Gordon Willis, Prince of Darkness, Master of Cinematography, Dead at 82

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One of our best cinematographers, Gordon Willis, has died. He was 82 years old.

In an unlikely twist, this legend who was known as the Prince of Darkness for his fondness for filming in less than bright sets, became a friend of mine after I dogged him mercilessly for an interview for a what was a small time (but well liked) trade back in 2004.  More on that in a bit.

Willis of course lensed Francis Ford Coppola‘s Godfather series; Woody Allen‘s Manhattan, Annie Hall, Zelig, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose Of Cairo; Alan J. Pakula‘s Klute, The Parallax View, and All The President’s Men; Herbert Ross’s Pennies From Heaven; and Malice, The Devil’s Own, and so many more.

He loved film and learned his craft while serving his country in the Korean War as an Air Force Photographic and Charting Serviceman before starting his film career as an assistant cameraman, working his way up with commercials and documentaries.

Gordy became a major player with Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather. Despite all of his notable films, Willis never took the Oscar for any of his work.   In 2010 the Academy awarded him an Honorary Academy Award “for unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”

Back in 2004, I worked with editor Peter Caranicas and Naida Albright, owner of a small industry trade called Below the Line. One of my fellow staff writers was Jack Egan. I had noticed that Mr. Willis had a Cape Cod address and was receiving our magazine, and it was literally a few streets over from my parents’ home. I got an idea.

I wrote Mr Willis a letter.

btlSo I waited. We had this grand notion to honor Mr. Willis with a 75th birthday special edition of the book and have all of his peers – above and below the line – send in anecdotes and good wishes for this man who was consistently overlooked at award season.

Well… before I knew it I was on the Cape and no word from Gordy. I was devastated.

My mother asked me what was wrong. I told her what our plans were. She threw the Falmouth phone book at me and said, “my friend Sue knows them, they’re in the book. Call!”

This was amazing!  Who would have thought?  Except the number was a perpetual fax machine and I was again thwarted. I faxed Gordy that I was here on the Cape and please, if he could, call me as I wanted to interview him. Nothing.

That night I found a funny article online by a fellow Cape Codder named Chris McCoy called “Stalking Gordon Willis” and it made me laugh, and then made me even more frustrated that I was so close but still I could not find or connect with Gordy.

The next day I answered the phone. A man asked for me, and he said “this is Gordon Willis!”  I think I jumped in the air! We made arrangements to have dinner at the Daniel Webster Inn in Sandwich, with his lovely wife Helen along too. Three hours of stories that would peel the paint off the walls. The one story I could have done without was the one about the “Godfather” severed horse head in the bed scene. It was a very hot day (triple digits) and the putrefying head stank like nobody’s business. That was a tough one to hear over stuffed quahogs.

Gordy loved filmmaking, and the talented people who had the ability to craft great stories. I interviewed him several times over the years, as did Jack Egan and others at the magazine.  Later I talked to him later for Monsters and Critics, a name he always got a laugh over.

We emailed a few times a year, mostly to talk about films or weather concerns on the Cape when big storms rolled in. He had a reputation as someone who could be quite prickly, but for me, he couldn’t have been more giving of himself. I mean come on, who was I? And I had pestered him to no end in the beginning! He loved talking about his work with me and he loved to joke about the earthquake, mudslide, fire and flood seasons of California and the “bad light of Los Angeles.”

Here are just some of the email responses I got from my requests to the famous peers of Gordon’s for our May 2006 Below the Line 75th birthday issue for him.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.  They touched Gordy immensely and he loved this issue. He was grateful to all the people who reached out and shared their stories.

gordy allen

Scanned from May 2006 BTL

“Happy Birthday Gordy –
It was hard to think back and recall any warm anecdotes from the past because when it comes to warmth, my memory is of those beautiful, early summer mornings when we would be out shooting and the air was cool and quiet except for the sound of your voice screaming curses at the crew.

I knew then, like Rembrandt, you were a genius of Chiaroscuro because I’d never seen a cameraman use so many lights and still not get an image on the film.

Between the malteds, the Liverwurst, the hotdogs, and the Camels, I never thought you’d make it to 75. Have a great birthday and you’re still the best cameraman in the world.”
Woody Allen
London, England

“I was relatively young when I first worked with Gordon Willis. But I was wise enough to have chosen him, and certainly benefited greatly from my experience working on 3 films with him.
I consider myself most fortunately to have had the opportunity to learn from a Master. I think much of his great ability was intuitive, but he did base his work on definite principal and logic, that he had observed or evolved myself.

