'Godfather' DP Gordon Willis Gives Great On-Set Advice From Beyond the Grave
Gordon Willis died in 2014, but American Cinematographer dug up an old interview with him filled with lots of pertinent advice. Check it out!
Gordon Willis is the cinematographer behind legendary movies such as The Godfather, Annie Hall, All The President's Men, and Klute. He passed away in 2014, and that sucks. The world needs more visionaries like the Prince of Darkness.
But maybe the next person to make an impact behind the camera is you. And all you need is some righteous Gordon Willis content to kick your ass into gear. Well, we got your back. As they say on Game of Thrones, "What is dead may never die."
So let's check out some of Gordon Willis' always-relevant advice.
You can read the whole interview from American Cinematographer here, and scroll below to read some of the best answers Willis gave!
American Cinematographer: Let’s address the managerial aspects of the cinematographer’s job. As a film’s director of photography, you’re in charge of an entire crew of people. What qualities do you look for in the people you hire?
Willis: I probably look for the same qualities everyone else looks for when they hire people. I generally look for someone who’s both pleasant and technically astute. For example, if I’m hiring a camera operator, he has to be able to fulfill his primary function, but I also want that person to be able to help the assistant get everything put together properly, anticipate any problems that might arise, and so on. I don’t want a situation where he’s operating one moment and making phone calls the next. The operator has to be intelligent and able to relate well to actors. I feel most comfortable with someone who’s smart, specific and easy to deal with. It’s the same with the assistant cameraman — who, I think, has one of the most difficult jobs on the set. Another major consideration is that I want people who know how to pay attention. Everyone on the crew should be fully involved with what’s going on, because we have a responsibility to keep things moving forward. If I’m spending 20 minutes discussing something with a director or an actor, I don’t want a crewmember off somewhere hitting on a girl or eating a sandwich — because then he doesn’t know what’s going on, and I have to spend another 20 minutes explaining it to him. A crewmember should be within earshot and listening, because I don’t want to go through it all again. If you’re not listening and watching all the time, things will slip by you. A motion picture is always a work in progress, and things can change from minute to minute. You may start the day with a specific idea, but that idea can change.
Honestly, you should print this out and tape it to the front of every project you work on. This kind of honesty and bravery to be so succinct is invaluable. Hiring is so hard. You get so many applications and recommendations, so most of what you need do is talk to people and suss out who they are as a person.
Also, I was blown away at the sheer logic he values on set. It seems obvious but you need smart people, people who take care, and that pay attention to details. If you think you have these traits, maybe these are jobs you could start off as on set and work your way up.
American Cinematographer: How would you describe your own demeanor on the set?
Willis: My set demeanor is pretty businesslike, or maybe I should say "procedural" or "systematic." I work out whatever needs to be worked out with the director and crew, and then we block things out with the actors. After that, everyone can go back to their trailers while we light. When they come back, I generally like to do a camera rehearsal and then shoot. I do prefer to work with a relaxed group of people, myself included. But I don’t like to have people dancing in the streets while I’m trying to think.
Composure can never be taken for granted. You are a professional and want to run your set professionally. When I first worked as a Production Assistant, I was super intimidated by people on set. I think there's a benefit in finding a balance between welcoming and professionalism. It seems Willis believes that too. Because cinema means long hours, you want to foster a creative environment that feels safe.
Part of that means not alienating the people who work below you or on your team. Before shooting, try to go out for dinner or spend quality time. Learn peoples' names.
Also, try to spend time with the people above you, like the director. Finding a good dialogue with the people around you goes a long way in working through the tough times and with rough personalities.
American Cinematographer: How much responsibility do you delegate?
Willis: As soon as everyone knows what’s going on, I delegate everything I can. Of course, when I ask for something specific, whether it’s a piece of equipment or a certain camera move, I want to get that; I don’t want to get almost that or something like that. In terms of the gaffers and the grips on a show, I tell them what we’ll need, but only to a certain point. After that, it’s their responsibility to fill in the blanks and use their common sense to get things done. I don’t want people who can’t think on their own. I guess my standard rule is that you should never hire people who are dumber than you are. If you hire an idiot, it’s self-defeating — it won’t raise people’s perception of your expertise. When you get tired during a long day, you need people around you who can think. They have to be able to figure out what I’ve discussed with them; I don’t want to have to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ for everybody. If I get stuck with people who can’t think, they won’t be around the next time.
Delegation is necessary on set. If you try to do it all, you'll burn out. It can take a few gigs, but you want to populate your sets with as many reliable people as possible. One of the best sets I've been on was full of people who did five projects together. There was a ton of camaraderie and it felt like another language being spoken. But that's not always a possibility. Try to check references and hire people who at least come recommended.
Also, I think it's important to start from a place of trust. Don't assume you can't trust anyone. Just lean into the idea you can.
American Cinematographer: A promising director who’s willing to stick to his artistic principles can also have an impact. When you made the first Godfather film, Francis Coppola had not yet attained that level of power, but he "went to the mats" to defend his creative vision
Willis: He did, and I give him a lot of credit for that. It was not easy.
I love the drama that was on The Godfather set. Sometimes friction makes fire. Sometimes that fire hits the screen.
And I love it when someone holds a grudge. Especially in Hollywood.
The Godfather may have been Francis Ford Coppola's magnum opus, but often enough he found himself seceding power to his legendary collaborator, cinematographer Gordon Willis. Willis famously called for the film to be shot entirely from a character's point of view, with no zooms or use of modern technology of any kind.