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'Fresh Air' Remembers Cinematographer Gordon Willis


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of TVWorthWatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Gordon Willis, the talented and influential cinematographer who photographed many of the best movies of the 1970s and beyond, died of cancer Sunday. He was 82 years old. Willis was nominated for only two Academy Awards during his career, for Woody Allen's "Zelig" and for "The Godfather: Part III." He didn't win for either, but he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2009 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1995.

His string of stunningly photographed movies speaks for itself. Here are scenes from a few of his classic films.


MARLON BRANDO: (as Vito Corleone) If you'd come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they will fear you.


DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) Mitchell was in control.

ROBERT REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) Wait a minute.

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) There were men working in under Mitchell.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) How many?

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) I don't know how many. But the men working under Mitchell are the ones that received the money from the slush fund.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) OK. Do we know how much money were talking about?

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) Yeah, were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, and these men are the key to what that money was used for. Boy, that woman was paranoid. At one point I suddenly wondered how high up this thing goes, and her paranoia finally got to me. I thought what we had was so hot that any minute CBS or NBC were going to come in through the windows and take the story away.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) You're both paranoid. She's afraid of John Mitchell, and you're afraid of Walter Cronkite.

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) Right.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) Can we go back...


DIANE KEATON: (as Annie Hall) Hi, hi.

WOODY ALLEN: (as Alvy Singer) Oh, hi. Hi.

KEATON: (as Annie Hall) Well, bye.

ALLEN: (as Alvy Singer) You play very well.

KEATON: (as Annie Hall) Oh, yeah? So do you. Oh, God, what a dumb thing to say, right? I mean, you say you play well, then right away I have to say you play well. Oh, oh, God, Annie. Well, oh well. La di da, la di da, la la.

BIANCULLI: In that sequence, we heard Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in "All the President's Men," and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall," three films on which Gordon Willis served as cinematographer. He shot eight Woody Allen movies and the entire Godfather trilogy. His other films include "Klute," "The Parallax View" and "Pennies from Heaven."

In 2002, Terry Gross invited Gordon Willis to talk about some of his films, starting with "The Godfather," which was released in 1972. She began by asking him about the guiding principles behind the look of that film.

GORDON WILLIS: You know, for a while, I really didn't know what to do with that movie. You know, I thought about it for weeks and I finally decided, this should be - this kind of brassy yellow look to it. Don't ask me why, it just felt right, you know? So that was the first thing that I applied in my thinking. And the other part of the thinking was, it should have this kind of New York street look, one-foot-in-the-gutter '40s kind of feeling, a little dirty.

And so I was satisfied with that kind of a feeling in my mind. And then the other thing is, well, I thought, you know, we didn't get the money to go to Sicily until about two-thirds of the way through the movie when Paramount people realized that they had something better than a cheap crime novel on their hands.

So they gave us the money to go to Sicily. So I figured at that point Sicily should look, you know, mythical and sunny and kind of storybook feeling. So that there was a juxtaposition between these two places New York and Sicily. And there was a counterpoint when we went back and forth.


Let me ask you about one of the kind of the most famous scenes in the first Godfather movie, and that's when the studio executive who isn't playing ball with the Corleone family...

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: ...wakes up in his silk sheets, in his satin cover to find that his bed is basically flooded with blood because the decapitated head of his horse is underneath the covers. Can you talk about shooting that scene?

WILLIS: It was very hot that day.


WILLIS: It was kind of smelly. I think for animal lovers, you have to know this was a real horse's head, by the way, but it was a horse that had already died and one that was, pardon me, in the glue factory already. So they acquired the horse and kept it on ice and, you know, we put it in bed and when we were ready, after we were through lighting, etcetera, and off we went.

But as I say, I preface it by saying it was hot that day, so once you took this horse out of the ice, it got a little gamey. So it was kind of the last thing we did. But it was, it was real, a real horse.

GROSS: And what were your concerns as a cinematographer of that scene?

WILLIS: Well, my concern always is just getting it right. I mean, you know, getting the visualization of the moment, getting that right. That's always my concern.

GROSS: And what did getting it right mean in this situation, where a guy is kind of waking up out of a dream, senses something's wrong, and then realizes this absolutely horrible thing has happened, this absolutely horrible thing is happening in his bed and he's just like screaming?

WILLIS: Well, from my point of view, getting it right means seeing it at the level that you should see it from an audience point of view, perceiving it properly, visually.

GROSS: What are some of the changes you made between the first "Godfather" and "Godfather II" in terms of, for instance, how you shot the interiors because "Godfather II," it's a different decade, it's a different generation.

BIANCULLI: Right. Well, one of the things you have to do, or one of the things that I decided to do, was that since these are sister movies and that they really work together in a sense, is that I maintained the same color structure in the second Godfather.

WILLIS: It was this yellow, kind of yellow that went - however, the content of the structure of the photography I changed because of this turn-of-the-century feeling and the retrospective footage. And then we went from, you know, 1902 up to 1950-something in Lake Tahoe. So, it was tricky because you had New York, then you had Sicily, which had to be different but still in the same time period.

