that he [Murch] edit the picture as well, which he hadn’t really done before and didn’t think of as his specialty. He agreed. And that was when I got to know Walter as a filmmaker, because of his editing both the picture and the sound.”
Murch’s work did not go unnoticed—he won a BAFTA for Best Film Editing together with Richard Chew and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Editing (with Art Rochester), along with Coppola who was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, but ended up losing to himself, with The Godfather Part II winning him Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. And while Coppola trusted one person with two jobs in the case of editing and sound editing, he found himself ultimately using two people when it came to cinematography. The initial cinematographer was Oscar-winner Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), but he did not manage to keep the job because of creative discrepancies between himself and the director, so Bill Butler (Grease, Jaws) was asked to fill in for him. As a result, all of Wexler’s work had been reshot. That is, all except the opening Union Square sequence, arguably the most impressive and memorable one in the entire movie.
(…) you don’t know what the point of view is at the opening. It’s clear only that you are high up looking down on Union Square in San Francisco, hearing those soft, billowy sounds of the city at lunchtime. Then, like a jagged red line right across the view, comes this distorted—you don’t know what it is—this digital racket… you will learn what it is soon enough, and you will learn that what you assumed was a neutral God’s-eye point of view is in fact the point of view of a secret tape recorder that is recording all of this, picking up these distorted sounds that are the imperfectly recorded voices of the targets, the young couple’s conversation sometimes muffled by the sounds of the square. —Walter Murch
Along with the aforementioned nominations and wins, The Conversation was also rewarded with the Palme d’Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1995. With a budget of $1.6 million that, according to Coppola, “went about 3 over and came in at $1.9.”, the film earned $4.4 million in the United States. Despite grossing more than was invested in it, The Conversation was not considered a commercial success—the director is even prone to the idea that the movie’s reception would have been much better had Watergate not come to pass. Although Coppola’s picture hit theaters just a couple of months before President Richard Nixon resigned, the director was sure that audiences saw his film as a reaction to the political scandal. But the script was written long before Watergate happened and the actual break-in occurred while Coppola was shooting a scene which is two-thirds through the movie, meaning that the scandal, which would soon become one of the main hot topics, had nothing to do with his artistic process and that the theme of surveillance was one he was interested in long before the public at large was ever aware of its relevance. But as far as influences go, the filmmaker does not shy away from naming those artists whose work helped give his idea the form it would eventually take on. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 adaptation of Argentinian author Julio Cortázar’s 1959 short story Las babas del diablo entitled Blow-Up, about a fashion photographer whose impromptu photo of two lovers gets him in more trouble than he bargained for, definitely served as inspiration for Coppola, in particular a scene in which the main character enlarges the photograph only to discover a third person hiding in the trees.
Coppola was fascinated with the notion and decided to do the same thing, only with audio recordings and Caul’s attempt at recovering the sentence hidden underneath the distortion. His other well of inspiration was Herman Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf, a 1927 novel he was reading at the time he wrote the screenplay, leading to him basing the character of Harry Caul on the Swiss-German author’s protagonist Harry Haller, a lone wolf who does not feel a sense of belonging in the world he inhabits. The director confessed in an interview with Marjorie Rosen that it was not an easy task to have such a protagonist, a lonesome figure you follow for almost two hours, who rarely converses, lives alone and steers clear of human interaction. He therefore tried to give the character of Harry more nuance, so as to make him as relatable as possible. This was also achieved thanks to the main actor doing his job right. The incredible Gene Hackman, although not the first choice for the role (Marlon Brando declined the offer), made it his own, despite having a hard time creating the character due to Harry being nothing like the actor himself, as Coppola stated in the DVD commentary of The Conversation.
