Making an Offer
Showrunner Nikki Toscano tells DQ about making Paramount+ series The Offer, which dramatises the true story behind the making of The Godfather.
It is described as the greatest movie that was almost never made – and now, a series called The Offer has sought to dramatise how Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning epic The Godfather did indeed make it to the big screen.
Famously depicting the story of the Corleone mafia family in New York City, The Godfather is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 1973, winning Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Marlon Brando, although the actor refused to accept the award.
Based on the experiences of producer Albert S Ruddy, The Offer goes behind the scenes to follow the making of one of the most iconic films in history.
Miles Teller stars as Ruddy, with Matthew Goode as Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans, Juno Temple as Ruddy’s assistant Bettye McCartt, Giovanni Ribisi as mob boss Joe Colombo, Dan Fogler as Coppola, Burn Gorman as Gulf & Western head Charles Bluhdorn, Colin Hanks as Gulf & Western executive Barry Lapidus and Patrick Gallo as Mario Puzo, co-writer of the film and the author of the novel on which it is based.
Produced by Paramount Television Studios, the same studio that made The Godfather, the 10-episode event series is written and executive produced by showrunner Nikki Toscano (Hunters) and created and written by Michael Tolkin (Escape at Dannemora).
Ruddy, Miles Teller, Russell Rothberg and Leslie Greif also exec produce alongside Dexter Fletcher (Rocketman), who directed the first block of the series.
Speaking to DQ at the Monte Carlo TV Festival, Toscano discussed the origins of the series, how the storyline following Ruddy was shaped and why The Offer proved to be a very personal project.
The Offer launched in the US on Paramount+ in April. What has the reaction been like?
It’s been great. There’s been such a positive response, particularly from the audience perspective. I’ve never really run a show where I consistently had so many people reaching out about something, something that they grabbed on to about the series. And it’s fun – you can’t predict what one person’s going to say versus another, the things that people are responding to.
It’s just been a wild ride. We were at a function in New York with Miles, Matthew, Patrick and Anthony Ippolito [who plays Al Pacino] and it was really rewarding because we were doing a production during Covid, everybody was collectively ostracised together and the family we were depicting in The Offer became very much a reality.
How did you come to join the project?
For me, it came from a very personal place. I lost my father a few years ago and The Godfather was a very special film for me. He showed it to me when I was very young – probably way too young for a young girl to be watching it – so when Nicole Clemens and Jena Santoianni from Paramount Studios came to me about the project, I was equally excited and terrified because it’s The Godfather, you know. There were a lot of decisions that had to be made where you could inevitably choose the wrong path. But the excitement outweighed the fear. I just was like, ‘Screw it, I’m jumping in.’
Michael Tolkin and Leslie Greif developed the series. When did you come on board?
Michael had written the pilot and I had been brought in to construct the series arcs and the character arcs. There wasn’t much in the way of character development as far as the whole season was concerned. So I came on and, shortly thereafter, hired a very small writing staff. We began to craft this story around Albert and all of the characters who crossed his path. Then we started banging out episodes.
In the writers room, what discussions did you have about what aspects of making The Godfather the series would focus on?
It was Al Ruddy’s story, so we always kept that as our North Star and then used various books and resources that have been out there. We used [Robert Evans’ book] The Kid Stays in the Picture, [former Paramount exec] Peter Bart’s book, Francis Ford Coppola’s interviews and Mario Puzo’s interviews as a gut check on the reality of the story that Al Ruddy was telling us.
But a lot of the conversations we had early on in the writers room were about the fact we were doing a drama, not a documentary. It was really about how far to depart from the truth and how much creative licence to use. That was a big conversation that lasted from episode one to episode 10.
Another thing we talked about a lot was the whether we would show actual scenes from The Godfather, and we very quickly came to the conclusion that there was no way that we were ever going to be able to do that justice. So while we may have captured what was happening before the scene shot or right after somebody yelled ‘cut,’ we would never actually be inside Francis Ford Coppola’s lens.
How did you decide what material to use in the series and what to discard?
