This post features excerpts from a tribute to the late, great Gordon Willis, ASC, that I organized with Stephen Pizzello at Camerimage last November, with comments by ASC members Caleb Deschanel, Ed Lachman, Matthew Libatique and Vilmos Zsigmond.
This first post focuses on the pioneering cinematography of Klute.
The tribute took place during the 2014 Camerimage Festival
tribute at camerimage
When I saw the 2014 Camerimage schedule and realized there was no event dedicated to Gordon Willis, I called my friend and colleague Stephen Pizzello and asked him if he would help me organize a tribute event. Stephen is both Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the American Cinematographer, and has also recently finished writing a book about the cinematographer. The book will be titled Gordon Willis on Cinematography.
Steve and I spent a few days selecting clips and preparing the event, and recruited ASC cinematographers Caleb Deschanel, Ed Lachman, Matthew Libatique and Vilmos Zsigmond who kindly agreed to comment on the work of their legendary colleague. (Caleb does not appear in this first post, he joined us later because of a prior commitment). We had a full house, and the event was very well received.
We showed clips from Gordon's work with 3 key directors: Klute, The Parallax View and All the President's Men by Alan J. Pakula, The Godfather I and The Godfather II by Francis Ford Coppola, and Annie Hall and Manhattan by Woody Allen. I came away with a renewed appreciation of Gordon Willis’ unique mixture of methodical rigor and pioneering poetry.
Klute chase scene
To me, Klute, directed by Alan J. Pakula in 1971, features some of Gordon's best work, with pioneering cinematography that feels contemporary.
Klute, played by Donald Sutherland, is a private detective who meets Bree, a call girl played by Jane Fonda, while investigating the disappearance of a businessman. Their first meeting occurs when Bree discovers that Klute has been wiretapping her. She takes him to her apartment to see if she can exchange sexual favors for the incriminating tapes. Klute is too decent for that, but observes that they are being watched by someone above them on the roof.
During the tribute, we screened the sequence that follows, where Klute dashes out with his gun, and searches for the mysterious man on the roof, through dim staircases and down into an unlit cellar. Naturally, the scene is best appreciated on DVD, but, for reference, below is a video storyboard of the shots, showcasing Gordon's daring use of very, very dark lighting.
I recommend watching this full screen, to get a better feel of the darkness.
watch on YouTube
Benjamin : What strikes me in this clip is the incredible composition of the anamorphic frame, and the daring use of negative space -- keeping a large part of the frame dark.
Vilmos: Talking about negative space, he doesn’t light everything, he only lights what is important; He was very courageous to do this kind of a style with film.
Matthew: Gordon gave us all license to be dark. How many times have you seen someone with a flashlight, but you can see their face plainly, and the room actually has more ambiance than the flashlight provides? You look at this scene, he’s working at probably what? 100 ASA or 200 ASA? And he’s giving us the impression that it’s just one flashlight. He gave us that license to be dark, he made it okay for us to do it.
Stephen: He did catch a lot of flack for that approach back in the day, because the style was to light up glamorous actors. And he developed a negative reputation with actresses because they were afraid: ‘Oh he’s the guy who doesn’t light people’s faces’.
Gordy told me that Jane Fonda got it on this particular film: she understood what he was going for dramatically. Luckily throughout his career he had the backing of strong directors like Alan Pakula, Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, they understood and appreciated his dramatic reasoning and in this case Jane Fonda understood, but he did run afoul of studio executives and certain actors.
Ed: Klute was one of the first films in that period that created a kind of minimalism in the imagery. He always took things out of the frame that weren’t important. The architecture of the frame was important because of what he surrounded the viewer in.
Benjamin: One thing that is linked to the negative space, is concealment. In Klute, Gordon is very economical about what is shown and what is not shown. And whenever possible, he conceals things: either with darkness or focus, or some other way. And that’s a very strong dramatic technique.
Ed: Matty mentioned the exposure. You know, I’m seeing how many people are taking greater and greater chances in digital films. But they’re seeing how dark they can go and still create imagery on their monitor. You have to realize that, like Vilmos was saying, at the time this was so revolutionary because here was someone taking those kind of chances to develop images, and doing it with his light meter and his eye.
Stephen: On the subject of darkness, he pointed out to me that the audience’s perception of darkness and the level of threat depend on the circumstances. So in this case it’s a thriller and a romance, so the darkness in general and the silhouetted characters really could be viewed as either scary or sensual depending on what was happening in that scene. Personally he hated the nickname everyone gave him “Prince of Darkness” whenever it came up he would say: “It’s proper exposure!”
