Remembering Gordon Willis, ASC


Gordon Willis, ASC passed away on Sunday. He was a god to cinematographers, and inspired us all.

He told me, “A cinematographer is a visual psychiatrist, moving an audience…making them think the way you want them to think, painting pictures in the dark.”

Ah yes, the dark. I don’t think Gordon woke up at night worrying if a scene he had shot was too dark. He said, “The studio executive is the first one to wake up and think it’s too dark. On The Godfather, we got huge flak from Paramount. It even made Francis Ford Coppola nervous. But I said, ‘Just hang in there. It’s going to be OK.’ And to his credit, he did.”

I interviewed him for Cinematographer Style 8 years ago. Tibor Sands, his longtime camera assistant, was working at ARRI/CSC, and took a few days off to be our production manager. We scouted the location — Gordon’s beautiful new home in a very nice neighborhood on Cape Cod. He was away–but since a cinematographer’s worst nightmare is a film crew dragging lights, cables, and sharp stuff across newly finished floors and freshly painted walls–we figured we’d light from outside.

Cut to the shoot day. The largest grip/electric truck the world has ever seen backed down Mr. Willis’ precariously steep driveway. One slip of the brakes, and his very large, beautiful  house would be toothpicks. Gordon was watching, looking amused. “What’s with all this stuff?” he asked. Ken Perham,  gaffer, explained that he was under strict orders from Tibor not to scratch, blemish or scrape anything,hence lighting with big HMI PARs from outside, with no heavy metallic feet  touching the inside of the house. “Too complicated,” said Gordon. “Just bring in one Kinoflo.” So, one 4-bank 4-foot daylight Kinoflo it was. After it was all over, Gordon asked the electric crew to turn the light off. “Aha,” he said, “that’s better, isn’t it—no light at all.”

Next, the cinematographer known for lighting with less spied a battery-powered Litepanels Mini, unused,  on the floor nearby. He picked it up, turned it on, and said, “Should have used this.” (picture below.)

I believe it was Conrad Hall, ASC who first called Gordon Willis “the prince of darkness.” He will be missed.

Here’s the full text of the Gordon Willis, ASC interview for Cinematographer Style, from the book, Volume 1.


Jon Fauer: Who are you and what do you do?

Gordon Willis, ASC: I’m Gordon Willis. I’m a Director of Photography.

How did you become a Director of Photography?

I sort of stumbled into it because my family was in the business. My father was a makeup artist at Warner Bros. in Brooklyn during the Depression. I was always hanging around him and decided I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. Luckily, I changed my mind. Then I got interested in stagecraft and, finally, still work. Then I went into the Air Force, did documentaries, came out and got into the local union in New York. After I got in, a very nice man gave me my first job two days after I met him. I didn’t have any equipment. I showed up on the first day of work with a paper bag and a tape measure. That’s how I started.

How did you get your first big break?

I got my first big break from a very nice person who wanted to make a movie called End of the Road. He had been going through everybody’s reels when I met him. We were part of this group of avant-garde people who took off and did what we felt like doing, such as shooting this movie. The film was so unique, generally speaking, for mainstream moviemaking that I got a lot of attention from it — not that I was trying to, but it worked out that way. That’s how I got the start in motion picture work. Prior to that I shot commercials and industrials.

Would you say there’s mostly luck involved in starting in this business?

Film students always ask, ‘What do you do? How do you get a job?’ There’s a lot of luck involved — right place, right time. Anything good that’s ever happened to me happened to me because of someone else giving me an opportunity. Always, every single time.

What does a cinematographer do?

My out-of-pocket answer would have to be that the DP’s job is to transpose the written word into visual storytelling. A longer version of what a cinematographer does is probably being a visual psychiatrist. We move an audience around as we see fit at given times, painting pictures in the dark, kind of like a dream-maker. A very short version of what a cinematographer does is set lights.

What is style?

Style, basically, comes out of you. Generally speaking, there’s no formula, although people always want to know the formula. Style comes out of watching an actor do a scene; style comes out of a process of the material many times, but it’s indiscriminate. At least, I feel it’s indiscriminant. It can come from almost any place in the structure of a movie.

