It is an irony worthy of the cinematographer who was dubbed “The Prince of Darkness” by Conrad Hall that one of his most controversial lighting schemes was for a set bathed in bright, shadowless, fluorescent light. Since Gordon Willis’ death from cancer on May 18 in his home in North Falmouth, Mass., critics and filmmakers have evoked his lighting of Marlon Brando and the many murky interiors in The Godfather as his signature style, and this technique has certainly been influential on several generations of younger cinematographers. But it was his lighting of the Washington Post newsroom set in All the President’s Men that was, in 1975, just as large a gauntlet thrown down in front of the Hollywood cinematography establishment.
Willis hated the Hollywood studio system. He hated everything about it, from the executive suites to the studio equipment bays and back lots. He was a quintessential New Yorker in the way he rejected long-accepted lighting techniques as well as the traditional role of the cinematographer. He even hated Southern California light.
When Willis and Alan J. Pakula came to The Burbank Studios’ Stage 15 to film the large, false-perspective newsroom set designed by George Jenkins for All the President’s Men, it was an opportunity for many of the cinematographers then working in the studios to see what this iconoclast was doing in their own backyard. Willis’ recent failure to receive Academy Award nominations for the two Godfather films, or for Klute or The Parallax View had been no oversight. It was a deliberate rejection of Willis and his style by the old guard. It was also their payback for his dismissal of many of them as “flamethrowers” who “stuffed an Arc up somebody’s ass and turned it on.”
Willis’ work polarized opinion very much along generational lines. The film-school brats that came of age under the influence of the ’60s European New Wave readily embraced his outspoken rhetoric as fiercely as they did his lighting. Many established Hollywood cinematographers just as fiercely rejected him. I know something of this firsthand. I was the camera operator on an NBC television series being shot on the Burbank Studios lot in 1975 when it housed both Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. Among his West Coast peers there was a lot of heated discussion about this loud-mouthed cinematographer from New York who was shooting a film on a major-studio sound stage, a man who wanted no part of their clubby atmosphere. Nor, it must be said, did Willis do much to ingratiate himself with them.
The Washington Post set had restricted access at a time when it was commonplace for anyone working on the lot to visit crews on other stages. Guards at the door of Stage 15 challenged would-be visitors. I passed that stage every day on my way to lunch at the commissary, and I tried unsuccessfully for days to get inside. It was impossible not to notice the ranks of fluorescent ballasts stacked on wooden pallets outside the stage wall. Rumor had it that the entire set had a hard ceiling with hundreds of fluorescent units serving as the sole light source, with miles of wiring extending from the fixtures to the ballasts outside in order to eliminate ballast hum. This was a decade before Kino Flo color-corrected fluorescent tubes became commonplace. Gossip was rampant around the lot about just how crazy was this interloper from the Big Apple anyway, an upstart who clearly had no respect for the way things were done here.
Robert Redford and his production company, Wildwood Entertainment, had optioned Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s 1974 book All the President’s Men, and in the film, Redford was playing Woodward and Dustin Hoffman was playing Bernstein. These were the two Washington Post reporters who investigated and exposed the Watergate break-in that eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974.
Currently, I’m in Atlanta photographing a film titled A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford, whom I worked with over 30 years ago on Ordinary People; the film also stars Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Mr. Redford comes to the set every day with a copy of the New York Times. I thought that he had likely read Willis’ Times obituary in the May 20 issue. He had. While waiting to film at the Henry Funeral Home in Lithonia, I told him about my futile attempt to gain access to the Washington Post set back in 1975. I was curious why Pakula, Jenkins and Willis had built the set the way they did. He told me that Gordon was very clear that he wanted the set's lighting to be virtually sourceless and shadowless, just like it was in the existing Post offices that were unavailable for the movie. He told me that Gordon had had a very simple concept: The newspaper office was the setting where Woodard and Bernstein’s sleuthing and investigating took place. It was the place of revelation, of truth emerging into light from the fabric of dark deception that happened outside — the lies of the Nixon administration and the shadowy shenanigans that were commonplace Beltway Politics.
