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December 12, 2023

Donor Spotlight: Neil Hawkins and his Love of ‘The Godfather’

Annmarie and Neil Hawkins

Annmarie and Neil Hawkins

Neil and Annmarie Hawkins are film buffs, longtime supporters of UMS, and enthusiastic sponsors of The Godfather Live in our 23/24 performance season. We sat down with Neil to discuss his interest in the film and why he thinks it’s one of the great movies of all time.

UMS presents The Godfather Live with the Grand Rapids Symphony and conductor John Varineau on Sunday, January 7 at 3 pm in Hill Auditorium (presented with subtitles and performed with one intermission).

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Sara Billmann, UMS: Neil, can you start off telling us a little bit about yourself?

Neil Hawkins: I’m president of the World Environment Center and also a Harvard professor. The World Environment Center is a sustainable business organization headquartered in Washington, DC and focused on bringing together business to solve sustainability challenges, which fits closely with my career. In my Harvard role, I teach sustainability in their master’s program. That’s what I do. I’m a sustainability guy, professionally, when I’m not doing film.

Sara: And how did you get involved with UMS?

Neil: I met [UMS president emeritus] Ken Fischer at a U of M football game about 10 years ago, and Ken and I were talking about theater. We’re big theater junkies, and we wanted more theater in UMS, and he said, “Hey, you get involved with us. We’ll find a way to have more theater,” and that’s how I became involved with UMS. Later on, I met [former board chair] Rachel Bendit, who introduced me to Matthew VanBesien, and then two of them brought me onto the board in 2021.

Sara: That’s excellent, and we’ve really enjoyed your perspective as a board member. So, give us a little bit of the backstory on The Godfather Live and how you ended up sponsoring it. What is it about the film with live music concept that’s compelling to you?

Neil: Okay. First off, we’re really very keen on theater and film, the Hawkins family, Annmarie and I. For me, the film part of that goes back to when I was in high school and college. I have 40 years of intensive film study, and I went through a period of time where, in one year, I was watching about two films a day because I was trying to catch up on all of the classic canon of films.

This love of film is a big thing.

Most cinema, most films have a very integral relationship with the music. There’s this whole subculture of writing scores and performing scores that it’s an art form in and of itself, the writing of a score to match a film. You’ll have a director that has an artistic vision that they put onto film, but then they have to marry that with a composer that really understands what they’re trying to achieve in that scene. When that really works and when it meshes, it’s magical. It’s very fun to experience. It’s very meaningful. The depth of the experience is much greater than if you just had the visual without the score, and the score is not particularly meaningful without the visual because it was written specifically for it.

When you hit those magical moments in cinema and film where you have both, it’s very exciting. If you go back to the silent era, you had music performed in the theater live with organs and whatnot. I recognize and enjoy the interaction of scores with film and scenes. That’s something longstanding.

When we moved to Michigan in 1988, within a few months of moving to Michigan, I noticed in the [Detroit] Free Press that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was going to have a screening of Alexander Nevsky with the DSO playing the score. It was an amazing experience. Alexander Nevsky was a film from the silent era, a film created and filmed by Sergei Eisenstein, and the score was written by Sergei Prokofiev, one of the great Russian composers of that century. It was magical to be able to see the silent classic and to experience an orchestra playing that miraculous score by Prokofiev. That was my first experience seeing the performance of a score with a film, and that really got me excited about it. It made an impression that this is an area of performance art that the melding of the two can really be spectacular.

UMS has put on some amazing [film-in-concert] performances. I saw On the Waterfront with the New York Philharmonic, which is a fantastic film, but the score is equally amazing. UMS did Amadeus with an orchestra, but also with the chorus singing the Requiem and other choral parts. That was amazing. You’ve also done 2001: A Space Odyssey. So I said to Matthew, “Look, given my longtime interest in film and orchestral performance, we should try to have one.” And he worked on it, and was able to put together The Godfather for the current season.

Diane Keaton and Al Pacino in 'The Godfather'

The Godfather

Sara: You said you first saw The Godfather in high school or college. What would you want people to know about the film?

Neil: The Godfather is one of the great films of all time. It has one of the great film performances of actors, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, Robert Duvall. These are just spectacular performances. They’re once-in-a-career performances.

The story was based upon a Mario Puzo book, and he also adapted it for the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola. I actually recently saw the annotated screenplay out in a museum in LA where Francis had… It was the screenplay, and then he was writing in his notes around what he was trying to do with the actors in the scene.

[Read more: Inside Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ Notebook: Never-Before-Seen Photos, Handwritten Notes]

It’s one of the great movie experiences. On paper, it might seem to be about violence. It’s really not. There’s plenty of violence in the film, but I would say it’s more about family. It’s about family ties. It’s about the loyalty within the family. The Godfather himself is extremely loyal to both his family, and to his friends… He really built his crime family through assisting people, not so much the violent kind of crime we think of today associated with organized crime. It was a little different. I’m not saying it was good, but it’s not just a straight violent crime story.