As an example, I decided how The Godfather should look about 20 minutes before I started shooting. I watched rehearsals, I listened to people, I just stood there, and then some idea came to me and I said, ‘That feels right; that feels right for this.’ That’s how I get to it.

When you’re prepping a movie, do you do research?

When I prep a movie I do look at things. If it’s a period movie, I’ll especially look at things, because people’s reference to something set in the 1800s or early 1900s comes from the pictures and paintings that they’ve seen. Sometimes, I’ll use that as a reference and pull something out of those photographs and paintings and use that quality up on the screen.

What’s your philosophy on how things should look?

I’m a minimalist. I like to take things out, not add things in, so I spend the first week on a movie or the first prep time taking things out. I think simplicity is very elegant, and I find that people don’t quite understand that. Many moviemakers are encumbered with complexity. They perceive the complex as good. It’s like, if something’s not working, they’ll throw another sandbag in the boat because it’s listing, and they’ll keep throwing sandbags in until the whole boat sinks. But usually, when something isn’t working, it’s because we’ve done too much or made the wrong choices. It’s one of those two things, so we have to rethink things when they’re not working. Sometimes, one of the problems might be too much in the art direction or wardrobe. So I say take everything away. I don’t like complexity. Simplicity and elegance are better.

How does that relate to lighting? Do you take lights away?

Yes, I take lights away. I suppose I have a reputation for not using a lot of light, but a lot of times I’ve used quite a bit of light. I try to fit the punishment to the crime. I’m not a formula thinker. I’ll think about something and say, ‘This is good for this; this is good for that.’ One light bulb and a lamp might be good for something, but 29 space lights might be better for something else. I don’t get motion confused with accomplishment, and I think that happens a lot in this business. I do what’s necessary to convey the idea or the visual at that time.

What do you mean about getting motion confused with accomplishment?

I don’t get motion confused with accomplishment. It’s a big flaw in the movie business. People fall in love with the process and equipment. The process is a means to an end. A camera is a tool. Film is a tool. I’m a tool. The actors are tools. The director is a tool. The whole thing is about moving the script onto the screen. The process bogs people down sometimes, so that’s the reason I like to eliminate, not add, and get right to the heart of what has to be done.

Let’s talk about the differences between movies and commercials.

I made a living from commercials for a long time, again because of a lot of nice people. I learned a lot about shooting via commercials, because there is so much technique in commercials and so much gear and so much stuff that can be drawn upon to learn things. I learned a lot about making features from watching movies from the ’40s, ’50s and early ’30s. Back then, filmmakers didn’t get motion confused with accomplishment in the scenes. A lot of people think a scene is dull if the camera’s not moving — ‘this is motion pictures, we must move.’ What makes a scene dull is the content of the scene. If that’s no good, the camera can move back and forth forever, and it won’t help. The earlier movies, from the ’40s and late ’30s, play scenes out in a two-shot with a button on the end of it, like a close-up, and the audience never took their eyes off the screen. The writing was good; the acting was good. I learned a lot about cutting from these earlier movies. The opposite happened in commercials. Technically, I learned a lot from shooting commercials, but that’s not the place to learn how to shoot a movie. In fact, a lot of MTV people try to shoot movies, and the process becomes what’s important to them, not the content. So they get mixed up.

It sounds like it’s important for cinematographers to know editing.

The cinematographer can’t shoot well unless he also knows how to edit. I’ve been accused of editing through lighting, and maybe I do — not consciously, but I do it and I have done it. I don’t like shotgun moviemaking. I like definition. If you need two cuts or four cuts, fine.

What is shotgun moviemaking?

It’s like, ‘Let’s spray the entire room. Let’s get every single cut we can think of, including the doorknobs. Let’s do everything. Let’s take every shot. Let’s take a long shot, a close-up, a medium close-up.’ There’s no real structure in that thinking. And then it gets turned over to an editor, and the editor makes the movie. That’s what I call ‘dump-truck directing,’ and I don’t particularly care for it. I’ve been fortunate enough to mostly work with people who will look at a scene and say, ‘What do we have to accomplish in the scene?’ Whether we take one cut or four cuts, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll lay it out and shoot those four. We’ll lay it out and shoot 20 if that’s what it takes, but it’s never mindless machine-gun shooting.

I guess a cinematographer has to know when to argue.

