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An Interview with Gordon Willis

[Cinematographer]
“The last thing on my mind when I’m talking with a director is: where do I put the camera?”
Explosives mentioned in this interview:
Fireworks over Manhattan
Finger-size firecrackers on a stone wall
Villa-cracking dynamite
by Chris McCoy
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Gordon Willis

[Cinematographer]
“The last thing on my mind when I’m talking with a director is: where do I put the camera?”
Explosives mentioned in this interview:
Fireworks over Manhattan
Finger-size firecrackers on a stone wall
Villa-cracking dynamite
by Chris McCoy
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Gordon Willis

Chris McCoy
19 Snaps

I first met Gordon Willis ten years ago, when I was stalking him. At the time, I was a recent NYU film-school graduate/loser and I had spent all the money I had in the world traveling through New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji. I was broke and back on Cape Cod—where I grew up—working the overnight shift at the Stop & Shop, trying to save money to move to California. It was while I was stuck in this supermarket that my parents told me that Gordon Willis had moved in across the street.

Gordon Willis is the cinematographer of some of the greatest movies of the 1970s and 1980s—The Godfather I and II, Klute, All the President’s Men, The Paper Chase, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Interiors, Stardust Memories, Zelig. He was born in 1931, in New York City, and received the Governors Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—a lifetime-achievement Oscar, to be blunt—for his work as a director of photography. He maintains a lovely garden outside the home he shares with his wife, Helen. Their home has a view of the local cranberry bog, making it the envy of the neighborhood.

That miserable summer, I made it my goal to befriend Gordon, in the hopes that some of his success would rub off on me. I documented this effort in a short story called “Stalking Gordon Willis,” which was run by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in 2003. A few months later, Gordon appeared in my kitchen and said, “So, Chris, I hear you’re a writer.” I knew then that he had Googled himself and seen my story. He was cool with it.

It is now a decade later, and Gordon and I are friends. We email from time to time. He gave me his personal copy of The Landlord, Hal Ashby’s debut movie and one of my favorite films, for which Gordon was the director of photography. I am now a member of the Writers Guild of America, which means I get movie screeners around the holidays, and at Christmas I make a yearly pilgrimage to his house across the street, knock on his door, and ask him what he thought of the year’s crop of award contenders. He speaks with the snap judgment and inside-baseball perspective of a man who knows his craft cold.

—Chris McCoy

I. YOU COULDN’T GET ME BACK TO THE JUNGLE

BLVR: I wanted to talk about your time with the Air Force Photographic and Charting Service.

GW: When I first went into the Air Force, I did what everybody else does—basic training. After that, I was asking for a transfer to get into a photo unit. They had me in the Air Transport Service. Finally, a friend of mine who ran the Cinematographers union in New York City pushed some button in DC, which helped put my transfer through. I got into a photo unit in Mountain Home, Idaho, with all these jackrabbits, out in the middle of nowhere. I worked in the photo lab there for quite a while.

BLVR: What were you developing?

GW: I was shooting stills and developing. You have these assignments—some general comes to visit and you take pictures. I had the whole photo lab, which is a marvelous thing, because you can learn at the taxpayers’ expense. I really wanted to get into the Motion Picture Division. Finally, I did get a transfer into a motion picture unit and I was sent to Burbank, California for quite a while. Then I was assigned to a photo unit in Panama, of all places.

BLVR: What was the logic behind being in Panama?

GW: Air Force logic. There was a big base there, and with that, they have photo. I made jungle survival films and things of that nature, anything they wanted to do. To this day, you couldn’t get me back to the jungle ever. I mean, it’s a horrible place. I spent a great deal of my Army Air Force career there. Then I was transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. It was a great base, and it had terrific photo facilities. Sometimes I’d hustle my way into doing a documentary—I’d create an assignment and go out and put it together. Very few of us were enthused about making movies. It became a little bit tricky, trying to get anything done.

BLVR: The other people, had they tried to get into the photo unit or were they just put there?