The Godfather

Sara: I love that you focus on it not really being a movie about violence, but more about family. I think I mentioned to you that, over the last, since the pandemic, I’ve been working my way through The Sopranos for the first time, and the same thing strikes me with that. I mean, there are certainly those brutal moments that are eye-averting and pretty awful to watch. But at the end, I think what I find so compelling about it is there’s this person who appears to be in control of everything, but who is also super vulnerable and the tiniest slights really hurt him so deeply. Ultimately, I think both of the shows are really human stories more than anything.

Neil: You have the Godfather, Vito Corleone, and you have Michael, you have Sonny and you have Fredo. You have four godfather men. Plus, you have Tom, who’s sort of an adopted son. Just seeing the differences in the Godfather himself versus Fredo and Michael and Sonny, they’re very different people, yet they’re all in the same family, and the hopes and aspirations that the family had for each of them was very different. It’s very interesting. I know we’re only watching The Godfather coming up here, but The Godfather II is really an outstanding film. The background on how The Godfather got to where he is really completes the family story a lot, and I would recommend that highly.

Let me comment also on the score. I recently re-watched it, and I’ve watched this film many times. I’ve probably seen it 50 times, so quite a few times.

Sara: No kidding? 50 times?!?

Neil: Well, I’m guessing. Let’s say it’s 30, but it’s definitely more than 20.

Sara: That’s amazing.

Neil: Well, I tend to study films, so then, once I’ve watched it, if I think it’s good, I’ll watch it again. I recently watched it, and there’s actually a lot of parts to this film where it’s silent in the background. I had never thought about that before because, a lot of films, it’s playing the whole time. This one, there’s a lot of parts where the orchestra will just be sitting there. I think it’ll be very interesting to experience that feeling of the orchestra coming in after long pauses and understanding where in the film they chose to do that.

Sara: That’s so interesting that you say that because I think I mentioned to you that I did my Godfather immersion last week and watched all three films over five days. I think you’re right about the silence of the orchestra, and I think, particularly in the live orchestra experience, it becomes so much more potent about how important the music is to the film when you have the immediacy right there. It doesn’t fade into the background, and the silent moments are all the more powerful.

Neil: The score itself was written by Nino Rota. It has great beauty and it’s very provocative. It elicits a lot of emotion. I think that it will be thrilling for the audience to hear that score and, at critical moments, match that to what’s going on. Nino Rota was the composer that did almost all of Federico Fellini’s films. I’m a big Federico Fellini fan, and seeing, hearing Nino Rota as part of, I don’t know, 10 or a dozen Fellini films like La Strada or , those are great, great films that are driven by the scores. Linking Nino Rota to Francis Coppola, this is pretty exciting.

[Learn more on our blog: Why Nino Rota’s Score for ‘The Godfather’ is So Memorable]

The other thing is that the 50th anniversary of this film just came by a year or so ago, so this should be a new print that is very high quality. Most people who have seen The Godfather have never seen a clean print. From what I understand, it will be much brighter in the backgrounds compared to what most people have seen so they’ll be able to see pieces of it that they’ve not actually seen before.

Sara: This has been such a fun conversation, and I so appreciate your taking the time to chat about the film. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Neil: One other thing, you may or may not know this, but on Paramount+ Streaming, there’s a fantastic show called The Offer, which was based upon a book written by the producer of the film, and it’s the backstory on how The Godfather was made. It’s fascinating. How did Marlon Brando get in the film? How did Al Pacino get in the film? The studio did not want Pacino because he was a unknown stage actor in New York. They wanted other people to play that role. There’s just a lot in there, and most of it is accurate. It’s a narrative, fictionalized account, but from what I understand about The Godfather, it’s actually pretty accurate.

The man who produced it, he was actually a Rand Corporation security analyst who was a genius, who was bored and decided to get into movies. This was only his second film. He also had to deal with the Mafia itself, because the Mafia was concerned about this movie coming out. The book had already upset them, but then, having a movie about it, that was potentially a problem. He had to negotiate with the organized crime families of that time to get their agreement to allow it to be made. One of the things they insisted upon is they did not want the word Mafia used, and so, actually, in the first film, I don’t think there’s any reference to Mafia. It was due to their sensitivities, but they were pleased at the final result. It required this newcomer producer to manage the studio, manage the Mafia, work with Marlon Brando and all these folks. You would enjoy it. You ought to watch it.

Sara: Ok, I have to ask one last question, which is: what is your favorite scene, favorite lines from the movie?

Neil: Well, The Godfather is full of famous lines, so I don’t really necessarily have a favorite. I think my favorite scene is when his dad has been shot and he’s in the hospital and he goes to see his dad, and all his policemen and protectors are gone, and he’s moving him around within the hospital to protect him, and then Enzo the baker comes. I don’t know if you remember this. Enzo the baker comes and helps, and he’s shaking when he’s trying to light a cigarette. That’s my favorite scene. Enzo the baker. He’s in that first scene where the Godfather’s granting audiences and giving out favors. He is one of the people that gets a favor. He’s not asking for it, but he gets the favor. I will stop what I’m doing and watch that scene every time.