DATE December 10, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Daniel Handler talks about his children's books, "A
Series of Unfortunate Events"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our guest today is the author of many best-selling mock Victorian novels for
children. They tell the tales of three unlucky orphans, who lead lives filled
with misery and woe, as they are constantly on the run from a repulsive and
treacherous villain and endure terrible accidents, itchy clothing and bad
These novels are collectively known as "A Series of Unfortunate Events."
They're written by Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Daniel Handler. Handler's
eerie characters are about to hit the big screen, starring Jim Carrey, the
same rubbery actor who brought the Grinch to three-dimensional life. In the
film, being released next week, called "Lemony Snicket's A Series of
Unfortunate Events," Carrey stars as the evil Count Olaf, and also plays many
In this scene, he's accepting delivery of his distant relatives, the three
Baudelaire children orphaned after their wealthy parents have perished in a
(Soundbite of "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events")
Mr. JIM CARREY: (As Count Olaf) I will raise these orphans as if they were
actually wanted. And though you would call it a burden, a sacrifice, you are
mistaken, sir. You should be ashamed of yourself! The idea! Blurr! Hubrrr!
Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Anyway, where do I sign for the fortune--I mean, children?
Unidentified Man: Oh, you won't officially have guardianship until the
hearing on Thursday morning.
Mr. CARREY: (As Count Olaf) And what am I to do with them until then?
Unidentified Man: Excuse me?
Mr. CARREY: (As Count Olaf) What I mean is--Do you work out? You look good;
healthy, I mean.
BIANCULLI: When Terry spoke with Daniel Handler in 2001, they started with a
reading from the first "Lemony Snicket" book, "The Bad Beginning," which
begins as Snicket often does, with a warning to his readers.
Mr. DANIEL HANDLER (Author): (Reading) If you are interested in stories with
happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book,
not only is there no happy ending, there's no happy beginning and very few
happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happen
to the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.
Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children and they were
charming and resourceful and had pleasant facial features. But they were
extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with
misfortune, misery and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how
the story goes.
TERRY GROSS, host:
A little further into the story, we find out that the Baudelaires' parents
just perished in a fire that also destroyed their home, and so their endless
misfortunes begin. Now your book, as we heard, starts with a warning that
readers might be better off with a more cheerful book. Why did you decide to
start your book that way?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, it seemed only fair to warn anyone who was seeking
cheerfulness and also when I sat down to start writing for children, I really
had no bearing in children's literature. I hadn't read a book for children
since I was a youngster, but I remembered this overwhelmingly moralistic tone
in all of my least favorite books, so I thought it might be good to sort of
mock that from the outset and warn children away from a story instead of the
sort of typical treacly beginning, which is, you know: This is a very
charming story, and you're just going to love the adorable hero.
GROSS: What are some of the terrible things that have happened to these
Mr. HANDLER: Oh, well, I mean, it's such a depressing list I hate to think
of drivers listening to NPR driving off the road as I list them off. I mean,
they meet Count Olaf, who is a distant relative, who is only after the fortune
that their parents have left behind. He's a terrible person who tries to
marry the eldest Baudelaire, Violet, and locks up the baby in a bird cage and
dangles it outside of his tower window.
They go to stay with their kindly Uncle Monty who's murdered. They go to stay
with their Aunt Josephine who throws herself out of a window or at least so it
appears. They're forced to work in a lumber mill. They go to school. That's
always a terrible thing. They stay with rich people and find themselves
falling down an elevator shaft. They're driven out of town by an angry mob,
you know, with torches and barking dogs. And then in the most recent volume,
they find themselves prepared for unnecessary surgery in the hospital, so it's
really quite a cornucopia of terrible things.
GROSS: Well, there's a lot of literary jokes, like little in references that
only adult readers would get, or at least teen-age readers, you know, like the
orphans are named the Baudelaire children.
Mr. HANDLER: Mm.
GROSS: Their first names are Klaus and Sunny, two of them. You want to name
some of the other, like, little references? Yeah.
Mr. HANDLER: Well, they're cared for by Mr. Poe. At one point, they fall
into the household of Jerome and Esme Squalor, who are named after J.D.
Salinger's story of "For Esme With Love and Squalor." They attend Prufrock
Preparatory School after the poem by T.S. Eliot. Yeah, they're pretty much
surrounded by the world of books.
I like the idea of a universe that was governed entirely by books. The
Baudelaires find the solutions or what appear to be the solutions to their
problems in libraries in each volume, and so there's sort of some heavy-handed
or I hope mock heavy-handed propaganda, saying that all of life's difficulties
can be solved within the pages of the right book.
