In His Own Words: Production Designer Laurence Bennett on Celebrating the Messiness of "The Offer"
July 28, 2022

written by Laurence BennettPerspective

New York City, 1968, novelist Mario Puzo was broke. His latest book, while getting good reviews, had not sold at all well. Convinced that he could turn things around with a bestseller, he feverishly began work on a potboiler that would draw from his Hell’s Kitchen roots. A gambler as well as a writer, he needed quick cash to relieve pressure from loan sharks, whose threats were quickly escalating. When Robert Evans and Peter Bart at Paramount took an early option on the galleys, Puzo got some breathing room. For a fifteen thousand dollar advance they thought they might never see come to anything, Evans and Bart sowed the seeds of a singular icon of American cinema, The Godfather. Evans desperately needed a hit. Paramount’s standing among the eight major studios in box office was at the bottom, and Gulf and Western owner Charlie Bluhdorn (‘the Mad Austrian of Wall Street’), who’d acquired the studio a few years earlier, was threatening to sell the Hollywood property itself for development if Evans didn’t start delivering hits. Evans was, without exaggeration, fighting to save not just his job, but the historic studio itself.

Francis Coppola’s most recent picture had failed; additionally, American Zoetrope owed Warner Bros. $600k. In directing the project that so many top directors had passed on, he saw an opportunity to make a film within the studio system that he could believe in, that would get him out of debt and out of director jail—if he could figure out how to pull it off. Joe Colombo, boss of one of the five crime families of NYC, needed people to stop talking about the Mafia—especially the NYPD and the FBI. In an assertive move, he became involved with the Italian̪ American Civil Rights League, using it to promote a positive image of the Italian-American community. He hated and publicly railed against Puzo’s book when it became a runaway bestseller and made it his mission to ensure that the movie would never get made.

Upstart Al Ruddy had brazenly managed to trade a job he hated at The Rand Corporation for one producing television by pitching CBS the idea for Hogan’s Heroes. But Ruddy wanted more than anything to make movies. Tasked by Evans with producing what Paramount considered a modestly priced gamble, it was Al who had to wrangle Francis’ creative appetite—while still defending the director’s choices—and go up against Evans and Bluhdorn to get what the project needed. He would shortly find himself in conflict with Joe Colombo. life spent immersed in film has given me a keen appreciation for the mad tales behind movies. The war stories we hear from our elders in the business have purpose: Beyond their undeniable entertainment value, they’re a tribal form of sharing experience and knowledge. Few movies come wrapped in as much lore and myth as The Godfather. It’s the dividing point in the ̳before and since’ of modern American cinema, and the story of its difficult birth has generated much discussion about (and argument over) responsibility, input, stewardship, alliances and enmities. The concepts of ‘print the legend’ and ‘your view, mine and the truth’ both figure largely in the story’s telling by those involved. When initially approached to design The Offer, it wasn’t without hesitation that I considered the project, having enormous respect and admiration for all the filmmakers involved in The Godfather. I was however, intrigued…I’d read a good bit about the travails of the ‘making of,’ but the limited series’ telling of the events is based on the experience of someone I’d not paid much attention to, the inimitable producer Al Ruddy.