A cinematographer does have to know when to argue — even fight at times. This is not good advice for everyone. We have to take our own cues from working with people. I’m not indiscriminate, but I don’t like living in a fool’s paradise. So I have argued about certain things to get them done properly.

Vittorio Storaro, ASC, said that sometimes you just have to say no.

No is a very important word. Yes is not a good word all the time. It doesn’t get us more work. In fact, no gets us more work, because anything works while we’re shooting it. Nothing works in the screening room if it’s no good. What was said the day before is forgotten once everyone gets in the screening room. If we said no to something bad, and it turns out to be right in the screening room, the no said the day before is forgotten, but they’ll never forget about the yes if it’s no good.

What defines the look of the film?

For The Godfather, both the first and second ones, it was about 20 minutes before the movie began shooting that I decided what it should look like. I said, ‘It should be kind of dirty and street, and it should be brassy yellow.’ If someone were to ask, ‘Why did you decide that?’ I would have to say, ‘I have no idea. It just felt like it should be that way.’

For part two of the series, we had the time problem of this turn-of-the-century story going into 1958, and then switching back and forth between the two. So director Francis Ford Coppola said, ‘Jesus, how are we going to know where we are?’ I said, ‘Why don’t we just resort to using a title? That’s stylish.’ And it worked. We went from 1900 to 1958, and we didn’t want to do something stupid, like using black-and-white here and then color there, which is intrusive. I applied the same color throughout the entire movie, both the first and second — it was a kind of yellow hue. But I kept the quality of the photography within the period work different. I went for a very soft, unfocused look on the period work, whereas the other work in the ’50s became sharper and more definitive, but it wasn’t so intrusive that we couldn’t go back and forth where people wouldn’t know what was going on. And we moved through the entire movie that way.

Take another movie, like Woody Allen’s Manhattan. He wanted to shoot in black-and-white, and I said, ‘That’s a great idea. Why don’t we do it in scope — widescreen black-and-white?’ I said, ‘This is New York; it feels kind of good.’ He saw New York as a black-and-white city, and so did I. I perceive most of what I do as romantic reality, so Manhattan and The Godfather Trilogy were all romantic realities. People always say, ‘Oh, it’s so real.’ But it’s not real. It’s what we select to shoot that makes the difference in what it looks like. That’s very important. We can select to shoot something over there or over here. Those choices are what make it look different. They will evoke a different feeling on the screen. I’ve shot movies where New York was an ugly place to be. I didn’t want that for Manhattan. I wanted it to be George Gershwin’s New York. So my choices were all positive choices. I can make negative choices for a different kind of movie.

Do you think there’s a style that runs through all of your movies? Are you a romantic at heart?

I’m a romantic at heart, although my wife would say that wasn’t true. But I am visually romantic at heart. Even a killing in a movie should have a certain amount of romantic reality in it. But I don’t try to think that way — it’s just what I choose to do, even in brutal movies.

It seems that a lot of our colleagues say they don’t have one particular style. But I would argue that you do.

I do have a style. I probably use the same thinking applied at different levels. But if you took The Godfather and put it up against Manhattan, it wouldn’t be the same movie. It wouldn’t look the same and it wouldn’t feel the same. But you’re quite right in that there is a definable style that runs through most of my movies. I do a lot of the same things applied differently, and I don’t mind saying that. The trick is integrating my visual decisions with the movie and with the story — to make it a good movie with good visuals. I think there can be a very good story that will work with bad photography, but really good photography on a bad story will not really work. Both together are important.

Is cinematography subservient to the story?

I don’t think the cinematography should be subservient to the story. In fact, the opposite is true. We editorialize visually. I like relativity: light to dark, big to small. My favorite kind of thing is to have someone standing by a window talking to someone in a corner, and the someone standing in the corner is in the dark. It would cut between these two people, and maybe at the end of the scene, the person in the corner steps out of the dark. That’s good shooting. It’s very hard to find people who have the courage to shoot a scene that way. Or they’ll shoot it that way and then say, ‘Let’s shoot it where he’s not standing in the dark.’ But to me, that’s not an idea. That’s an option, but that’s not an idea. I like to commit to an idea. I enjoy that kind of function.