GW: There was a mix of both, and, of course, you had career Airmen there, running the departments. I made good friends with a Master Sargent who used to run moonshine in from Georgia. Good way to spend the weekend. Just had a tough time walking.

II. HUNDREDS OF SHADES OF GREY

BLVR: When you got out of the Air Force, did you say to yourself, ‘I want to be around film?’

GW: My family was in—let me say, quote, ‘show business.’ Before I was born, they were a couple of dancers, my mom and my dad. Warner Brothers had a big stage out in Brooklyn, and my dad got a job there during the Depression as a makeup artist. So it was in my family. I wanted to be an actor for a while when I was younger, but fortunately that didn’t work out, so I moved on to things that I could understand better. So, yes, I wanted to continue professionally with film work. I thought I knew everything when I got out of the service—truth was, I was dumber than dirt. I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know.

BLVR: What were you doing?

GW: Well, I had to get into the union first. I had a few friends trying to help me, but it took a long time. Helen and I came to New York after getting married in Florida, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. She was pregnant, and we really had no place to live. My dad put us up for awhile, and I finally got into the union. Still no real jobs—you had to scavenge around. I started as an assistant cameraman. It was grim for a while, then I started meeting some of the nicest people I’ve ever known, and I realized nothing really good ever happened to me without the help of another person. If you think you’re doing it yourself, your head’s clogged up. I ran into an exceptional person, Dave Quaid, who was a wonderful DP and like a missionary for young people. He hired me. That guy taught me more about how to function than anyone else in the business. He took me everywhere: commercial houses, steel mills, coal mines. I had jackets from working at Bethlehem Steel that had holes from these sparks that would fly all over the place. I was probably the only assistant cameraman who was on fire half the time. At the time I thought, ‘Jesus, what the hell am I doing here?’

BLVR: You were doing industrial movies?

GW: Yes, where the sparks were.

BLVR: In the past you’ve talked about color, and have said that color is a burden to deal with. Why is that?

GW: You’re dealing in values when you deal in black and white—hundreds of shades of greys. Black and white, light and dark. Color is a burden because what happens—and I found this to be really a pain in the ass—is you get a movie that you have to shoot in color, and you have to make sure that everybody’s on the same page. My habit was to work with the wardrobe people and the scenics and everybody else to make sure they didn’t put a yellow dress on the leading lady because they thought it would be fabulous. Same with art direction, set dressing and props. I like earth tones, something unobtrusive. So it’s a burden because you’re constantly watching to make sure you’re getting a tonality that makes a round ball, where everything functions together. With black and white, you don’t have that. You do, however have to pay attention to overall design.

One actress in a color movie I shot had this ridiculous dress that she wanted to wear. She heard from wardrobe that I didn’t like it. She finally called me into her motel room one night and said, ‘I trust you. What’s wrong with this dress?’ I said, ‘Listen, you’ve got a bunch of farm people dancing out in the middle of nowhere, and here you come dressed up for the night with your boyfriend. You want to wear this dress? You’re going to look like a ship on fire in the middle of everybody else dancing! It just doesn’t work.’ They stonewashed the dress and muted the colors. A compromise, but a good one.

III. IF YOU MOVE IN A WAY THAT’S UNLOVING

BLVR: If you look at any of Woody Allen’s slapstick comedies of the early 1970s, the blocking looks really different than in the movies you worked on. Could you talk a little about working with him on blocking, and where your sense of blocking came from?

GW: The last thing on my mind when I’m talking with a director is, ‘Where do I put the camera?’ The first thing on my mind is, ‘Let’s see the scene,’ and the second is, ‘What is the scene about?’ Get that straight with the director. ‘What are we trying to accomplish here?’ and ‘How many cuts do we need to make the scene work?’

In Woody’s case, he could go a long while without cutting, and he enjoyed that, because from an acting point of view, it’s better—the actors can keep going, get it out. I had fun with Woody because I was able to lay out scenes with him. In many cases it would run in one take. Watch the rehearsal, see what he wants to do. He wants to chase the girl up and down this room, then he wants to go up the steps, then he wants to go there. I’d say ‘Do you feel like talking? Because we can design this in one. The dynamics are perfect.’ In many cases he would choose to do it because, as I mentioned, it’s better for the actors.