And then, you know, you had Lake Tahoe in the '50s. So when you have an audience watching this kind of film, you don't want to push too much visual information at too many different levels. You want to be able - they should be able to watch the movie, take it in, know they're in a different place and be able to accept that without getting in the way of telling the story.

I mean at one point, Francis said to me: How are we going to know where we are here? Were going from here to there to there to here. I said, look, you know, we get to New York and you say its New York, 19-so-so. When you get to France(ph), say, put it - you know, put a one-liner under it. I said, it's been done for years, its classy, everybody will - and everybody will know where they are and there won't be any problem.

So there were presentation of a story that was that long and that complex, you want to present simply, you know, because simple is the most elegant, you know.

GROSS: What were the streets in New York or the parts of New York that were easiest to transform convincingly to the turn of the century?

WILLIS: Jesus, none of them. It was, you know, we were downtown in the Lower East Side. And what happened was we had one - actually one east to west block, which the art department, Dean Tavoularis, who did a great job, it changed.

Changed means, you know, you redo everything. You redo all the storefronts, the buildings. And the buildings, for the most part, the superstructure of the buildings were about the same. But all the storefronts and everything had to be put back in time.

So it was very complex. And then, of course, you see past that into more contemporary streets at the very end, which I had to block out with big tarps and things that became sort of transfused into the visual. You couldn't see them. It was tough.

GROSS: You had to put tarps over whole buildings?

WILLIS: I put tarps over whole buildings not based on what I just said, but I'd hang them like two blocks away so you couldn't see down. But I had to tarp one whole side of the street.


WILLIS: People yelling at us. We pulled tarps right up in front of their windows. But because the sun would hit that side of the street and that side of the building and bounce into the street and we didn't - we couldn't do that. You know, we had to have continuity in the visual structure. So that was - there were two reasons for tarps: one to kill sun and one so you couldn't see across town.

BIANCULLI: Cinematographer Gordon Willis, speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with cinematographer Gordon Willis, who died Sunday at age 82. He photographed such classic movies as "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "All The President's Men" and the "Godfather" trilogy.

GROSS: In the "Godfather" films, there are so many great actors...

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: ...different generations of great actors, different types of acting styles. You've got De Niro, Pacino, Brando, Lee Strasberg.

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: What - was there anything that had to change in your approach to shooting them because of their different approaches to acting? I mean, for example, is one of them the kind who wanted to do a scene over and over again and another the kind of actor who believes first take is best take?

WILLIS: Yeah. You've always got a certain amount of that while you're working. Regarding the structure of the movie, they had to do what, you know, we had laid out. And you sort of work in concert to make sure everybody's comfortable, but that's the design of the movie. As far as the way they function, yeah. You know, Al would like to do things in a certain way.

And actually the most definitive actor was Lee Strasberg. He had no problems doing it and doing it well and not doing it a whole lot, you know? Marlon Brando didn't like to do a lot of takes, either. Al - I don't remember him being particularly indulgent, wanting to do too many. But, you know, it depends on how secure an actor is within the structure of the scene and the material and how far he wants to go with it.

But I think Bobby De Niro was kind of the most method actor in the group, and Bob would take a while to get to the place that he thought was good, almost to the point, drive you crazy. You know, how to pick an apple, you know, 25 minutes later he's still trying to pick it up three, four different ways.


WILLIS: And I mean, you know, and Francis said just pick the apple up and eat it. I mean, you know - so, but everybody has their own way in, you know. And finally, if it works, that's all that matters.

GROSS: I'm sure you realize that, you know, when Brando was in the "Godfather," that everybody would be studying him to see what did he look like? How had he changed? What's his acting like now?

WILLIS: Oh yeah, right.

GROSS: Yeah. So how did that affect how you shot him, knowing that he had to look, you know, pretty iconic in this movie, that he was a much older man than people remembered and that he was no longer going to be like the kind of a sex icon that, you know, that he was?

WILLIS: Yeah, well, of course, all that worked in our favor because just to recap this business about asking about photography on the first movie, this - the thing that happened, or that had to happen, was Marlon said, well, I have this idea, you know, about this makeup and everything. He says but, you know, it has to be photographed. I said sure. I know. So we shot these tests, which are actually those tests that are available on some of the rereleases of the "Godfather" on DVD.

But - so we went into the studio, and he stuffs this stuff in his mouth and he puts on a few things, and he - and to make a long story short, I had to design the lighting from - so that Marlon looked right in the movie when you first see him in the office and when you see him in the rest of the movie.

And the design of that lighting had to work for Marlon, but it also - I had to be able to take it in through the rest of the movie, to be able to apply it everywhere. So actually, it was him and his makeup and his look that actually were responsible for the designing the overall look of the lighting, which was not only carried through one, but it was carried through two, as well.

GROSS: So what was it that you needed to do lighting-wise to get his look right?

WILLIS: Yeah, the bottom line of it is it all had to be overhead lighting because, I mean, there were two things. They didn't really want to see his eyes that well, although I was criticized for it because I didn't want anybody to say, well, you didn't want to quite know what he was thinking all the time, you know.