GROSS: Well, another thing you do in your books is you use kind of big words,
and then you define them for your readers. Let me read an example. This
comes from the last page of your first Lemony Snicket book. And the sentence
is, `The car drove farther and farther away, until Justice Strauss was merely
a speck in the darkness and it seemed to the children that they were moving in
an aberrant--the word aberrant here means very, very wrong and causing much
grief--into an aberrant direction.' Tell me how you developed that approach
to taking a big word that may be above the reading level of your readers and
then managing to humorously define it within the sentence?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, it wasn't really as artificial as that. I mean, I just
like a lot of words, and I wanted to put them in these books. And as I was
writing them--when I was writing the first book, it would occur to me that
maybe aberrant was a word that wasn't known to many third-graders. And so
then it seemed to fit right into this mock moralizing tone that the narrator
would stop, often at very, very suspenseful moments, and define the word in a
way that was hopelessly bound to that individual context. And so it makes me
very happy to know that now, I mean, there are sort of millions of
fourth-graders who know what the word `ersatz' means, and that's--or know what
the expression `casing the joint' or understand dramatic irony. That really
excites me. So I don't sit around pedagogically and think, `Well, what can I
teach the little nippers?' But I just love these words, and I just wanted to
put them in my books. There are not enough books that have the word
`corpulent,' in my opinion.
GROSS: Your new novel is set in Heimlich Hospital...
Mr. HANDLER: Mm.
GROSS: ...a little Heimlich maneuver joke in there.
Mr. HANDLER: Well, I think he's such an unheralded medical phenomenon it would
only seem fair to put him in at least one book.
GROSS: Why a hospital?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, hospitals are really terrifying places, I think, for
children and for adults and they're also places that are so often sanitized in
children's literature. There's this sense that children ought not to worry
when they go into the hospital, and so there are all these books that say,
`Oh, the hospital is really a fun place, and everyone there just wants to make
you better. And you get to watch TV and eat ice cream all day long. And it's
really quite a pleasure.' And that just seems terrible to me to tell a child
that they're not going to have a scary time in the hospital. Of course
they're going to have a scary time in the hospital.
GROSS: Now there's a group of professionals in your novel whose job it is to
cheer up the people in the hospital and initially the Baudelaire children hide
out in their van...
Mr. HANDLER: Mm.
GROSS: ...and this is how they end up in the hospital. They're hiding out in
this van carrying a group called Volunteers Fighting Disease. And this is a
van of people who go to the hospitals to cheer up the sick. And they sing
this weird, seemingly cheerful song. Would you recite the song that you wrote
for them to sing?
Mr. HANDLER: Yes, of course. `We are volunteers fighting disease and we're
cheerful all day long. If someone said that we were sad, that person would be
wrong. We visit people who are sick and try to make them smile, even if their
noses bleed or if they cough up bile'--and the chorus is--`tra-la-la,
fiddle-de-de, hope you get well soon. Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, have a
heart-shaped balloon. We visit people who are ill and try to make them laugh,
even when the doctor says he must saw them in half. We sing and sing all
night and day and then we sing some more. We sing to boys with broken bones
and girls whose throats are sore. Tra-la-la, fiddle-de-de, hope you get well
soon. Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, have a heart-shaped balloon. We sing to men
with measles and to women with the flu. And if you breathe in deadly germs,
we'll probably sing to you. Tra-la-la, fiddle-de-de, hope you get well soon.
Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, have a heart-shaped balloon.'
GROSS: What do you think of the song? How would you feel if this song were
sung to you?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, I think I would have that same annoyed feeling that I
always feel if I'm surrounded by people who are singing to me in order to
cheer me up. I mean, I think every child and adult knows the horror of going
to a restaurant and having it turn out to be the sort of restaurant where
everybody stands around and sings "Happy Birthday." And it's that same dread
that I tried to capture in those lyrics.
GROSS: I'd like to hear an example of a song that you do like, so I thought
I'd ask you to do this. Stephen Merritt, who is with the group Magnetic
Fields and is probably best known for his CDs, "69 Loves Songs," which is 69
songs in every imaginable genre of love songs...
Mr. HANDLER: Mm.
GROSS: ...and some of them are straight songs and some of them are parodies
of love songs, anyways, he has...
Mr. HANDLER: And some of them are decorated with accordion played by myself.
GROSS: Uh-huh. And you and he are old friends. You wrote the liner notes
for his CD. And he's writing a series of songs to accompany the audio
versions of your books...
Mr. HANDLER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...so perhaps you can sing unaccompanied one of those songs.