That was the hardest part, because there were a lot of amazing stories. For example, Al had a number of different anecdotal stories about various encounters he had with different Mafia members, whether it was the Vegas mob or the New York mob. When we were constructing the season in the writers room, it was like, ‘OK, are we going to be telling all these different mafia stories or…’ – and this is what we ended up doing – ‘…are we going to just pull the spirit of a lot of those stories through the Al Ruddy-Joe Colombo friendship and subsequent relationship?’
What challenges did you face as showrunner?
I feel like I have to be over everything. That being said, one of the advantages of doing a project that is to do with recreating the making of The Godfather is that everybody was so incredibly game to come to work every day. Everybody who did come to work was at the top of their game. I definitely deferred to a lot of the departments and their collective experience on how to best capture that. Yes, there was guidance along the way and, yes, I have to sign off on everything but, ultimately, we were just so privileged to have so many talented people come to play with us.
How did you try to tell this story in a way that would keep viewers coming back for the next episode?
One of the most compelling things about Al Ruddy’s story is that The Offer is not just a behind-the-scenes making of The Godfather story. It’s a story about this guy who is this outsider underdog, who is battling the studio system but was also battling the real-life mafia. I suppose for us it was a lot about making sure all of the storylines were being pulled through that lens – the stories with Evans, Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Bettye McCartt – and how those characters were either complementing or compromising Al Ruddy’s journey.
Where did you film the series?
We were on the Paramount lot quite a bit, which was incredibly special, shooting on the same stage where the actual Godfather had filmed. We did a lot of New York on backlots. There was a time when we had thought about shooting in actual New York, but Covid [prevented that]. We filmed from July 2021 to January of this year. We had an aggressive post-production schedule.
What was your experience like on set?
It was one of those moments where everybody was collectively pinching themselves because you’re shooting on Stage 29 knowing that The Godfather filmed on Stage 29, and you’re talking about how you’re going to light it and how much you take into account [Godfather crew members] Gordon Willis’ cinematography or Dean Tavoularis’ production design. At all times, we were challenging ourselves on how to deliver the most authentic portrayal of what this might have been like at that time.
What does The Offer tell us about the hurdles Ruddy faced getting The Godfather made before its release in 1972?
The biggest thing is that it’s the late 1960s and early 70s, which is the time period the show covers. For example, for Bettye McCartt’s character, there was an incredible amount of sexism at that time. We were thinking about how exactly we were crafting her character and the choices she made and how the world as a whole was affecting those choices or compromising those choices. So the time period definitely was something that was on our minds throughout the whole process.
We didn’t shy away from portraying things as they were, whether it was the sexism or the influence of, for example, the New York mafia in New York City on film productions and using that as a guidepost. We did an incredible amount of research, not only into what was happening politically, but also into sexism, racism, all of those kinds of things and how they might ultimately affect our characters.
How did you want the series to end?
We definitely didn’t know how it was going to end [when we started development]. When Nicole Clemens, who is the head of Paramount Television, had originally heard Al Ruddy’s story, there was an element of his story she quickly attached to. From then, we ultimately knew where it was going to end. But it’s a limited series, and we all know that The Godfather was a successful film and was nominated for Academy Awards. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to make those things that everyone knew seem new and interesting to the viewer based on what our characters’ journeys had been over the course of the season.
As a fan of The Godfather, what do you think will draw fans to this series?
The thing that will draw them to the show is the brotherhood that exists between Al Ruddy and a number of these different characters, whether it be Robert Evans or Francis Ford Coppola or Bettye McCartt or Mario Puzo or even Joe Colombo. There’s the fact Al Ruddy had befriended one of the heads of the five families and developed a true friendship, but one where there was this tacit understanding that at any moment, if Al messed up, he could be killed. That brings people back to the show, with life-or-death stakes in every episode.
How does the series stand out in the currently overcrowded television landscape?
By virtue of being based on the behind-the-scenes making of The Godfather, arguably one of the greatest films ever made. People are interested in understanding what that journey was like for the people who made it and how challenging it was and all of the different obstacles our characters had to navigate in order to make this film what it was.