And in order to make the makeup work, we had to have this sort of overhead lighting to give him this look that he had. And, of course, everybody else had to have - selectively had to be subjected to the same kind of lighting to make the movie hold together visually.

GROSS: There's this great operatic sequence in "Godfather I" that intercuts between a baptismal scene in a church and these Corleone mob murders. And could you talk a little bit about the kind of shooting that you did to give it that operatic look?

WILLIS: What happened was it was Francis' idea to use this counterpoint of taking this baby, this child in the environment of a church and the dialogue that went with it denouncing the devil, et cetera, and at the same time putting the counterpoint of killing everybody against that image. So that idea in itself sort of holds the whole thing together.

So it's the idea - it's the counterpoint that makes this so strong, of a baby renouncing the devil and a baby being christened in the middle of the church, and then the counterpoint of all these people being murdered. So it wouldn't mean much - a lot of people have tried to do that in movies since, by the way, one form or another. But...

GROSS: I noticed.


WILLIS: Yeah. Who wouldn't? Yeah. But it wouldn't mean much if you, you know, finished that scene, got in the car and drove away then started the other stuff. So it - what means something is the counterpoint of it, you know, of, you know, Richie Castellano shooting somebody in an elevator and then somebody in a machine and somebody else in bed and then somebody getting shot. It's - I don't want to use the word fun, but it's fun to watch that kind of structure. It's definitive, and it works, you know.

GROSS: Let's talk about working on Woody Allen's movies. "Manhattan" is shot in black and white.

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Was that your idea or Woody Allen's idea?

WILLIS: Well, actually, it was Woody's idea because he loves black and white. So do I. It was...

GROSS: Why do you love black and white?

WILLIS: I don't know. I look at New York. It's kind of a black and white city to me. It's, you know, when you work in color, it's a burden. It can be a burden to an audience if you don't use it properly, and it's burden to the people that are working with it because if you don't make the right choices in color, you don't make the right choices in clothes, you don't make the right choices - you know, then it all comes together. It looks good.

Whereas in black and white, you're really working in values, you know, grays, blacks and white. So actually the visual structure in a black-and-white movie can become more difficult in one sense because you have to pay attention to values, you know, separating people from backgrounds, et cetera, et cetera, where - and I just find the content of black-and-white movie sometimes, sometimes can be a lot easier to watch because you don't have this kind of color thing going on, you know.

GROSS: Did Woody Allen ask you to go back and watch a lot of Ingmar Bergman movies before working?


GROSS: Because Woody Allen's such a Bergman fan, and there's so many Bergman references in his films.

WILLIS: Yeah. Right. No, he never asked me to watch anything. And all, all of his movies are designed from the ground up. I mean - I must say that working with Woody for 10 years was like a vacation. I mean, I had so much fun. And I think I probably like Woody a lot more than he likes me because I'm kind of a carnivore when I'm making movies. You know, I want to get it done. I want to get it done the right way, and I don't, you know, want to fool around.

But from the standpoint of working with a man who's - you know, it's like working with your hands in your pockets when you're working with Woody. It's a very easy, off-the-cuff kind of day. And I don't mean that we don't plan. We do. And the movies are designed to look like they're off-the-cuff, but they're not. But it's just working with him as a personality was a pleasure.

And I also like working with writers, you know, because if something's not working, you know, you take the pencil, you cross it out and throw the page away and you do something else. You know, and it's much faster than working with a director who can't write, who has to get on the phone and talk to the, you know (unintelligible) thing. This way, you know, it's right there. So he tears it out, and then you start again. You know, it's quick.

GROSS: You live in Cape Cod now, which is known...

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Among other things, for its beautiful light.

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Is that something that means a lot to you?

WILLIS: Yeah. It means a lot to me not so much from the standpoint that, oh, I, you know, want to rip out a camera. Light means a lot to me in life. You know, I mean I hate to be in rooms that are not - that don't have dimension and beautiful light. And I have the same feeling about living in a place that doesn't have dimension and beautiful light. I mean, I hate Los Angeles. It's like living inside a toaster oven, you know.


WILLIS: I mean, it's awful. The light stinks. The only time I like it there is, really, in winter, when it's a little bit better. But, I love New York light in the winter. Winter light is so beautiful. It's beautiful here in the winter.

GROSS: Can you describe New York light?

WILLIS: I can describe New York light mostly in the winter because it's like - it's like my favorite thing. You move from light to dark. You know, you move from a brilliant splash of sun to kind of like a midnight shadow, you know, and you watch the sun come up in east and go down in the west in New York, and it's like, you know, it just looks like welding sometimes it's so beautiful.

It's stunning mainly because it's moving through all of these buildings, you know, and it bounces through windows and off windows and down into the street. It's - and it's always changing, which is quite wonderful unless you happen to be photographing something, then you want to hurry up so you get it the right way. But it's just as stunning.

BIANCULLI: Cinematographer Gordon Willis speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. The man who shot "Manhattan," "All the President's Men" and "The Godfather," among others, died Sunday at age 82. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.