Mr. HANDLER: Certainly. This is the song that he composed that I perform
when I'm usually in front of an audience of children. And usually I'm
accompanying myself on the accordion, but today will be a cappella due to some
(Singing) `The Count has an eye on his ankle and lives in a horrible place.
He wants all your money. He's never at all funny. He wants to remove your
face and you might be thinking, "What a rump this is," but wait till you meet
his accomplices. When you see Count Olaf, you're suddenly full of disgust and
despair and dismay. And the whole of the soul of Count Olaf there's no love.
When you see Count Olaf, count to zero, then scream and run away. Scream,
scream, scream and run away. Run, run, run, run, run, run, run or die. Die,
die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die.'
GROSS: Very good. I like that.
Mr. HANDLER: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Did you write the lyric?
Mr. HANDLER: No. That's Mr. Merritt's invention thoroughly.
GROSS: Based on your character.
Mr. HANDLER: Yes.
GROSS: So I'm glad you get to sing that at your readings. It goes over well,
Mr. HANDLER: Well, yes. We usually encourage everyone's least favorite
thing, audience participation, so during the part where I sing `run,'
everyone runs, and then the part where I sing `die,' everybody slumps over on
the floor. And really you haven't lived until you're standing in an
independent bookstore watching a lot of eight- and nine-year-olds slump over
as if dead.
BIANCULLI: Daniel Handler speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. Under the pen
name Lemony Snicket, he writes the best-selling children's series "A Series of
Unfortunate Events." Jim Carrey stars in the film based on the series which
will open next week. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Daniel Handler who writes
the mock Victorian children's novels "A Series of Unfortunate Events." He
uses the pen name Lemony Snicket.
GROSS: Now you write your "Series of Unfortunate Events" novels under the
pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. How did you come up with that name?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, first off, I should say that I'm not sure pseudonym is
exactly right, because the character of Lemony Snicket, this man who speaks
directly to the reader and also who is tangentially involved in the stories
that he's telling, is really more of a character. We just thought it would be
fun to publish the books under the name of this character.
But the name Lemony Snicket actually I had lying around before I had any
desire to write for children. I was researching the first of two novels that
I've published under my own name, the first novel, "The Basic Eight," and I
needed to contact for research purposes some right-wing political
organizations and religious groups, and I wanted material mailed to me, but I
didn't want to be on their mailing list, for obvious reasons. And so someone
asked me, `So what is your name?' And I opened my mouth and out popped the
words, `Lemony Snicket.'
And it became among all of my friends then a joke. We would write letters to
the paper and sign them Lemony Snicket, hoping they would be published, and
reserve tables in restaurants under the name Lemony Snicket and all sorts of
things like that. And so for a small, select group of the population, the
idea that the name Lemony Snicket has risen to such notoriety is particularly
GROSS: Do you have much merchandising involved with your books?
Mr. HANDLER: No, really none as yet. We gave away some Band-Aids for "The
Hostile Hospital" that said "Unfortunate Event" on them. I'm pretty proud of
those. And we just had some terrible greeting cards just in time for the
holidays, which are available at one of the chain bookstores, greeting cards
that say things like, `Why haven't you called?' and `It's all downhill from
GROSS: If people start asking you more about merchandising, is there a place
where you would insist on drawing the line, some kind of typically commercial
way of merchandising children's literature that you wouldn't want to be part
Mr. HANDLER: Well, gosh, it's such a slippery slope. I mean, you know, I
always think, `Well, it would really be horrible to be associated with fast
food,' but then not too long ago I had a fantasy that, you know, there would
be un-Happy Meals that would come out of "A Series of Unfortunate Events," you
know, maybe a little mad cow disease in the burger or just whatever we could
do to really make them unsavory.
No, I don't know. It's very difficult to say. More and more children write
to me or come up to me in bookstores and say, in effect, `What else is there
that I can buy?' And it's sort of a--it's both a frightening question and an
understandable one. And I hope that if there is any merchandise, that it will
be the sort of merchandise that encourages people who buy it to really have
fun in their imaginations.
I mean, on one hand, a movie like "Star Wars" seems overmerchandised, but it
would really be impossible to overemphasize how much fun I had when I was a
kid playing with all the "Star Wars" characters and making up my own stories
and I think becoming a storyteller rose out of that kind of play, so it's very
hard to tell.
It's so easy to say, `Oh, well, I shouldn't have any of my literature sullied
by commercial intention.' But once you begin to actually think of how people
would use what other people want to make, it's also hard to say no.
GROSS: Have you run into any parents, teachers or librarians who object to
either the tone or the content of your books?
Mr. HANDLER: Not nearly as many as I thought I would. I really thought that
there would just be an overwhelming wave of outrage, and instead there have
just been a few isolated complaints that I've heard. We were banned in one
school district in Decatur, Georgia. I'll always have that. You can't take
that away from me. But...
