Cinematographer Gordon Willis talks The Godfather trilogy, and the journey to Blu-ray

Gordon Willis, the cinematographer’s cinematographer, spoke exclusively to Monsters and Critics about the recently released Godfather Coppola restoration that features extensive history and inside commentary from the crew, producers and actors who contributed to the making of the films.

Willis, whose signature accomplishments include innovative usage of minimal lighting and under-exposure combined with consummate scene framing that underscored the intentions of the narrative, was one of the most notable cinematographers in the early 1970’s; a time that redefined American filmmaking from the uncertainty and industry’s creative and business tumult of the 1960’s.

Willis’ work with Francis Ford Coppola has stood the test of time and is considered some of the finest American filmmaking.  Gordon also collaborated heavily with director Woody Allen among many great directors, and has one of the most diverse and critically acclaimed film legacies of any director of photography.

Willis was born in New York in 1931.  His parents had been Broadway dancers, until his father found more stable studio work with Warner Bros. makeup department in Brooklyn.  From an early age, Willis’ memories included many kinds of industry people.  “Just about al the people in our lives had something to do with movies or show business in one form, but my childhood was normal, thanks to my mother,” he says.

Willis became interested in photography as a young man, and enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War and became part of the Air Force Photographic and Charting Service in a motion picture unit.  “I spent four years learning everything I could about making movies.”

When he returned, Willis joined the cameramen’s union and began upping the ante of his craft, filming numerous company documentaries and commercials.

“It was tough, I went to coal mines, steel mills, anything industrial and you could easily get killed,” shares Willis, who was quick to credit mentors like DP Dave Quaid who he says were generous of their expertise and time.

Filming documentaries strongly influenced his later shooting style. “You learn to eliminate, as opposed to adding.  Not many people understand that.  Much has to do with how you perceive thins. Two people can look at the same thing but they don’t necessarily “see” the same thing.  Documentaries taught me to remove, not add.”

Interestingly, when Gordon was approached to shoot The Godfather, he nearly passed on the project.  “It seemed chaotic to me.  At any rate, it smoothed out…until the shooting started.”

I was curious to know what it was that made Francis Ford Coppola selected him to work as DP for The Godfather films; Gordon says, “me too.”

Gordon Willis took time out yesterday to speak to Monsters and Critics exclusively about The Godfather Trilogy: The Coppola Restoration DVD box set.
Paramount stated the “Coppola Restoration” DVD and Blu-ray releases were restored under the supervision of Coppola and yourself. Can you tell us more details of what you were involved in doing and how you feel this restoration improved/restored the look of your films?
G. Willis: Well, to begin with, the job of cleaning up the barn yard, so to speak, went to Bob Harris, who was hired by Francis to restore the “Godfathers” which he did brilliantly.

He requested I come to California to guide the visual reconstruction of these films, once he rebuilt the elements of all three films.

The process of finding everything was like crawling through a dumpster, at night…with a flashlight.

The overall abuse to the original negatives was very bad. I couldn’t go to LA for various reasons, so tests and pieces of the original dye-transfer prints were sent to me on the East coast, accompanied by Alan Daviau, who, with great expertise, saw to it I got back photographically what was originally built into the design of all three films. 
What were some of the issues that you faced in bringing this classic film into a new format like Blu-ray and if there were, how did you overcome some of these issues?
G. Willis: The real problem with restorations is that people tend to reduce or expand things to a level they understand.

The purpose is to restore, not to remake.

It’s very hard for someone, who has a brand new box of spit and shine software not to turn “The Godfathers” into High School Musical Three…

‘Get rid of the grain!  Brighten the teeth!’  Good judgment, what you decide not to do, is extremely important with anybody who’s restoring anything.

The biggest issue with any restoration is…… PUT IT BACK THE WAY IT WAS……DO NOT REPAINT!

In our case we were very, very clear about NOT trying to iron out or remove any of the original film characteristics.

Your main enemy is selective hearing. This is a problem even when you’re making a movie.

How do you feel about the digital intermediates tinkering with the classic films?   Does the altering of colors, lighting or clarity of picture hurt the cinematographer’s creative stamp the most?
G. Willis: I don’t like tinkering.