Curiously, the other great cinematographer I worked with was Vittorio Storaro – and the two really came from opposite sides of the question. For Vittorio, the camera was a ‘moving pen'; From Gordon one learned ‘structure’, how to build a scene from finite shots without the camera moving –  even so much as to tilt up with a character when he stood up.  To eliminate unnecessary camera movement, and to understand how to build a scene almost brick by brick.
I refer to what I learned from Gordy with every project I work on, and will be eternally grateful to him as an artist and a teacher. ”
Francis Coppola

“The old boys club was still firm on the West Coast when Gordon Willis was shooting great pictures on the East. That would be part of the reason this talented cinematographer did not receive the kind of recognition he deserved.

His inventive lighting ideas were recognized and copied by many of us. Remember “Space Blankets”? They were thin aluminum blankets intended for medical use. Gordon would gaffer tape one to a wall or even a staircase and then bounce a 1K off this portable, flexible reflector.

“On practical locations Gordon would stretch pole cats to bounce 1 K’s into a white ceiling. Black velvet curtains controlled the bounce. First, there were clothespins, then Velcro on the drapes to make light variations hitting the walls.

New York cinematographers were ahead of most “Hollywood” ones when it came to lighting tight location interiors. Wide screen pictures were around for a lot of years before Gordon Willis shot KLUTE. He showed all of us how to use the anamorphic frame to dramatize a personal drama.

I don’t know who dubbed Gordon “the prince of darkness” but, just as he knows how we can see to use the frame, he is the master of the light-dark scale so critical to directing the eye.”
Haskell Wexler ASC

“I have been inspired by Gordon Willis’ work for as long as I have loved movies. I have referenced his work throughout my career. When I was prepping ‘Chicago’ I screened ‘Pennies from Heaven’. On ‘In the Cut’ we looked at ‘Klute’ and for ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and many other project I referenced his beautiful, haunting work on the ‘Godfather’ trilogy.

Every time I start talking about color, light, shadows and depth, Gordon’s work appears. He is a legend.”

Dion Beebe ASC ACS

“I worked on Hal Ashby’s first film which Gordy was the DP and Michael Chapman was the operator. Gordy was the premier DP in New York in the sixties and seventies – and later- with a unique style.

He collaborated with many of the upcoming directors of the time – Ashby, Coppola, Bridges and Pakula to name a few.
Congratulations on an outstanding career, and Happy Birthday.”
Ken Ryan
Production Accountant

“Gordon Willis had an enormous effect on my life in two different ways.  One was purely personal. He hired me and took me along with him as he re-wrote the rules, the definition of cinematography.

I have no idea what would have happened to me if Gordy had hit on someone else as his operator. I owe my career and whatever place I have in the movies almost entirely to Gordy. And beyond that I found in him a mentor and a friend.

For years we saw more of each other than we did of our wives and families. Imagine sitting around night after night knocking back a few and shooting the breeze with the Picasso, the Mozart, of your art form.
Well, that was my luck, and I’ll never forget it.

On a less personal level Gordy had an enormous impact on how I, or anyone else with half a brain, thought about movies in general. He demonstrated (as if we needed reminding) that the camera is the basic instrument of our art.
He showed that cinematography is central to the process, not just as an image that allows the story to unroll, but as a central player, which determines the emotional content of that basic imagery, and through that the emotional content of the story.

I can think of no cameraman who so changed the rules of what cinematography should do. And there I was, sitting on the dolly with my eye to the eyepiece, watching while he rewrote everything.  But it’s really just that I got to see the revolution first.  Everyone else, when they saw the images in a theater, surely had the same reaction.

Not since Gregg Toland has there been a cameraman who so radically re-organized what the camera is supposed to do.
There’ll only be one Gordy, and I was the incredibly lucky guy who got to tag along behind him.”
Michael Chapman  ASC

“I had the privilege to work with Gordon Willis as a young actor on ‘Comes a Horseman’, which Alan Pakula directed – and he inspired me to want to be behind the camera.

I had been on the set of the Godfather and seen his genius, but to watch it up close was an inspiration.  I would watch how he lit scenes, insisted on the right back light and quietly expressed his passion.  I know that every director he worked with was blessed to have his touch.

Gordon Willis is truly one of the Masters of Light.”
- James Keach, Producer

“‘Klute’ was the second picture that I worked on with Gordon Willis.  I was young, and not at all prepared for the intense rush that the collaboration gave me.