GROSS: On what grounds were you banned?
Mr. HANDLER: Well, I hate to get too catty about Decatur, Georgia, but they
were very concerned in "The Bad Beginning" that Count Olaf wants to marry
Violet, who is a distant relative. And this strikes me as something that,
without being too stereotypical about the South, but perhaps Decatur, Georgia,
has heard of before, let's just say.
And, also, I'm at a loss for how to construct a villain who isn't doing
villainous things. If Count Olaf were only doing things that no one would
object to, then he really wouldn't be much of a villain. So I'm somewhat
nonplussed by that kind of criticism; that, `Boy, Count Olaf is sure a
terrible person,' and so I always have to write back and say, `Well, yes.
Yes, he is. He sure is. Let's catch him.'
And a woman once in Oregon came up to me at a bookstore and said, `You know,
in one of your books, you teach that it is sometimes necessary to lie, and
that seems like a very disturbing lesson to me. Can you name one time when it
would be absolutely necessary to lie?' And I was so happy that the answer
came to me right away instead of, you know, as it usually does when people say
something to you, and then you think three days later `Oh, that's what I
should have said.' Instead, it came right away and I was able just to turn to
her and say, `Nice sweater.' I was just really proud of that.
GROSS: What was her reaction?
Mr. HANDLER: I think she said, `Thank you.' I'm not sure that the lesson was
taught, but at least I was able to sleep at night knowing that I'd been able
to say something in response.
I mean, of course you have to lie, and I can't imagine that you would want to
teach your child never to lie under any circumstances. That's not going to
serve the child well when the child goes to a birthday party and is forced to
say whether or not he or she had a nice time.
GROSS: Well, Daniel Handler, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HANDLER: Oh, well, thank you for having me.
BIANCULLI: Daniel Handler, speaking to Terry Gross in 2001. Under the pen
name Lemony Snicket, he's the author of the children's book series "A Series
of Unfortunate Events." A film of the same name will be released next week
starring Jim Carrey.
Here's something from a collection by One Ring Zero of songs with lyrics
written by authors. This is called "Radio." Music by One Ring Zero. Lyrics
by Daniel Handler. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Radio")
ONE RING ZERO: (Singing) If I had a radio for every time you loved me so, I
wouldn't have a radio at all. Now I sit and waste my time, my room is quiet
and so am I. I wait for someone glamorous to call. Radio, radio, radio,
radio, radio. If I had a ceiling fan for every time you made a plan, then
told me you had plans...
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Coming up, the origin of "The Godfather." We listen back to an
interview with the late Mario Puzo who wrote the novel that spawned the
Academy Award-winning films. There's a new book, "The Godfather Returns,"
based on his characters. And David Edelstein reviews the films "A Very Long
Engagement" and "House of Flying Daggers."
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Writer Mario Puzo talks about his book "The Godfather"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This if FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
The first "Godfather" movie ends with Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino,
wiping out his enemies, the heads of the five rival mob families and traitors
in his own family, including Carlo, his brother-in-law. Michael has always
suspected that Carlo was complicit in the murder of his older brother Sonny.
(Soundbite from "The Godfather")
Mr. AL PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) You have to answer for Santino, Carlo.
(Soundbite of bird)
Mr. GIANNI RUSSO: (As Carlo Rizzi) Mike, you got it all wrong.
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) You fingered Sonny for the Barzini people.
Ah, that little farce you played with my sister, you think that could fool a
Mr. RUSSO: (As Carlo Rizzi) Mike, I'm innocent. I swear on the kids, Mike.
Please, Mike, don't do this to me.
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Sit down.
Mr. RUSSO: (As Carlo Rizzi) Don't do this to me, please?
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Barzini's dead. So is Philip Tattaglia,
Moe Green, Stracci(ph), Cuneo. Today I settle all family business, so don't
tell me you're innocent, Carlo. Admit what you did. Give him a drink.
(Soundbite of bird)
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) C'mon. Don't be afraid, Carlo. C'mon,
you think I'd make my sister a widow? I'm Godfather to your son, Carlo. Go
ahead, drink, drink. No, Carlo, you're out of the family business; that's
your punishment. You're finished. I'm putting you on a plane to Vegas.
Tony? I want you to stay there, you understand?
Mr. RUSSO: (As Carlo Rizzi) Mm-hmm.
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Only don't tell me you're innocent, because
it insults my intelligence. It makes me very angry.