Half the time these people are just dialing in what THEY like…. as I’ve said… what they understand. What they should understand is this:

The physical characteristics of a piece of film are part of the equation when you make decisions about lighting, exposure, filters, color ect. When you try and remove grain form a photograph you are altering the visual structure of the image, this also impacts every other single thing that is blended into the shot.

Every element you try and alter affects the other…all makes the one. The good part is when a good intermediate is made and the data is locked in, you’ve got it.
In the case of “The Godfathers,” everyone did get it. I’m very happy to say.
Coppola talks about how he thought he might be fired from the director’s position while shooting during the first Godfather.  Tell me how this stress trickled down to you Do you remember how it affected the atmosphere on the set?
G. Willis: It had no real affect on me at all. Someone has to have the bat in his hand.
 I suppose, in this case, I was the one. I just kept pushing through it and did what I felt was right, the way I wanted to do it.

At times, it was not easy for Francis. Paramount perceived this as a get it done “Gangster” movie, lucky for them, Francis had another idea, but for him, it was emotionally very costly.

Shooting this movie was like trying to serve a sit-down dinner on the deck of the Titanic.  But the conflicts between Francis and myself usually involved ‘how to’ stuff. 

Francis had a whole other set of problems with Paramount.  I give him a great deal of credit for not sinking to the bottom of management hell.

We had disagreements, and one big fight. Under it all, he and I were making the same movie, but Paramount was not nice to Francis the first time (The Godfather I).  

How does The Godfather stack up to the other films you have shot and directors you have worked with?  What’s your personal favorite film?
G. Willis: Francis wrote and directed one of the better films ever made. I can’t land on one so much as liking whole sections of many.

Sometimes I’ll go back and look at one I haven’t seen for years and discover it’s a much better film than I thought it was when I was shooting it.   That’s always a pleasant surprise.

When did you become fully aware you were making real film history, a landmark and groundbreaking movie?
G. Willis: Never.  When shooting it. I never tried to do “A Great Movie” or “Art” for that matter.

I did what I thought was right, with good people.

You give it your best shot and walk away. If someone else perceives it as wonderful, I’m delighted.   What Francis and I worked out together was to mount the Godfather in a tableau fashion; subsequently the other films fell into line as well. 

That meant no zoom lenses, no helicopters, and no contemporary film devices. I think you get a better retrospective feeling on period films done this way.

But that had nothing to do with the lighting and color structure of the movie.  This was something I formulated.  And I didn’t come up with the color application until about a day before we began shooting.  The lighting design came about because of Marlon’s makeup, which required over-head lighting.   But it had to be applied to the whole film and work for everything.  The color stitched the films together.

An example is the period work in Part II, where I changed the quality of the visuals, the lighting, the exposures. However the color remained the same. To do it any other way would have pulled the audience in and out of the movie every time we made a retrospective cut.

How did your shot framing, lighting and shooting style of the films evolve over the three pictures?
G. Willis: Well, I’d say that it didn’t evolve at all.   Not to be a smart-ass about it. My task was to keep one and two visually tied together.

When three came along, I hung it on one and two. In other words, the shot structure, lighting and color were laced together as one. I did improve things technically in order to go faster, or get it better.
Any untold stories about the pressure while shooting?
G. Willis: Sure. The day Robert Evans called me at home, and wanted to know why Francis was taking so long.
I fear someday a young executive will pitch a remake of the Godfather films in my lifetime.  If this dreaded day happens, who would you trust anyone to revisit your work?
G. Willis: Well, I could probably see it as a musical…..but they’d have to have a lot of dancing……..shooting and dancing.  
I can only make a joke out of the idea; on the other hand, there’s always somebody…under some rock.

You have grandchildren, they probably play video games.  How do you feel about the gaming aspect of this film franchise – is it bothersome or not to you?
G. Willis: I have mixed emotions.  I don’t approve…on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind playing it.
The Godfather Trilogy: The Coppola Restoration Edition is now available at Amazon and AmazonUK. Visit the DVD database for more information. Click Here to enter to win a copy of the DVD set.

Click Here to read M&C’s review of the DVD release and Here to read M&C’s review of the Blu-ray edition.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.

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