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Gordon Willis Interview

July 1, 2004 | By

Below the Line went to Cape
Cod, Mass., home of legendary cinematographer
Gordon Willis, ASC,
known for his work with directors
Francis Ford Coppola, Alan
Pakula, James Toback, Hal Ashby
and a 10-year run with Woody
Allen. Willis, the son of a Warner
Bros. Brooklyn Studios makeup
artist, is a devout minimalist
and groundbreaker in the craft of
cinematography. He was given the
title “The Prince of Darkness” by
fellow cinematographer, the late
Conrad Hall, ASC for his mastery
of underexposed expressionism.
Below the Line: The most
important collaboration for a cinematographer
is with the director.
Can you talk about your chemistry
with Woody Allen: what common
language did you share that united
you on so many notable films?
Willis: We both hated the same
things, or we both loved the
same things. He was the person I
enjoyed working
with the
most, of all
the people
I’ve known in
the business.
Working with
Woody was
like working
with your
hands in your
pockets. No
yelling, just an easy exchange of
ideas. He is a very appreciative
person. We saw things the same
way, and he wasn’t afraid to go
to school and keep learning. It
was a very nice association.
BTL: There are some interesting
stories about the fight to get
The Godfather made, including
Robert Evans’ recounting of the
process in his recent biopic, The
Kid Stays in the Picture. What
can you tell us about your personal
experiences during the early
stages of production on the film?
Willis: It’s one of those miracles
that it ever got made at all. I think
Paramount wanted to make your
standard gangster movie. Francis
(Ford Coppola) saw it another
way, luckily for Paramount, and
because he persevered,
something
great was fashioned.
The visual
structure was
mine. The script,
the idea of using
Marlon (Brando)
and Al (Pacino),
the framework of
the movie, and
using Nino Roto
for the score was
all Francis. When
Paramount began
to see what was
happening they agreed to let us
go to Sicily for those segments.
Francis deserves great credit for
getting through that project, for
hiring me, and re-hiring me on
The Godfather: Part II, and years
later hiring me again. I’m not
easy to deal with. I’m grateful he
could separate the visual structure
of these movies from the mess
that went on to fashion them.
BTL: Can you mention collaboration
with other crew members
who you’ve enjoyed working with?
Willis: That’s like a bad acceptance
speech at the Academy
Awards! I’ll say this: grips and
electricians have done more
to help me shoot good movies
than any other craft.
BTL: Of your contemporary cinematographers,
whose work do
you find interesting, and why?
Willis: I’ve admired many very
fine DPs. I’ve never latched onto
anyone in particular, but when
I first started I tried to emulate
many of them. This is something
I think everyone tries to do when
they first start out, but you finally
have to push past that and find out
who you are. There’s no formula.
BTL: With regard to your love of
spare, minimalist and understated
settings, when in your career did
you realize less is more for you?
Willis: I don’t know if there
was a when. I think it’s simply
a matter of taste. Many people
perceive complexity as better,
very few understand the
elegance of simplicity. When
something isn’t working, there
seems to be a tendency to add
more: more light, more words,
more shots, more stuff. Don’t add;
take away. I think it’s interesting
that several people can be looking
at the same thing, but don’t
necessarily see the same thing.
BTL: On Zelig, is it true that the
production used actual lenses,
cameras and sound equipment
from the 1920s, and used the exact
same lighting that would have
been done then? I heard that you
took the exposed negatives to the
shower, and stomped on them?
Willis: The sound department
used very old microphones, I
used some older lenses refitted
for Panavision cameras. But the
lighting was reproduced with
contemporary units. There is
absolutely no truth that we took
the negatives to the shower and
stomped on them. The aging
was done with dirt and scratch
matts along with the duping.
BTL: Can you talk about interesting
technical or creative challenges
on any of your films that required
great focus and problem-solving?
Willis: One relatively difficult
shot to do was in All the Presidents
Men. We had to start close on
Dustin (Hoffman) and (Robert)
Redford going through index
cards in the Library of Congress,
then pull back, going straight up.
We put a wench in the dome of the
library. It had a cable attached that