“What sealed it for me was when Al said, ‘Every day of making The Godfather was the worst day in my life’, and that told me we had a show. For every character in the fi lm, getting it made or stopping it from being made was at the core of their actions, and it was a matter of life and death to them.” ̪The Off er writer/EP Michael Tolkin, as told to Vanity Fair. Michael (The Player, Escape at Dannemora) spent days talking with Al about that experience, and it was from the unimaginable stories he heard that he and show runner/writer Nikki Toscano (Hunterş crafted the script—one that I found astonishing, thrilling and terribly funny. I was particularly taken by the tremendous heart in the portraits it drew of all the players: The determination and investment they brought to their efforts and struggles somehow beautifully expressed the collaborative creative process in an artistic and commercial venture at its craziest best. Dexter Fletcher ̦Rocketman), who directed the first two of the ten episodes, setting style and tone, was stuck in London awaiting a visa ̦the first of seemingly endless COVID complications), so together we spent a couple weeks poring through photography and fi lm of the late sixties̜early seventies, sharing images and ideas through long, fun Zoom sessions. We were led to the sense that design for this sprawling story in the contrasting worlds of Hollywood, NY business and organized crime needed grounding in realism, but couldn’t be afraid to exert itself in bursts of slightly exaggerated style. And because of the fragmented storyline, jumping coasts and between worlds as it did, attention needed be paid to clarity of locale. s Supervising Art Director Jann Engel put together a team, and I began location scouting and designing the core sets, I was joine by director of photography Sal Totino and location manager Boyd Wilson. Sharing a long preproduction gave us space to explore, so that by the time Dexter arrived, we were able to present a coherent approach to filming the first block—one that excited us. I was lucky to be joined in the adventure by a crew that shared my enthusiasm, because we certainly had challenges first and foremost shooting in New York and Los Angeles  ̦with side trips to Vegas, Texas, Mexico and, especially—Sicily). There are very limited opportunities out on the streets of Los Angeles to convincingly sell, and a fi nite number of backlots, which come with their own set of problems.

And given the disregard Los Angeles has always shown for its history and architecture, physical changes there make exterior LA period work tough as well. We knew going in that we’d need to rely on visual effects both for set extensions and changes to period anachronisms. Early on, I developed a strong working relationship with VFX supervisor John Mangia. We collaborated closely—along with the DPs—to develop an approach that would make sense in handling big exteriors; getting the right look was key, but budget was always a concern. Extensive research by both the Art Department and VFX yielded the material necessary to create accurate and fitting backgrounds and changes. John was based in the Art Department and was there for all of preproduction and shooting. We discussed each set and specific shots at length through the first rough composites and kept in touch about the work throughout its progress. An ideal art/VFX working relationship. Another challenge was the sheer volume of scenery something like one hundred seventy̪-five sets through the ten episodes. Managing workflow can be daunting, but Jann Engel was masterful in wrangling problems thrown at us, directing design development through evolving scripts and frequent schedule changes. Two large stages housed five large core’ sets and a revolving number of swing sets.

Bob Evans’ office on the lot, two years after his passing, had yet to be completely gutted and renovated…the set needed to be a stage build, given the sheer volume of scene work set there—but surveying the actual office was a brief taste of time travel. To differentiate the two NYC crime family bases—the social clubs of Carlo Gambino and Joe Colombo—I relied on the characters’ age and background. Carlo Gambino, head of ‘The Commission,’ was born in Palermo in 1902 and came to US at the age of 19; his club on Mulberry Street, in the heart of Little Italy, was headquarters of his ‘family,’ comprised of fellow immigrants of his generation. The style of that interior is traditional, leaning heavily into the original paneling and ceiling, tile, mouldings and fixtures of the 20th century building. Joe Colombo, twenty years younger and born in NÉC, was the first  American̪ born head of a NY crime family. So, his cohort being younger and first generation American, the style of his Brooklyn club had a '60s sensibility. I could imagine that at some point, Joe had commandeered a local bar in Carroll Gardens— encouraging its owner and patrons to move on— and embraced the existing VCT floor, low ceiling, pool table and jukebox. A large NYC hotel set morphed over the months from one room or suite to another.

And the Polo Lounge with its bar, sweeping soƬ ted ceiling dining room, and patio offered the setting for a variety of lunches, drinks and meetings away from the lot—somewhere Evans often held court. The Paramount lot itself was the setting for several scenes, but numerous changes were necessary each time the production shot on the lot to bring it its appearance in line with the period. Since the lot was completely full through most of the six months of filming, we had to coordinate with studio management and numerous other shows to find workarounds to basecamps, vehicles, COÂID testing tents, and other filming activity. The series did extensive NYC exterior work on the backlots at Paramount, Warner Bros. and Universal, with VFX extending and augmenting the streets. Location work was spread all over the zone, from downtown to the edge of the desert. A slew of restaurants, among them: The Smokehouse, which stood in for Chasen’s, The Buffalo Club for Sardi’s, and Musso & Frank, as itself. The Beverly Hilton yielded our Las Vegas Sands Hotel sets̏ the pool and cabana, and the ballroom (where for years the DG had its awards celebratioņ served as the fabled Copa Room.) 