This started with a concept and not a character. And that was a source of great difficulty for me. And one that I found unpleasant in that I could never feel anything for the character. But I think it’s much easier for me to write characters, either what I can remember from people I’ve known or ones which are based somewhat on my own feelings. I could not relate to Harry; I could not be him. So I kept trying to enrich him—but starting from a total cipher, a kind of Harry Homer from “Steppenwolf,” a middle European who lives alone in a rooming house. That kind of cliche. Realizing that I had to flesh the man out and make him real, I hoped the actor would help me. Ultimately, though, I drew on my own past, and in the scene where he’s in the park and tells all that stuff about his childhood and the polio—those are things that actually happened to me. That was almost a desperate attempt to give him a real character that I could relate to. —Francis Ford Coppola in an interview with Brian De Palma
Another trait that the director gave his protagonist was his spirituality. Although the initial intent here was not necessarily to deepen the character, but rather to have a confession scene, because Coppola thought that “confession was one of the earliest forms of the invasion of privacy–earliest forms of surveillance” that he could think of, the fact that he made Caul Catholic actually added a very important layer, turning the movie into as much of a character study as it is a neo-noir film. For his religion enables Caul to have an internal conflict of interest, which makes him and his emotional progress all the more interesting and oddly cathartic to witness. On the one hand, he is fantastic at a job that has, in the past, resulted in other people’s deaths. On the other, he feels sorry about it and the prospect of someone else dying because of him doing what he does best haunts him the entire movie. In confession, he claims to have a guilty conscience, but to not feel responsible, which only reflects the desperate need of his ego to rationalize the consequences his job might have for the wellbeing of others. Even his name denotes staying shielded and separated from the rest of the world (a caul is an amniotic membrane that encloses a fetus), although Coppola initially called him Call—the transcriber mistyped his surname and the director decided to keep it that way. It is, therefore, not actually true that Caul does not intrinsically “understand” human nature—he just made the conscious decision not to. Secluding himself, not engaging in meaningful relationships, sharing as little information about himself as possible and, ultimately, intentionally distancing himself from the material he is paid to record, are all deliberate attempts to avoid feeling. If he does not feel, his guilt has a small chance of catching up with him. But catch up with him it does, as he embarks on a journey to try to save the people he endangered. And yet, the fact that he voluntarily avoids feeling eventually turns him into a person unable to read both people and between the lines. That is why he listens to the tape over and over again, desperately trying to make himself understand the true meaning behind the words spoken, seeking to decipher emotion conveyed in the pauses and inflections. And at this, he fails miserably. Caul’s decision to evade feeling so as to keep himself safe and sane has backfired, for feeling (i.e. truly listening) turned out to be the only way to solve the puzzle, ease his conscience and potentially save a life.
All of this makes Caul a tragic hero trapped inside a prison of his own making, for his choices ultimately make him go from hunter to prey. At least Caul’s victims do not know that they are being listened to and can thus remain under the illusion that privacy is not a thing of the past, but rather a right that can be enjoyed and callously taken for granted. But Caul has the misfortune of not only knowing what the invasion of privacy entails from the perspective of the person doing the invading, but also has the opportunity to experience being on the receiving end—and knowing all too well that he is on it. Thus, the paranoia that permeates every segment of Coppola’s picture and of Caul’s life, conveyed by him shielding his privacy in every way possible, turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, proving to the protagonist that his secrecy was not uncalled for. But, ironically enough, it was his invasion of other people’s privacy that paved the way for him to fall victim to his own vocation. And his tragedy is that he is to remain fully aware of it every second of every day.
Written by Koraljka Suton. Koraljka is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
I wanted to be a guy who made films like ‘The Rain People’ and ‘The Conversation.’ I didn’t want to be a big Hollywood movie director. ‘The Godfather’ was an accident. I was broke and we needed the money. We had no way to keep American Zoetrope going. I had no idea it was going to be that successful. It was awful to work on, and then my career took off and I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be. —Francis Ford Coppola
Screenwriter must-read: Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay for The Conversation [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Francis Ford Coppola interview (1974), by Marjorie Rosen, Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 4 (July-August 1974).
How did you first become interested in the idea for The Conversation? I would think that it would take a certain amount of knowledge about surveillance equipment.
I’ve always been interested in technology of all kinds. About eight years ago I was having a conversation with Irvin Kershner, the director; we were talking about surveillance. He mentioned that the safest place for two people who wanted to have a conversation in private would be outside in a crowd. Then he added that he had heard of microphones that had gun sights on them that were so powerful and selective that they could, if aimed at the mouths of these people in the crowd, pick up their conversation. I thought what an odd both device and notif for a film. This image of two people walking through a crowd with their conversation being interrupted every time someone steps in front of the gunsight. From just a little curiosity like that, I began to very informally put together a couple of thoughts about it, and came to the conclusion that the film would be about the eavesdropper rather than the people.
Did you alter your script at all while Watergate was happening?
Not really. The actual break-in, as you remember, was not considered a big deal at the time. It happened around the time we were shooting the warehouse scene, which is about two-thirds through the movie. We knew about it, but we never knew it was of such significance. Generally for the last few years, I had been aware of any stories that had to do with eavesdropping, looking for little details that might be good. The political references in the picture, which are very slight, are all in the old script. It’s just a matter of common sense that if people were using taps to bug business companies, they would be using it in political elections. Watergate is a funny accident. I never meant it to be so relevant. I almost think that the picture would have been better received had Watergate not happened. Now, you can look at it, even if you know it was written before Watergate and say, “Oh, look at that. Of course, well, sure.”