BLVR: There were a lot of Woody Allen movies up to that point where he would chase the girl, but they look much different than the way that you would have him chasing the girl.

GW: You want to put some dimension into it. You want it to be interesting visually. Good blocking helps to provide that, along with the knowledge of how it should be cut. If you don’t know how to cut, you’ll never be able to design anything properly. Then there’s the taste factor, which comes out of you. The piece in Manhattan at night where Woody and Keaton get out of the cab: they’re way up screen, and they come toward camera and end up in a moving two-shot, cut at the waist. The scene goes on for a city block and then around the corner with more interplay with the actors, and ends there. It was a very long shot, done at night and very difficult. On the screen it looks easy and comforting. That’s how it should be. The whole sequence was done in four cuts. The one I just discussed, a quick piece in a coffee shop, a shot on the street and then, of course, the two of them sitting under the bridge waiting for daylight. Four cuts. It’s a very stylish sequence. There’s great elegance in simplicity. That’s not always understood.

BLVR: Before you came along, Woody hadn’t done a black and white movie.

GW: No, and he loved black and white.

BLVR: Was that a discussion you had going in?

GW: No. It came up after Annie Hall. He wanted to do a black and white movie, and we thought, well, Manhattan has a good black and white movie in it, it’s grey and black. Manhattan is filled with shades of grey. I thought it was a good idea and said it would be interesting to shoot it in scope—in widescreen. So we did. The big problem was that we didn’t have a laboratory. Black and white laboratories, from a professional point of view, were disappearing. On Manhattan, the negative was being developed in one laboratory, which was like a duping lab. They did the negative, then it was Technicolor New York that did the prints.

Manhattan was all shot on Double-X, which was a black and white, high speed negative. We were watching scenes in dailies one day and it looked like lightning was hitting everything now and then. Static electricity. I said to the lab, ‘Are you guys grounded here, when you’re rewinding all this stuff?’ They said, ‘Everything’s grounded, the rewinds are grounded, we’re grounded. No electricity.’ I said, ‘Well, something’s happening here.’

I found out this particular stock, Double-X, if you moved it in a way that was unloving, if you dropped a can, it would create an electrical charge. So I had to go through this whole song-and-dance with the assistant cameraman and everybody to make sure this negative was handled with care. I had some future problems with labs that had nothing to do with static electricity.

BLVR: What was it?

GW: The lab we were using on Manhattan decided to no longer develop negative after we had already started Stardust Memories. We finally sent the work to MGM in LA. A person that should have known better told me they were still great with black and white. They underdeveloped the first two days. It caused quite a problem because they wanted to blame me for it: ‘You underexposed it.’ I said, ‘No no no no, let’s not get crazy. I have tests that prove you underdeveloped the material.’ We had a problem. Few labs knew how to do it. There was a point where Technicolor, or any good laboratory, they were on the mark all the time. You could depend on them developing in a certain way, you could depend on Eastman manufacturing film in a certain way, so all your decisions from a technical point of view, as well as aesthetics, were based on that. Their repeatability was top notch. After the MGM experience, out of desperation I went to a small lab in New York by the name of DuART. They did fabulous work and I stayed there with all the rest of Woody’s black and white.

BLVR: They’re screening Manhattan in Manhattan in the parks now. People are picnicking and drinking wine.

GW: That’s terrific. I like that a lot. When we shot the fireworks sequence in Manhattan, we went up to somebody’s apartment—it was a great view. A real treat, because I’d never had an unencumbered vision of fireworks over New York until we shot this sequence.

BLVR: Was Woody with you when you were doing that?

GW: No, not that time. Sometimes we’d go out together. Or I’d shoot pieces alone.

BLVR: That seems like a great date. Go out and shoot beautiful parts of New York.

GW: Yeah right.

BLVR: Were you shooting at a very high ratio with Woody?