One of the things Willis was most proud of in All the President’s Men was not the oft-lauded Library of Congress crane shot to the rotunda, or the split-diopter zoom in the Post offices with Redford at his desk. Rather, it was the insistent metaphor of the “delivery of information” throughout the film — that so much of the film’s imagery is carried by inserts of messages, memos, telexes and printouts of the research that Woodward and Bernstein discover: images of words, words as drama. It may not be what the average viewer focuses on when watching the film, but on reflection, it is evident just how much of the dramatic momentum is carried by these inserts. And it reveals much about Willis’ cinematic mind to know how important these shots were for him.
I recall also what I had read in an interview with Gordon about the juxtaposition of light and dark in The Godfather. He spoke of the opening scenes in Don Corleone’s dark office, of a suitor’s plea for murderous retribution, juxtaposed against the bright day festivity of the wedding outside (what he called a “Kodachrome look”). This almost Manichean dance of light and dark is really the essence of Willis’ vision of cinematography as dramatic and narrative device. Gordon was not one to “wax poetic” about his intentions or goals. The common thread in every interview with him I have seen is that his intention was to keep it simple, both in the central narrative idea and in his use of light. What is simpler than such bold contrasts of light and dark?
Willis received the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995 and an honorary Academy Award from the Board of Governors in 2009. My friend and colleague Caleb Deschanel introduced Gordon at the Academy’s Governors Awards ceremony in Hollywood. In his tribute Caleb also spoke of the Hollywood establishment’s prevailing view of Willis in the ’70s. Of course, by 2009, Willis had become the most highly regarded of all living American cinematographers. Even his erstwhile detractors — the ones still alive — had come around, and Willis was, in their eyes, now one of them.
I asked Caleb if he would allow me to include in this tribute his introduction of Willis at the Academy ceremony. At the conclusion Caleb cites the Academy for its failure to honor Willis with an Oscar for five of his major films. Willis’ two nominations, while enviable, were not for his most important work. Here is Caleb’s very personal speech:
Gordon Willis is a diehard New Yorker who’s never been afraid to shoot down Hollywood. He always thought Hollywood would ‘topple over like a stack of books, anyway,’ and fall into the ocean. So, he doesn’t like spending a lot of time here!
When I was a fellow at the AFI in 1970, I talked them into an internship with a cinematographer. They wanted me to study with an old-time Hollywood cameraman, but I had seen Gordon’s work on his first two movies, End of the Road and Loving, and I thought this was the kind of shooting I wanted to do. The AFI had never heard of him. ‘Why the hell would you want to study with him?’ But I was determined and called Gordon to get his okay, and Gordon said, ‘Why the hell would you want to study with me?’ But I convinced him and went to New York to watch him shoot the film The People Next Door.
I made diagrams of lighting, checked exposures with my light meters, watched dailies with him and listened as Gordon ripped his own work apart. He was never satisfied! But most importantly, I spent hours after shooting mostly in bars, where Gordon’s colorful way of speaking would often get us in trouble. This is where I learned the most: his ideas about a movie’s point of view, how to prepare a visual unity for a movie, what was being done wrong and sometimes what was being done right on the movie he was shooting, what to look for in a script, where to put the camera and why.
Gordy loved to complain about Hollywood: ‘You know, some Hollywood cameramen are just a bunch of flamethrowers.’ Or, if he really didn’t like them, he’d say, ‘I wouldn’t hire that guy to shoot a wedding.’ I told Gordy he should be more careful. ‘You never know, you might offend somebody.’ Gordy smiled.
Gordon would sound off: ‘All the labs have turned into a bunch of Laundromats.’ He liked to catch them making mistakes and watch them squirm as they faced the undeniable truth of his exacting exposures.
He’d go on, ‘Some directors are just dump-truck directors. They don’t think about what they shoot. They just fill up a big dump-truck with a bunch of shots and dump them in the editors’ lap!'