Not even cashing in. Of course, that’s a relevant and topical theme that we’ve been reading about in the paper all the time. But when I wrote it, no one was thinking about it. Same as with The Rain People. The Rain People, which is a totally ignored film—it never even played long enough to be seen—was about a woman leaving a husband she loved because of what her role in the marriage was. It came out four years before there was a really articulated women’s liberation movement as we know it in modern times. The same thing happened there. I was writing about something four years before it became relevant.
Can’t you get The Rain People revived?
Movies are like old girlfriends: Once you’ve done them and you’re finished with them, you don’t go back.
That’s not true. At least with movies.
That’s true from the filmmaker’s point of view. There’s a lot of the same reasons. There’s so much emotion that you’ve invested that you just don’t want to open it up again. I fought that battle. I already went through that disappointment of having nobody like it. People accused it of being an imitation of Easy Rider, of all things. That’s what people said at that time. It’s no more like Easy Rider than it’s like Mary Poppins. A lot of people have said it’s so relevant now, why don’t you bring it out again. The thought of even getting into it again…
You wrote the script of The Conversation eight years ago?
I started it around 1967 and I finished around 1969. Then I rewrote it just before I made it.
There seem to be a lot of little religious implications.
It’s very tricky to deal with a man who is your main character who you’re watching for two hours or whatever the life of the film is, that doesn’t talk to anybody, who lives alone, and who doesn’t relate to anybody. I had given myself a very difficult assignment. I gradually tried to deepen him and find ways to get inside of him. I had wanted to have, right from the beginning, a confession scene because I thought confession was one of the earliest forms of the invasion of privacy—earliest forms of surveillance—that I could think of. I wanted the film, in its own way, to touch on every method of surveillance that there was in a hard technological sense and in a human sense. Confession, at first, was something I thought related to the central theme. The fact that he went to confession made him a Catholic. In a character that’s so sparsely drawn, you look for any hint you can as to what he’s like.
It seemed very right. He’s kind of a repressed being.
The whole Catholic sense of guilt is related also. But that just evolved. I didn’t do it so deliberately.
What do you think of the comparisons made between The Conversation and Blowup?
I think The Conversation was very influenced by Blowup—in that one scene where David Hemmings is blowing up the photograph. It’s very similar to the scene in which Hackman goes through the tape. I knew that. It was definitely inspired by or influenced by Blowup. That one scene. But the movies as a whole are not at all alike. The scenes of revelation through technology are very similar, but if you look at Blowup again, you realize that the best scene—that scene—is, in a sense, the movie. There really isn’t a hell of a lot more. People are very funny about influences. They look at a movie, and they see something that’s obviously related to a previous film, and they say, “Aha! That’s from Blowup!” That’s been going on for thousands of years. They didn’t go reading Hermann Hesse and say, “Ah, that’s Thomas Mann! Look at the influences!” Of course, Antonioni influenced me. I like that film, and I like his other films even more. I should hope that I would steal from him. Stealing from people you admire—there’s a long tradition of that. It’s part of art, I think. I was reading Steppenwolf at the time I wrote The Conversation, and I was very impressed with this kind of character, Harry Horner. Hence, my guy’s name is Harry. He lives alone in an apartment like the character in Steppenwolf. I was influenced by that too. I could name twenty things that the film’s influenced by.
Do you think The Conversation owes a debt to Hitchcock?
Anyone who intends to make a film in the thriller genre is a student of Hitchcock. He invented it. I began to realize that the only way I could get the money to do this picture would be if it worked on some level other than just an inquiry into this man. I didn’t think that anybody would go see a movie that was just a mundane story of just a wiretapper. I felt, very early on, that it had to be a kind of horror film—a Hitchcockian horror film. I reviewed the Hitchcock films and tried to understand why they work so well. Ultimately, I think I’m a lot different from Hitchcock in my approach. Hitchcock seems to be almost entirely interested in the design of his films. I’m much more interested in performances. I don’t care for most Hitchcock films because they’re terribly acted. My favorite Hitchcock films are the ones that are well acted, like The Wrong Man and Strangers on a Train. I identify much more with Clouzot, who works not only on a thriller level but has some other matter to his films. I remember, when I was in high school, Diabolique was showing. If anything, I would hope that The Conversation would have that kind of effect.
The use of sound in the film is incredible.
Yes. That has a lot to do with the fellow who edited the film: Walter Murch, who is a contemporary of George Lucas. They went to the USC Film School. He’s been associated with George and myself for the last seven years. He had been a sound artist. He did the sound for The Rain People, THX 1138, American Graffiti, The Godfather. As I was writing this, I had it in mind that Walter would do the sound. So I wrote many scenes to be sound-oriented, like a murder occurring in another room that you don’t see but you hear. But then, since I was working on Godfather II, I asked Walter to edit the film. So, a lot of The Conversation is due to his ability.
