Cinematographer Gordon Willis: A Film Pioneer

Cinematographer Gordon Willis at his home in Falmouth.
Brent Runyon - Cinematographer Gordon Willis at his home in Falmouth.

Though Gordon H. Willis of Falmouth has served as the cinematographer of some of the most celebrated films in history, including the "Godfather" trilogy, "Annie Hall," and "All The President's Men," it was not until a little over three years ago that he was honored with the highest achievement one can receive in the film industry: an Academy Award. 

He was honored, along with actress Lauren Bacall and director producer Roger Corman, with an honorary Academy Award in November 2009 in Hollywood, California. The honorary award is given for "extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy."

He was twice nominated for the Oscar for cinematography, once for "The Godfather, Part III," and again for "Zelig," a Woody Allen film, but never won.

Willis said although his work was well received, he never won an Academy Award in part because he did not like the Hollywood lifestyle. "I don't play politics and I don't play golf," he said, "I always felt the work should be enough."

His eyes, which he used to create some of the most memorable images in film, are failing him. He wears a hat almost all the time, and lowers the shades in his home to protect his eyes.

"I used them up is what I think," he said.

Grew Up On Film Sets

Willis was born in 1931, and grew up in Queens, New York. His father was a make-up artist for Warner Brothers Studios in New York, and as a 5-year-old he spent time on movie sets in Brooklyn. "You meet a lot of different people. Everybody embraces children on the set. Actors, camera people, grips, and electricians."

When he was not on the set or in school, he went to the movies. "I was in love with the movies." He saw every film he could, and then fell in love with the process of film-making.

His parents divorced when he was 12, and then he spent time in both New York, with his father, and Alabama, with his mother.

As a teenager he became interested in still photography, and set up a darkroom in his father's apartment in Greenwich Village. "I almost broke my father trying to get money to put in equipment for this darkroom," he said. He shot portraits of his friends who were actors and models for free. He tried to replicate the images he saw in movies at first, and then developed his own style over time.

"I wanted to be an actor at one point, but luckily for me it didn't work out."

He enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War and applied to be part of the motion picture unit, where he made training films. "I thought I knew a lot about photography. I thought I knew everything, and then I got out of the Air Force and realized I actually didn't know anything."

After the Air Force he worked as an apprentice, then as an assistant cameraman for 12 years, before he got his first job as a cinematographer in 1970 on a film called "End of the Road," starring James Earl Jones and Stacy Keach.

He photographed it on a shoestring budget in a style that was not like traditional Hollywood movies. "I did what I liked," he said. His work drew attention and soon he was working on bigger budget Hollywood movies.

The Look Behind "The Godfather"

In 1971, he was hired to work on a film about a Mafia family, called "The Godfather." He worked with a young director named Francis Ford Coppola and a cast that included Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, and John Cazale.

"I came up with the look for "The Godfather" 20 minutes before we started filming," he said. The film's characteristic yellow lighting signifying an earlier time became a part of the language of cinema, and is used in hundreds of other films and television shows.

"For a while, everyone was painting everything that was supposed to be 'period' yellow," he said. "But it's not only the color, but the manner in which I decided to light it and the manner in which I decided to expose it and frame it. It all sort of goes together in your head, and then you say, 'Oh, that's good.' So it's not one thing."

Willis recalled a scene in "The Godfather II," where Al Pacino as Michael Corleone confronts John Cazale as his older brother Fredo, about his betrayal. Fredo is sinking in a lounge chair in a boat house as Michael stands over him in front of a bank of windows, while a snowstorm falls outside.

Willis said the snow had fallen the night before and he used it as a natural reflector of light and added a little light outside the windows and no interior lights. The men are almost silhouettes, and there are very few edits in the scene, but the emotions are powerful.

He refers to his style as "romantic realism" and "minimalist."

"It's what you don't do most of the time that makes something work, not what you do do. Usually, when something doesn't work, it's because you've done too much."

He said he designed the shot structure and look for each of the more 35 films he photographed to the qualities of the story. "You make the punishment fit the crime," he said.

In the early days of film-making Marx Brothers comedies would be filmed "bright and light," while a film about Jack the Ripper would be dark and gloomy. "I never felt it should be that way," he said. "I did what I liked."

Of his own films, he said he does not have a favorite. "I have segments of movies that are my favorites," he said, but oftentimes when he sees his work, he sees the mistakes and the things he wishes he had done differently. "It's like painting. Sometimes you get it right, and then you add one more stroke and mess it all up."

"All The President's Men" directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose investigative reports brought down the Nixon administration, is one of his films he feels most proud of.

"It's an extraordinarily well-structured film," he said. The reporters working to unravel the Watergate burglary are set in the bright newsroom, which contrasts with the dark underground garage where Woodward meets his source, Deep Throat.

There is one shot Willis describes as a "tour de force" shot, in which Woodward and Bernstein are combing through files in the Library of Congress. The overhead shot begins looking down at the actors at a table and then pulls up, higher and higher, all the way to the roof of the building 160 feet high, until the men become tiny dots, still combing through the files.

"It's a needle in a haystack shot," he said.

To complete the shot, Willis put a winch at the top of the ceiling and suspended the camera from a cable and pulled it up slowly. He designed the shot on a piece of paper, but at the time there were no video cameras and he could only guess what the camera had captured until they developed the film.

The shot did not look right the first time and they had to go back and shoot it again.

Develops Relationship With Woody Allen

Willis's collaboration with Woody Allen began with "Annie Hall," the Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 1977. They had never worked together before, but Allen called one day and invited Willis over to read the script.

"I read it in his apartment while he made coffee or something and laughed out loud and told him, 'Gee, I would love to do this.' "

"Annie Hall" was the first of their collaborations which also included "Manhattan," "Purple Rose of Cairo," "Broadway Danny Rose," "Zelig," "Interiors," and "Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy."

Both men shared a romantic vision of New York City, which is captured in the "Gershwinesque" black and white of "Manhattan."

"It's the good side of what everybody thinks of Manhattan. We both grew up in New York, so we both loved the city. Woody says, 'It's the perfect city, if people weren't killing themselves in the street.' "

Willis made his last new film in 1997, but worked on transferring the "Godfather" films to BluRay disc in 2008.

Makes The Move To The Cape

He has lived year-round on Cape Cod since 1994 with his wife Helen Willis. He married her in 1955. They are still married, "thanks to her," he said, and the couple has three children—two sons and a daughter—and five grandchildren. Their daughter Susan was a teacher in Falmouth, which brought them to town. She has since moved to California. They also have a home in North Hampton near one of their sons.

Now, Mr. Willis and Ms. Willis spend their time going to movies and watching them on DVD.

He likes living in Falmouth, he said, and thinks the town is cinematic. "There's something cinematic about everything. I am one of those people that can walk into a room or stand in the middle of something and see the best way to look at it, and I was very good at that when I was making movies."

His advice for those trying to make a good movie, "Don't do art. If it turns out to be art, or people perceive it as art, then okay. Anything that happens on the screen, it just comes out of you. A lot of it is instinct. Nobody can give you taste. You can't buy it, you can't have it. It's you. Never do something just to be different."

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