So who needs to be gutsy? Is it the cinematographer or is it the director?

Sometimes one has to lead the other. Sometimes I’ll tell directors what the shot is going to look like, because standing on the set, they don’t know what it’s going to look like in the screening room. Most of the time, we’ll have a long discussion about that; other times, I’ll just do it and we’ll get in the screening room and they’ll say, ‘I didn’t know it was going to look like this, but I like it.’ That’s the best option. The other is, ‘Jesus, I didn’t know it was going to look like this. You can’t see his eyes.’ To that, I’ll say, ‘Tell you what. Let’s cut it together. Then let’s talk about it.’ Usually that does it, because once we cut a piece together, as opposed to looking at it fragmented in dailies, it works. But I hate discussions like that. I like working with people whom I’ve worked with for a while, so that when I apply something, they’ll accept it because they know I’m not applying it arbitrarily.

Decisions like those are about how a scene fits in the movie. What comes before, what comes after? What happens when that scene is cut in here? What happens when it’s cut in there? What happens an hour from now when the audience sees this scene, based on something they saw at the front end of the movie? I try to keep the whole thing in my head that way. I’m not high on options. I like commitment. The cinematographer has to be gutsy regarding what decisions are made, and sometimes we have to get pushy in order to get the idea through.

Relativity is important to me, especially between light and dark. I use it a lot in movies because, transitionally, it’s very good. The problem with most filmmakers at first is fear, where they are afraid to step past the point that they know is safe. When shooting a scene with two people in a room who are doing this or that, the director will want the option of seeing it this way as well as that way. One director I worked with said, ‘What are my options?’ I said, ‘There are no options! Six months from now, you’ll have so many options in the editing room that you’ll have forgotten the movie that you’re shooting.’

When you show up on a dark set, what goes through your head?

The last thing on my mind is where the camera goes and what light should be used. The first thing on my mind is: What’s the scene about? I watch the actors rehearse. Out of that, there’s the decision of how many shots to make the scene. I go over that with the director, and after that it’s about lighting the scene. That decision is really based on where the scene fits in the movie and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

Do you read the script a lot?

I’m a two-time reader. I read it first for the values in it, the feelings and what it has to say. Then I read it again to see what the film really is. I used to have feelings about how it should be shot when I’d read it, but I stopped that. Well, I still have them, but I bury them, because at that point I haven’t yet talked to the director to find out what his feelings are. I don’t want to come in with preconceived ideas, because he might have much better ideas than I do. So I want to hear what he has to say and what he feels like. And I might agree or not agree. Then I shove everything I’m thinking at him and he can feed off of that. It’s an exchange. After that’s all over, the process of actually coming up with the goods happens while the actors rehearse and while I’m on my feet, standing where I’m standing. At that point I’ll make the decision for the scene.

Are most directors visual?

No. I have found that most directors today are not visual. I’ll walk into a room and immediately transpose what I’m looking at into film terns. As you know, there’s film reality and there’s reality, and film reality is not reality. I’ve found that a lot of directors can’t transpose what they’re looking at into film reality. It’s like the big surprise in the screening room again: ‘I didn’t know it was going to look like that. Is this all we have, these 40 close-ups that we shot all night?’ They don’t really see what that is. It could save them a lot of time if they could just reduce what they’re looking at into cutting terms or film terms. Some do, but it’s really rare.

What’s the best way to work with a director?

My ideal way has changed with time, but I used to talk through the script page by page, scene by scene, with the director to his thoughts and my thoughts together. But after working with certain people for a period of time, we got used to each other and the story enough, so that process was eliminated. We would talk about things that morning while we were on our feet, but the overall concept we talked about before the movie ever started so I always keep those conversations in mind. I don’t want to get off track. I don’t want to shoot seven movies at the same time because I’m afraid of the one movie that I’m actually shooting. I don’t want to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I push straight ahead on the basic concept of what I’m supposed to be doing.

Remi Adefarasin, BSC, says that, in America, studios are all over the cinematographer, while in Europe they trust the filmmakers to do a good job.

I get a little pushy about that because I only see it one way; I don’t really like management telling anybody what to do. Most of the people I’ve worked with feel the same way so I’ve been fortunate. We push ahead and do what we like to do for reasons that we feel are concrete in making the movie. And it’s usually worked out.

