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THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Reassessing “The Godfather” in the Age of Coronavirus
Fifty years ago this month, one of the greatest films ever made began shooting in New York City. Based on Maria Puzo’s novel of the same name, “The Godfather” is widely regarded as a landmark film and one of director Francis Ford Coppola’s best movies.
Written by Coppola and Puzo, “The Godfather” stars a murders-row of Hollywood icons; Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duval, and Diane Keaton. The film premiered on March 14th, 1972, and became the highest-grossing film of the year, winning three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Ranked #2 on AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies of all time, this is considered to be one of the most influential movies ever made. From the opening lines “I believe in America,” through the wedding scene, to “make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “leave the gun, take the cannoli,” “don’t ask me about my business,” Brando and the orange peel, and that final iconic shot, “The Godfather” is filled to brim with unforgettable scenes.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the turning point for Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone— the unforgettable Louis Restaurant Scene —with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into three categories:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
- Tweaks that maximize safety
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the most famous moments in film history. Let’s look at one of “The Godfather’s” most tense scenes and see, first, what elements are already COVID-19 ready.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
When director Francis Ford Coppola and company were filming this scene in the spring of 1971, no one had to think about pandemic safety on set. And yet, there are several aspects of the scene that follow good COVID-19 safety procedures. Here we want to highlight two areas:
- Cast Size
- Cast Spacing
One of the safest ways to shoot any scene during a pandemic is to minimize the number of characters in it. This scene from “The Godfather” has very few. There is a total of eleven people in this scene and only three speaking roles: Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden).
When shooting in a pandemic, we must follow union guidelines. This means establishing multiple zones and tracking everyone and everything that goes through each zone. The closer to the actual set we get, the more rigorous the safety and testing procedures become.
Pandemic safety takes time and money to do correctly. Cutting to an absolute minimum the number of people in a scene dramatically increases the scene’s safety. Coppola and company could have made it a busy shift at the restaurant that night, but they didn’t. If we had to shoot this scene today, we would make it a sleepy night too.
Not only is it not a busy night, but the background actors playing the customers are also spaced perfectly for COVID-19 safety. None of the other guests in the establishment that night are anywhere close to our main cast members.
As we talked about in detail in our article on “Goodfellas,” the best way to keep your lead actors safe is to keep them as far away from extras as possible. Large groups are a minefield of potential contamination.
If our leads get infected, our entire production would halt (and potentially even shut down, depending on the infection’s severity). We want to avoid this at all costs. An easy way to do this is to space your actors as well as Coppola did in this scene from “The Godfather.”
Even though it was shot fifty years ago, the minimal cast and the spacing in this scene make it a pretty safe scene to shoot during a pandemic. It is not, however, as safe as it could be. Let’s look now at a few elements that might be risky to shoot during this pandemic.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
The first safety issue that jumps out at us is the location itself. This scene takes place in a restaurant, indoors, during business hours. Shooting indoors is not advisable during this pandemic. Without proper ventilation, indoor locations can spread COVID-19 far too easily.
This scene also occurs during business hours, so we must populate the scene with some extras to ensure that the audience understands that the restaurant is open. This increases the number of people that must enter the inner-most zone of the set and therefore increases time, testing, tracking, and money while also increasing the possibility of contamination.
The second issue we see is the proximity of the waiter and the main cast members. While all of the other diners remain at a safe distance for most of the scene, the waiter stands table-side and opens a bottle for the three principal actors. As we have mentioned before, keeping your main cast at a safe distance from others is an easy way to maximize their safety.
While the opening of the bottle provides atmosphere, a sense of realistic restaurant activities, and a mild source of tension with the squeaking cork, it doesn’t seem like a worthwhile risk given the full nature of the scene.
The final safety issue we see is the fact that McCluskey is eating. Food has not been shown to be a likely transmitter of COVID-19, so we are not worried about the food itself. The issue is the fork, knife, plate, and cup that actor Sterling Hayden uses throughout the scene.
Food is always a tricky thing to have in a scene. Actors eat it, so there is less of it as the scene progresses. When you shoot repeated takes, fresh food needs to be brought in to match the food from the beginning of the scene. This leads actors to eat less, which can end up creating continuity issues in the editing room.
From a COVID-19 perspective, the fact that one of the main actors will be putting things in his mouth during this scene—over and over again with each take—should give us pause. Coupled with the fact that additional crewmembers interact with the utensils to reset for additional takes, this one bit of character behavior becomes a golden opportunity for an outbreak.
