Celebrating the Life, Work, & Rebellion of Legendary 'Godfather' DP Gordon Willis
Gordon Willis, the cinematographer of the Godfather trilogy as well as several of Woody Allen's most classic films, has died at the age of 82. Willis, who was born in Queens, directed eight of Allen's films, as well as countless classics like All The President's Men. In his 27-year career, he was one of the most influential cinematographers, responsible for many visual devices we today take for granted. Click through for interviews, clips, and a study of the techniques and a celebration of the life of the so-called "Prince of Darkness" (for his innovative use of pools of light and shadow in the Godfather films, though he was never shy to express sometimes controversial opinions).
Willis served in the Korean War and had a brief career as a fashion photographer before making the transition to film. He had the good fortune of working extensively during the 1970s golden era of Hollywood filmmaking, when 35mm cinematography was, arguably, at its height as an art form. Major studios, thrown for a loop by the 60s, were releasing challenging, anti-establishment films and it was DPs like Willis who were responsible for much of the look of movies during this era. The man was not a shrinking violet about his photographic abilities, either. Asked during a 2003 interview how he implemented his technique, he answered:
I did things in visual structure that nobody in the business was doing, especially in Hollywood -- I wasn't trying to be different; I just did what I liked -- You're looking for a formula; there is none. The formula is me.
It was in the 1950s, as an Airman in Korea, that Willis worked with the Air Force Photographic and Charting Service in a motion picture unit; it was here that he learned the basic motion picture skills that would serve him so well in his career. Though his films were often lush, he described himself as a minimalist, saying, "I see things in simple ways -- It's human nature to define complexity as better. Well, it's not."
After his first feature film, 1970's The End of the Road (which is apparently out of print, perhaps because, according to its IMDB page, it was the first US film to depict bestiality, which, yikes), he began a run of classic films with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Alan J. Pakula (The Paper Chase, The Parallax View, All The President's Men) and his most frequent collaborator, Woody Allen, for whom he shot 8 films, including two bravura visual performances, Manhattan and Allen's Ingmar Bergman homage, Interiors.
In these films, he demonstrated that he was just as comfortable working with black and white as color, and indeed one defining characteristic feature of his work was a deep understanding of light and shadow; black and white is largely about the negative space and richness of the black tones (cf. Raging Bull, another modern black and white classic), and he put this to use to in all of his films, no matter what. Like any great cinematographer/director/editor/ etc., he understood that it was his job to serve the story. As a native New Yorker, this clip, the opening of Manhattan, contains some of my favorite footage of my hometown:
His nickname,the Prince of Darkness, was earned for his work on the first Godfather film (though he would end up shooting all 3), which broke many Hollywood lighting conventions, starting with the first scene, in which the brightness of the wedding celebration outside contrasts so dramatically with Vito Corleone's world of closed door powerbrokering; Willis brilliantly (though darkly) illuminates the shadow world that is paying for the wedding:
This photo, from a blog on Willis' work, shows some of his technique in the Godfather films. He used a lot of yellow in his palette partly because he liked it with regard to the story, and noted that it became a staple in Hollywood period films (he also did a lot of shooting during the 'magic hour,' which also came to be associated visually with pre-WWII America.) But, he also always noted that the DP was the servant of Production Design, Wardrobe, and every other element that work together to create a framework, a framework which the DP and director had to use in order to decide how best to tell the story.
The overhead lighting, which is a mainstay of the film, was partly a necessity of Brando's makeup, but carried over throughout the film. Some at the studio complained that it was hard to see Brando's eyes, as well as that it would be hard for people to see the film at the drive-in (!), but Willis and Coppola used it to their advantage, as a visual shorthand for the opacity of Vito Corleone, a character whose poker face is unmatched. Here's Willis describing some of of his thoughts on process in the film, as well as admitting to maybe going too far with underexposure on a few occasions. Then he humbly notes that even Rembrandt went too far, and it doesn't seem like he's joking, which is kind of great.
The Oscar winner was one of the most famous and influential DPs in modern film history, and his legacy will go on as long as people watch the classic films of the 70s. He shot mostly with Panavision cameras, though used Mitchells on the first two Godfather films. In 2004, he said, of digital technology, "It's another way to record images, but it won't replace thinking." He was a true old school DP, and will be missed.
What do you think of Gordon Willis and his aesthetic? Do you have any favorite Gordon Willis moments? Let us know, in the comments!