We talked earlier about the New York look. Sol Negrin, ASC, says it’s gritty. Owen Roizman, ASC, says it’s handheld, documentary-style. You said it was sort of black-and-white. Can you expand on that?

I perceive New York as a black-and-white city, but from the standpoint of what New York is, visually, on the screen, it is, again, what we select to shoot. But New York is concrete and asphalt, so its tones are gray. So it’s very easy to hop on black-and-white visuals.

We spoke to a French cinematographer about a certain light, and he said that it does everything — not well — but it does everything.

I don’t think that anything does everything. From the standpoint of economy, something might do everything, but from the standpoint of applying a light, applying an idea, nothing does everything. My favorite form of lighting is putting a 100-watt bulb in a lamp and turning it on. I fit the punishment to the crime, as far as lighting is concerned. I’ve had people say, ‘He doesn’t do anything.’ But that’s not true. I’ll do something, though it might not be a lot in one case. Other times, I’ve put up a lot of lighting. But again, it’s what we’re trying to capture at the moment and what it’s supposed to look like. What are we trying to achieve? It’s all those kinds of things.

I know I mentioned that I like a lot of relativity in lighting, with light and dark in scenes. For instance, if we have a railroad flat and somebody is walking in and out of the apartment, there are three rooms to walk through and all three rooms are not going to look the same. One might be light, one might be dark, and one might be in between. There’s a dimension that we have to create on the screen with the light. It’s not mysterious. It’s just, in my opinion, common sense. A lot of people in Hollywood should have a T-shirt that reads ‘Fear’ on it. If we’re not afraid to exercise what we feel about something, we’ll do the right thing. I made it easier for a lot of people to do the right thing once I started shooting, because I broke through the ‘we can’t do that’ idea. Yes, we can. Just do it.

How did you, of all people, break through that?

I never did anything to be different. There’s a very thin line between different and lousy. I just did what I liked and I was fortunate enough to be with people who accepted that and enjoyed it. They were part of it. This caused a riot a couple of times at certain studios where people were very upset, but I said, ‘this is it,’ and continued. That helped other people do similar things, but it took them a long time before they would shoot with one light or no light or against a window. Yet it’s something that I enjoy doing and I never think about it. I just think about applying it without ever thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’

What would you say that you did differently from the others?

It’s sort of like the Marx Brothers drama syndrome in Hollywood. Back then, when we shot comedies, they had to be two-dimensional with flat light. And that worked. If we shot a drama, it had to be different, more low key. There was always a concept that it had to be one way or the other. My concept is: Does it work for this movie? I don’t care if the actors are saying something funny or sad. It’s about whatever the story is and doing what feels right and good. I do that.

If All the President’s Men had been shot by someone in the studio system, what would it have looked like?

I honestly can’t answer that question. I mean, I really don’t know. I don’t think they would have used cool white fluorescents to light up The Washington Post newsroom. I don’t think they would have used the same kind of lighting relativity going from the newsroom down to the garage. For Deep Throat’s scenes, I kept it full of greenish-blue fluorescents.

I remember a discussion I had at the time with the director, Al Pakula, on shooting Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat. I said to him, ‘We should just backlight him. Let’s not use anything on his face.’ Al practically went into cardiac arrest. The suggestion was a bit too much for him. So I compromised and had a little bit of light around Hal’s eyes the very first time he appeared. My thought would have been no light for the first time and a little bit the next time — that kind of thing. But I couldn’t really force the issue at that point, and everybody liked what we ended up with. But I don’t think a director would have used that kind of relativity if the film had been done Hollywood-style. It wouldn’t have been green down in the garage and they probably would have given Hal more light on his face.

Some critics have said that you are the best cinematographer this country has ever produced, though you worked outside of the Hollywood environment. Was that helpful?

I try not to pay attention to any of that, and it didn’t help me in Hollywood. There were plenty of people who wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole. They were very frightened of getting involved at that level, regardless of what I could or couldn’t bring to the movie. I’m perfectly capable of thinking inside the box, but I just never really did. I just thought about things, as I said before, in terms of what I like to do and what I thought was appropriate for the movie. It was always an attack on the movie itself and treating the gut of it as I saw fit. I think there were people who also felt the same way about things, and there were still others who felt, ‘God Almighty, I don’t want to hire him. Look what will happen.’ It was mixed.