And then he’d talk about studio executives. [Pause, look at Gordon.] You know, Gordon, I’m just going to skip over this part!
Gordon always loved actors … [pause] … especially when they hit their marks! If they were having trouble, he’d say to his crew, ‘Okay, the next time he hits his mark, nail his shoes to the floor.’ Or he’d tell his assistant, ‘Go put a $100 bill on the mark and tell her if she hits it, she can keep it.’
Every wisecrack or observation would keep the atmosphere light, and his loyal crew loved him. The directors, writers, producers, costume designers, production designers and actors loved Gordon for what he magically created on the screen.
Gordon, your incredible work has been acknowledged by so many, but not so much by the Academy. I thought I’d offer up a brief explanation as to why you had to wait so long for this Oscar:
1. The Godfather – Considered one of the greatest movies of all time and one of the seminal films in cinematography, nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but no nomination for cinematography. Of course, everyone knew there’d be a sequel, so maybe they thought if you don’t get the nomination this time, you’ll be inspired to do even better work on the next Godfather.
2. The Godfather II – Well, Gordon, you were inspired, you did do even more incredible work than on the first Godfather, but, of course, there’s an unspoken rule: Sequels do not get nominated! So, no nomination again. Sorry about that.
3. Annie Hall – Another unspoken rule: Comedies do not get nominated. No nomination. Sorry about that, too.
4. All the President’s Men – Now, Gordon, and this is just my own theory, but maybe, just maybe, it was the wise-ass remarks I warned you about, the ones that go, ‘They’re just a bunch of flamethrowers,’ or, ‘I wouldn’t hire that guy to shoot a wedding.’ Maybe word got out.
5. Manhattan – Woody Allen’s love poem to New York, beautiful black-and-white photography, but I guess no one told you the black-and-white cinematography award was eliminated in 1967. I think your friend Haskell picked up the last one of those! He might have warned you they had run out. There are so many more, but as Gordon would say, ‘Let’s go, folks, the earth is rotating!’
Gordon, tonight we make right a long-standing wrong, not by honoring just one film, but by honoring your entire amazing oeuvre. I know how much you hate fancy words, but tonight is special, and, in fact, ‘oeuvre’ is just a fancy French word for ‘dump-truck.’ So [cheers] to your extraordinary and dazzling body of work. We are all so proud to congratulate you for this well-deserved honor!
In 1978, indie producer John Fiedler was working at Technicolor Lab in Studio City. He was assistant to dailies contact man Skip Nicholson, and in his tenure at the lab John watched dailies and worked in answer-printing movies shot by dozens of Hollywood’s most notable cinematographers. I emailed John the day the Times obit appeared and asked him if he could share an interesting anecdote about Gordon. His answer was that he had several, but they couldn’t be put in print. (John was referring, I think, to Gordon’s well-known inclination to heap abuse and invective on most studio operatives.) He did volunteer one story as an illustration of how precise Gordon’s working practice was:
When I was at Technicolor, we did the front end and answer print of Comes a Horseman, among numerous other Willis-photographed movies. We thought he was the most exact cinematographer we ever saw. Great technical command as well as tremendous artistry. As an experiment, when it came time to answer-print Comes a Horseman, Skip and I talked about creating the first pass in the process of timing the final print by simply assigning Willis’ daily light points employed during production for each respective interior, exterior, day, night, etc., to the final scene-to-scene cut of the movie — a painstaking process. As you know, no one ever wanted to do that, as the vagaries of production shooting and subsequent editing always produced imbalances, sometimes radical ones. It was always a new start at answer-print time. Answer-print timers were unbridled in their confidence of their finishing skills in color balance. And everyone else believed that the finished film deserved fresh attention, thought and skill. But Skip and I imagined Gordon was one of the few guys worth taking the extra time, and it was slower than a timer creating a first print off the Hazeltine, to see if we could extrapolate his daily light points to the final cut negative to see just how close we would be to a final, polished answer print. We were not surprised — or, actually, pleasantly surprised — when we found the first-pass print was better than 95-percent ‘there.’ Gordon knew what he was doing, always, plain and simple.
