Q&A with Talia Shire of ‘The Godfather’

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Few films in the history of cinema have generated the excitement of “The Godfather.” So it’s not surprising how thrilled cinema fans are that the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, along with its famed cinematographer, Gordon Willis, spent the better part of a year going over the worn negatives of the first two Godfather films in a frame-by-frame digital restoration. The resulting five-disc DVD set (four on Blu-ray), “The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration,” also features a more easily remastered version of “The Godfather: Part III,” and two discs of extras.

Actress Talia Shire has a unique perspective on the classic series, as both the actress who played Connie Corleone in all three films and the sister of the mastermind behind them — Coppola. Shire, nominated for Oscars for her roles as Connie in “The Godfather: Part II” and as Adrian in the “Rocky” films, has helped expand this famous show business family even further.

Her son Robert is a member of the popular rock band Rooney, and one of her other sons is famed “Rushmore” actor Jason Schwartzman. Shire spoke to Bankrate about her recollections of this legendary film series, her brother’s work in shaping the film and how show business has treated her since.

Bankrate: When you sat down to watch the new, restored version of “The Godfather,” how noticeable was the difference to you?

Talia Shire: I hadn’t seen the film in a while. I saw (the new version) in Australia, and they had 65 live musicians create an overture. When I sat down and had the experience in the theater with the live musicians, what it did was fascinating. It transformed the music in the movie. So it was very, very current. It was an interesting feeling. The movie looked gorgeous. It’s breathtaking. You drop your jaw, you really do. It’s almost perfection.

Bankrate: So the difference was obvious?

Talia Shire: Yes, but also, I have to be honest, it’s not that you’re just looking at the difference, but I was amazed that this movie is just a perfect movie. It’s an amazing movie. This restoration was done by Francis. He worked very hard with the cinematographer, who had such a daring palette of colors.

Bankrate: Being both a cast member and having “The Godfather” as such a big part of your family, what goes through your mind when you watch it now?

Talia Shire: This is number one: It’s odd to watch it. I saw a very inexperienced actress who was quite scared. By the way, when I saw number two and three, I saw the evolution of a character. But in this one, I was looking at it, trying to bring back those early memories of how nervous I was because there was Marlon Brando. That was an amazing experience. So it brought back those incredible memories of meeting this very great actor.

Bankrate: What are your memories of the way your brother handled the whole process back then?

Talia Shire: Francis was a theater arts major, so he’s very articulate, and he has a very strong aesthetic. I remember everybody on that set was charged with energy. We all felt that Francis was making something unique and bringing out the very best, and he was very daring. There was no one on the set like Francis. There really wasn’t.

Bankrate: On the new DVD, I was especially intrigued with all the information (on the DVD extras) about how so many elements of the film almost didn’t come to pass. What are some of your memories of the difficulties of getting the film made?

Talia Shire: Francis was a very young director. He was for hire, he had some extraordinary ideas for casting, and they weren’t the same ideas that the studio thought were correct. Also, this was a blockbuster book. So you have this very interesting director suddenly (talking about) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino. (And they’re asking), “Who’s Diane Keaton?” And Francis was right.

Bankrate: I find it fascinating that the studio was resistant to casting Al Pacino.

Talia Shire: I heard about that. Francis kept a lot of this stuff close to the chest, and that’s probably why I shouldn’t have been in the movie, because it was very political: “I’ll give you one of those for one of these.” But Frances was right. You can see how Al really grows in the role. You really see him in the movie as a young, nervous soldier, and then you really see — I certainly see it — the transformation, because this movie has a very interesting thing in it, which is, the king is dead, long live the king. So when Al, or Michael, becomes the king, he really enters that role. You see this young, wonderful, innocent Michael, and then he really starts to emerge as an actor. You see him emerge; you see him dropping in the frame brilliantly. It’s really breathtaking to watch that happen.