So it’s about the ideas — the why, not the how?

Right. I have a lot of film students or even people who work in the business, ask me, ‘How did you do that?’ Why I do something is a lot more important than how I do it. The ‘how’ is the craft. We have to learn that and keep up on it. It’s like a paintbrush that we can reach over and grab to enable us to transpose an idea that’s in our heads. And once we’ve got that, we can forget about it. It’s why we decide to do something that is really important. The ‘how’ of it is the sister of the ‘why,’ but it’s not the most important part. The idea is most important.

Technique and technology — do they influence each other?

They don’t influence me, but they do tend to influence the business. When zoom lenses came out, people started designing shots for zoom lenses. When cranes came out, they started designing shots for cranes. I am not a believer in that. What I do is design the movie, decide what I want to do, and then reach for the equipment I need, not the other way around. But a lot of people get lost in the process of getting all this stuff together and finding a way to use it, which is a big mistake. If I only need one of these and two of those, then that’s what I do. The biggest mistake people make is adding equipment as opposed to removing equipment.

It sounds like you have to know the equipment and what it does to be able to know when not to use it.

Exactly. What we don’t do, half the time, is really more important that what we do do. I’m a walk-and-talk kind of thinker, and that’s the kind of movies I shoot: the walk-and-talk movies. If I think a scene works perfectly well in a two-shot moving along a sidewalk, I don’t add extra coverage. I don’t need a close-up of him and a close-up of her, plus the two-shot moving for a block and a half. But a lot of people think they do, and a lot of people don’t know if they do. So then comes, ‘Let’s add some more stuff. If it doesn’t work, we’ll get in the helicopter. That’ll work.’

It’s like pulling up to the actors at the end of the movie when they’re walking away down a dirt road. Why do that? Because we saw it in another movie and it looked good there. This is one of the big problems — we influence each other, and sometimes it’s good to learn things from each other, though sometimes it’s really bad. It’s wallpaper on top of wallpaper on top of more wallpaper.

So the more tools you have, the worse it gets?

Less is more in my mind. Nowadays, we can have everything. I’ve seen people go out with a lot, and I’ve seen other people go out with very little. A lot of directors influence DPs, saying, ‘Make sure we do this, make sure we do that.’ They don’t know what they’re going to do, so they want every single thing available. That’s motion confused with accomplishment again, where it’s always never enough.

But that’s not an excuse for not knowing what these things can do.

You can’t have art without craft. It’s like if somebody says, ‘I have a great idea for a painting,’ and I ask, ‘Can you paint?’ And if he says no, then the idea is no good. We’ve got to learn our craft. There’s nothing really esoteric about that. We have to know how to paint in order to transpose an idea properly. There is no art without craft. I’ve seen people who have worked in this business for years not know how to make their ideas happen. We all tend to reduce or expand things to a level that we understand. It’s human nature, but it’s a very dangerous trade, because directors will do that where they will work their way around something they don’t understand, get it to where they do understand it and do it improperly. And a lot of DPs will do the same thing.

Fred Koenekamp, ASC, said that he was with his crew more than his family.

I saw my family and I saw my crew, not always on equal terms. Yes, I saw my crew a lot more than I saw my family at times, but my crew became my family for awhile, and hopefully we all got along because we’re together for extended periods of time. The trick is being married to somebody who loves you, because she’ll be there when you’re finally done, because she has to run it. I’ve been very fortunate on that level. She’s always been there when I’m done. But that’s an overall perspective that we had to keep, and my wife understands it, and I have to understand it thoroughly as well. It’s very easy to cut the boat adrift. We do get reality mixed up with fantasy in this business, so it’s very important to redefine the difference every now and then. I’ve had a lot of good people whom I worked with — and a lot of them, actually, were very good family people. But you have to be strong. There are a lot of women and men hunting in this business. We have to decide what it is that we want and do that.

Let’s talk a little more about separating film reality from real reality.

