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Why are those people in this crowded photo staring at you so intently? There’s a camera, so it’s a film shoot. For clues, look at the general surroundings. It’s an industrial area of New York. The styles of the cars, haircuts and clothes suggest the very early ‘70s. The man pointing a light meter at you is Gordon Willis. The anxious-looking man with the bushy beard is Francis Coppola. It’s the spring of 1971, fifty years ago, and you’re an actor in “The Godfather”. You have no idea what audiences will think of the finished film. In truth, neither do Gordy or Francis.
Acting is always tougher than it looks, and doing it in the streets, with crowds behind barricades, is often the toughest of all. On a sound stage, or on Broadway, you don’t have to outshout jets landing at La Guardia, sanitation men filling garbage trucks, sirens, dogs, or drunks yelling, “Where’s Brando?” When that camera rolls, you’re supposed to shut out all that you see and hear in front of you, and inhabit the mind of a mafia don’s son in December 1945.
One of the biggest challenges of film acting is filming “out of continuity”—out of the actual order of scenes in the story. This happens even in Hollywood, but when almost the whole picture is filmed on the lot, the production is usually free to put up sets and rehearse the actors in the same order as the screenplay. Everyone likes working this way, when it’s possible. On location it’s rarely possible. Access to locations is often time limited, sometimes severely. There are only so many hours when New York will close off the streets around Rockefeller Center to film in front of Radio City Music Hall, so you’d better be ready to get everything you need as fast as you can. Art takes a back seat to the clock.
Seasons also control scheduling. “Godfather” started filming in March, when NYC days are still dark and rainy, so it shot most of its interiors first, as well as night scenes. Then, with better weather and longer daylight hours later in the spring, they filmed the beginning of the movie, Connie Corleone’s wedding, as well as scenes near the end, in churches, cemeteries, and on the steps of Wall Street. This scattered scheduling is tough on actors trying to maintain a consistent character arc. “Okay, remind me, at this point, how cold and ruthless am I supposed to be by now? 20%? 50%? 90%?”
Cover sets are a bane of acting in movies, and they can’t be avoided. A cover set is just a backup to cover a change in schedule, generally because the weather is no good. If you’ve spent all weekend memorizing five pages of dialog and working up your confidence for an important scene, it’s understandably disappointing to have a last-minute shift over to a substitute scene that neither you, the other actors, or the director had focused on yet. That’s why the backup scene is usually chosen to be something simple you’d have to film sometime soon anyway, like an office discussion or one side of a telephone conversation. Cue cards are made up to replace the memorization that couldn’t take place. Actors understand the practical need for it, but it doesn’t happen on a studio lot, or on a Broadway stage.
Controlling the streets and crowds is always a compromise. Filming permits are precise right down to the general direction the cameras will be pointed. But as much space as the permits clear for filming, most casts and crews also require as much or more space behind the cameras, for their fleets of trucks. People are often astonished how many vehicles are needed to make a movie, each one driven by burly Teamsters. At the least, you need a camera services truck, and “Godfather” had one of the first, a walk-in studio camera department called a Cinemobile. Fouad Said, the Egyptian-born cinematographer of TV’s “I Spy”, invented and marketed the Cinemobile to deal with the many locations of that globe-trotting show, revolutionizing the camera production side of going on location.
You’ll need a generator truck to support the colossal number of lights, and probably a production office in a motorhome or trailer. On big productions with lots of bit players and extras, the costume and make-up departments each get their own trailers. All this stuff needs to be guarded. All these people have to be fed. Rest rooms must be provided. On the perimeter there needs to be a mobile command post for NYPD, and parking space for nervous studio executives, agents of the stars, assistants, and (at least in the time of “The Godfather”, and for thirty years thereafter) messengers carrying cans of film to the lab. While all this is going on, advance crews are preparing the next location before the whole caravan moves to it, and yet-more junior advance crews are preparing the ones after that.
Fifty years ago, filming anywhere but on a Los Angeles studio lot was treated as “on location”. To some degree, it still is. The term TMZ refers to an arbitrary “thirty mile zone”, a map radius drawn from a spot near Wilshire Boulevard. Anything beyond it is treated as on location, triggering contract clauses requiring special rates of pay, and rules regarding meals and lodging.
New York was always a special case. Silent films were made in New York for years before cameras ever rolled on the west coast. When sound arrived, there was a brief rush to quickly and cheaply throw together sound stages in New York, in the mistaken belief that Broadway actors would be needed for the talkies. Once that 1928-’31 fad died out, those primitive, bare-bones facilities would be all the city’s film businesses could offer. To the major studios, NYC was where their corporate headquarters were, not where films were made. With rare exceptions, Hollywood filmmaking teams made short visits to the streets of Manhattan only when they needed a specific outdoor city scene for films like “On the Town”, “North by Northwest” or “West Side Story”. The indoor scenes were filmed in Los Angeles, which had, and still has, the best movie-making equipment, facilities, and technical personnel in the world.
New York’s “native” film crews made do with a handful of TV shows, a few low budget independent films, and from about 1950 on, lots of TV commercials. They were familiar with problems like limited room, congested streets, fickle weather, and sidewalk onlookers. They knew how to navigate the bureaucracy to get filming permits. Without the resources of the west coast crews, cameramen like Boris Kaufman, Owen Roizman and Gerald Hirschfeld made up for it with a gritty urban look.
