This post continues excerpts from a tribute to the late, great Gordon Willis, ASC, that I organized with Stephen Pizzello at Camerimage last November, with help from ASC members Caleb Deschanel, Ed Lachman, Matthew Libatique and Vilmos Zsigmond. My friend Stephen is both Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the American Cinematographer, and has also recently finished writing a book about Gordon.
This third post focuses on the wonderful cinematography of The Godfather, Part II. If you haven't read the previous posts about the first Godfather, I encourage you to do so before reading this one.
Gordon Willis, ASC, takes a reading on the set of The Godfather as director Francis Ford Coppola and camera operator Michael Chapman, ASC, look on in the background (photo: ASC archive at AMPAS)
1. visual coherence
2. 12 time shifts
3. the best epic
4. hitting marks
5. Fanucci's murder
7. Fredo's murder
8. dump truck coverage
1. visual coherence
During the tribute to Gordon Willis at Camerimage, we screened excerpts from The Godfather, 1972, and The Godfather: Part II, 1974 by Francis Ford Coppola.
After the world-wide triumph of The Godfather, Coppola had carte blanche to offer a more intricate, dual-stranded story, with Al Pacino giving a formidable performance as Michael Corleone descending into darkness in the late 1950s, and Robert De Niro replacing Marlon Brando as a younger Vito Corleone in the early 1900s. Michael is the story's tragic hero, a man who starts by putting family above else, only to lose his wife and kill his brother in his ruthless pursuit of absolute power.
Alongside Carmine Coppola's score and Dean Tavouloris' art direction, Gordon Willis' cinematography gives a visual coherence to the first two Godfathers, using the same color palette and frequent top-lighting, making them true companion films.
But Gordon also added to the visual scope of the sequel, notably by frequently revealing exteriors through windows, as in Michael's Lake Tahoe office.
Gordon also created a distinctive period look for the early century footage, using camera filters to lower the contrast, and shooting with a wide open iris, obtaining a shallow depth of field, and accentuating the imperfections of the Baltar lenses.
2. 12 time shifts
The slideshow below gives a taste of the film's temporal structure and visual intricacy, as the story shifts 11 times between the late 1950s and the early 1900s, and ends with a brief family reunion in the 1940s.
Each row of 3 keyframes below represents a change in historical period, except for the last row which includes 2 periods, for a total of 13 periods.
3. the best epic
The first Godfather is a beautiful film, but Godfather II is even better! The sequel is richer and more ambitious than the original, and the intertwined stories of Vito and Michael Corleone create an extraordinary 200-minute chapter in world cinema -- some 25 minutes longer than part I.
To me, Godfather Part II is one of the best films ever made. But the other outstanding achievement of Coppola, Willis and their collaborators is to have created two great films that can be viewed together as a 6-hour epic masterpiece.
What about Godfather: Part III shot some 16 years later? Although Gordon's cinematography is wonderful, my opinion is that the third film in the series, while good, does not attain the perfection of the first two, in part because of a weaker story.
The Godfather: Part II was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning in 6 categories. Gordon's innovative cinematography was not even nominated, proof once again that he was too far ahead of his day to be recognized. He finally got a small part of the recognition he deserved with ASC and Oscar nominations for Godfather: Part III in 1991.
4. hitting marks
In Godfather I, Gordon established his style of lighting some interiors with toplights, creating pools of light for the actors to move in and out of. This technique can require some precision in the actor's position, and during the tribute the cinematographers discussed Gordon's insistence on actors hitting their marks.
Ed: I worked with Gordon’s assistant Doug Hart, and he told me that Gordon knew exactly where the camera would be. There was no improvisation on the set. Everything was taped out, with marks on the floor.
Caleb: I don’t think I’ve worked on a movie recently where a director has any patience for actors hitting their marks, or actually having marks at all. But Gordon would put marks on the floor and you had to hit your marks. If an actor wouldn’t hit the mark, he’d tell his assistant: “Go put a hundred dollar bill on the mark, and tell the actor that if they hit the mark they can keep the hundred dollars”.
