Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
I’ve talked about structure frequently on my Script Gods website. There is a classic style to The Godfather that makes it an ideal choice to study as a structural model or, what I would call, Classic Structre... I do this with the hope it can help you, Good Reader, in trying to find structural signposts for your own movie. There are 50+ structural books out there but for the sake of simplicity let’s stick with the Syd Field method. The key points in what Syd calls his “Paradigm” are as follows:
• Page 1-10: FIRST SEQUENCE: Establish the world, the key characters, the tone, beginnings of conflict.
• Page 10-15: INCITING INCIDENT: The event that signals change to the world you just set up.
• Page 25: PLOT POINT 1: Lynch pin scene. Scene that takes you out of the First Act. You know this scene because there is no movie without it.
• Pages 25-50: RISING ACTION: Second act is twice as long as first or third. First half of the second act is a deepening of story and character, a deepening of the movie’s theme, moving us toward…
• Page 50: MIDPOINT: A key scene, though not as essential as either Plot Point scene. It approximates the end of rising action, moving the story into descent, placing the protagonist(s) in grave danger, culminating in…
• Page 75: PLOT POINT 2: “All is lost” moment. “Dark night of the soul,” etc. Movie and character low points should be end of the second act. This is another lynch pin scene to the essential degree of: There is no movie without it. 100 page model is comes here. If the movie is 120 pages, it would come closer to page 90. Second Act ends here.
• Page 90: CLIMAX: Story and character arcs end in an inevitable, plausible manner. Resolution is not required. Happy endings are not required. Character growth is. The thematic journey complete.
• POINT OF ENTRY
The Godfather features one of the best opening sequences ever: The Wedding. What do you need to do with your first 10 pages? Establish the world, the tone, the key characters, the beginnings of conflict. Check, check, check, and check. We meet the entire Corleone family here in a single 10 page sequence. Establish the unmistakable tone, and set up the next sequence, when Tom is sent out to LA to get Frank Sinatra the movie role.
• PLOT POINT 1
Remember the first meeting with Sollozzo? This is not Plot Point 1, but it’s arguably the most important scene in the movie. Now you’re like… Huh?
Syd Field structure tells us that the Plot Point 1 takes us out of the First Act. It’s a lynch pin scene. There’s no movie without it. In a 100 page movie, it happens around page 25. In a two-hour movie, it happens more like page 30.
In the case of The Godfather, and indeed the entire Godfather trilogy—none of it would exist without this Sollozzo scene.
What the hell is Peditto—a Southern Italian on both sides of his family—talking about?
Recall the scene: Don Corleone is talked into meeting with the drug dealer Sollozzo by both Sonny and Tom. In the meeting the Don is offered the chance to go into business with Sollozzo. Sollozzo wants access to Don Corleone’s powerful friends—judges, politicians. In return he will cut the Don in for a thick percentage. Everyone stands to make millions. Yet Brando turns him down. He points out he would lose his political connections and judges if they discovered he was peddling heroin. He wishes Sollozzo the best, but refuses him.
This single decision determines the entire course of The Godfather Trilogy.
Think about it: If Brando tells Sollozzo he will go into business with him, there is no assassination attempt made on the Don. Brando doesn’t end up in the hospital. Michael, the war veteran, follows through his previous life course, marries Kaye and never becomes the Don. Michael does not kill Sollozzo in the restaurant. He doesn’t go to Italy. Sonny doesn’t die—least not at the tollbooth like he did.
All of this happens because Brando turns Sollozzo down. Plot Points are lynch pin scenes. There is no movie without them.
So what is the Plot Point 1 scene for The Godfather? The first sequence, The Wedding, opened up the movie with 15 or more scenes (19 pages total) concentrating around the big event of Carla’s wedding. This introduces us to the entire Corleone family. It also fully sets up the world, the tone, and the beginnings of conflict.
The second sequence is what? Right… Hollywood. The horse’s head!
The Sinatra character had to have that role, so Tom Hagan roles out to L.A. to have a little talk with the all-powerful movie producer Woltz. He disses Tom at the start, and then learns who he is and brings him to him home to make amends. They go to the stables, see the beautiful million dollar horse, have a marvelous dinner, but the movie producer isn’t changing his mind. Johnny Fontaine ruined one of his young actresses lives with his olive oil voice and guinea charm (well, presumably the damage was done more than just guinea charm)… Tom excuses himself and makes plans to leave, the Don always insists on hearing bad news quickly. Cue night, silk sheets, and Seabiscuit no more. This sequence puts the Puzo-Coppola draft on page 22.
That brings us to the Sollozzo scene on pages 23-25. So, what’s the Plot Point 1 scene?
Yep, it’s the assassination attempt on Don Corleone:
This happens on page 32, just about the exact page a two-hour movie would want to be according to the Old School, Syd Field structural model.
Here’s what the script looks like:
THE DON AND FREDO LEAVING THE GENCO OFFICE – LATE AFTERNOON
Aspetta, Fredo; I’m gonna buy some fruit
(getting into the driver’s
seat of the car)
Hi, merry Christmas; I wan some fruit over
there. What is this? Gimme three. And that
After the don gets some oranges and a green pepper, he hears footsteps, then running. He begins to run toward the car, he stumbles and falls onto the car. The shooters shoot about 10 shots at him. The Don screams Uh!, falls over, the assassins run, and the Don falls to the curb.
(gets out of the car,
fumbling with the gun, then
sits on the curb crying)
I can’t…I can’t…Papa!
• PLOT POINT 2
What’s the low point of The Godfather? I’d argue it’s on page 90 of the script: Michael is told of the death of his brother Sonny, In the very next scene he watches as his new wife Apollonia blown to bits in an assassination attempt meant for him. Two of the most important people in his life are gone, in moments.
Here is another sequence that defines the very essence of what we’ve come to know from this Godfather trilogy. Once the Don dies in the tomato garden, Michael takes over. At the funeral he sees who his true enemy is, and who will betray him. Then begins, on page 111, the Baptism Sequence, centered with Michael becoming Godfather to Connie’s baby, with the quick cutaway to multiple murders at a barbershop, a massage place, a courthouse, contrasting the beauty of the baby and church surroundings with the bloody events outside. In some ways, it’s Michael’s baptism by blood that we’re actually seeing. Incredible crosscutting here, setting up the rare sequel that might be better than the original and an ok 3rd movie.
I’m Italian, you think I’m gonna say that last movie sucked? Fughedaboudit!
- More articles by Paul Peditto
- Screenwriter’s Guidepost: Is Screenplay Structure Theory Ruining Movies?
- Reel Story: Why Story Structure Formulas Don’t Work