Take a short course in the phenomenal career of the recently deceased American cinematographer behind The Godfather, Annie Hall, and many other classics.
23 May 2014 - 10:51 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

Cinematographer Gordon Willis died last Sunday 18 May, only days short of his 83rd birthday. A multitude of peers and players have come forward in the days since to pay tribute to Willis and his contribution to world cinema. Amongst the 20 films he shot were some of the most important American pictures of the last 40 years including The Godfather I and II, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.

Willis was more than a master craftsman. Dubbed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ by friend and fellow cinematographer Connie Hall for his daring use of low light levels to achieve a distinctive look, what made his work essential was simply this: he changed how American movies looked and arguably influenced every generation of filmmaker’s worldwide since.

Willis had a rep as a hard-boiled operator; he was a straight-talker, an autodidact from Queens who remained a New Yorker his whole life, a fact that perhaps influenced his many Oscar snubs. The Academy bestowed an honorary Award for Willis in 2009 more than a decade after he retired.

There’s nothing simple or uncomplicated about cinematography but part of Willis’ charisma came in his conviction that technique and technology were only tools in the service of a story. He was intuitive, tough and unsentimental. His many innovations weren’t undertaken in the spirit of rule-breaking, they were done, his says, because, “I liked the way it looked, and it worked.”

So in tribute to Gordon Willis, SBS Movies presents some key moments from a game changer.

The Prince of Darkness

The Godfather I

Watch the first Godfather picture and you notice two things: it’s dark, and it’s really dark. This was not the way things were done in Hollywood in 1971 when Willis shot the picture. Contemporary hits like The Sting (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974) were still being approached in the way movies had been made for decades: a little stagey, a bright look, and the stars photographed to look as beautiful and glamorous as possible. The striking chiaroscuro lighting of The Godfather (1972) came about in part because it helped solve a practical problem: Brando’s age make-up had to look real. “The answer was over head lighting,” Willis explained later. He extended this ‘top light’ to the entire picture and underexposed all the interiors – so they looked like ‘a newspaper photo in bad colour’ – and overexposed the exteriors like old Kodachrome film stock. Willis believed that a film is made of contrasts, ‘relativity’ he called it. Too much of either dark or light wouldn’t tell the story. This ‘sold’ the ‘40s period and provided an apt visual analogue for the film’s core theme of black deeds done in the name of family.

The Godfather Part II

Willis disliked ‘dumptruck’ filmmaking where the cinematographer shoots stuff with no design in mind and its final form is determined by the editor – a way of thinking that gave rise to conflict on the first Godfather between director Francis Ford Coppola’s improvisational style and Willis. But by the time Part II came around they’d sorted out their differences.

In The Godfather Part II, Willis extended his idea of a visual structure that ultimately guided the look and feel of the film. It has a narrative in two separate timelines: one is turn of the 20th century New York, the other late ‘50s USA and Cuba. Willis used the same techniques as Godfather I and gave the story of the ascent of Don Vito (Robert de Niro) a ‘brassy’ yellow look much imitated since. This gave the feel that the film was produced in another time, long past. For Al Pacino’s Michael scenes – a story of a man losing his soul as he gains the world – Willis reckons he perhaps went too far, too dark, “But then Rembrandt went too far a couple of times too,” he said.

Willis emphasised the necessity for every aspect of the filmmaking process – from how the actors move to the costumes, to the cutting – to be integrated. If it isn’t, there is no ‘look’.

The Paranoid Style

Klute, The Parallax View, All the Presidents Men

Willis experimented with those filmic elements that became signature moments for his style in the early films he did with Alan Pakula; graphic still frames that delivered a payload of emotion in a single set-up, often with the characters in striking silhouette; poetic use of source lighting like a lamp or a street light; brooding urban settings of such imposing power they seem to dwarf all human effort…

Willis did not like colour (see below), and when he had to use it, he used it like black and white: a thing of stark contrasts with a severely restricted palette of but a handful of colours. This is particularly true of the paranoid thrillers Klute (1970) and The Parallax View (1974).

But his most striking work in the ‘paranoid’ style was All the President’s Men (1976), a story of two reporters uncovering loathsome White House secrets in the face of fear and loathing and a seemingly all-powerful antagonist. Willis was a fan of simplicity. (Not to be confused with ‘simple’ he says.) He used ‘light’ – bright interiors – for the reporters, and ‘dark’ for the frightened victims huddling in shadows and gigantic buildings coated in an impenetrable black for Nixon’s men and their conspiracy. Willis then put these two elements in violent juxtaposition throughout. This was the organising principle for the film’s visual design. Willis’ use of box-like imagery throughout gives a sense of the two journalists caught in a maze without an exit and the enormity of their task. No more so than the famous overhead ‘needle in a hay-stack’ shot in the Library of Congress. He said later he was most proud of the fact that he conveyed enormous amounts of information in this complex detective story with great economy.

Black & White & Realism

The Woody Allen Years

Willis began working with Woody Allen on Annie Hall (1977) and the collaboration completely altered the director’s approach to visual style and they ended up doing many movies together including Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985, Willis’ favourite.) At the time the convention dictated that comedy had to look different to drama, a dictum blithely ignored by Willis and Allen on Annie Hall, which became famous for its street shooting in available light and ‘real’ look. It’s never ‘real’; Willis told an interviewer once it’s all “interpretative”.

It was Allen who suggested black and white for Manhattan (1979) and that lined up nicely with Willis’ own feeling that it was a city that ‘existed in monochrome’. The cinematographer made the bold choice of shooting a quiet intimate comedy drama in the go-to format for epic and spectacle, 2.35.1 Panavision; it captured the beauty of New York and its romance.

Willis even contributed to the way Allen ‘blocked’ the actors (framing the action through doorways and often playing dialogue off screen, a technique much imitated.) Critics often claim that Allen wanted Willis to ‘do’ Bergman and Fellini in their films together. It was never discussed, Willis says.

Still, for sheer skill and brilliance, it’s Willis’ Oscar nominated work on Zelig (1981) that is staggering. A mockumentary about a human chameleon, Willis had to seamlessly integrate faux period footage with actual archive material. It remains one of the most spectacular special effects movies ever made because it looks, well, real.

Note: I’m indebted to Peter Ettedgui’s book Cinematography Screencraft (1998) for some of the tech details here as well as Peter Cowie’s Godfather Book and on line Craft Truck’s excellent Gordon Willis interview here.

Photo credit: Michael Yada / ©A.M.P.A.S.