prompt book

In this video, Francis Ford Coppola explains how he approached directing The Godfather. (Thanks for the link, Ozan!) Remember the previous essay about Stanley Kubrick’s boxes? Coppola did something similar with his Godfather Notebook, a massive tome he created to prepare for the film while reading the novel that inspired it. Coppola attributes the technique he used to director Elia Kazan, whose own book on directing is now at the top of my pile.

“I think it’s important to put your impressions down on the first reading,” Coppola explains, “because those are the initial instincts about what you thought was good or what you didn’t understand or what you thought was bad.” Coppola calls the end result a “prompt book.” In the theater, a prompt book contains a master copy of a play as well as the blocking for the actors and the technical cues for the crew. It’s the final authority on what should be happening on stage at any given moment. For The Godfather, Coppola was creating something different. His prompt book didn’t even include the film’s script. Instead, the director used it to immerse himself more fully in the world of the book and plan his cinematic adaptation as thoroughly as possible before exposing a single frame of film.

After reading Mario Puzo’s book the first time and marking it up with his “initial instincts,” Coppola painstakingly cut out all 600 or so pages. Then he cut rectangles out of blank looseleaf paper and pasted each book page inside one so that you could see both sides and still have fat margins for more commentary. As the director explains this rigorous methodology decades later, you can see the pride he still takes in having gone to this length, all the way down to the hole reinforcers he meticulously added to keep the paper from tearing out of the binder during production.

In the prompt book, Coppola analyzed each scene to be filmed using the same basic elements: synopsis, notes on imagery and tone, a summary of the core function of the scene, pitfalls to avoid. “How can I screw this up?” Coppola wanted to know. “What are dangers, things that you want to avoid…Italians who-a talk-a like thees.” It wouldn’t suffice to anticipate potential mistakes. He would also need prompting to avoid these pitfalls. On the spot. While doing the work. That’s why he kept the huge book handy, lugging it everywhere, reading it constantly. Always looking to deepen his understanding of the material and keep his “initial instincts” fresh.

“This document was a kind of multilayered roadmap for me to direct the film,” Coppola recalls. “[Although] there was a script, obviously, I tended to take this around…I was able to review not only Mario Puzo’s original text but all my first notations…as to what was important to me or what I felt was really going on in the book.” This goes back to last week’s essay about thinking much more deeply than we’re normally accustomed to doing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re adapting a novel into a film or drafting an original manuscript using notes and research. You have to sit with your material. Really sit with it. You can’t do good work off the cuff. You only get in the groove by going over everything you’ve gathered: highlighting what stands out, writing down your impressions, reviewing those impressions, letting them inspire you to even greater depths of analysis. Deeper, always deeper. It can feel like a waste of time, particularly under a deadline, but deeper is where you find all the best stuff.

For Coppola, the prompt book was a necessary reminder from his reading self to his directing self. A set of cues to help the “poor little director sitting there” remember his original artistic intentions when his thoughts were crowded by budgets and deadlines. This is the same reason outlining is so crucial for writers. You’re giving Future You a much-needed map of the territory. Make sure you include all the relevant details because you won’t remember them later. “I had done this preparation before I wrote the script, so I wrote the script from this,” Coppola points out. “[The] script was really an unnecessary document. I didn’t even need a script because I could have made the movie just from this notebook [emphasis mine].”

To me, Coppola’s notebook looks a bit like the Talmud, the primary text of Jewish culture and law. As Jonathan Rosen explains in his excellent book The Talmud and the Internet, the Jews innovated an unusual layout for the books of the Talmud to allow centuries of commentary and commentary-on-commentary to co-exist on a physical page with the original text. Medieval hypertext. Today, writers approach complex, layered writing projects using digital tools like MindNode, Roam, Notion, Ulysses, DevonThink, and Scrivener. Computers make it much easier to gather and connect ideas, research, stories, and other relevant material. They still can’t beat paper when it comes to finding those connections, though.

One way or the other, steering a large creative project demands a steady hand at the tiller. Lose track of your destination and you risk blocking the canal. The problem is that the brain changes over time.  Your thoughts move. You evolve. Yet the work is still underway. Like the Ship of Theseus, you’re not the same director on the last day of shooting that you were on the first. Nor are you the same author you were when you reach the final page of a draft. To maintain the integrity of your vision, put your intentions down at the start and review them regularly. Maintain that connection with your earlier self or you risk forgetting why you started in the first place, or where you wanted to go.

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