The Godfather is one of the greatest crime films ever made—but it almost never happened, between studio drama and real-life tensions with actual mobsters. That backstory is the subject of Paramount Plus’ new series The Offer (first three episodes streaming today), which explains how art imitated life in many ways en route to a cinematic masterpiece.
Crime-TV.com spoke to creator Michael Tolken—who knows all about Hollywood drama as he penned The Player and its Academy Award-nominated 1992 movie adaptation—along with producers Nikki Toscano and Russell Rothberg about what brought them all to the story and the inner workings of what is essentially a true crime tale meshed with a behind-the-scenes expose.
Crime-TV.com (Brittany Frederick): What was the hook for you in telling the story of The Godfather?
Russell Rothberg: The hook for me, was Nikki because the studio approached Nikki to showrun the project and then she called me about it. We’re both gigantic Godfather fans; [it’s] one of the best movies of all time, if not the best movie of all time. So to tell this story was really special and frightening and exciting, and frankly, I learned a lot about things I never knew about the making of The Godfather.
CTV: Where’s the “in” to the story, given that it’s sort of a crime story, sort of a Hollywood story, and with a massive cast? Where do you start?
Michael Tolken: You start with the anecdote. You start with the details of the story. You start with the details of the character. On [Escape at Dannemora], Brett Johnson and I wrote the first two scripts on spec and we got Ben Stiller’s interest. He talked to us for a few months about doing it and then finally he said, “I can’t do this. It’s not real. We don’t know enough of the story.” And then a few months later, the New York state Inspector General released her report on the escape. We called Ben and said, “You’re going to want to do it now.” And he read it and he said, “Yes, I’m in.”
With The Offer, we started with [Godfather producer] Al Ruddy’s story and as much of it as he could tell. How he came into it, what it was like for him, what were the events? What were the trials? What were the triumphs, if there were? Al said to me that every day of making The Godfather was the worst day of his life, and that’s a great springboard into drama or comedy. It means that every character is under excruciating pressure all the time. And you can thread the story through that and you know where you’re going. You know that it’s a triumph story, and so you’re watching all the things that could have derailed it and didn’t derail it. That’s how you break it down.
CTV: The cast of The Offer is huge, with the people making the film and all the people outside of it. As writers and producers, how did you balance such a wide ensemble across a limited number of episodes?
Nikki Toscano: I think that we had a very clear picture for what this was a story about. It was a story about a brotherhood, a dysfunctional family that came together to make one of the greatest stories of all time. I think that once we knew who the players were in that family and what those character arcs were for those main players, it became very easy to craft which stories stayed in and which stories sort of fell away.
CTV: Different writers are handling different episodes, collaborating on episodes, so how was The Offer organized once you got it off the ground? How did you keep everything straight along the way?
RR: We’re all boxes on Zoom, because it was during the pandemic, but we all cohesively took the same approach. It wasn’t really different people doing different things; we were all rowing in the same direction. We started with who are these characters? What is the essence of this story, mainly through Al Ruddy’s point of view? How does that tie over ten episodes? What’s the beginning and the end of that? And then you do that for all the other characters. Then you start to see this crosses here and this had an effect on that.
CTV: Was there a scene or a moment in The Offer that you really loved how it turned out? Or anything that you would want viewers to keep an eye out for?
MT: There’s a screening of the film, and at the screening, the audience is extremely happy with the movie. That scene was something that showed all the different ideas that come together: tragedy, humor, absurdity. And I always like the Frank Sinatra story, where Mario Puzo got into a fight with Sinatra. That’s a story that brings a lot of things together.
RR: I think it might be a lot of fun for people, frankly, to watch The Godfather again before they watch the series, because we put little Easter eggs in and we have homages in places that you wouldn’t expect. I think having the movie fresh [in your mind] could enhance the experience. If you don’t watch it, I think you can enjoy the series as it is. But I think that’s something that might really help nail some of those Easter eggs.
NT: And allow the audience to see that there’s a very large parallel between the story in the film and the story of the film.
CTV: Michael, it’s been 30 years since you told another Hollywood story with The Player. How would you compare that project to The Offer?
MT: They’re both about Hollywood, so they’re both about raging ego and bravado, that smoke and mirrors and crushing anxiety and defeat. And I think [with] the things that have changed in Hollywood in the last 30 years, story is still story. If we did The Player now, it would be a miniseries. There’s enough to explore in that and all the characters. They wouldn’t do it as a 92-minute story. The structure of the economics of Hollywood have changed and I think that I would follow through those ideas more than I did in the original.
CTV: The Offer is about showing viewers things about The Godfather they never knew, so what ultimately do you want to leave people with at the end of the series?
NT: The Offer is really a commentary on how hard it is to get anything made in Hollywood, let alone something good. And I think that one of the themes of The Offer is about creative integrity and sticking to your guns and believing in the vision that you have for your film. Because if you sacrifice that vision at any point throughout the course, this iconic movie, which is one of the most incredible movies of all time, would have been changed. It would have been different and we all would have suffered as a result.
Brittany Frederick has worked 20 years as a professional journalist, reaching millions of readers worldwide with thousands of articles. Her one goal is to meet Jonathan Groff, but she’s sung with Adam Levine and gone 200 MPH with Mario Andretti. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @tvbrittanyf.