When I spoke to you two years ago, you were very interested in sound as a possibility for erotic films.
Sound works on such a sneaky level. You can do things with sound that the audience doesn’t know you’re doing. With a picture in front of them, they’re very aware of it. I just think that sound is very effective. I have certain prejudices about how films are made. I feel, for example, that nowadays all movies are shot too close, and it’s getting worse. You go to the movies and you’re looking at people’s heads. I saw Jesus Christ Superstar, which was a musical, and most of the time I was looking at their noses or their chins. It’s a prejudice about what’s being done wrong. I really went out of my way in Godfather II—to cut most of the people at their knees.
I understand you once directed a porno film.
No, never a porno film. They were nudie films in those days. But I may do a porno film. It was about twelve years ago when I was starting, it was when they first had nudie films.
What were the titles?
The first one was a short called The Peeper. It was a cute little premise about a little man who discovers that they are shooting pin-ups near his house. The whole film dealt with his attempts to see what was going on. Every method he used would backfire. He would haul a gigantic telescope up to his room—twelve feet long—and he would focus it but all he would see would be bellybutton. Then he would do something else, and that would backfire. That film was bought by a company that had made a nudie western about a cowboy who had been kicked in the head and saw all the cows as naked ladies. It was terrible. They hired me to combine my film with that film, and that was called the wide open spaces. Then I made another film. A company hired me for a few days to take a dumb German black-and-white film and add five three-minute color, 3-D nudie sketches to it. That was called The Belt Girls and the Playboy.
Do you think there’s a market for short porno films?
I don’t know. People always talk about it and no one’s done it. Maybe I’ll do it. They talk about high-quality, serious film that uses pornography as a real element. Last Tango in Paris was that, except it wasn’t pornographic.
Do you see the films you make in separate categories? The Conversation being separated from Godfather II?
I have always supported one kind of filmmaking with the money from another. Perhaps, at times, the two have bled together. Obviously, The Godfather was a book which people bought, which I was assigned to do. The Conversation was something I evolved from scratch. So The Conversation has a lot more in common with The Rain People than The Godfather. But you can’t make a film without putting whatever you’ve got of yourself that’s relevant into it. It’s true that I’m operating on two different levels, but they bleed through.
Do you have a sense of doing something less than your scope say by doing The Godfather II rather than The Conversation?
The Godfather II started… it was an interesting situation. I really had made so much money on The Godfather, it was irrelevant for me to do a film for any other reason than because I wanted to do it. I didn’t like what was then a script called Death of Michael Corleone. What they were essentially saying to me was that they’d let me do anything I wanted. I began to think of letting The Godfather format subsidize me in doing something more ambitious in the sequel than they wanted. It was then I made my bargain with them to let me bring back all the original actors that were relevant to my story that I hadn’t figured out yet. If it could be a real continuation as though it were really part of the first film and be called The Godfather, and if I could have total control over it, I would do it. They said yes and therefore, Godfather II falls more in the category of a personal film, although it cost twelve million dollars, than the first one. I have to make it relevant or tie it into the first film, but it’s very ambitious on other levels.
What do you regard yourself as mostly, a director or a writer?
I feel that I’m basically a writer who directs. But I think I’m a good director. I felt that, especially, in this last picture, Godfather II. I think it’s really beautifully directed. Maybe I think that because I feel, “Jeez, I got all these nice performances and it’s really fantastic looking and it works—it goes together. Jeez, I hope the script is good because, in the end, that’s what really will determine it.” But I like to think of myself as a writer who directs.
I’m surprised that you consider the work of the writer more important than that of the director.
When people go to see a movie, eighty percent of the effect it has on them was preconceived and precalculated by the writer. He’s the one who imagines opening with a shot of a man walking up the stairs, and cutting to another man walking down the stairs. Then you know there’s going to be some kind of tension. A good script has preimagined exactly what the movie is going to do on a story level, on an emotional level, on all these various levels. So, to me, that’s the primary’ act of creation. The writer’s the guy who started with nothing and dreamed this all up. Then the director and the actors and all the other interpretive artists take this preconception and bring it to life. They sometimes change it to make it work better, but ultimately the content was put in by the writer. So I have to think that he is the main guy.
Do most writers indicate cuts, and how long a specific scene should run?
That’s all the specifics of putting it on the screen. But what it’s about and who the characters are. how it’s built and how it’s constructed—the writer did all that.