Eating during a scene is something we would highly discourage during the pandemic. The virus spreads by interacting with our respiratory system and mucus membranes. This is why we wear masks, sanitize our hands, and refrain from touching our faces. Having an actor put things in his or her mouth during a scene asks that person to put themselves in a vulnerable position. This will, in turn, put the entire production at risk.
Now that we have identified the aspects of the scene that are potentially problematic in a pandemic, let’s look at ways to mitigate those risks.
Tweaks That Increase Safety
Changing this scene, even slightly, is a ridiculous suggestion. This scene is one of the most famous scenes in one of the most famous movies ever made. We’re just brainstorming ways to make it safer if we had to film it during this pandemic.
As always, we must consider the worst-case scenarios when assessing risk on a production. With COVID-19, that worst case is death. What if Al Pacino got COVID-19 during this scene and died? Or Sterling Hayden? Or Al Lettieri? Or any one of them got it and gave it to another actor in a later scene?
As we mentioned earlier, the majority of the scene is pretty safe already. There is minimal cast on set and the spacing is amazing. If we were filming “The Godfather” today—with an eye toward COVID-19 safety—we would take a closer look at this scene during pre-production. Then offer some suggestions to the creative team to find the safest way to shoot it.
Minor adjustments to the location, the blocking, and the actions in this scene can dramatically affect the scene’s safety without detrimentally affecting its power.
These are some questions we would ask the creative team to help make this scene safer to film during a pandemic:
- Does the restaurant need to be open? Perhaps we could have the place close down for this scene. That might actually increase the tension as Michael is anticipating a revolver in the bathroom. When the place closes down upon their arrival, it might make him wonder if the gun was successfully planted.
- Would it be possible to have the server open the wine before the start of the scene? He could still perform realistic activities in the background, but we would like to see him stay a safe distance from the main actors.
- Could McCluskey not eat during this scene? The eating adds atmosphere, realism, and characterization, but it puts the actors at too great a risk. In fact, eating could actually suggest that McCluskey doesn’t suspect anything. He is relaxed, digging into his supper. This undercuts the tension slightly. If he were hungry, antsy, and waiting for his food to arrive, it might further increase tension.
- Is there an alternative restaurant location that has open-air seating? If we could set this scene outside, we would dramatically increase safety. There are plenty of restaurants that have courtyards, patios, and other open-air seating options. By shooting this scene in one of those locations, we might lose some of the indoor setting’s claustrophobia. Still, there are ways to dress and shoot the scene to achieve a similar sense of being trapped. The increase in safety would be well worth it.
Without drastically changing the scene, we can still effectively increase set safety. Regardless of how successful we would be in convincing the creative team to take all of our suggestions, we can still positively affect safety. We could:
- Inspect ventilation system, and upgrade it if necessary, for safety.
- Ensure that proper set safety standards are in place.
- Test all cast and crew, and track the results.
- Observe maximum PPE usage.
Shooting during a pandemic is not easy, but it can be done safely with the proper care and attention to detail. Despite being shot a half-century ago, the Louis Restaurant Scene from “The Godfather” is already remarkably pandemic-safe. And it is easy to make maximally safe without losing much.
Without “The Godfather,” there would be no “Once Upon a Time in America” or “Goodfellas.” No “Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad.” The influence of this one movie is staggering. It launched Al Pacino’s and Diane Keaton’s careers, it revived Brando’s and Coppola’s. In 1990, it was selected for the National Film Registry.
It is one of a handful of movies that remain powerful decades after its release. Set during the 1940s and ’50s, “The Godfather” is still relevant in 2021 because it is about the American Dream, the immigrant experience, the power of money, and the ties of family.
“The Godfather” was made in the aftermath of the 1960s, during the turbulence of the Vietnam War. Let’s remember that as we head out into our own precarious moment in history: It is possible to make great cinema even in the face of uncertainty.
Happy filming, and stay safe, everyone. Join us next month to look through the COVID lens at “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
COVID-19 has affected every aspect of the film and television industry from pre-production through production, post-production, and distribution. This article is part of an on-going series designed to help you understand how the pandemic has changed the process of making movies and television by evaluating Hollywood classics. In this series — Through the COVID Lens — we consider how movies and television shows might change if they were filmed during this pandemic.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.