That “plain and simple” is the mantra of what Willis explained in several interviews he gave after his retirement.
In a two-part discussion with Jeff Glickman for his website, Craft Truck, Willis reveals and repeats that he is not a cinematographer who carefully plans out a schema for any given film; in fact, he admits that it was only shortly before beginning The Godfather that he decided to use single-source top light for much of the movie, and that decision came about not from an artistic idea but from necessity, as Brando’s appliances and make-up required him to employ top light to cast shadows on the actor’s neck to conceal makeup seams.
Willis reiterated his simple methodology in several other interviews, including one with Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” a 20-minute conversation that was originally broadcast in 2002 and was aired again after Willis died. You can listen to it here.
It is, however, difficult to really know how much of Willis’ thoughts on cinematography are what he describes in these interviews. Some cinematographers believe that he was deeply reflective and premeditated about what he did, but enjoyed projecting the image of the bad boy and outsider, a man who acted intuitively.
One thing is clear: Willis' focus as a cinematographer was never on equipment or technique. There are stories about his disdain for any equipment that failed to meet his demands, some of it landing on the floor in pieces. (Apocryphal or not, the stories all ring true to the spirit of the man.) Willis concentrated on the use of light, composition and shot selection in service of the script and its narrative, and that ability comes from inside you. Early in the Glickman interview, he says of the cinematographers and directors that wanted to emulate him: “There is no formula; the formula is you.” Several other aphorisms that get to the heart of his art are: “Color is a burden. You have to deal with it.” “Complexity is not good.” “[Choose] a simple stand alone idea.” Discussing lens selection and camera placement, he disavows fancy angles and lenses: “I was a 40mm person. I step into a room, and a 40 is perfect. It looks normal on the screen.” (In this, he evokes the spirit of that great French classicist Robert Bresson.) Willis also speaks often about the importance of “staging” not just the mise-en-scène of the actors, but also how a scene should be covered for the editing. Scratch Gordon a bit and an editor pops up, not one looking for “coverage,” but for the right shot in the right place juxtaposed to the next shot: what he called “getting it right.” Willis’ sense of editorial coverage was stronger than that of most of his colleagues, many of whom thought of shots as freestanding entities, and especially of directors whom he described as having no style, who delivered indifferent shots to the cutting room. I didn’t know Willis to talk much about digital cinematography, but it isn’t hard to imagine what he might say about that cliché “image capture.”
Cinematographers are famous for their career longevity. The lengthy filmographies of Freddie Francis, Jack Cardiff, Karl Struss and Freddie Young are ones that spring to mind. Gordon Willis stopped at a point where many cinematographers still aspire to another decade or two. When Glickman asks Gordon if he has any regrets, he at first demurs, then says, “Only regret I have is that maybe it could have lasted longer … but not really.” I don’t believe the “not really.” I think Willis lost the conviction that there were films for him still worth doing. In typical Willis fashion, he assigns his disenchantment to more mundane issues: “I got tired of waiting in the rain for actors to come out of their trailers.” But, he adds, “And then you run out of people. It wasn’t there anymore.”
There are so many references to the three Godfather films he did with Coppola and to the eight he did with Woody Allen. But in addition to the “paranoid trilogy” of the ’70s — Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men — Willis made several other films with Alan Pakula, including Presumed Innocent and The Devil’s Own. Willis and Pakula were possibly of a more similar mindset than either Willis and Coppola or Willis and Allen. When Pakula died in 1998 in a freakish auto accident on New York’s LIE, Willis was deeply affected. The Devil’s Own was also Willis’ last credit. I don’t believe Gordon ever said so in public, but it might not be unwarranted to think that Pakula’s death only highlighted Willis’ unhappiness with the descent into mediocrity in so much American filmmaking.
There will doubtless continue to be encomiums; his place in the canon of American cinema is assured. But we have yet to learn so much more about this often very private man. It will emerge in time, giving us greater insight into his artistry, beyond the occasional reluctant musings with which he graced us.