Do you think a very solid script and a very unimaginative director who is a craftsman of a mediocre order can get together and make a decent film?
They can make a terrific film if—and here’s the rub—the director will follow the script. The politics of filmmaking is such that the writer doesn’t have any power. The director can totally disregard what the writer has done. If the director disregards what the writer has done or changes it, then the writer’s construction could be lost or it could be improved.
How many directors can understand that a script is good and not tamper with it?
Theoretically, a good director would know when something is good and just direct it. Directors sometimes get confused about who’s creative and who isn’t, and like to think of themselves as the prime creator. In some cases they are—when they come up with an idea and then guide a couple of writers through the actual writing of the script. In that case, I consider that director a writer as well. Usually in a film, there is a person who conceives and designs it, like a composer writes music. A conductor is a great interpretive artist but you wouldn’t compare the conductor to the composer. But if the conductor had the power to change the music at will and then the music is very bad, it’s not the writer’s fault anymore. This is the way most directors work, ironically, even the ones who’ve written their own scripts. Who’s the composer? The composer is obviously an amalgam of everybody. That’s what film is like.
When you first studied film, did you want to direct or write?
I always wanted to write. I got into directing a long time ago in 1956. I directed a little play. It was received very well and it was very good, so I decided since I couldn’t be a writer, I would be a director. I don’t enjoy the directing process. Gatsby’s a good point because if you had asked me the question whether I was a writer or a director before Gatsby, I would have said I was a writer and I just direct sometimes. But I was so impressed with how badly Gatsby worked that I started to put more credit to what a director does. He changed that script all around and that’s one thing. Aside from that, there were scenes in there that, in my opinion, had the wrong objectives and they were, in my opinion, ruined. The same scene would have worked terrifically if another person had directed.
Do you think in any of your films, like Godfather, you have been less than the prime mover, even though you wrote the script?
I wrote the Godfather script. I did the adaptation. I credit Mario completely with creating the characters and the story. On the other hand, his book took in a lot more than what the film took in. I feel that I took the right parts. I also did a lot of things in that movie that people thought were in the book that weren’t. The art of adaptation is when you can lie or when you can do something that wasn’t in the original but is so much like the original that it should have been.
How do you feel about the comparisons between The Godfather and Mean Streets, Mean Streets allegedly being the realistic film and The Godfather being the…
Romanticized film. That’s quite right. Mean Streets is realistic and The Godfather is a romanticized account. They’re just different types of films. Mean Streets deals with characters in little Italy on a very low level and it’s very realistic about their level. The Godfather is a classic epic about the head guys. They both give a very honest indication of the textures of the life pattern.
Were you disappointed when Brando couldn’t do Godfather II?
Yes, at first I was, because I had really planned it that way. Then when I got into working with Bob DeNiro, obviously it meant that he could play the character much younger, which is what I had wanted. I think it worked out really well.
How do you feel with a twelve million dollar budget? Don’t you feel nervous?
You tend to adjust, and just go on blind faith that what you’re doing is right. It’s scary. You know how many people have to go see that movie? Godfather II has to earn something like thirty or twenty-five million to break even. You know how many pictures in history have even grossed thirty million dollars? How many would you say? About twelve? I think Godfather II will—because people want to go and see those characters. You know, I took my kid to see a forty-five minute assembly of some of the stuff of the old Godfather, and I said what parts do you like better? He said, “I like when the guy got shot.” Everyone is like that. Even when you’re shooting the film. The second you’re going to do a throat cutting or something, everyone including the crew crowds around.
Do you as a director ever feel intimidated? By actors or by the kind of movement you have to choreograph on the set?
Oh sure. Less so, now. On this last film, I’ve been very relaxed and enjoyed more of the production aspect. Making films is such a logistical, a social problem, as well as artistic one. A lot of it has to do with the people you’re working with and dependent on—that you’ve made your peace with them and have a way of dealing with them. If it’s the first time you’re working with that photographer or those actors or that art director, half of the energy that you expend is just trying to jockey for what the relationship is going to be. It was such a pleasure on the Godfather II. Many of the key people were people I had worked with before. Some of them were now in new guises. Some actors, who on Godfather I were kids grateful for the chance, are now big movie stars. So there’s a rejockeying for position. But still, on Godfather II, I had made my peace with most of those people and much more of the energy went into the film than into all of the ambient politics and sociology. Like the photographer. Buddy [Gordon] Willis—on Godfather I, I didn’t get along with him at all. Artistically I got along with him completely. We had the same concept. But socially, he’s such a cranky, grumpy guy and I always took it as criticism. Then I would get defensive. When we did the second film, I realised that he’s just a cranky, grumpy guy and it had nothing to do with me. He can also be really a sweet guy. As a result, the relationship we had on Godfather II is the most pleasant I’ve ever had. He’s a guy who really sees things not only in the same way that I do but very often better. So when I say What about this?, he says What about something like this? It’s really what I meant. That happens with actors too. Brando does this all the time. You tell an actor you’d like this out of a moment. He says, “O.K., watch this.” He gives you what you want but better. That is the joy of directing, when it happens. It can only happen between people who have really gotten comfortable with each other and have made their peace. The art director on Godfather II, who was also on The Conversation, I don’t even talk to anymore because I trust him so much. I just say so-and-so like such-and-such and the guy comes up with exactly what I wanted but better.
