Read this if you are:
- An Editor
- A Director
We live in an era of binge-watching, and someone realized this when they put together The Godfather Epic.
I was fairly young when my Mom showed me The Godfather. She simply prefaced my 11 year old eyes and ears with: “This is the best.” She was right.
The Godfather Series (or at least Part I and Part II) represent that rare phenomena: movies hailed as some of the greatest cinematic achievements actually live up to the hype, through and through. They really are that good.
Now, I’m dating myself, but I remember when AMC (before they had hit shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead) used to run what was called The Godfather Saga: the first two Godfather films, rearranged chronologically and combined together.
So this is what I’d assumed I was getting into when I saw The Godfather Epic pop up on HBO GO. The Godfather Epic mashes together the first two films and rearranges them, beginning in 1902, but it also adds additional scenes and footage. The total runtime is 7 hours.
After a long, late night, my girlfriend and I sat down one Sunday morning and pressed play on the Epic. When it was over, it was dark outside.
Throughout that full day of viewing I saw the films I’d grown up watching with my Mom in a whole new light—I even texted back and forth with her in real time about it.
Admittedly, the Epic doesn’t maintain the suspense of the original films. Primarily, the jumping around in Part II is crucial to the film’s suspense.
However, scenes were added to flesh out characters even further, subplots were explored in greater depth, and the world seemed richer overall. Many of these exta moments were certainly omitted from the originals for a reason.
I really hope filmmakers take the time to watch The Godfather Epic, though. It’s quite the experience as an audience, fan, student, and maker of media!
Watching one of my all time favorites in this format—I know Parts I and II like the back of my hand—taught me some great filmmaking lessons that I want to share with you, and was 7 hours well spent.
The length of a film or program impacts the relevance of information.
The original Godfather film is 175 minutes long, and Godfather Part II is 202 minutes. The Godfather Epic’s duration assumes a viewer is willing to sit for a longer period of time with the material, and has a predetermined interest in the story and characters.
This is much like Netflix’s release strategy, stemming from the idea that audiences want to marathon entire seasons of television in a sitting.
This combination of viewer interest and span of viewing opens up more possibilities for character exploration, and changes the pacing game.
Fitting a vast storyline with multiple characters, set-pieces, locations, and arcs into a more condensed piece requires a deft editing hand and great attention to pace. Pacing a narrative requires great attention to how information is relayed, when, and why?
Many interesting moments had to be trimmed from the original Godfather to make way for the story’s momentum.
The material is dense—from the richly developed players to detailed backstories, such as the Corleone family’s history with Woltz International Pictures.
I found scenes that were originally cut from The Godfather absolutely fascinating in the framework of the Epic. But those same sequences would have been meandering and unnecessary in the original film.
As a filmmaker and/or editor, you should approach your piece as a complete experience, not on a scene-by-scene basis.
How does your overall story flow from scene to scene, and why? What is your target duration and how can the story flow best within those parameters?
SHOOT MORE THAN YOU NEED, WITH INTENTION
Early on in the Epic, it became abundantly clear that Coppola maximized every single location’s magnificent detail, and each actor’s chops.
The streets of Depression-era New York were shot richly and extensively—far more than actually appeared in the finished Part II. Every shot was composed masterfully. Shots that landed on the cutting room floor were just as compelling as those that made the finished films.
Great attention was paid to every aspect of these films, and each sequence was executed with remarkable clarity and craft.
As a filmmaker, it’s crucial to approach each sequence with the same amount of importance as the last. While shooting, no moment should be underutilized.
Think about the power you can inject into the details and get as much footage out of them as possible. You never know where editing will take your film until you’re cutting away the fat, so that fat should be difficult to part with.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
There is a wonderful sequence in the first Godfather film: after a visit from Clemenza with updates on his father, Sonny takes a call from the foes who’ve just shot his father and kidnapped his brother Tom.
He jots a meeting address on his kitchen cabinet with a pencil. Growing agitated with the caller, he begins losing his cool, only to be put in check by the adversary on the other line.
Between Clemenza and the phone call, we see a rare moment of softness as Sonny embraces his frightened wife.
In the Epic, this scene is prefaced by another sequence, wherein Sonny takes a call at his dining table notifying him that his father was shot. He grows extremely angry, wringing his hands over the phone receiver. It’s a single shot that lasts quite a while.
This jumped out at me in a huge way, and I momentarily wondered why it never made the final film?
Given the timing of this scene in the original Godfather, it would have been unnecessary. The story is moving as fast as it ever does. Multiple plates are spinning for all the key characters, and we still have other plot points to visit before the conflict is resolved.
It seems the filmmakers were forced to consider which of Sonny’s moments packed the greatest punch? They chose wisely for the final film, as his grief-filled moment alone is a bit over the top, even for him.