A couple of things made filming “The Godfather” on location a particular challenge. “The Godfather” was made with a predominantly east coast, local crew, but Coppola didn’t want that hard, bright, realistic east coast look. He was aiming for something statelier and solemn, something hard to create with a gigantic cast and crew in the streets of 1971. Unlike “The French Connection”, then the most recent big-time crime picture to film in New York, this was going to be a period piece, set from 1945 to ’55. A lot of the outdoors was going to have to be modified to fit that era, or excluded from the camera image.
For another thing, more than 12 million people had already read the book. Unlike, say, “Star Wars”, it wouldn’t be a film that came out of nowhere. The film crews weren’t going to be able to sneak up on the city. Readers already knew what the big scenes were. Casting Marlon Brando was controversial; everyone wanted to see what he looked like as the Don, but Life Magazine had been promised an exclusive on pictures of him. Few people knew who Al Pacino was. Crowd control would be a bigger than usual problem.
New York City is full of Italian-Americans, all of whom seemed to have read the novel, and there were strong mixed feelings. A lot of people were excited about the film. But a time when Black groups demanded respect and an end to insulting stereotypes, many white ethnics were in no mood to accept insults themselves.
Protective leagues and anti-defamation groups sprang up. That spring, my girlfriend was living on Second Avenue and 70th Street. We watched the nightly Italian-American protest marches at the FBI’s New York offices up the block on Third. Since the storyline of “The Godfather” would involve filming in Italian neighborhoods south of Greenwich Village and on the edge of Spanish Harlem, it was necessary to establish good community relations. In the blunt, practical world of that era, that meant payoffs, and lots of them, to “neighborhood groups” that had the muscle to encourage cooperation as well as do things the cops couldn’t legally do, like scaring nervy kids off fire escapes that would be on camera. It wasn’t done by Marquis of Queensbury rules, but it worked.
Location filming has its moments of humor. When Vito Corleone was gunned down in the streets of Little Italy, all the spectators standing on the fire escapes of the non-filming side of the block cheered Marlon Brando’s elaborate fall to the ground. After the director called “cut”, Brando stood up and graciously bowed to the crowd. When the production moved uptown, way uptown to Pleasant Avenue to film Sonny Corleone’s street beat-down of his brother-in-law, James Caan was surprised that his for-the-camera brutality made him the hero, not the villain, of the noisy mob of local onlookers.
By July, a subset of the crew had moved on to Italy. By this point, Paramount was cheapening the production, lightening the load wherever it could, but Coppola was able to convince them that going forward with the Sicily shoot would add a dimension to Michael Corleone’s character that you wouldn’t necessarily get filming in the studio’s preferred location, upstate New York. With the cast and crew gone, New York’s gossipy tabloid media turned to other subjects.
That summer, Academy Award winning cinematographer, inventor, and entrepreneur Ross Lowell was testing the idea of teaching a film lighting class at New York University. Based on the success of that prototype summer course, he’d begin decades of NYU instruction on working on location with portable light fixtures, many from his own company, Lowel-Light. I was his student assistant in July-August 1971. Since it was his first time on campus, he pulled out all the stops, and we got to meet many accomplished movie cameramen (as they all were back then). One of Ross’s friends was Gordon Willis, fresh off the “Godfather” job.
He came across as an artistic risk-taker who, unusually, was plain-spoken and unpretentious. Willis talked about how to subtly light a location, without overdoing it to the point of losing the qualities that made you like it to begin with. (I’ll give him that; I doubt that a single Godfather viewer has ever said, “Why did they have to overdo it with all those glaring lights?”) Willis complimented Ross Lowell on the usefulness of his Lowel-Lights, and declared that thanks to them, he no longer carried bulky arc lights in his location equipment packages. One tenth the weight and size, less wasted heat, fewer workers to attend them. Location filmmaking had come a long way. Better film from Eastman and better lenses were also making working in less light possible.
He knew, of course, that everyone wanted to hear insider stuff, and despite a reserved manner he gave us some. He said that Coppola was “to a fault” in the habit of bringing a magazine photo or a 16mm film clip to the set, ostensibly to praise his interest in detail but with a slight suggestion of risking being too derivative of older examples.
Still, Gordy was gentlemanly, especially by Hollywood standards. He thanked Coppola for defending him to the studio. Willis knew Paramount didn’t like his dark “look” and joked that the soundman was also in the doghouse because of Brando’s sometimes indecipherable mumbling. “It was a hard shoot.” The actors, he said simply, are great; we’ll just have to see how people react to the film. Not a ringing endorsement. Nothing bad, but little that suggested code language for “In a couple of months this will be the biggest box office hit since ‘Gone With the Wind’”. Without naming names he said that he thought “the girl” (Diane Keaton) had been miscast, but he wasn’t mean about it. It was a shrug.
Willis talked about the challenges of making a film in real places that’s set roughly 25 years in the past. Ross, who’d visited the set of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” earlier in the year, described how equally smart selection of real locations, and the era’s new lightweight camera and lighting equipment, had enabled Kubrick to film in (then) present day London yet present a credible vision of life roughly 25 years in the future.
An aged mobster’s regal gestures to his family’s sacred honor are an inspired imitation of an older generation’s roots in rural Europe. For the writer, the director, and the actors alike, they were a distant, stirring memory of the America of their parents and grandparents. When “The Godfather” opened in 1972, critics jokingly wondered if the Mafia was so poor that they could only afford 10-watt lightbulbs. But for hundreds of millions of film viewers around the world, the dark, dignified images of “The Godfather” became the definitive look of a time and place that’s now almost beyond living witness.