Was it any different working with Pacino this time?
Yes, sure, sure. But basically Pacino is a very, very intelligent person. He’s sometimes a little bit of a kid and that can get in the way especially when he’s a kid with a lot of power. When Serpico came out and was a big success, it was a pleasure to work with him. He was so self-confident that all his emotional silliness was out of the way and it was just his intelligence and his talent that we were working with. Before Serpico came out, he was nervous about it. He was a pain in the neck.
He has an incredible intensity on the screen.
Oh yes. He’s very talented. He’s really a sweet person. All of the people on this film are very good people. Some are cynical and some are childish, what have you. All of them were caught in the whole Godfather syndrome of knowing that they had been part of something that had made a lot of money and they didn’t get very much.
But you yourself made money out of the film. Does that financial independence give you more options to make your own kind of films?
Yes, fortunately, I made a lot of money on The Godfather. But if I were a little hungrier after making the rain people and the conversation. I’d say screw this. It’s like Billy Friedkin said after The Birthday Party and The Boys in the Band: “I know how to do it: how to, for an hour and a half, just constantly throw everything I have at an audience and give them a real thrill. That’s what they want. They don’t want to go into a theater and treat it like a book. They don’t even read books!”
I think Friedkin has the ability to make good films.
He can make terrific films. But he didn’t do well at it, he was getting washed up. He was broke and suddenly The French Connection came along, and he said. “I’m going to blow their heads off. I’m going to give them an electric shock.” And he did. And he made a lot of money. Then he adopted it as his philosophy and said, “O.K., if that’s what people want, that’s what they’re going to get.”
I think he made a mistake when he…
What mistake did he make? What mistake did he make?
I think it’s very insulting when a director says, “There are three things that matter: laughter, tears, and fear.”
But he’s right! That’s the point. What mistake did he make? The guy’s going to make five or six million dollars out of The Exorcist. He didn’t make any mistake—maybe, with The Conversation, maybe I made the mistake! Understand one thing. Essentially, all movies coming out—whether it be The Exorcist, Bergman, The Godfather or Pound or Putney Swope—all movies are basically done in the same way. If you were to take the most stylistically divergent films—an Elvis Presley film and Cries and Whispers—they represent a teenie, teenie bit of what can happen with movies. Movies are all made the same way and the reason they’re made the same way is because the audiences want them that way. The films cost so much that to really veer from that way of telling a story, you have to be independently wealthy and subsidize it. I read a review of The Conversation that describes the two characters, the boy and girl walking, as skimpily drawn. Well, here I am deliberately trying to not unveil their characters in a conventional way. I’m trying to give you an impression of their characters, the only film on those two characters is the same dumb conversation. It’s my attempt at trying to find another way to give character to an audience instead of just a classic playwright’s way of giving you a little background and unveil traits and show you the contradictions. I’m just showing you the same moment over and over. I’m using repetition instead of exposition. The second I do it, someone says it’s skimpy. That force, that inertia that holds movies is partly responsible for movies being all the same. You can’t break out of it unless you are so rich, you start making films that are thirty minutes long and some films that are fifty-two-and-one-half minutes long and some films that are fifteen hours long. All the movies that come out are the same.
Are you near the point where you can do what you want?
I’m not that rich, but I’m get-tin’. I have to go through a lot of agonizing decisions because I can always say why don’t I just go and make money. I could sit down and write the most commercial movie ever made. I feel I could pull it off. Just make a hundred million dollars and spend the rest of my life… I’m now thirty-five and that’s what I thought I was doing with The Godfather and then with Godfather II, I was making a film that would also appeal to an audience. At some time you’ve got to cut off and say,”O.K., I’ve made enough money.”
What would you ideally do next?
What I’m going to do next is nothing. I’m going to do some writing and some reading and get something into my brain. You’ve got to understand that all I’ve done for thirteen years is try to have a career. I went right from school to film school to a career and here I am without ever stopping.
