'There is No Formula': Cinematographer Gordon Willis on Testing the Limits of His Craft
On the set of The Godfather, one of the biggest lighting “mistakes” in filmmaking became one of the most iconic cinematographic choices in film history. The decision to light Marlon Brando from the top, casting a complete shadow over his eyes, was that of master cinematographer Gordon Willis. He recently sat down with Craft Truck for an interview, discussing how he got his most famous shots, what it was like working with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, and what he thinks new cinematographers should avoid and pursue when starting out.
I remember the moment I fell in love with cinematography — I was watching In Cold Blood, and Robert Blake’s window monologue for the jailhouse scene comes on. He stands in a dark room next to a window, rain pouring. All of a sudden I notice what look like tears falling from Blake’s face, only they weren’t tears — they were shadows cast by the raindrops against the window. I was head over heels!
Conrad Hall, though a 3-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, admitted that the effect was a “happy mistake” made during a rehearsal for the scene.
This brings to mind something Gordon Willis says in his interview with Craft Truck about his unconventional way of lighting Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
There is no formula. The formula comes out of you. So, whether it’s a top light or whether it’s some other thing. It just happened to be — that’s what was necessary to do this particular movie or this particular scene. So, I did it. Bottom line is, the design behind all of that, or the thinking behind the design of all of that came out of Marlon Brando, because Marlon had this makeup stuff he was using, so top light seemed to be the most effective way of dealing with him. You don’t really want to see his eyes. There was a big Hollywood rush about, “You can’t see his eyes.” That’s right. You can’t.
As mechanical and technical as filmmaking can be at times, it is still an art. It still takes the keen sensibilities of a human, not a machine, to express and evoke emotion through the poetics of light, shadow, and motion. Gordon Willis reminds us of that, which makes the craft all the more unpredictable and exciting.
The interview is a little over an hour-long, so if you’re in a rush and want to cut to the parts that interest you, Craft Truck has laid out every topic covered in Part 1 and Part 2. Check it out below:
What do you think? What did you learn from Gordon Willis’ interview? Who are your favorite cinematographers? Let us know in the comments below.
- A Conversation with Gordon Willis: Part 1 — Craft Truck
- A Conversation with Gordon Willis: Part 2 — Craft Truck