GW: No, actually the ratios were low, based on my philosophy. He didn’t like to shoot high ratios either. He liked to go home at three in the afternoon, if he could. Two or three cuts or whatever, fine. If it got difficult for one reason or another, then it would become disturbing to him. There was a walk-and-talk in Annie Hall with Keaton—I think we’d done four or five takes, which was unusual for Woody. And they were long. After the last take he said, ‘That’s it! I can’t do any more of these!’ I said, ‘That’s absolutely fine. Take three was wonderful.’ I think Woody was waiting for me to say that my end was okay. Very funny when I think back on it.

BLVR: Those close-ups in Stardust Memories, peering in through the limo…

GW: All these freaks who were meeting Woody as he pulled up in the car, all these reporters, all these people in the audience who were asking questions—you say to yourself, ‘I want them to be a little off-the-wall visually.’ All of those were shot with 40mm lenses. It tends to distort faces slightly.

BLVR: You also used black and white for Broadway Danny Rose, which is one of my favorites.

GW: I’m glad to hear that from somebody.

IV.ROMANTIC REALITY

BLVR: Do you miss New York?

GW: I miss it. But I don’t think I could deal with it anymore, is the truth of the matter.

BLVR: Your movies captured a version of New York that doesn’t exist anymore. They’re like historical documents of what these areas once looked like.

GW: It’s kind of interesting. My daughter said, ‘You shoot romantic reality’ and I said, ‘That’s probably true.’

BLVR: I love that, romantic reality.

GW: She’s very perceptive. That’s what it is, romantic reality.

BLVR: It’s interesting because between Woody and Coppola and Pakula, you’ve dealt with a range of different personality types. What has allowed you to be able to communicate with such a wide range of very different directors?

GW: I don’t know. In my particular case, with Woody, it was a very good association. It was probably my favorite. I’m very quick to tell somebody how they should do it—from a blocking-photographing point of view. I offer a lot. Woody liked most of it and that he didn’t have to deal with it. He said once, ‘We both hate the same things.’ Which is true. I think he really got worried, by the time we finished shooting, that I was doing a lot, and I think he probably said, ‘Well, I better step out of here.’ But we still remain friends.

BLVR: How was it different with Coppola?

GW: Woody and I never sat down and went through the script page-by-page. What we did was go over the material as it was scheduled. We would look at the locations. Most of the blocking and how-to was done on the day. We’d get to the studio or location, he’d run the scene, I’d make suggestions, and when he was comfortable, we’d block, light, and shoot. This happened with the least amount of fanfare. It was pleasant. It was like working with your hands in your pockets.

I would say that with Francis, there was a certain amount of chaos. On Godfather I, it was completely understandable. Paramount was treating him badly, and he was under a lot of pressure. I wasn’t too pleasant at times, and sometimes there were arguments about shot structure, what to shoot, when to shoot. The first movie was done like you were trying to blow up an ammo dump: lots of covert thinking, bad communication.

A quick story about Godfather I that still makes me laugh: In the wedding when Al Pacino comes out of the church with Apollonia and starts walking down the hill toward town, Francis decided to have these little firecrackers along a stone wall by the road. I looked at them and turned to Francis: ‘Don’t you think we should try these out first? They’re the size of my little finger—big, don’t you think?” Francis says, ‘No no, they use them all the time.’ I asked the prop man to light a small string of them just to see. He put some on the wall and held out his cigarette. They went off. The prop man fell down, pieces of stone went everywhere, everybody hit the ground. ‘It must be a hit!’ We did not use the firecrackers. There never a dull moment with Francis. They also used too much dynamite in the car when we blew up Apollonia. It put a crack down the side of the villa. It was never a good idea to turn your back and miss what was being said. Francis tended to make a different movie with whoever he was talking to.

V. THIS DIRTY BRASSY LOOK

BLVR: Given the look of The Godfather, its darkness, how did you not cause the studio to have an aneurysm?