If you had your choice, which kind of film would you make?
I’m finishing Godfather in a couple of weeks, so I’m a free man in that I have no commitments, I have no job, I don’t need to work for money anymore. I intend to take a lot of time now to do some writing and thinking about exactly what it is I want to do. I may not make any more films or I may make a lot films. I don’t know. Anything I do will be just what I think of. I did The Godfather because I was broke and in debt. I even did The Rain People and The Conversation because I wanted more than anything to be a writer. I began working on a premise that I wondered if I could pull off. I finished and made those films more as a dare to myself to show myself that I could do it, that I could write original material. Anyone who’s written knows how you doubt that. Especially a person who’s known for adaptations. Now I’m, in a way, finished with all of that. I’m not going to write original stuff to prove to myself that I can do that. I’m not going to work for money. I’m not going to make a film to have a big hit because I’ve already had a big hit. I’m at a very mid-point.
A very special point.
It’s terrific if you can do it. I just hope that I make use of it.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA BY BRIAN DE PALMA
The most personal of all films in Francis Ford Coppola’s repertoire was born between two big projects that helped Coppola gain the reputation he enjoys today, the first two parts of The Godfather trilogy. Two huge, big-budgeted movies, and a tiny personal story filmed between them, but an expertly made film that captured the nation’s state of mind and emotion after the Watergate scandal. The Conversation, starring the great Gene Hackman, is a subtle and restrained film about a professional eavesdropper, lonely and alienated, who uses his nifty gadgets to invade the privacy of the people around him. Coppola began meddling with the idea in 1966, but the first draft was penned three years later, with the film hitting theaters as late as 1974. The impact it made at the box office was negligible, even though it was hardly a failure. But with time, the film’s reputation grew, and today it’s considered one of Coppola’s very best.
One of the perks of managing this website is definitely the challenge of finding rare treasures. This delightful discovery, a Filmmakers Newsletter interview from May, 1974, conducted by Brian De Palma, illuminates the process of this little masterpiece’s creation. And who’s more qualified to conduct such an insightful conversation with Coppola than a passionate fellow filmmaker. Filmmakers Newsletter was a well-respected magazine with articles abounding in technical information, as well as extensive analyses of both contemporary films and those who played significant roles in the historical development of the art and business. This particular article can be classified as an impressive read thanks to the sheer quantity of interesting details regarding the development and production of The Conversation, but also to Coppola’s honest answers to De Palma’s perceptive questions. The fact that we’re talking about a piece of journalism virtually lost to the rest of the world only enhances the value of the interview, a six-page exploration of Coppola’s filmmaking technique, personal preferences, inner motivations and desires both before and after he steps onto the film set.
If you care to find out the nature of the connection between The Conversation and Henry VIIIth, why Coppola’s not in awe of Hitchcock’s artistry or why the acclaimed director admits the commencement of shooting often finds him in a “pants down” position, we urge you to read this wonderful interview as soon as possible. You can download the PDF version.
Coppola, who directed The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, revealed that his earliest films—like The Rain People and The Conversation—were more like what he’d hoped to do over the course of his career. But then money and life got in the way. “I had to get a job, and of course, the job was The Godfather,” he says. “That made me be something I didn’t know I was going to be. I became a big-shot director. If you take a young Long Island Italian guy and give him endless possibilities, then you’ll see what kind of crazy things I did in the course of my career.”
Unseen photos from The Conversation—filming the famous opening scene in Union Square, courtesy of the edit room floor.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 40-minute talk on The Conversation at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival.
A vintage featurette, Close-up on The Conversation, contains on-set interview with Hackman and Coppola and shows the two men rehearsing a key scene. Sensational stuff.
Francis Ford Coppola interviews David Shire, composer of The Conversation.