BIANCULLI: Carlo has a very short trip ahead of him, but it's not on a plane,
and he never makes it to Vegas. This month, "The Godfather" returns. That's
the name of a new novel about the Corleone family based on the characters
created by Mario Puzo, who died in 1999. "The Godfather Returns" was written
by Mark Winegardner, who won the job when Random House held a contest to find
an author to follow in Puzo's literary footsteps.
The new novel fills in some of the gaps in the Corleone family narrative,
covering events in years not covered in either the book or the famous
"Godfather" films. In 1996, Terry Gross spoke with Mario Puzo, who wrote "The
Godfather" in 1969. He also co-wrote all of "The Godfather" screenplays.
People have always assumed he had some inside connection to the Mafia, which
he always denied. But Puzo told Terry that many of the stories in "The
Godfather" family and films came from his family.
Mr. MARIO PUZO (Author, "The Godfather"): You know, like the rug stain scene
and the keeping of the guns from the police, you know, that kind of stuff,
that happened in the family.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Well, tell the story the way it was told to you.
Mr. PUZO: Well, my brother who's older than me--this guy threw his guns over
the airway, you know, the space between apartments, and my mother took them
and held them for him, and then he came and got back his guns and he said,
`Would you like a rug?' So she sent my brother over to get the rug, and my
brother didn't realize the guy was stealing the rug until he took out the gun
when the cop came. So that's almost entirely in the book and in the movie,
you know? And it's little stuff like that.
GROSS: Now how did your mother feel about protecting this guy's gun?
Mr. PUZO: Oh, in those days, this is when I was a very little kid. That was
thought of as nothing, you know. That was like, he was a neighbor and he
wanted you to do it, and you did it because you were afraid of him and because
you hoped, you know, that he would help you out.
GROSS: Do you think your mother looked at the mob figures in your
neighborhood, as people who could protect your family or as people who were
more likely to harm your family?
Mr. PUZO: No, protect, because, for instance, the business about the dog
being committed to staying in the apartment, that happened in my family. My
mother didn't want to get rid of the dog, so she went the local guy of
respect--I don't even think they thought of them as criminals. There were
people who had influence the way you go down to your congressman, for
GROSS: Did she do anything to pay respect to the local organized crime
figures, who in part controlled the neighborhood?
Mr. PUZO: Well, you have to remember that those figures are usually related
by blood, you know, and were members of a family, so you gave them presents.
If you had a family member who was powerful, you know, you made sure you gave
them a present at Christmas, you know, or special occasion, which was not
regarded as a payoff in any way. For instance, my parents grew up in Italy
where--since they were mostly illiterate, when they had a letter that had to
be read, they would go to the local priest to have the priest read it for
them, but they would automatically bring a gift. They'd bring three or four
eggs or, you know, chicken or something like that. It's a whole different
relationship. It wasn't a bribe. It's a mark of respect. It's not like they
said, `You got to give me a piece of chicken, or you got to give me an egg and
I'll read it for you.' It was just understood. In the same way the local
neighborhood guys had influence, you gave them presents.
GROSS: Describe Don Corleone the way you first envisioned him.
Mr. PUZO: He was sort of very much like--you had a brother who was much
older than you who would always protect you, you know, who would always stick
up for you. He was somebody who was a protector.
GROSS: I'm wondering if the character of Don Corleone was changed in your
mind when Marlon Brando was cast in the film and you saw Marlon Brando inhabit
Mr. PUZO: No, no. I'm the guy that picked Brando.
GROSS: You did pick Brando?
Mr. PUZO: Oh, sure. I wrote him a letter, and he called me up and we had a
chat, and then I tried to get Paramount to take him, and they refused. And
then when the director came on the picture, I talked to the director, Francis
Coppola, and he managed to talk Paramount into letting Brando play the role.
But it was my idea to cast Brando, which caused me a lot of trouble before we
finally got done.
GROSS: What did you say in your letter to Marlon Brando when you were
inviting him to play the part?
Mr. PUZO: I think it was something like, `Help. They're going to
kill--they're going to kill me, they're going to cast,' I think it was
Donny--Danny Thomas was the guy.
GROSS: Danny Thomas?
Mr. PUZO: Yeah.
Mr. PUZO: Well, he was going to buy Paramount so he could play the role. At
that time, Paramount wasn't really worth that much, and Danny Thomas was very
rich off television, and I read an item, he was going to buy Paramount
Pictures so he could play "The Godfather." So that scared me so much, I wrote
a letter to Brando. I knew some people who knew him, so, you know, I had a
entree. And he gave me very good advice. He said, `No studio will hire me.
Wait until you get a director and then talk to the director.' And he was
quite right. When I talked to the studio, they swore they would never hire
GROSS: Why were they so opposed to the idea?
