In 1969, studio executives at Paramount Pictures were desperate to find a film director for a new movie they had purchased the rights to. It was to be a crime drama based on the New York Mafia.
One after another, all the top directors of the era turned the project down. They all found it too sensationalistic and sultry for their tastes. Gangster movies were known as cheap and gimmicky, appealing to clichés instead of standing out as art.
After exhausting all their top choices, studio executives approached a young film director who had done a few small, indie films. The director was a relative novice, with no major commercially successful films to his name. He was an outsider, working out of San Francisco instead of Hollywood, the industry capital. And he was known as an artist who wanted to experiment with new ideas, not a director of big budget movies.
That director’s name was Francis Ford Coppola, and the movie he was asked to make was called The Godfather.
Coppola initially turned down the project. As recounted in the Hollywood Reporter, he said “It was more commercial and salacious than my own taste.” But as his partner and protégé George Lucas (of future Star Wars fame) noted, they were broke. Without a major infusion of cash, they’d soon be evicted.
A second reading of the novel changed his mind, as he saw that it could be framed as “a story that was a metaphor for American capitalism in the tale of a great king with three sons.”
The Godfather would go on to become one of the greatest critical and commercial successes in filmmaking history. In 2007 the American Film Institute named it the second best American movie of all time, after Citizen Kane. It ultimately grossed $245 million dollars, won three Oscars, and spawned a series of sequels and spinoffs watched by a rabid fan base obsessed with the story of the fictional Corleone family.
Coppola’s strategy for making the complex, multi-faceted film rested on a technique he learned studying theatre at Hofstra College, known as a “prompt book.” He would start by cutting and pasting pages from The Godfather novel into a three-ring binder. Once there, he was free to add notes and comments that would later be used to write the screenplay and plan the production design.
In a short documentary titled Francis Coppola’s Notebook released in 2001, Coppola explains his process. He started with an initial read of the entire novel: “I think it’s important to put your impressions down on the first reading because those are the initial instincts about what you thought was good or what you didn’t understand or what you thought was bad.”
In other words, he started by “capturing” the parts of the book that resonated with him, and moving them into an environment where they could be distilled and interpreted. The notebook was designed to last, with reinforced grommets to ensure the pages wouldn’t tear even after many turnings: “The object of this was to give one the large area around the text for the many notes a stage manager would need to enter, such as lighting cues, scene shift cues, actors’ entrances, special effects, music cues, and so forth.
This notebook became the central document guiding the creation of the film: “I called it the Godfather Notebook and put a big warning: if found return to this address for reward, because I recognized that it would have every opinion that I had on the book.”
It took many hours to create, but those hours also gave Coppola time to let the ideas and themes and characters simmer semi-consciously in his mind: “The building of the prompt book took hours, and the tedious activity of cutting, reinforcing, and organizing the pages provided many meditative hours during which one could use the other side of the brain to roam over the ideas and essential themes of the playwright’s intention.”
Once he had reconstituted his version of the story, Coppola began to add his own interpretations and observations. He broke down each scene according to five key criteria: a synopsis (or summary) of the scene, the historical context, imagery and tone to give the “look and feel” of the scene, the core intention, and any potential pitfalls to avoid.
Coppola explains how he came up with the “synopsis” for each scene of the movie: “I endeavored to distill the essence of each scene into a sentence, expressing in a few words what the point of the scene was.”
These synopses eventually became the building blocks of the film outline: “l’d write a brief paragraph or two saying what was happening in that section. And also, I was being sneaky; I knew that when I was finished, if I just put the synopsis parts of each section together, I’d have the embryo of the script – which I did, and which it was. The script was based on the synopsis of each section.”
The historical context of each scene was another pivotal part of his planning. When Coppola heard that Paramount Pictures wanted to shoot the film as a contemporary story set in the 1970s, and use another city like Kansas City or St. Louis to save on production costs, he pushed back: “I really had a very hard time accepting that and made a big point that it had to be period. I didn’t even remember why I did because obviously that was going to make the movie more expensive which is not what they wanted at all. And it must have been because I had just gone through this vast, big thick book writing notes as to why it had to be…what the 40s had to do with the story.”
The Godfather Notebook helped turn the complex and ambiguous task of creating a big-budget film into a regular routine: “I would sometimes go to a cafe, in particular in North Beach [a traditional Italian-American neighborhood in San Francisco] I used to go to the old Caffe Trieste, and sit in the corner with my Olivetti typewriter and this [prompt] book…”
Coppola continued, “This document was a kind of multi-layered road map for me to direct the film…so I was able to review not only Mario Puzo’s original text but all my first notation as to what…was important to me or what I felt was really going on in the book.” In the margins he wrote comments, observations, and emphasized certain details or emotional undercurrents.
Coppola continues, “…I very carefully went through each page of the novel, detailing and expanding my original pencil notes with different-colored pens and a ruler, putting down the details of how I would dramatize or especially accentuate certain things. When I saw an opportunity for great effect or showing violence, I’d make notes such as ‘mists of blood’ or ‘hit hard here.’ Those were just things that came from my imagination and instinct as I was reading the novel and trying to imagine it, and I put them down on those same pages, in color.”
One comment said simply “Hitchcock” to remind him of how the famed director of thrillers would have designed a scene, or “Frozen time” to remind him to slow down a shot, or “His fork frozen mid-air” to remember small details. He used different kinds of annotations to emphasize to his future self which parts were most important in a scene: “As I was reading the book and making these notes and then putting them on the margins obviously the more pens I was using and the more rulers, and the more squiggly lines, sort of implied the excitement of the book was higher and higher, so that the sheer amount of ink on the page would tell me later on this is one of the most important scenes.”
Coppola considered his prompt book his most important asset in the production of the film: “…the script was really an unnecessary document; I didn’t need a script because I could have made the movie just from this notebook.” So much so that he eventually published a complete replica of The Godfather Notebook in its entirety.
The Godfather Notebook illustrates that even for a fictional story, source material is essential. We might imagine a movie emerging straight out of the mind of a screenplay writer or director, when in fact, it depends heavily on a process of research and development. We don’t often get a window into the details of this creative process. It rarely gets documented and shared with the public. But Coppola’s story demonstrates that we can systematically build and improve our creative process to produce better, more imaginative work.
In The Godfather Legacy, a book on the behind-the-scenes making of the movie, Coppola is quoted as he reflects on his childhood aspirations to become a filmmaker: “I always felt I had a lot of gifts, but that my gifts were somehow not easily showable. I always felt I had a lot of stuff in my heart, but that I didn’t have the skills or the obvious talents of kids who can play an instrument, tap-dance, or draw. I always felt like I had a little vein of gold, and that if I could follow it further down I’d find a deposit of it.”
The films that he created were a way of finding and following that vein of gold within himself. And they didn’t depend on his willpower or imagination. They depended on a creative process that allowed the director to externalize his ideas, work with them as tangible building blocks, and distill the essence of the story he wanted to tell.
From the introduction to the published Godfather Notebook he explained what that process meant to him: “In truth, I think that I made the notebook out of profound fear. It’s important to understand that at the root of it all, I was terrified… I thought that if I could first work out 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 matter, and the notebook was the result of that.”
If one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century can use notetaking to capture, organize, distill, and express his ideas then so can we.
Thank you to David Perell, Alexandra Allen, and Aries Chan for their feedback and suggestions on this piece.