The original Pereira Έ Luck man̪designed buildings at L Center Studios were the headquarters of Union Oil, making them an ironic period̪correct West Coast analog for the Gulf and Western headquarters at Columbus Circle in NY. A mild rework of part of a floor there, including the addition of some floating pierced screens, yielded Bluhdorn’s executive offices. Building The Godfather production offices originally in the Filmways building in East Harlem as a stage set wasn’t feasible, given cost and lack of stage space. Boyd and I scouted a wide range of locations, but were frustrated, finding all to be nothing but a bunch of unconnected, unappealing rooms. Unshootable. Then he remembered the education wing at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, which I’d forgotten. Built as a nursery/preschool, and currently unused, it comprises a row of classrooms windowed on all sides, laid end to end, paralleled by a hall. We saw the possibility of having views from one office to the next, out into the hallway, and so on. Given permission by the location to add doors between each of those rooms, we got the bonus of increased flow. Famed Lower East Side warehouse club Electric Circus offered an opportunity to have some fun; we partnered with a NY lighting designer who does authentic ’˝˗s̪style fluid̪oil light shows, and the camera and electric departments, to make an installation of projections on a tensile fabric environment. A number of sets from the original movie were replicated, not for the scenes themselves, but for the drama (and comedy) around them and the production, a few being Louis’ restaurant ̦where Pacino as Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey, wowing everyone with his steely intensity, thereby saving his job) was built out in a shopfront at the Hotel Barclay; and the 5th Avenue Best & Co. (where Michael and Kay shop before Christmas) was done on the NY streets Universal backlot.

While the production always planned (and looked forward to) doing the Episode nine Sicily work in Sicily, as the movie crew had done, two factors made that unworkable: the fact that the original locations have changed so significantly in the intervening fifty years̛ and the complications that COÂID presented at that moment in moving even a limited crew and cast. Those scenes were broken down to driving work ̦I selected roads and city streets from scouts’ photos and video in Sicily) done by a second unit in Italy̛ and first unit work with the principals, mostly shot at Sable Ranch— there we built the Castello where The Godfather team shot the car explosion that killed Michael’s new bride, and Bar Vitelli, where Michael met her father. The discovery online of a scan of original drawings and careful frame by frame analysis of footage yielded the information needed to replicate Don Corleone’s den office accurately. Its proportions and intimate scale are surprisingly pleasing, and standing in it, one couldn’t help but be awed anew by Tavoularis and team’s beautiful work. The team of talented, experienced people that Jann brought together for our department shared an uncommon commitment to the project. Art Directors Narry Otto, Candice Muriedas and Jason Perrine, and Set Designers audy Cosgrove and Phil Toolin, along with Graphic Artists Tim Swope and Michael Richie White, all felt a shared responsibility in getting it right. Construction coordinator Bryan Turk and paint supervisor Mark Woodworth similarly led teams who were uncommonly engaged with and committed to the material. As always, Art Department coordinator Carole Kiefer, with experienced balance, was indispensable in coordinating and tracking all the moving parts.

Partnering with me in realizing this huge assortment of sets, set decorator Lisa Alkofer achieved miracles large and small week after week with her phenomenal team (leadperson Cheryl Strang). Like me, Lisa was stimulated by the varied styles and textures of the scenery and brought everything from huge sets to the smallest fragments of environments to life with her keen eye, deep experience and discerning choices. There was not a single day through the long haul that I didn’t see someone—set dresser, propmaster, plasterer, sign painter, or PA— bringing something extra, unexpected, special to the whole. At times, joking about myriad ways in which the birthing pains of The Godfather seemed to be echoed in making the series, we became functionally another transitory family brought together through making film, collecting war stories for future sharing. Everyone with a different version of the same story.

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