There are a lot of people who cannot separate film reality from reality. I’ve known certain actors who have never separated it and are happiest in film reality. They’re happiest being someone else. When you finally decide to quit the business, a lot of people get in trouble. Mentally, they can’t handle it. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, where they step through the looking glass and never come back. They think, ‘Wait a minute. This is so great.’ But it’s not so great and it’s something they have to back away from eventually, and that’s a problem when people are not able to get back through the glass.

What about stress? Does art come out of stress?

Sometimes it does. There are directors who believe the more chaos, the more creativity. Truly, that does not happen. But I don’t like chaos. I like quiet, definitive decisions and thinking to get everything done properly. But there is a certain amount of stress to that. Actually, I’ve probably been more of a conduit of stress than I was stressed out because I caused a lot of people to do things that they didn’t want to do, and I used to fight to get it done. It’s exhausting to do that 14 hours a day. Then I came home and had eight or nine drinks before dinner to relax. That’s not a good habit, and it does take its toll.

Did you wake up at night worrying if the scene was too dark, or is that the role of the director or executive?

The studio executive is the first one to wake up and think it’s too dark. On The Godfather, when we started with this dark hole of the guy talking to Marlon Brando, we got huge flak from Paramount. It even made Francis Ford Coppola nervous. But I said, ‘Just hang in there. It’s going to be OK.’ And to his credit, he did. It used to be the studio that got in the way and it still is to a degree. Directors don’t get too nervous.

When I first started shooting, we had the ‘drive-in syndrome’ — ‘they’ll never be able to see this in the drive-in.’ I said, ‘Nobody in the drive-in is watching the movie anyway.’ We’d get these types of wires; we’d be in the middle of nowhere shooting and get these telegrams. I ignored those. It’s fear. Also, studios would see two days of shooting in a dark hallway with guns going off where they really didn’t see much except for what was in that cut. They would see yards of this stuff and say, ‘We’re not seeing anything.’ So we’d say, ‘It’s a scene in a hallway. The scene after that is this.’ But their immediate response was that they didn’t know how to cut it or that it was too dark. And I even had the response that it was too light.

I was shooting a film with director Hal Ashby where we were doing this relative thing about light and dark and how people lived. The first complaint we got was, ‘It’s too light.’ I had never had that complaint before, but I had it there. It’s understandable when something is isolated as one piece. It’s very hard to know how to look at dailies. Even people who know better will look at the dailies and ask, ‘What’s this for?’ But it’s got to be put together to be understood.

Where are we going from here as cinematographers?

Where we are going from here is somewhat complicated, but I don’t see it that way. I see that we are approaching another medium, another way of recording, but it doesn’t eliminate anything. It doesn’t eliminate thinking. We still have to structure and come up with content. We still have to light and record and put sets together. Because somebody can pick up a digital camera now, which I often do, and go from the bathroom to the kitchen is not enough. There are a few directors who have gotten lost that way, thinking, ‘Oh, look, I can get under the chair. I can do this and that.’ I suppose so, but that doesn’t replace thinking. It’s another medium to record with. It could be toilet paper for all I care. It’s not the idea; it’s how we apply it. It’s another recording medium, and I think it will replace film. But I don’t see it as a negative thing. I see it as just another way of telling a story.

How will the cinematographer’s role change?

The cinematographer of the future will be doing the same thing with this different medium. We bring a light into the darkness. We find the magic and structure the movie. Certain applications of technical things will be a little different, but the job should be the same. The only problem with technology right now is that it brings too many cooks into the kitchen. I’d like to get it back to when one or two people were responsible for the image. Nowadays, it goes through a lot before it finally gets to us.

Is the cinematographer the guy who’s responsible for the image?

He is responsible for the image. He is responsible for putting that magic up on the wall. He’s the visual psychiatrist, moving the audience from here to there. That doesn’t change, and it won’t change.

Gordon Willis, ASC, was born in Queens, New York. His credits include The Godfather (all three), Manhattan and All the President’s Men.


Gordon Willis, ASC holding up Litepanels Mini. “Should have used this.”

Leave a Comment

2 Responses:

  1. Francesco Giardiello says:

    Thanks for sharing this Jon. It’s a great memory you give us from someone left a great legacy in this industry. I wish I could have worked with him.
    He (still) is one of my heroes.

  2. Iván Gómez says:

    Incredible interview, that is what i call history.

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