Stephen: Coppola and Gordy got into many big fights on Godfather 1. Michael Chapman, who was the camera operator, told me that Coppola got fed up because he wanted the actors to have the freedom to roam around, and Gordy said they had to be in specific spots. So one day they had a huge fight: Coppola was screaming, Gordy was screaming and Gordy just stomped off the set…
And Chapman said: “I noticed Francis looking around to see who was going to take over, and I didn’t want to be the one to usurp Gordy’s authority. So I hid in the bathroom! I went into a bathroom stall and just hung out in there until somebody came and said that it had blown over.”
Doug Hart told me that on Windows, the one movie that Gordy directed -- and later regretted directing -- Talia Shire couldn’t hit her marks. Gordy got so frustrated that he was below the lens physically moving her legs onto the mark for certain takes to get her there.
Caleb: Gordon was really serious about it… He was a real perfectionist, but at a time when you could be a perfectionist.
Benjamin: Given all their fighting on Godfather 1, it’s remarkable that Coppola asked Gordon to shoot Godfather 2.
Stephen: Coppola addressed that when I talked to him. He was very generous in his assessment of Gordy’s contributions after he passed away. Coppola said: “You know, we had a lot of fights, it was like being in military school with this grumpy guy who wouldn’t listen to what I was doing... but then I’d go to the dailies and it looked so great!”. At first, Gordy didn't want to shoot Godfather 2, but Coppola finally convinced him by saying: "It won't look the same as The Godfather if you don't shoot it".
5. Fanucci's murder
During the tribute, we screened an excerpt of the scene where Vito murders the neighborhood Godfather, Don Fanucci. The memorable scene is set during the Feast of San Gennaro, in New York's Little Italy neighborhood; the exteriors were shot on Mulberry street in downtown Manhattan. To continue with his low-contrast approach to the early 1900s period, Gordon chose to avoid direct sunlight in exteriors, always shooting on the shady side of the street.
The sequence is also a wonderful example of building up suspense, as the film cuts back and forth between Vito hiding in the shadows and Don Fanucci climbing up the stairs, drawing out the time before the murder, and using a practical light with great effect to add to the tension.
Tall platform dolly in the Feast of San Gennaro sequence in Godfather 2. Don Fanucci is in white on the far right
Stephen: This scene really shows Gordon’s flat-lighting approach to the period sequences, avoiding direct sun.
The scene on the stairs when Vito kills Fanucci was shot in two locations, months apart — partly in New York and partly in Rome. The shots of Fanucci were done in New York, and later on, in Rome, the crew did 15 or 20 takes with De Niro firing the gun wrapped in the towel.
Putting Fanucci in a white suit was brilliant because you can track him, just like Vito does… Otherwise he would be lost in this huge crowd.
Caleb: In Touch of Evil, there’s that wonderful scene where Charlton Heston takes off his jacket, and you can see him in the dark because of his white shirt. This happens all the time in movies, you accept a lot of things that seem random, but they’re really designed and thought out. The white suit fits the character of Don Fanucci, and it also helps tell the story.
Caleb: There are so many parts to this story: Vito has hidden the gun -- so we know it’s all premeditated -- he breaks in, he comes down the stairs, he takes the gun out, he creates a kind of silencer with a towel. He unscrews the light bulb.
When Fanucci comes up the stoop, he wipes his feet off, almost as if to say, he’s had to dirty himself visiting with all the hoi polloi outside. Then, as he’s coming up the stairs there are many different angles, so you can extend the moment. You know that something’s going to happen, it’s inevitable.
Then there's that great moment when Fanucci taps on the light bulb, and it blinks on and off to reveal Robert De Niro hiding with the gun.
Caleb: And even though Vito’s holding a gun, Fanucci doesn’t even realize that something bad is going to happen, because he’s in his own world. And when Vito shoots the gun it starts burning the cloth, at the same time as the fireworks are going off.
It’s just brilliant story telling. It’s such a beautiful scene... Of course, it’s not all Gordy, it’s Francis and everyone else, the wardrobe... You also have to pay tribute to the production designer, Dean Tavouloris, who did a really wonderful job on this film.
There’s also the juxtaposition of the religious ceremony and the murder, like the baptism in Godfather 1.
