LOS ANGELES—Saying that he always intended for the films’ events to fit into a single linear timeline, director Francis Ford Coppola revealed in an interview this week that The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Godfather Part III all took place within the same narrative universe.

The 74-year-old auteur explained that although each film can be appreciated as a stand-alone project, he in fact directed the movies with the conscious goal of weaving all three together into one cohesive world, dropping in subtle clues throughout to suggest that certain details and even entire story arcs within the movies were connected.

“Observant fans sometimes point out that a character named Michael Corleone appears in all three movies and that he’s played by Al Pacino each time, and I can assure you that’s no coincidence,” said Coppola, who noted that “all the puzzle pieces are there” for anyone who looks hard enough at the three motion pictures. “In fact, those aren’t three different people, but rather one character who appears three times. Michael in New York in the first film, Michael in Lake Tahoe in the second one, then Michael back in Manhattan in the third—they’re the very same man.”

“I did a similar thing having Carlo’s death in The Godfather carry over into the next two films,” Coppola continued. “You’ll notice he doesn’t show up in any of the others. That’s because he’s still dead in this one continuous storyline. Meanwhile, Connie is his widow, which is me kind of winking at the opening wedding scene with her and Carlo from the first film. It’s subtle, but once you pick up on a detail like this, you’ll start to notice many other little connections.”

Coppola said that once he conceived of the idea of placing the movies in the same universe, he made a point of theatrically hinting at the web of intersections between all three. In addition to keeping the same characters from movie to movie, Coppola noted that viewers who pay close attention can catch other continuities among the three works, from the music playing in the background, to common phrases and manners of speech, right down to the titles of the films themselves.

Indeed, rather than viewing them as separate tales of organized crime in America, Coppola said he would prefer that people instead consider The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Godfather Part III as a unified trilogy, or saga, portraying the story of a single Mafia family over time.

Over the entire course of production, however, Coppola admitted that keeping the single interconnected world consistent became more of a challenge, especially in the third film—which he said was meant to be the “final” movie in the Godfather universe, temporally speaking—as it required viewers to make the complex logical leap of recognizing that the crime family depicted in the late 1970s was still the same crime family from the 1940s and 1950s from the earlier films.

“Basically, all the people with the last name Corleone who appear in the films are supposed to be related to each other,” said Coppola, recalling how during production he actually took the time to painstakingly map out the entire fictitious Corleone family tree that runs through all three projects. “For instance, Santino Jr. from the third film is the grandson of Vito from the first film, played by Marlon Brando, who is meant to be an older version of Robert de Niro’s character of Vito Corleone from the second film. It sounds confusing, but believe me, this is something we actually planned out.”

“For example, if you pay close attention, Marlon and Robert never appear on screen together,” he added. “That may seem trivial at first, but then it hits you: they’re playing the same person but at different ages.”

Noting that the nods to a common narrative were “Easter eggs” intended “only for the real diehards,” Coppola emphasized that the movies still held up individually, though he assured audiences that, after several viewings, many of them would pick up on details such as the fact that almost every character in the three films has ties to the Sicilian Mafia.

“We planned the films with the big picture in mind, but we always tried not to spell it out so much that it became a gimmick, and instead left it to fans to discover the connections themselves,” the writer-director said. “I always hoped that when people took a step back, they’d come to see how these three films sort of mesh together—how, if you want to think of it in this way, they are actually just one long story made up of three parts.”

“Fans shouldn’t get too carried away, though, and look for elements of The Godfather in other movies I’ve worked on,” continued Coppola, confirming that the Godfather storyline is only limited to the three films with Godfather in their name. “For example, Apocalypse Now is a film I made that’s not part of the Godfather universe, which I tried to emphasize by not having Robert Duvall’s character Bill Kilgore mention the Mafia—just like Tom Hagen never mentions Vietnam. I was very careful about that kind of stuff.”

Coppola did note, however, that Fredo Corleone from the first Godfather and Fredo Corleone from the second were supposed to be entirely different characters, and admitted that the repeated name was an error he noticed only after the film’s release.