Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece, The Godfather, is about as close as you can get to a screenwriting catch-all. From its impeccable recreation of a dark period of American history to its rich dialogue, complex characters, harrowing drama and nail-biting suspense – all spread across an epic, multi-generational canvas – there’s very little a writer can’t learn from this adaptation of Mario Puzo’s classic crime novel.
So, where to start? From the wedding that opens the film, to our first meeting with Don Vito Corleone, to the severed head of a prize stallion, there’s no shortage of memorable moments from which to draw. Instead, though, we’ll be taking a look at a slightly more reserved sequence: the confrontation between Michael Corleone, and Moe Greene, a Las Vegas Casino owner. It’s a relatively simple exchange, but it highlights several features of The Godfather‘s screenplay that make it such an iconic piece of cinematic history.
Take a look below:
Knowing where you’re going.
Towards the end of the scene, Michael warns his brother Fredo against siding with those outside of the family. It’s an ominously dramatic moment – one that hangs in the air, begging the audience to ask “or what?” Coppola chooses not to answer that question – at least not until The Godfather: Part II, which was released two years after the original film.
Whether or not Francis Ford Coppola intended for this moment to foreshadow Fredo’s eventual assassination at the order of Michael is unclear. Though, given the participation of the book’s author Mario Puzo in the writing of both screenplays, it’s likely that the filmmaker had at least a rough idea of where he was going.
It’s Fredo’s death that ultimately concludes Michael’s tragic arc (unless you count the divisive third film, which was released nearly two decades later). Foreshadowing such a pivotal moment here is the dramatic equivalent of getting the ball rolling.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to have a rough idea where you’d like your story to go. Otherwise, it can be difficult to effectively foreshadow future events or set up plants to be paid off dozens of pages down the line. This doesn’t mean locking yourself into an iron-clad outline, either. Often, just having the faintest idea of where things are going is enough.
Conflict through dialogue.
For a scene to be great, it must have an undercurrent of conflict cutting through it. In other words, the characters must have objectives – things they want or need – that they must obtain from the other characters within the scene. And their ensuing success – or failure – to achieve their objective is what defines the arc of the scene. Much in the same way that a protagonist’s success or failure to accomplish their overall goal will ultimately shape the arc of the film.
With this in mind, consider the wise words of Sidney Lumet, director of classics like Dog Day Afternoon and Network, who famously reduced scenes down to three types: arguments, interrogations, and seductions. Notice that all three types are charged by an underlying conflict. Be it information, sex, or the resolution of a disagreement, all three involve the interplay between characters with diverging objectives.
We see something similar here as Michael and Moe argue their way towards a new business arrangement. Throughout the scene, power dynamics shift – Moe highlights the declining health of Don Vito and the falling influence of the Corleone family, while Michael berates the casino owner for his mistreatment of his brother, Fredo. And while Michael manages to stay in control and emerge from the heated exchange victorious, the power struggle keeps us invested in the scene’s outcome.
For your next scene, ask yourself what kind of scene it is and what each character wants. Then, try and figure out who is entering the scene in a position of power, and what the other characters plan to do about it. In other words, find the underlying conflict, and milk it for all its worth.
The inner journey.
This particular scene appears close to the end of the film. By now, the audience has begun to understand that the Michael Corleone we first met – the young earnest man who hoped for a life outside of the family business – is gone for good.
Michael’s been pulled into the fray by circumstance – forced to face obstacle upon obstacle and tragedy upon tragedy. Here, having returned from Sicily following the death of his first wife, he is unrecognizable. His mannerisms are colder, his voice more monotonous. There’s a stillness to him – a quiet assertiveness that calls to mind his father, Vito. Moreover, we sense none of the weaknesses that made his brothers unfit to run the family – be it Fredo’s love of vice, or Sonny’s hot-headedness.
Yet, as tragic as it is for the audience to admit – especially for a character that initially elicits so much hope and empathy – Michael really does seem to be the right man for the job. And all this from a scene that is really little more than a footnote. A necessary beat on the way towards the film’s bloody climax.
The lesson? Remember that the protagonist of your story progresses through two journeys – an outer one, and an inner one. It’s the inner one that makes the difference between a mediocre screenplay, and a great one. How does your character change in the face of the physical obstacles they come across? Who must they become on the inside in order to achieve their external goal?
By keeping your protagonist’s inner journey in mind, you’ll discover no shortage of opportunities to imbue even the most basic scenes with potent subtext.
Frustrated by the dark, frozen winters of Canada, Jeff Legge spent his earliest years indoors nurturing a life-long obsession with the movies. Later, he moved to Los Angeles where he cut his teeth as a script reader while completing an MFA at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He does not recommend playing Scene-It with him, though he does appreciate a good ego boost.