Mr. PUZO: Well, because Brando had built up what, to them, was a terrible
reputation as being a troublemaker, you know, on his "Mutiny on the
Bounty," where he cost them a lot of money, and he was always a rebel. So
they didn't want him in their movies. He was too much of a headache, and his
movie had been flops.
GROSS: Did he cause any trouble for you on the set?
Mr. PUZO: No. Well, I was never on the set, but they tell me he was
perfect. You know, every actor just loved the idea of working with Brando.
He was their idol. And when he came on the picture, he caused no trouble for
the director, and he caused no trouble for the actors. You know, they really
GROSS: Now what were some of the most difficult parts of adapting the novel
into the screenplay?
Mr. PUZO: You mean the first one, the first...
GROSS: Yeah, the novel of "The Godfather" into the first movie.
Mr. PUZO: It was a cinch.
Mr. PUZO: Yeah. I mean, it was a cinch because it was the first time I'd
ever written a screenplay, so I didn't know what I was doing, you know, and it
came out right. And the story I tell is that after I had won two Academy
Awards, you know, for the first two "Godfathers," I went out and bought a book
on screenwriting because I figured I'd better learn, you know, what it's about
because it was sort of off the top of my head, and then the first chapter of
the book said, `Study "The Godfather I" as model for the screenplay.' So I
was stuck with the book.
GROSS: Now I'm wondering, with the dialogue, everything is so--not
everything, but the characters who really have power are very euphemistic in
their language. So they could be giving you the message that they're going to
kill you unless you follow their orders, but they'll be saying it in the
nicest way, and of course, killing would never be mentioned. Everything's
kind of, you know, between the lines, beneath the surface. What made you
write the dialogue for these powerful violent people in that coded way?
Mr. PUZO: Well, it does come from the way the Sicilian Mafia operated. In
fact, there was a funny story that an Englishmen came to live in Sicily, and
he got a kidnapping note. Of course, they liked to collect the money for
kidnapping before they kidnapped you, so they didn't have to go to the bother
of kidnapping you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PUZO: That--no, that was the way they operated. But the Sicilian Mafia
wrote this Englishman such a flowery note that he really didn't understand
what they were saying. He had to get an interpreter in. He thought they were
paying him some sort of compliment. He didn't realize they wanted, like, 50
grand off him before they kidnapped him so to save everybody the trouble of
going through the kidnapping. But it was very flowery, `Your eminence,' `We
love you,' you know, `We'll do anything. If you ever have any trouble, give
us a call.' And, you know, and `Meanwhile, just send us 50 grand and you'll
never have any trouble with anybody.' But that's how they talked. That's
where I got it from, you know. And that horse's head thing was strictly from
Sicilian folklore, only they'd nail the head of your favorite dog to your door
as the first warning if you didn't pay the money. They were great believers
in collecting money before doing the job.
GROSS: One of the most famous lines that you came up with was about `making
an offer you can't refuse.'
Mr. PUZO: Yeah.
GROSS: Does that line have its roots in mob lore that you knew, or...
Mr. PUZO: No. No. I made it up. I wrote memos on how we could plant that
line because I was sure it would become a famous line. You know, I recognized
the fact that it would become one of those lines that would--people would
always be using. So that was really sort of, Catholic constructed, you know.
(Soundbite from "The Godfather")
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) You know, when Johnny was first starting
out, he was signed to this personal service contract with a big-band leader.
And as his career got better and better, he wanted to get out of it. Now
Johnny is my father's godson, and my father went to see this band leader, and
he offered him $10,000 to let Johnny go. The band leader said, `No.' So the
next day my father went to see him, only this time with Luca Brasi, and within
an hour, he signed the release for a certified check for $1,000.
(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)
Ms. DIANE KEATON: (As Kay Adams) How'd he do that?
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) My father made him an offer he couldn't
Ms. DIANE KEATON: (As Kay Adams) What was that?
Mr. PACINO: (As Michael Corleone) Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my
father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the
contract. It's a true story.
BIANCULLI: A scene from "The Godfather" with Al Pacino as Michael and Diane
Keaton as Kay. We'll hear more of Terry's 1996 interview with Mario Puzo
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with "Godfather" author Mario
Puzo. "The Godfather Returns," a new novel by Mark Winegardner is based on
the characters created by Puzo.
GROSS: Did you come up with the expression `godfather'?
Mr. PUZO: Yeah, and that was really an accident, 'cause before I used that,
no Mafia man every used the word `godfather' in that sense. Nobody used it,
and I got it from an Italian family culture. The friend of your parents when
you're a little kid, your parents have very close friends, you called them
`godfather' and `godmother' the way, in the American culture you call family
friends `aunt' and `uncle,' even though they're not your aunt and uncle. You
know, if they were close family friends...