The thought of Walter Murch brings a smile to my face. I’m not sure exactly why. It must be the combination of his unique personality, the security inspired by his competence, and his gentleness and wisdom. Gerald MacBoingBoing grown up, still playful and enigmatic, but grounded by an immense intelligence. Perhaps it’s also because he was the essential collaborator on what are probably the best films I worked on: The Conversation and The Godfather, Part II. I have a very soft spot in my heart for those films, and The Rain People, because only they were the closest to the goal I had set for myself as a young man: to write original stories and screenplays only. This is something Walter always encouraged me to do, and was best achieved working with him. But Walter is a study unto himself: a philosopher and theoretician of film—a gifted director in his own right, attested to by his beautiful Return to Oz. Nothing is so fascinating as spending hours listening to Walter’s theories of life, cinema, and the countless tidbits of wisdom that he leaves behind him like Hansel and Gretel’s trail of bread: guidance and nourishment. I smile also because we are so different from one another: Whereas I make instantaneous decisions relying on emotion and intuition only, Walter is also thoughtful and careful and methodical in every step he takes. Whereas I alternate between the ecstatic and despondent like Tesla’s alternating current, Walter is constant and warm and reassuring. Every bit as ingenious and intuitive as I am, he is also constant. Walter is a pioneer, as I would like to be, and the kind of person who should be listened to carefully and enjoyed. For all this, I imagine you would think that I love and respect Walter Murch very much—and I certainly do. —Francis Ford Coppola
BILL BUTLER, ASC
Coppola’s fascination with gadgets and technology seemed to fuel Butler’s imagination for The Conversation, about a forlorn wiretapper-for-hire. Butler thought of covering a party scene with a slow-panning camera that moved back and forth like a surveillance lens. “It didn’t work for that scene,” Butler notes, “but it inspired us for the film’s final shot, where it really worked. I think I like this film, of all my work, the best.”
I like to work with directors who like to sit down before we make a film, and discuss the philosophy of the film and what it should look like. We may go to museums and look at paintings, or someone’s work, or a book of someone’s work. We will unquestionably screen a lot of footage by other filmmakers, other directors, other cameramen, and discuss what we did like and what we did not like about that work until we both understand what’s in the other person’s mind. You cannot communicate well with words when you’re speaking of a visual image that someone has in mind. It’s very hard to describe, almost impossible. And when you’re working as I like to do, you try to get on film what the director has in his gut, as well as what he has in his mind. So you have to find out what the man’s all about. To some extent, you have to psychonalyze him. I am fortunate to have a mechanical aptitude and an artistic background, and I try to blend them together and make them work for me. But in order for me to work well, I have to be working in a congenial atmosphere. Nothing creative can really come out of you if you’ re not in a creative atmosphere. But when you’re with someone like Coppola or Friedkin, and it’s all bursting loose, then you can let it all out and do your thing. If you don’t understand the director, if you don’t have a direction to go in, you will fail. Creative people, when they get together, won’t work well unless they literally get married and are of one mind. This has happened to me a few times. It certainly happened to me when I was working with Francis, and the results of that all just added and grew, because every idea that he had I was on top of.
You get to the point where you do not have to talk to one another. Once you’ve done your homework, far in advance of shooting, you can go out there feeling secure. You know the images you want and what you’re reaching for. Haskell Wexler started shooting The Conversation with Francis, and the very opposite of what I’m talking about took place. They’ re both highly creative people. Haskell is a wonder. The things he does I admire very much. But he was off doing his thing and Francis had another idea altogether. They were not together on it, so they had to part company. Francis called me because I had worked with him on Rain People. He said, “It’s all coming apart at the seams. Have you finished your show? Could you come up?” I said, ”Well, if Haskell and you are splitting and it’s all over, let me come up and talk to you, and find out what it’s all about, and see if there’s any possibility.” So I went up to see Coppola and he was depressed. It looked like he was carrying the world on his shoulders. I said, “Well, to start with, you’re too serious about all of it It’s got to be fun or it isn’t worth doing.” He’s rich enough that he doesn’t have to suffer that way. So I said, ”Hey, Francis, loosen up. If you can have some fun with this thing, then I’m game to come in and see what I can do. We’ve got to get so we can talk to one another.”
Gene Hackman was every bit as depressed as Francis was. He sat for eight hours one day while Haskell lit a set. An actor can’t sit for eight hours and then do his thing. It’s all right if you say, ”It’s going to take eight hours, come in later.” That’s OK, that’s cool. He’ll come in, he’ll come up for his part, and he’ll do it. But the type of part that Gene Hackman was playing in Conversation was very heavy. I’ve got to admire an actor who can carry it off to the extent that it just permeates the crew and everybody around him. He played this character with a lot of power. I don’t know what it does to an actor’s mind to be able to do that. So we were able to get the ideas down firmly in mind before we started. The show really hadn’t gotten into any principal scenes and Coppola wasn’t hesitant about throwing away any old material. I got the vision firmly in mind that he was trying to put forward. I felt I could contribute, so I took on the task and it went very well. It was a good shoot and it was a happy thing. Gene Hackman also let up. He bought a still camera that he played with alI the time. Remember, if you don’t set the pace going in, and if you feel friction going in, and it’s not happening, you’ re better off to say an early good-bye than to try and suffer through it. —A conversation with a Cinematograher: Bill Butler
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Photographed by Brian Hamill © The Directors Company, The Coppola Company, American Zoetrope, Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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