CO-FINANCED BY: KUJAWSKO-POMORSKIE REGION, MINISTRY OF CULTURE AND NATIONAL HERITAGE FROM PROMOTION OF CULTURE FUND AND POLISH FILM INSTITUTE
ARTICLE: LICENSE TO BE DARK
Monday December 1st, 2014
Stephen Pizzello, editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer, Benjamin B., journalist; Vilmos Zsigmond, Matthew Libatique, Ed Lachman and Caleb Deschanel, trying his best to be in two places at once as The Right Stuff was screened at the exact same time, all made time in their busy schedules to sit and talk about Willis. “No slouches on the panel today” – noticed Pizzello after introductions were made. No slouches indeed.
Considered as one of the best cinematographers in history, Gordon Willis passed away on May 18, 2014 at the age of 82. Member of ASC since 1975, Willis was no stranger to film industry – his father was a make-up artist at Warner Brothers during the depression and as a child he actually wanted to be an actor. After the Korean War he started working as an assistant cameraman, shooting mostly commercials and documentaries, and began his career as a cinematographer on End of the Road, a cult curio best remembered for a scene in which a man... rapes a chicken. A mere two years later he shot Klute. “For me, Klute was one of the first films from that period which created that kind of minimalism in imagery. Gordon always took things that weren't important out of the frame” - noticed Ed Lachman. “It showed so many of his principals, like selective lighting and something he used to call relativity” - added Stephen Pizzello, who nearly completed a book on the man entitled Gordon Willis on Cinematography. “By that he meant the relative size of various visual elements in the frame. At the beginning Klute is always looming over Jane Fonda, blocking off part of the frame. He is a big figure and she is very vulnerable – he was using their physical size to indicate their importance.”
Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola
Still from "The Godfather"
Klute was just the first in the long line of his masterpieces and even though Gordon Willis retired in 1996, he will be always associated with the 70-ties – that's when he started his most fruitful collaborations with Alan Pakula, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, with whom he made 8 films. Among his best-known titles are The Godfather I & II, The Parallax View, All the President's Men, Annie Hall and Manhattan. At the time when cinematographers were considered technicians, he refused to stay in the background and was very vocal about it. Maybe that's why he was nominated for an Academy Award only twice and not even for his best work; the only Oscar nods he ever received were forZelig and... The Godfather III. “Back then Gordon liked to drink and was also very loud. He would use language that was offensive to people, usually while describing studio executives and directors who didn't know what they were doing. I don't think there was even one time that somebody didn't come up to us in a bar and say: Excuse me sir, there are ladies present” - recalled Caleb Deschanel, who as a student had an internship with Willis and still considers him a mentor. In 2009 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences corrected this shocking oversight and Gordon Willis finally received an honorary Oscar. About. Bloody. Time.
Though famously gruff, Willis used to underline that he was making movies with the directors. “Gordy always found a visual metaphor for telling the story and that's what we all should look for. Images aren't just representational. When he interpreted the script with the director, he would always have a strong opinion where to put the camera or what the camera should or shouldn't see.” Not that it was always smooth sailing. If collaborating with Woody Allen was, in his own words, like working with your hands in your pockets, his relationship with Coppola was anything but. “He said that making The Godfather was like trying to serve a sit-down dinner on the deck of the Titanic” - said Pizzello. “One day Coppola wanted the actors to improvise and move around and Gordon wanted them in very specific spots. Coppola was screaming, Gordy stepped out of the set and Coppola started looking around for someone to take over. Michael Chapman [camera operator] didn't want to step over Gordy's authority so he just hid in the bathroom. He stayed there until it has blown over.” “With Gordon you had to hit your marks” - added Deschanel. “If an actor wouldn't do it, he would tell his assistant to put a 100$ bill on the mark and tell the actor that if he hits the mark he can keep it. I think he was really serious about it.” On Windows, the only film he directed and later regretted directing, he was so frustrated with Talia Shire that he would physically move her legs around.
Gordon Willis and Woody Allen
Still from "Manhattan"
In The Godfather he developed his style of lighting from above and leaving dark patches - it came out from a screen test with Marlon Brando. It preserved the mystery of the character but it didn't made the studio happy – they dismissed what he was doing as “too dark”, which earned him a much-maligned nickname the Prince of Darkness. “He did catch a lot of flag for that approach because the style back then was very different. He developed a negative reputation with actresses - they were afraid he doesn't light people's faces” - said Stephen Pizzello. “Luckily throughout his career he had the backing of strong directors who understood and appreciated his dramatic reasoning. He hated the nickname, though. Whenever it came up he used to say: It's proper exposure!” According to Matthew Libatique, everything Gordon ever did was rotten in naturalism, even though some of his work was tremendously stylized. “He gave us all licence to be dark. You look at every film he ever made and you see there is a lack of artifice. Things are coming out of naturalism even though they are staged and they are built, whether it's this lamp in The Godfather, which is sitting there not really doing anything but lighting the guy's eyes just ever so slightly, or fluorescent lighting in All the President's Men. It's not necessarily the most beautiful light, but it's the right light for the scene and for the setting. He was never afraid to let people exist in the dark.”
As Michael Chapman once told Variety, cinematography could be looked at in two ways: before Gordy and after Gordy. He changed everything. “Gordon was creating imagery that became kind of a signature and you know when you are looking at Gordon Willis-influenced film” - observed Ed Lechman. “I think that many cinematographers revere Gordon because he had so much strength and conviction. He had this misanthropic, grumpy attitude that intimidated directors and he could impose his visual ideas - that was really unique at the time. He was a New Yorker and he didn't intellectualise things.” One thing is clear - there is much more to Gordy than just his nickname.
Article by Marta Bałaga