Legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis believed that good films, like good photography, were not made by accident, recalls Giridhar Khasnis
“He was one of the giants who absolutely changed the way films looked,” said Richard Crudo, President of the American Society of Cinematographers, paying tribute to Gordon Willis, who died last month (18th May), 10 days short of his 83rd birthday.
“Up until the time of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, nothing previously shot looked that way. He changed the way films looked and the way people looked at films,” he added.
Hailed as the ‘cinematographer’s cinematographer’ and ‘prince of darkness’, Willis brought with him a unique form of visual storytelling while working with celebrated filmmakers in their breakthrough films: Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather series; Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Interiors, Stardust Memories and Zelig); and Alan J Pakula (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men and Comes a Horseman).
Such was his authority and reputation that he became not just a technical expert but a demanding collaborator of his famous directors. He supposedly wielded great power on the film set which was described generally ‘as quiet as a church’, where everybody tiptoed around because “there was a feeling that a lot of heavy thought was going on.”
Interestingly, despite a long and distinguished career, and association with some of the best works in American cinema, Willis was nominated only twice for the Oscar and did not win any. Almost as atonement, he was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 2010 for “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, colour and motion”.
But by then, he was already known worldwide as a leading cinematographer and one of the most unjustly overlooked craftsmen in the Oscar history. In fact, in a survey conducted by the International Cinematographers Guild in 2003, Willis was among the 10 most influential cinematographers in film history.
Be that as it may, Willis’s sway on his peers and young filmmakers was undeniable. “He is a major influence on me and many cinematographers of my generation,” says Oscar-nominated, Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji. “But the modernity of his work will influence as much the generations of filmmakers to come.”
Born in Queens, New York, Willis began his film career as an assistant cameraman working in commercials and documentaries in the 1950s. He acknowledged that the discipline involved in shooting documentaries influenced his later work.
“It was tough, I went to coal mines, steel mills, anything industrial, and you could easily get killed,” he would recall. “You learn to eliminate, as opposed to adding. Two people can look at the same thing but they don’t necessarily ‘see’ the same thing. Documentaries taught me to remove, not add.”
Willis’s entry into narrative feature films happened in the 1970s, and his finest work came with the multigenerational crime saga, The Godfather (1972). A touchstone of American cinema, the film boasted of brilliant star cast (led by Marlon Brando as the ruthless Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as his youngest son) and incredible technical team, but much of the credit for creating its tense and brooding feel went to Willis’s exceptional cinematography.
Creating a soft-focused, sepia-toned milieu, he brought to life the nuances of Mario Puzo’s lurid novel about a 1940s New York Mafia family, while successfully highlighting “the contrast between good and evil, light and dark.”
The film won three Oscars — for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Puzo and Coppola) — besides securing nominations in seven other categories. Despite creative differences, Coppola and Willis teamed together for the sensational sequel, The Godfather Part II, in 1974; they again collaborated for The Godfather Part III, in 1990.
Serving the story
Willis always considered camera to be a tool, a means to an end, and insisted that cinematography must remain entirely focused on serving the story. “So is 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.”
Throughout his career he believed in simplifying and stripping things down to the barest essentials while defining the look of his films. An unyielding follower of the minimalist tradition, he employed very few lights and camera setups to convey a distinct theme and emotion in his images.
He developed a unique way of looking at things and strove to communicate the essence of the story differently. For instance, he considered The Godfather (and its sequels) not as gangster films, but as gangster operas.
“What Francis and I worked out together was to mount The Godfather in a tableau fashion; the other films fell in line as well. That meant no zoom lenses, no helicopters and no contemporary film devices.”
Interestingly, he also devised a unique but simple method to know if a scene was lit correctly; he would shoot all of his setups with a black-and-white Polaroid camera to check shadows and separation in the lighting.
Willis also believed that good films were not made by accident, nor was good photography. “You can have good things happen, on occasion, by accident, that can be applied at that moment in a film, but your craft isn’t structured around such things, except in beer commercials.”
Crudo, who was once his assistant, recalls how Willis always used the example of a painter to drive home a point. “A person might have a great idea for a painting, but if you don’t know how to paint, your idea isn’t worth anything… Gordon mastered the use of all the tools, lighting, the camera, composition, lenses, everything we have in the box. His films are literally flawless.”
If Willis’s collaboration with Coppola became legendary, his association with Woody Allen and Pekula produced equally momentous works. While he had many artistic tiffs with Coppola, his partnership with Woody was “like working with your hands in your pockets and very, very pleasant and easy.”
After decades of heightened involvement with cinema, Willis retired from filmmaking in the late 1990s, because he “did not want to keep breathing the same air,” and had “got tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain.”
Asked to predict the future of feature films, he once said: “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.”