GW: That almost happened. I thought, ‘I don’t know, I just think this dirty brassy look seems to be right for the movie, it just seems right to me.’ I think Francis, bless him, took most of the beating for it from the studio as opposed to me, because they were beating him up a lot. They wanted to fire him and they wanted to fire others, so they thought, ‘Jesus, let’s not fire Gordon.’ I give Francis credit for the fact that they didn’t. He knew I was doing the right thing, even though we were going head-to-head at times.

BLVR: Did you have to frontload the film with really good shots to convince them it would look okay?

GW: The very opening of the movie, we start on the black face pleading for his daughter, and then we’re slowly pulling back and revealing what was going on. That caused quite a problem because after we watched that at the Gulf and Western Building—which was Paramount at that point—Al Ruddy, who was the producer, came over and said, ‘It’s really dark.’ I said, ‘Nah, it’s dark now, but wait, it’ll be surrounded with visual support, you’ll see.’ I already had the concept of this bright Italian wedding going on outside all these bottom-feeders in this room.

BLVR: In Godfather II and Zelig you came up with this palette that is now what the world thinks of as ‘nostalgia.’ If you’re looking at Godfather II, those warm yellows and oranges—you created that.

GW: Right.

BLVR: Could talk about how you came up with that? They have a memory element to them.

GW: I had a discussion with Francis one day. He said, ‘How are we going to know where we are in this story? I said, ‘There’s a simple way of showing showing it. When you cut to New York, you say ‘New York’ right at the bottom. It always works and it’s very acceptable. Then nobody’s asking, where are we? ‘Visually,’ I said, ‘I’m not going to change the color of anything, but I’m going to change the quality of the photography, so that when you go from 1958 in Tahoe, and then we cut back to De Niro on the streets of New York at the turn of the century, you’re going to know that you’ve made a turn.’ It would be a mistake to do something stupid like, ‘Here we are in 1958, and now here we are at the turn of the century, so the turn of the century is going to be in black and white.’ That becomes invasive for an audience. They get confused, and it’s pretentious and it’s dumb. Instead, it’ll all be the same color, but the quality of the visuals will change in the period work. We’ll take the film and push it back a bit further, so it doesn’t look the same but it doesn’t get in the way.

BLVR: Was there something inside you that said, ‘our memories fade as we get older, and this is going to be reflected on the film’? Because it sounds like that’s what you’re talking about.

GW: Right, you just turn it. I’ve always hated the fact that somebody shoots a movie that takes place in 1872 or whatever, and they put everybody on their horses and dress them up in what they’re supposed to be wearing, then it looks like they shot it yesterday. I hate that.

VI. LIGHT TO DARK, BIG TO SMALL, GOOD TO BAD

BLVR: You got back together with Coppola to shoot Godfather III. What was your dynamic like after sixteen years had gone by?

GW: It was fine. We were friendlier on Godfather II actually. Godfather I was pretty bad actually. It was really a shit bath for everybody, but I give Francis enormous credit for coming back the second time. I’m glad he did.

BLVR: Greatest sequel of all time.

GW: Yes, I think it’s a better movie. But Godfather III, I don’t know. Not everyone has an opportunity to get together years later and work with all the same people. I thought, from that standpoint, it was worth it. The movie’s not as good, and I think he sort of got lost about writing it, but generally speaking, it was a good dynamic.

BLVR: Since you guys had a good collaboration on Godfather II, did he try to bring you into Apocalypse Now?

GW: [laughs] I’m so grateful I didn’t get involved with that. No, he never asked me, because he was sort of having a love affair with Vittorio at that point, and I think Vittorio, as a person, is actually the only one who can put up with that in the middle of nowhere.

I’m a great believer in relativity when making movies—relativity, in my mind, meaning, ‘Light to Dark, Big to Small, Good to Bad.’ You visually embrace these things to enhance transitions and instantly paint environments and moods. I would discuss this with Francis from time to time while shooting The Godfather movies—using sizes and distance in the cuts, or dark spaces to light to help tell the story,

When all that was over, he went on to Apocalypse Now. I was happy I had nothing to do with that. I hate the jungle. Anyway, I was working on some other movie and I got a message from Francis: ‘I finally understand relativity. I’d like you to shoot all the rest of my movies.’ I never heard from him again until Godfather III.