Stephen: Vito kills him and the sudden celebration is like the passing of the torch...
Caleb: Like Ed was saying earlier, these are visual metaphors. Our subconscious is being teased by all these things... You have to be aware that these are all conscious decisions that are part of the storytelling process... And that’s what’s so wonderful about a great film like this.
7. Fredo's murder
The last excerpt we showed from The Godfather: Part II is Fredo's murder, a scene that occurs in the last 10 minutes of the movie:
-- We begin with a wide shot of Michael Corleone's brother, Fredo (played by John Cazale), fishing in a row boat with mobster Al Neri. We hear Fredo reciting a Hail Mary, his secret trick for catching fish. The shot slowly zooms in, with a very brief glimpse of Neri's hand holding a gun, which disappears as the zoom isolates Fredo. This is the only obvious zoom in the film.
-- We cut to a wide shot of Michael watching inside his house on shore. We hear a shot ring out, and Michael lowers his head.
-- We cut back to the boat, Fredo's silhouette has disappeared.
-- We cut inside to a shot behind Michael in his dark living room. He sits down, puts his head back.
-- We dissolve to a flashback of an earlier, happier time with the four Corleone brothers sitting at a table.
Fredo's murder occurs off-screen. We hear the shot, but all we see is his brother's head lowering, and Fredo's absence from the boat. Michael's feelings also remain mysterious, he is filmed from afar, and from the back, we don't see his face until the last shot of the movie, after the flashback, which underscores Michael Corleone's tragic progression from an idealistic college student to a murderous Godfather.
8. dump truck coverage
Stephen This is the moment when Michael loses his soul...
Caleb: It’s amazing. You just barely see the gun during the zoom-in, but you know what’s going to happen. What's great is how long they hold the shot on Al Pacino before the gun goes off, which is an editorial choice. That gives you a chance to think about it.
Matthew: Look at the cinematography choices. In that interior, there are 3 practicals in the room, and they’re all off! And Michael Corleone’s back is to you, those are very specific choices.
Vilmos: It’s so simple, two or three shots tell the story. These days there are sometimes too many shots. People overdo it because they assume that the young generation doesn’t have the patience for a shot that goes on for 20 seconds and tells the story.
Caleb: Gordon really lamented the over-use of "coverage". He called it “dump truck directing”, where you take shots from every conceivable angle and dump it on the editor’s head.
Matthew: So many American directors are used to coverage. I don’t know what it is, they’re just used to it culturally. Maybe it’s the way they view their favorite films. It’s the language we grew up with. The studios also want coverage.
Ed: The studios want to have coverage so that they can re-cut the film in the editing room, I mean, that’s the mentality. If something’s wrong with the film, they’ll have footage to change it.
Benjamin: Is coverage a kind of safety net for them?
Ed: Yeah, and the amount of coverage they get depends on the strength of the director.
Caleb: Gordon would build sequences, he avoided the random approach of getting as many shots as possible and sorting it out in post. And Gordon cut things in his head, like an editor, and he would ask himself: “What’s coming before this shot? What’s coming after this shot?”. Gordon was all about selective storytelling, selective focus, showing only what you need to show.
Matthew: Coverage is about safety for the studios, but it’s not for cinematographers. We’d all just prefer to make the choices on the day and not spend 11 set-ups for a scene. I don’t think there is anything more demoralizing than shooting the same scene with 11 set-ups. It’s horrible, it takes the life out of the scene.
I have faith, though, that it’s going to turn around for us. We’re seeing films that are made more economically, with really strong choices, like Gordon shot. And I think that the newer generation of American filmmakers are informed that way. So I’m encouraged, and I hope that this trend continues.
wikipedia: Gordon Willis
The Godfather Wiki - great resource
wikipedia: The Godfather Part II
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.
Thank you also to:
Adam Brown, Alicja Chajewska, Ben Everett, Blake McClure, Iain Marcks, Piotr from Torun, Raphael at Multikino, Ed Thomas and Jade Thomas.
Frame grabs by Benjamin B
Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino and crew members on the set of Godfather II. Note the top light with blacks skirts in the foreground