Sonny’s rarified vulnerability is presented when he embraces his wife, and we don’t need to see him brooding with over the phone to know he has a temper. See, his earliest introduction, and one of the greatest improvisations of all time:
We also don’t need to see him receiving a tragic phone call to know he loves his father, and the Clemenza visit shows he’s aware before receiving the meet-up call.
The moral of this example: if all necessary information is packed into one scene, there’s likely no reason to include it in a previous scene, unless the momentum of the film allows or it’s essential to the story.
A well written and staged scene should have multiple power-points and the characters’ objectives should be clear throughout. Filmmakers should pay close attention to these elements, so that they’re free to edit scenes to any duration for the ultimate momentum.
You’ll never know how a scene plays out in the grand scheme of the story until it’s visually sandwiched between two others.
STAGE “PARTIAL” SCENES COMPLETELY
Piggy-backing on the last points, the smallest sequences deserve full treatment.
In a screenplay, scenes may begin halfway through, or be written to intercut and jump around between other scenes. On set, it’s important to create a sense of space and continuity to those same scenes.
With reference to Sonny’s phone call scene, it has a clear beginning, middle and end. If possible, filmmakers should opt to shoot as many scenes as they can that way, whether they are written as such or not.
This opens up editory possibilities: in the final cut, the filmmakers opted to only use the last half of the scene, while in the Epic they included the entire structure, cut in half.
Staging scenes in an arc also opens the possibility of discovering something in a sequence that may not have existed on the written page. Filmmaking is about that discovery.
Don’t forget: there’s the film you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. They are three different films entirely, but only one represents them all. Don’t short-change the final version by short-changing the scenes that comprise it.
MAINTAIN CLARITY OF TONE
I was floored by how cohesive the HD remastered Epic version was, with two films combined, reordered, mashed together, and restructured.
While differing slightly between Godfather I and II, the continuity of light and color pallets is remarkable. Major variances were based on location and time period—Ellis Island looked different from Sicily, which differed from Tahoe, which contrasted Cuba, and so on.
Yet, compositions, and general trends in shadowplay were consistent. Though the stories of Part I and Part II differ, and they were produced two years apart on vastly different budgets, Coppola never seemed to forget that they comprise a single epic saga.
This is never more apparent than in the Epic, which flows from the flashbacks in Part II, into Part I, and back to the present day Part II.
The flow is a reminder to filmmakers that a unified vision is key—especially as a director. The director’s job is not simply to hatch cool shot ideas or draw out interesting performances, but to create a film or series that is authentic to itself.
The responsibility falls on directors to ensure that all creative decisions are made in the best interests of the story, and not just for the hell of it.
THE THINGS YOU CUT MAY COME IN HANDY
Like it or not, we live in interesting times where filmmakers publicly tweak their films throughout the years.
Vivian Kubrick, wife of the great Stanley Kubrick admitted that Kubrick never stopped working on his films, even after they had been released. He was making cuts and rearranging Barry Lyndon and Clockwork Orange until his death.
While some feel these films should be left alone, the general reasons behind filmmakers augmenting them later are generally either: they were initially forced to make cuts against their will, or they were unable to achieve certain effects under past technological constraints.
As a filmmaker, consider this perspective: you make a small indie film that becomes a cult classic, and years from its release, people want to see more. Let’s then say you initially cut that film down in length to optimize its appeal and momentum.
Years down the line, it may be cool to show an uncut version of the film to audiences, delivering more of what they want. Better yet, you could present it to students to educate them on the very content of this article, in relation to your own work.
At the very least it can be educational for your own process to chip away at old projects over time, and play around with their structure in preparation for future films.
There are many reasons the things you cut may come in handy down the line, so…
SAVE YOUR ROUGH CUTS
The Godfather Epic proves that saving different iterations of your film is worth its weight in data.
You as a filmmaker never know what the impact of your work will be until it’s out, nor will you know whether you yourself are truly finished with it.
Had Coppola, his team, and Paramount not saved everything, we may never have had this perspective on one of cinema’s most revered series’, nor would we Coppola have had reference points to re-tool while polishing the finished films into the masterpieces they became.
MASTERPIECES ARE MADE, NOT BORN
The Godfather Epic shows students of cinema a clear sign that all films begin as stories, blossom into scripts, are shot as productions, turn into rough cuts, and are massaged into finished works.
Some finished works become masterpieces.
These masterpieces all started at the same place: an idea. That idea went through iterations, and under controlled hands, grew into important works. As you work on your films, and hopefully watch The Godfather Epic, think about the implicit lessons.
Like The Godfather was, your film is at some stage of development, and will hopefully be completed one day. Keep your vision clear, stay focused, pay attention to the details, and always work in the best interest of the finished cinematic experience.
Some day, you may be in a position to educate us all with an elongated version of your work!
Have you seen The Godfather Epic? Tell us what you thought and learned in the comments! Thanks for reading 🙂