Bankrate: While the studio first saw this as a gangster picture, Francis had some bigger ideas about the story he wanted to tell — a story of a king and his sons and a story of capitalism in America. Did he communicate his vision with the cast during filming, or did he keep it implicit?

Talia Shire: The text was extraordinary, and the scale of it was big. I can’t recall that, but I can tell you, I thought it was definitely Julius Caesar, the first one. Then the second one moved into Greek tragedy. It’s one thing to kill an enemy, but when a brother kills a brother, that’s a tragedy. But you get capitalism, and you watch corruption take place in this one family, and that one family will tell you a lot about how we look the other way in a lot of areas.

Bankrate: What else are you doing these days?

Talia Shire: My husband passed away a number of years ago, but we were producing movies. I was acting less back then. I had a number of children, one of whom, Jason Schwartzman, is a great actor. So when my husband passed away, I had three young children, and I acted in a lot of little pieces, which was very healing for me. But I also enjoyed the behind-the-camera stuff, the initiating stuff, because I can’t help myself. I love how you put something together financially. It’s very difficult these days, because nobody is sure of the delivery system. Nobody knows how movies are going to play. God knows they don’t know how they’re going to get their money anymore, and it’s a business. But I’m forever stimulated by dramatic literature, I truly am, so we’ll see where I go next.

Bankrate: When you were producing, were you raising money for financing?

Talia Shire: Jack Schwartzman (Shire’s late husband) was doing it from scratch, so I learned a lot. We really learned how you go off and build a library. You try to get your finances, your domestic and foreign and ancillary rights, which are forever changing. Suddenly, you could have part of your movie as a ringtone, who knows. But I really enjoyed it, and I have an enormous appreciation for that part of it. It’s a very costly, scary thing.

Even for a little, million-dollar movie, a million dollars is a million dollars, and it’s heartbreaking to finally put them together, and they don’t go anywhere. They die. That’s why “Rocky” is kind of an extraordinary thing. I don’t know if we’re ever going to see the little movie become a blockbuster. I don’t know if that will ever happen again.

Bankrate: Do you find the quality of films these days measures up to the quality of films in the ’70s?

Talia Shire: The ’70s were very much a golden age. You got to go to work on the movie lot, which is wonderful. Those were like college campuses. I’m glad I had that experience. My children won’t have that experience. But Francis tried to do that. He tried to bring back the great directors and create this community of talent. It’s a pity we don’t have that (today).

Bankrate: When we think of films like “The Godfather” and “Rocky,” we think, “Wow, the filmmakers who did those must have gotten really rich.” Does that apply to the actors in those films, like yourself, as well?

Talia Shire: It depends on the deal you had going in. And by the way, it’s happening again, “scale plus 10,” to put things together. Luckily I did a lot of sequels, so I was able to increase my salary as the films went on, but we were all getting very little money for those early ones.

Bankrate: What is scale plus 10?

Talia Shire: Sounds like a song from “A Chorus Line,” doesn’t it? You have to know what the fee is that (the Screen Actors Guild) tells you (what) you have to give a SAG actor. “Ten” means they’ll give you the extra 10 percent to pay your agent. You have to remember, movies kind of changed in the ’70s when it went from studios and lawyers to an agency demanding and getting $20 million for a star, so that changed the whole way actors got paid. Some of the big stars on a film would get a chunk, and some of the character people would get very little.

Bankrate: You had a successful career, and your entire family has had show business success. When you accept a project now, do commercial concerns enter into it at all?

Talia Shire: I get scared, because how does one go back in? You’re always scared that you passed that moment in time. A lot of movies today are demographically organized. I’m amazed that the regular guy on the street knows the grosses for a movie. In the old days, you had at least a weekend to marinate it. You had the opportunity to build your audience. Now, not only is it instantly done, but they’re gathering all the information — what age you are, what you like. I believe filmmaking is intuitive, not demographic, but that seems to be dominating movies because they’re such high risk.