I have this undying affection for screenplays written by true masters of the craft - that fail. It always seems obvious why a screenplay succeeds, as you can easily point to its many strengths, but why does something fail? What can be learned from it? And how can it be fixed?
For example, while Silence of the Lambs is the best of the Hannibal Lechter series, I watch Hannibal more often BECAUSE it failed and I need to understand why. I used to study the differences between David Mamet’s version and Steve Zaillian’s version. They both failed in their own unique ways, but Mamet’s ending was more satisfying. He had a better arc in the relationship between Starling and Lechter. Mamet gave us a Starling who was troubled in the beginning and talking to a psychiatrist before she would be assigned to hunt for Lechter. In the end, her emotional troubles were diagnosed by Lechter himself with words I really wish we could’ve heard him speak:
“You've sought out The Institution all your life, as you with it to replace your Father. This is obvious. Less obvious is this: that you require the institution not to support you, but to FAIL. FOR THIS KEEPS YOUR FATHER ALIVE. The truth is two-fold, and the truth is one: That every man is fallible, that every institution, being made of men, cannot but be corrupt... and, therefore, it cannot be but an act of complicity to seek to appease it.”
The point is, while I admire many scripts, including The Godfather I and II, as the height of screenwriting and filmmaking craftsmanship, the ones I love are the ones that missed the boat, because it's always a learning experience. And the Coppola script that I return to again and again more so than any other is The Godfather Part III.
We know that this film had a severe handicap, which was the fact that it had to go from script-to-screen in less than a year. Paramount had an old 1979 spec lying around (written by Dean Riesner) and suddenly decided to shove this project down everyone’s throat to save their sinking stock price. As Coppola would later say, “the head of the corporation felt that if they didn’t have a big windfall, [Paramount] would be taken over, and indeed, it was.” Despite Coppola’s pleas, he had no influence to delay the film at least another six months for them to get it right. It’s quite evident watching the film, that Coppola didn’t have a firm grasp of the story as he had with the first two.
Coppola would, of course, reject Riesner’s script, as well he should. That spec was a waste of time and money. Riesner had zero grasp of the operatic styles, themes, and structures of the first two films, as I mentioned in my Godfather post. The story was focused on his son, Tony Corleone, who was in the military and got swept up in an assassination plot to kill Castro. In the end, we finally get to see Michael who explains who is behind the conspiracy, gives Tony a lesson on the Corleone family history, and asks him to be part of the family. The funniest thing about this spec is the plethora of camera directions: ANGLE ON TOM, REVERSE ANGLE ON TONY, etc. Who in the hell would dare to give Francis Ford Coppola camera directions?
I don’t believe that Coppola and Puzo’s May, 1989, first draft is available on the web anymore, but it’s quite fascinating in the sense that it only vaguely resembles the finished film. In many ways, this draft is superior, and yet, it also fails in the same ways as the finished film. The whole thing is heartbreaking to me because Coppola’s heart was so very much in the right place about what the story should be – Michael’s death and his attempt to find redemption. I also loved the inclusion of the financial scandal in the Vatican involving God’s Banker. How much fun is that? It’s so perfect.
Let’s breakdown the problems:
We find in this draft the presence of Tom Hagen who was absolutely crucial in this third sequel. Not only that, there was a fantastic sequence where he was shot by a man on a horse dressed as a cop. Why wasn’t Duvall in the final film? Money. Duvall said in that 1999 interview in George magazine, “I said, 'You can pay Pacino twice what you pay me but not three or four times as much.' Francis had a very arrogant lawyer. It was beneath him to discuss it, so I said, 'Well, ciao.' I didn't miss any great experience.’” Let it be said that Hagen’s role in the third film was huge. He is an integral figure in the Godfather legacy. And Duvall’s demand to be paid only half of what they were paying Pacino was perfectly reasonable and should’ve been accommodated. Coppola would say in the DVD commentary that he didn’t have the clout to persuade the studio to pay Duvall what he had asked and added, “It’s the loss that keeps on losing.”
Another problem: Coppola and Puzo hadn’t rediscovered yet the voices of the main characters and that poetic, operatic, lofty dialogue that made those films so famous, and they needed time to do that. Much of the dialogue was flat because so many characters were saying exactly what they were thinking and feeling, which goes against everything we saw before. In the second film, Michael would say one thing to one character and another thing to another character and keep counsel only with himself. It takes time to create rich scenes full of layered subtext, especially in the grand style of The Godfather films.
I also think Coppola tried to make this film and the storylines too personal to him. That’s okay for the earlier films, but at this phase in which we witness the downfall of the Corleone family and the death of Michael who is trying to escape the sins of his past and find redemption, it would be impossible for anyone to find connections with those characters and that kind of story. Coppola would’ve been better off viewing this third film as Michael’s story and how should HIS story end, as opposed to looking for connections between the Corleones the and Coppolas in order to make this feel personal to him. This is a strict character study about a family that is now beyond the point of return. This is business, not personal, Francis. Hehehe…
While I don’t see anything wrong with having a similar narrative structure as the first film, I think the central and subplots needed to be more layered and complicated. If they had the time, I would’ve liked to have seen them create more depth through the contrasts, which we saw in the previous films. In the opening sequence, like the first film, you’d have a happy front with Michael, wealthy and powerful, giving away $100 million dollar checks to charity, but behind closed doors in Michael’s darkened study, we would learn that his story is quite different. He is in great pain from the troubles around him, although he would try to tough it out. The troubles he was having with “the commission,” which was almost laughed off with Michael saying, “I need more lawyers,” should’ve been a source of anguish that fueled his need to find redemption. And we could’ve seen some of those deals being made, the deals in which Michael tries to sell the casinos. He was doing this not only because he’s trying to move into legitimacy but because of his personal need to find that redemption. And the scenes would’ve been unique because it would’ve been about Michael’s needs and vulnerability and the price he’s willing to pay for redemption, which he’s never really faced before in terms of money and deals.
And I think the arc of the third film is this: it’s the troubles of the world closing in on Michael, and it’s him trying to claw his way out of this pit of despair while he tries to make deals in a legitimate world and escape the evil of his past.
The ending should’ve been vastly different. The montage in Part III failed because it presented something in the same vein of montages that we’ve seen before, and it wasn’t the true conclusion of where this story was headed. It doesn’t ring true to me. The death montage should’ve been about, NOT the Corleones once again “settling accounts,” but it’s the world settling accounts with the Corleones. This is the inevitable end of where this story was headed – the absolute ruination of the Corleone family. And in that montage, it is the Corleones who get wiped out, including Neri, Mary, and Vincent Mancini. Michael would escape it all, and in the end, we would see Michael die alone as we did in the finished film. THAT is where the third act of the Godfather series was truly headed, a real tragedy in every sense. Even if I had been around to suggest such an idea to Coppola, I don’t know if he could’ve filmed it because it would’ve been too painful, because he had made it so personal. But had he been given time, he might’ve seen the light.
* I didn’t mind Sofia Coppola being in the film (nor the subplot about forbidden love between two cousins), but there should’ve been some time to train her as an actor first. Mary had a far bigger, more engaging personality in the first draft, which was somehow lost in the finished film.
* The voice overs had to go. Unnecessary and out of place in this movie. The opening scene, especially, was an almost amateurish approach to giving exposition.
* And finally, I love you, Francis, but Michael’s hair was a bad choice.