Mr. PUZO: ...you know, when you're kids would say, `That's Auntie or Uncle
So-and-so.' So that was just the only way in which it was used except in the
religious sense. So I remembered it, and the more I used it during the book,
the more it became, you know, what it was. So now the Mafia uses it,
everybody uses it, you know, and the word didn't exist.
GROSS: Your novel and "The Godfather" movies have had such an impact on
American popular culture, and I'm wondering what you think it is about the
stories that enabled them to have the impact that they had.
Mr. PUZO: Well, I think it's a story with warm personal family feeling, and
I think also it's everybody's wish, I mean, that they would have somebody they
could go to who'd correct all their injustices without the problems of going
to court, hiring a lawyer, you know, somebody fixing up your world for you.
GROSS: And if you crossed them, you'd be dead.
Mr. PUZO: But that's OK, because why would you want to cross them if they,
you know, did everything for you?
GROSS: Of course, everybody does end up--there's always a blood bath.
Mr. PUZO: Well, people are not perfect.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now how did you become a reader and a writer? You've said
that your parents were nearly illiterate.
Mr. PUZO: They were illiterate, yeah--because of the public libraries and
the Sutton House Library(ph)--the Hudsongill Sutton House Library. And I
started to read, and it was just the greatest thing in the world to read.
GROSS: What did your parents think of you reading? It was something that
they couldn't do. Were they proud of you for being able to do it?
Mr. PUZO: No. I wrote a line someplace where my mother looked at my library
card with the same horror that present-day mothers looked at their son's
heroin needles, you know--I mean, some sort of comparison to that. It
was--reading was not relevant. Reading didn't help you make a living, you
GROSS: Wrong! (Laughing)
Mr. PUZO: Yeah. Right. Yeah.
GROSS: So what did they think you should be doing? What did your mother
think you should be doing instead?
Mr. PUZO: Oh, you know, a good clerical job on the inside. If you could
avoid hard labor, that was the big thing.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. How have you reacted to criticisms from Italians, for
instance, that in American popular culture, Italians are always shown as mob
figures, and criticisms from people who say that the "Godfather" movies were
just really violent and, you know, upped...
Mr. PUZO: Well...
GROSS: ...the amount of violence in American popular culture?
Mr. PUZO: You know, it sounds like some of my relatives, but...
Mr. PUZO: But to me it's a completely irrelevant thing. For one thing,
there was a time when Italians ran crime in America, so I'm not maligning them
in any way. In fact, I present them as very loveable people, you know, that
have to make a living, unfortunately, in a way that society doesn't approve.
But also, I know that most Italians that I grew up with were so law-abiding,
they--you know, that getting a traffic ticket was terrible, you know? You
know, to the working-class Italian people.
GROSS: Have you always operated very strictly inside the law?
Mr. PUZO: Myself?
Mr. PUZO: Very much so except in one incident because--well, let me see if I
can phrase it properly. I would have become a criminal if I had the nerve,
but since I didn't have the nerve to be a criminal, I decided to become a
GROSS: You think you would have become a criminal if you had the nerve?
Mr. PUZO: Sometimes when I'm dealing with movie studios.
GROSS: (Laughing) Does it bring out your most violent impulses?
Mr. PUZO: Well, yeah, you know, you--there are some times when you want to,
you know, you only wish that you could go to a godfather and say, you know,
`Get these guys out of my shoe,' you know?
GROSS: Well, why? What's an example of something that has made you really
angry, made you feel really crossed, that a film studio has done?
Mr. PUZO: Well, not on artistic grounds, by the way. I had an unfortunate
couple of experiences where I wrote screenplays that were very successful--not
Paramount, by the way. I'm not talking about the "Godfather" movies--other
movies where I had to sue to get my money, my percentage of the--you know, the
movie turned out to be very profitable and I'd collect a percentage on the
back end, and I have to sue to get my back end. And at that time, I was so
innocent. I thought that was so outrageous that here I had given them a piece
of work that had earned them a great deal of money. Why wouldn't they want to
give me my share, you know?
Mr. PUZO: And so they'd put up legal blocks that you have to fight and then
they surrender in the end, but after they'd cost you a great deal of money,
you know. And also, it's insulting, you know, the--you feel you've done a
good bit of work, you've earned the money, and then they don't want to pay
you. You know, it's so ungrateful--you feel, when you're innocent like that,
it's so ungrateful of them. But after a while, you get used to it.
GROSS: Well, Mario Puzo, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much
for talking with us.
Mr. PUZO: All right. Thank you very much.