BLVR: That seems like a very funny thing—to randomly get a telegram from Coppola in the middle of Apocalypse Now.

GW: Well, Francis discovered a lot of mind-altering alternatives to life while he was in the jungle.

VII. THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY OF DOING IT

BLVR: The filmic language you’ve created is unbelievable.

GW: I’m glad. One of the things I wish would be happening now, which doesn’t seem to be happening much—maybe I’m missing it—but I’m so thirsty for narrative in the movies. Just decent narrative. Narrative filmmaking is right on the edge of not existing anymore.

BLVR: What is narrative filmmaking to you?

GW: Good storytelling. I always said that you could photograph a good story badly and it wouldn’t matter, but you can shoot a bad story well and it’s not going to help the story at all. It’s not. But you get the two together, and it’s great.

BLVR: We’ve had discussions in the past about Hal Ashby’s debut The Landlord, which you shot.

GW: He and I got along very well. Hal was a devoted drug user. I mean, he lived on drugs. But he was a very fine editor, and he knew film.

BLVR: Did he ask you to do Harold and Maude?

GW: He wanted me to, but I lived on the East Coast and I had not made the transition into the L.A. union at that point.

BLVR: Was the West Coast guild trying to keep the East Coasters out of it?

GW: Yes. It was a very kind of formidable group they were running.

BLVR: Did you feel like the New York cinematographers were the outsiders?

GW: They were for a long time. But people who grew up shooting on the streets of New York, you learned how to shoot in a different way. At least I did. I didn’t fool around. I look at the quickest way to get something done and make it meet the mark. I’m shooting it because it’s the most effective way of doing it.

BLVR: The Landlord shows a very gritty New York, using very realistic lighting. How did you decide to use that kind of lighting?

GW: The thing about film is that your eye is selective. Film isn’t. You have to make film do what you want. Simply photographing something doesn’t do it. You have to know how to apply light and know what it does on film. A huge problem in movies—or with people that work on movies—is that two people can look at the same thing but they don’t necessarily see the same thing. It’s not going to look like what you’re looking at. When I step into a room or step on a set, I instantly transpose what it’s going to look like in the camera, on the screen. I’ll just look at something, anything—you sitting on the couch—and [makes a click sound] it’s immediately framed up. That’s why it was really easy for me to block movies. I’d have people there standing in the middle of a room bewildered, not knowing what the hell to do.

People don’t see what they’re looking at. They’ll find a location, or a room, or even a person, and they don’t see it. They’ll look at it, but they’ll immediately want to move it or change it to something they’re more comfortable with. I’d say, ‘Then why are we here? What are we doing here if you want to do all of that? It looks great now, don’t fix it.’ A lot of people think, ‘Well, I’m being paid all this money, I have to do something.’ But the person who’s really worth a lot of money is the one who looks at something and knows what not to do—don’t do that, don’t do this, leave this here. I always found that a more important decision—what you don’t do.

Then, if you do do something, make it definitive. ‘Well, what if this doesn’t work?’ I hate when somebody says, ‘This may not work.’ You’ll never get anywhere with that. I’ve pushed a lot of people out of my way—I don’t mean physically—over them being afraid something isn’t going to work. They say, ‘What are my options?’ Well, you have no options. You’ve got to process this idea and follow it through. If it fails, then it’s over. You failed it—next time, do something else. But don’t say, ‘What are my options?’ Because what you’re saying is, ‘What if this doesn’t work?’ Well, it’s not going to work, because in the back of your mind, you’ve already got that in your head.

BLVR: It’s been fifteen years since you shot a movie. Have you been tempted since to return to film?

GW: Woody actually contacted me a few years ago. He wanted to do something in New York. I said, ‘I’m sorry, my eyesight is now at a point where I can’t do it for you.’ I said, ‘All women look beautiful to me now.’

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