pulled the camera—an Arriflex
with two gyros attached—upward.
There had to be a slight curve in
the move so we also had two tag
lines attached to hold the camera
over the desk at the beginning.
The focus was controlled with
a handmade radio remote cannibalized
from a model airplane. I
figured out what we would see at
given distances with lens charts,
and it worked. You also have to
understand, there was no video to
see what was going on. We shot
the first one, looked at it, then
went back and did it again, with
some improvements. It doesn’t
seem like much now, but then, it
was quite an accomplishment.
BTL: What evolving technical
changes made the biggest difference
to you during your career?
And what was your favorite type of
camera, and lenses to shoot with?
Willis: Reflex cameras made the
biggest overall improvement in
being able to shoot well. I think
that meant a lot to everyone.
Most everything I shot before
and including the first two
Godfathers were shot with some
form of Mitchell reflexes, with
Baltar or Cooke lenses. I actually
started using Panavision equipment
on Klute. I doubled back on
the Mitchells for The Godfather:
Part II because I needed the
same gear, the lenses mostly, to
keep the visuals in the same ballpark
as the first one. I’ve done
everything with Panavision. It
worked best for me. I also never
wanted anything I couldn’t get
parts for anywhere in the world.
BTL: What are your views on
shooting digitally? If a digital
project were presented to
you today, would you consider
it as a medium to work in?
Willis: There are plenty of people
writing articles about digital photography:
you can do this, you
can do that. Yes, but the core of
it is this: it doesn’t look the same.
The organics aren’t the same. The
interpretive levels suffer. I would
never shoot a movie with it, not yet.
Digital is another form of recording
an image, but it won’t replace
thinking. In theatrical filmmaking
you still have to structure, you have
to light, you have to cut, you have
to write, you have to act, and so on.
In docudramas, however, digital
shooting opens up another whole
world, and for the better. It also
helps people with no money mount
their ideas. But it doesn’t necessarily
teach them their craft. Having
said that, I will also have to say, digital
will finally erase film… when it
does the same thing film does now.
BTL: What do you think of
mini DV?
Willis: Great! I shoot with
it all the time at home. Also
digital stills. I don’t shoot film
any more in my private life.
Is this confusing anyone?
BTL: How do you see the
future of filmmaking crafts?
Willis: Not to be redundant,
digital is another way to record an
image. It does not replace thinking.
Let’s not get mixed up with
handheld scenes in someone’s
bathroom and the need for a
structured framework on a motion
picture done with film or video.
Things are going to change.
Things can be bright if DPs do
not give up control of the visual
structure, regardless of what the
system is. At this point, I feel there
are too many cooks in the kitchen.
BTL: If you could speak directly to
a young film student studying for
a career in cinematography, what
would you say about the trends
and methods in the next 10 years?
Willis: Tastes are always changing.
The mechanical means of expressing
those tastes change, but the
process remains basically the same.
You have to fashion a story. I think,
at this point, the tail is wagging
the dog. I’m delighted that people
can fly, dogs can talk, and anything
destructive can be fashioned on the
screen, but much of what’s being
done lacks structure or taste. As
I’ve asked in the past: can anyone
give me the definition of a camera?
It’s a tool, a means to an end. So
is a light, and everything else you
can pile on your back. They’re all
meant to transpose the written
word into moving pictures that tell
a story. Learn to do that, whatever
camera you’re standing there with.
I have no idea what direction the
film business will go in the next 10
years, but for those of you trying
to make your mark, try not to turn
the business into a huge landfill of
nothing but garbage. We’re very
close to that now. Always try and
bring something good in; we have
plenty of people doing the opposite.
BTL: Do you have a favorite
film that you’ve shot?
Willis: I really have to answer
that by saying there are places
in several films that I’ve shot
that every time I see them, I find
them endearing. Not because I’ve
done them, but because they’re
special moments, with special
people. I find them rather timeless.
I’ve been lucky that way.

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