BIANCULLI: Mario Puzo, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. He died three years
later. The characters from his most famous work, "The Godfather," are
explored further in a new book called, "The Godfather Returns," written by
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews two new foreign films, "A Very Long
Engagement," and "House of Flying Daggers." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Movies "A Very Long Engagement" and "House of Flying
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Two new foreign-language films in limited release, "A Very Long Engagement,"
directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and "House of Flying Daggers," directed by
Zhang Yimou, have the potential to be big crossover art-house hits this season
much like those same directors' last two movies, "Amelie" and "Hero." Film
critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
These days, virtuoso stylist filmmakers, real flashy showboaters, are a dime a
dozen. But just because you can whirr up some lollapalooza montages on your
computer doesn't mean you're a director. Two of the more style-consious
filmmakers who do have an uncanny grasp of the medium are Jean-Pierre Jeunet
and Zhang Yimou. And not only do their names seem weirdly similar for a
French and a Chinese guy, they both have new movies about obsessive love in a
time of war. Along with much of the world, I was enchanted by the first
half-hour of Jeunet's "Amelie," but that's where the affair ended. Ninety
more minutes of frisky, French gamine whimsy made my tummy ache. When he's on
his game, though, Jeunet has a supernatural sense of flow, a flair for camera
movement and an endearing fetish for brown: umbers, ambers, sepias, siennas.
His latest brownathon is "A Very Long Engagement," based on a terrific World
War I novel by Sebastien Japrisot, a mix of sardonic narration and
first-person letters, eyewitness accounts of a hellish war from deep inside
The film begins with five French soldiers being marched to the bloody front,
convicted of mutilating themselves to get sent home. To make an example of
them, someone at the top decides to dump them in the no-man's-land between the
enemy lines. What happens to the men is unclear. Who can know for sure amid
the shells, the smoke, the strafing planes and a subsequent massacre of French
More than a year after the war is ended, Matilda, played by Audrey Tautou of
"Amelie," is sure that one of the five, her fiancee, Manech, is out there
somewhere. She knows he was driven mad and that he's missing a few digits,
but she feels a telepathic connection to him and sets out to track him down.
The movie mixes garish horror, sentimental romance and, yes, gamine whimsy in
equal proportions. It makes it all seem of a piece. Characters pick up the
thread, relay what the remember, then disappear. One of them is played in a
pleasant surprise by Jodie Foster, speaking French like a native.
Events are shown from different points of view, but not for the sake of some
unknowability principle, as in "Rashomon." The truth, as they say, is out
there, but nearly impossible to dig up from a killing ground already planted
over. Jeunet is lyrical, even when gliding through vast trenches, past
mutilated bodies, and it's possible that his touch is too smooth for the level
of carnage. But the tension between that technique and what he's showing
gives the movie the feel of a macabre fable. It's a mixed blessing, though,
that his muse, Audrey Tautou, is such a great camera subject and looks cuter
in a hat than anyone alive. The downside to the stylishness is that "A Very
Long Engagement" sometimes seems like "Amelie Goes to War."
In a similar vein, Zhang's "House of Flying Daggers" is the most
intoxicatingly beautiful martial-arts movie I've ever seen. And if you think
that sounds like damning with faint praise, consider "Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon," Zhang's own "Hero" and scores of deliriously surreal Hong Kong ghost
movies. This one is a sword-and-dagger extravaganza with some wonderfully
florid romantic melodrama. It's set in 859 AD in an age of corrupt government
and a secret rebel sect called The House of Flying Daggers. The plot is too
convoluted and too full of surprises to recount here. It involves a blind
rebel, played by Zhang Ziyi of "Crouching Tiger," and two policemen, played by
Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau. They're ordered to use her to get to the
rebel leader, but no one is what he or she seems to be, and a straightforward
chase becomes a naughty love triangle with twists and hairpin curves.
It would be just an ooh-and-aah movie, every shot a painting, but the martial
arts takes it into another dimension. The fighting blooms out of the emotions
the way song and dances do in musicals. Zhang has a `wowza' visual concept
for each battle. His camera soars behind arrows and flying daggers, which
boomerang and bounce off shields and deftly slice people's throats. One
sequence will be talked about for years, the battle in the green bamboo
forest, the assassins gliding silently down from trees, the fighting on the
ground, in branches, on top of shields, in midair. Holy bamboo, Batman! It's
so furious, yet so miraculously fluid and so elegant. Zhang sets the bar so
high, I don't know how anyone could top him without redesigning the human
body, and even then you'd need his genius for color and composition.
Zhang and Jeunet might be showoffs, but do they have a lot to show.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the Online magazine Slate.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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