The Offer Creator Michael Tolkin On Telling The Godfather Producer Al Ruddy's Story [Interview]

Michael Tolkin is the creator behind "The Offer." The show about the making of a Hollywood classic is from a screenwriter who's worked on classics himself, such as "The Player" and Bill Duke's "Deep Cover." Most recently, he co-created another show about process, the Ben Stiller-directed prison drama "Escape at Dannemora." With Paramount+'s new miniseries about "The Godfather" production, Tolkin had 10 hours to tell the story of the making of the movie from producer Al Ruddy's ("The Longest Yard") point of view. 

Tolkin faced a variety of challenges making "The Offer," starting with Covid. Recently, the show's creator told us about his experience working on the miniseries, seeing Matthew Goode relish the role of producer Robert Evans, and simplifying complicated processes for the screen. 

'The people of Las Vegas love Frank Sinatra'

Did this start for you hearing about Mario Puzo and Frank Sinatra fighting in a restaurant?

That was a story I knew. If you had asked me if I knew anything about the making of "The Godfather," that anecdote, because it was a famous event and it was written up in Vanity Fair or Esquire in a big article on Sinatra. My father told me that story. I knew it as a kid. And going into it, once Nicole Clemens called me, and she's the president of Paramount TV, and she said, "I've got the story. I'd like you to consider doing it." So I sat down with Al Ruddy, and over the course of a few weeks, I heard his story and he told me the stories. I asked him the questions about what it was like making the movie, what did you learn, and what are the stories. And the more he told me, the more I saw that there was definitely a show in this because there were too many outrageous events.

Frank Sinatra, we've all heard good and bad stories about him, and even though he's an antagonist in the show, is it hard not to write about him without some love?

Oh, sure. When I was a young journalist in the '70s, I was sent to Las Vegas to cover the Jerry Lewis telethon on Labor Day in the mid-'70s. It was a famous show where Sinatra brought out Dean Martin as a surprise. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had been the most famous comedy duo, and then they broke up and they hadn't seen each other for years. So Sinatra brought them together. And it's not clear whether they had been prepped or not, or whether Jerry Lewis had been prepped or not.

All the press were in a green room, just drinking and eating. And then we were locked in by the state highway patrol or by the state troopers. And we were stuck inside and I was talking to the mayor of Las Vegas. And I said, "Does it bother you that you're the mayor of Las Vegas and you can't leave this room right now?" And he said, "You have to understand, the people of Las Vegas love Frank Sinatra. They'd do anything for him." The entire population of Las Vegas saying, "No, he was here with me playing bridge."

What were some of the stories Al told you that helped you see the story as a show?

His relationship with Joe Colombo was really interesting, and I'd never seen anything quite like it. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but it seems like a really interesting story of a friendship. And the show does not sugarcoat what the mafia does or how violent they are. These are still dangerous people.

We don't hide from how dangerous and how violent they are, which I think is also one of the things that makes the show interesting. Because it doesn't prettify the characters to make them sympathetic. That's the horrible word you hear in any story conference, which is we want the characters to be more sympathetic. What you do here is you just want the story arcs to be exciting.

Even with 10 episodes, were there any stories you didn't have time to tell?

10 episodes gave us an opportunity to tell a lot of story. I think we benefited from that.

There's 50 years' worth of stories about "The Godfather" now.


You had your conversations with Al, of course, but what other research was involved?

The public record, newspapers, magazine articles, but really it was Al's story. We really tried to stick with Al's story.

Even though it's an ensemble story?

Yeah, but the ensemble within the story, as it was handed to us.

'Matthew Goode, the first time I saw him in dailies, it was like a miracle'

Since the show is about challenges a production faced, what challenges did you face with "The Offer?"

Covid. The pandemic. I spent very little time on the set because I didn't need to be on the set to write. And they were terrified of Covid, and it interrupted production a couple of times with people testing positive. Everybody was nervous about just getting through it.

Was there much rewriting during the shooting of the series and those production stops?

There's a lot of writing going on until the end, always. Scenes are dropped for budget or for time, and you just plow through.

When you write for television and see how an actor is playing a role, does that start to influence at all how you write the characters they're playing?

I don't think so. Maybe directors are watching something and they want to adjust performance a bit. But the story, the blueprint is so complex and we were shooting in blocks of episodes so that we were shooting two episodes at a time. 

Robert Evans, obviously, was a great character. How'd you want to get his voice right?

I think with Evans, we started with this guy who was known for saying "bubbie" a lot. Matthew Goode, the first time I saw him in dailies, it was like a miracle. I had no idea that he was going to make the character that sympathetic, and that emotional, and that interesting. I knew he was a great actor, but he uncovered things in the script that were really revelations once they were on the screen, about the character.

Everyone has said how the table read was a great learning experience. What did you learn from it?

Things that might need to be touched up again or revised. It's just part of the process.

Since the show is about process, how'd you find it relatable?

It's an assembly line. You have your task, and you attend to that task, and you don't get hung up in anybody else's task.

That's a very nice, simple way of looking at a very complicated process.

Yeah. That's a good point. You have to simplify it for yourself. Otherwise you get overwhelmed.

By the way, thank you for writing movies like "Deep Cover," "The Player," and "Changing Lanes." Like "The Godfather," we don't see many studio movies much like those very often anymore.

Yeah, those days are gone, and it's never going to come back. The wide screen, flat panel, television screen, it replaced the movie theater, and that was happening before Covid.

The first three episodes of "The Offer" are now available to stream on Paramount+.