Vilmos: I remember discussions with him at some ASC meetings during the award seasons. I loved in those days to get details in the shadows, and he didn’t. At one point I was talking about flashing and underexposing, overdeveloping, technical issues, and he was just sitting there and finally he could not stand it anymore and he said: “Guys, guys, guys! Why don’t you just try real photography for a change.”
Ed: Back then when you would expose your negative and timed it, it wasn’t like going into a color session today where you can make windows, and bring back highlights or bring up shadow detail. Cameramen like Vilmos had to work with the negative that was there, it was an overall correction and so they had to be much more careful about how they exposed their negative. So for Gordon to take these kind of chances with his exposure was really revolutionary.
When I was just starting out I would see him, and I knew his crew. He had his approaches and techniques. One I always found compelling is that he would expose a roll of film and then he would send in clips from it during production, and check the printer lights.
He would begin the film and send in one clip, and he could check the exposure from the printer lights, and then three weeks later he would send another with his footage, and then he could tell if the lab was off or not. That was another way he was controlling the image, because he was working in this low light level and it was such a critical place.
He wanted to know that the lab was consistently developing the negative. That was a real rarity: to have someone looking over the shoulder of the lab.
Stephen: I have a quote from Gordy that speaks to that, he said: “I really don’t want laboratories making adjustments on my exposures. If it’s over or under I want it printed that way. I’m very consistent with how I expose negative. Repeatability in labs is very important, consistent lab chemistry and printer performance used to be quite reliable it isn’t anymore."
Klute night market
The other sequence we looked at from Klute was the night market scene, a romantic montage of Klute and Bree buying fruit. This 1-minute scene establishes them as a couple. Here Gordon combines neutral white light on the fruit stand with a colorful sea of anamorphic elliptical bokehs created by car and city lights in the background. The beautiful scene is both natural and lyrical.
Benjamin: Wonderful use of the anamorphic bokeh, the out of focus ellipse.
Stephen: Anamorphic was Gordy's favorite format.
Matthew: You look at this last clip and you see that he brought us into a modern age. Really those techniques that he’s using, it’s this duality, this incredible lucidity where he was pragmatic and by reputation at least, ran a tight ship. But yet there was this freedom of creativity that you see in his work that speaks to another type of person. He’s kind of an enigma.
Benjamin: Yes, he was usually said to be very sober and straight forward, but this excerpt is lyrical and very poetic.
Stephen: This illustrates what we were talking about earlier, depending on the context, the effects that he created could be used to unnerve you or to create this sensual ambiance.
Vilmos: He shot many films with as few lights as possible. He knew exactly always what he wanted to do, but I think that he probably also liked to improvise.
Benjamin: Klute is Gordon's sixth feature, but I realized that he made six features in only two years -- 1970-1971 -- so he packed a lot of learning in those two years.
Stephen: Gordy told me once that, when he came up, he didn’t really develop his own unique perspective on life, on people, on movies, until a lot later. He said that really late in his commercial career he was still doing things he saw other people do, that he would call rudimentary reproductive stuff. Then he worked on End of the Road with Michael Chapman and this group of people who were very loose and improvisational; they appreciated his input and that was, I think, when he started to develop his own perspective on things.
Ed: Many cinematographers change their style, I can say that Vilmos or Conrad Hall were able to change their style for each story, each thematic. But something that Gordon did, that maybe started with Bruce Surtees, was that he created imagery that became kind of a signature: you were looking at a Gordon Willis film.
I think the reason many cinematographers revere Gordon is that he had so much strength and conviction. If you worked with Gordon he had this kind of misanthropic, grumpy attitude. Many times he intimidated the director. He could impose his visual ideas. That was really unique at the time.
Matthew: Look at every film that he’s ever done and you see there’s a lack of artifice. Things are coming out of naturalism even when they’re staged and they’re built. It's not always the most beautiful light, but it's the right light for the scene and the setting. He does that time and time again not only with the light but with his composition. His work is tremendously stylized, but if there’s any lesson that I got from Gordon Willis’s work... It's that everything that I try to do myself is rooted in naturalism, and he’s an inspiration for that.
Klute - the night market scene - anamorphic cinematography by Gordon Willis
wikipedia: Gordon Willis
YouTube: Klute trailer
Frame grabs by Benjamin B
Many thanks to Caleb Deschanel, Ed Lachman, Matthew Libatique, Vilmos Zsigmond for participating in the tribute.
A special thanks to my friend & colleague Stephen Pizzello for organizing the Tribute with me,
and to Kazik Suwala for fitting the event in his crowded schedule.
Thanks also to:
Adam Brown, Alicja Chajewska, Ben Everett, Blake McClure, Iain Marcks, Piotr from Torun, Raphael at Multikino, Ed Thomas and Jade Thomas.
thefilmbook: Gordon Willis tribute - THE GODFATHER