I remember the night Gordon Willis, ASC, received the 1995 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award. Responding to the extended standing ovation from the crowd of more than 1,500, Gordon’s first words at the podium were, “I think I’m getting the bends.”
It was a dry remark, half muttered, and I’m pretty sure most of the people in the room missed it, but it stayed with me. I took it to mean that he was surprised by how fast he was rising in the estimation of the cinematography establishment, and by the near-fever pitch the adoration reached that night. Perhaps it was a wry reference to the fact that in the 1970s, when Gordon was busy changing cinematography as we know it, he wasn’t getting much love from the Hollywood community.
Gordon’s death this week brought deep sadness to filmmakers and cineastes everywhere. Callers from around the world lit up the switchboard at the ASC Clubhouse, seeking comment from ASC President Richard Crudo about Gordon’s influence and impact. Richard’s perspective on this is unique because he often worked on Gordon’s crews in the 1980s, including on Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.
“What Gordon was doing in the 1970s was still relatively new, but it wasn’t from outer space,” Richard observes. “The French New Wave, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, went about as far from the studio model of how to shoot a movie as possible. In a sense, it was dismissive of the old style. Gordon’s work was not dismissive; he was taking classical filmmaking to the next level. His work was incredibly well crafted, well thought through and beautifully realized, but it was different — it was a different way of seeing. Today we can see the wisdom of what he was doing because his work enabled everything that has come since.
“I think that at heart, Gordon was one of the last true individualists,” Richard continues. “He was not interested in or influenced by what other people were doing; he was just following his own taste. He was not oblivious to what was going on in the industry. He saw a lot of movies, but he never thought of them as a trend he should follow, an achievement to equal or an approach to ape. He just followed his own intuition, everything else be damned. And when you look at the movie industry — or, for that matter, at most creative pursuits — you realize all great work comes out of that attitude.”
An oft-told story about Gordon was that he would expose the negative in such a way that there was only one way the lab could print it, thus maintaining absolute control over the image. Richard confirms this. “I don’t think Gordon ever classified himself as a guy who was terribly interested in technology, but he had a death grip on the technology required to make a movie. He always used to say, ‘If you have a great idea for a painting but you don’t know how to paint, your idea isn’t worth anything.’ He would expose to print what he wanted to see. We’d shoot tests in preproduction, he’d lock in a printer light at the lab, and the lab would print it at that light. That way, there was no prevarication in the dailies; the timer didn’t have to make any arbitrary decisions about them. Gordon would say, ‘Just put that light in the Hazeltine and print it the way I give it to you.’
“That was part of his extraordinary consistency, and it was a great education for me. I just marveled at his mastery of the process from teeth to tail. I never saw it in any other cinematographer I assisted, and I have never been able to even approach it in my own work as a cinematographer.
“There’s really no cinematographer, certainly from my generation, who doesn’t refer to Gordon Willis as a touchstone,” Richard concludes. “He became a member of the ASC in 1975, so someone knew back then that he deserved the recognition. Despite the fact that he lived 3,000 miles away, he became one of the pillars of the ASC. We miss him terribly, but his images will inspire us forever.”
Donations in Willis' name may be made to: Perkins School for the Blind Library, 175 N. Beacon St., Watertown, MA, 02472.