His work was simple – so disciplined – did I even know the word “minimalist”, in 1970 or 71? He kick started my mind-set to disregard the fashion and current trends or style that was Hollywood then.

Yesterday Harris Savides was trying to describe to me how and why Gordon was the greatest inspiration for his art..
When I think about that – I have heard that many, many times from artists I admire.”
Ann Roth
Costume Designer

“I first met Gordon when I was an AD on an AT&T commercial which shot in Central Park in the early 70s.  Little did I know that much later both of our career paths would merge for a much longer period of time.

When Woody Allen asked me if I wanted to help him set up shop in New York because he had never made a film here (hard to believe), I jumped at the chance.

Both of us had been working on the road too long and wanted to have some home time.
He walked a script over to my apartment titled “Annie Hall” and I went to work.

The only other participants at that point other than myself was Diane Keaton and Freddie Gallo, Woody’s AD who had worked on his prior non New York films.  Freddie lived in New York also and was an obvious incumbent.

Fred had worked on ‘The Godfather’ with Gordy, but recruiting Gordy to work with Woody made everyone, including Woody, nervous.  Gordy had a controversial reputation for being difficult and cranky.  His films were all dark and moody dramas; Klute, Godfather, etc.

His nickname as a DP was ‘prince of darkness’ referring to how low key and moody his lighting was.   I used to kid him that viewing “dailies” with him was like watching radio.

In a period where conventional wisdom was that comedies had to be bright and snappy, hiring Gordon was counter intuitive.  We had a meeting where I asked all the candid questions covering these areas, and he put us at ease.  I suppose he was looking to work on something not so heavy script wise, have a few laughs for a change, and he felt he could help Woody make better movies.

And help he did.  He brought a real disciplined cinematic structure to Woody’s process.  Woody (and the rest of us) started thinking about aspects of filmmaking we hadn’t thought about before.  Things like designing the opening shots of one scene to mesh with the final shots of the preceding scene.  Things like staging actors within frames and photographic portraits like on a stage rather than have the camera chase the actors around. This forced us into long wonderful complicated master shots that many times required no coverage whatsoever. In fact our first day of shooting together was in East Hampton where we shot the entire scene with Woody and Diane chasing the lobsters around the kitchen in one hand held Arri shot.

Of course the downside to that approach left little latitude to salvage a weak scene editorially.  But whenever that occurred, we just went back and re-shot the scene to improve it.  We planned and budgeted for those eventualities, so it was never like bad news.  It was like an opportunity to improve something after a learning experience.  And his obsession with light.  Interiors – no problem.  But exteriors – we used to pray for overcast days.  Nature’s silken soft light.  If we didn’t have it, we would sometimes try and accomplish an entire day’s work in a few hours between 3:00 and 6:00 pm.

Or go back inside and shoot something else while we waited for overcast conditions.

Scouting was always a few laughs with the disparate personalities, let alone quirks.  I remember Woody refused to drive through tunnels, and Gordy had a thing about Bridges.  Maybe that’s why we did so much in Manhattan.

Gordon was a purist.  God forbid we forced developed anything or did an FX shot that couldn’t be done practically.  The split screen sequence in “Annie Hall” was done simply by shooting the left side of the scene and blacking out the right side in the camera, then rewinding the film back to the start in the magazine, blacking out the left side, and shooting the action on the right for the adjacent side of the film.  The actors simply had to time out their speeches.

It was like film making with stone-age tools these days, but it worked, and he had everything on the original negative which was so important to him.

Even in Zelig, one of our 3 black and white films we did together, we had just as daunting a task to accomplish with Leonard Zelig as the film ‘Forrest Gump’ did years later.

The difference is we had about one tenth the budget.   We were being as innovative as we could with this mock documentary.  One weekend I sent Gordon home with a pile of stock footage covering Nazi Germany and Hitler’s reign.  We needed him to pick a shot we could matte Woody (“Zelig”) into to appear that he was with Adolph Hitler.  A standard, but potentially complicated sequence to pull off.

Monday he comes in and says he thinks he found a useable piece of footage.  So he shows me this shot of Hitler and some security guards entering some building.  Lo and behold one of the guards looks exactly like Woody.  So much for our FX work – anything to avoid tinkering with the film.  But what luck.

I’m personally very proud of the opening montage of ‘Manhattan.’  No shot was a throwaway.  We spent a lot of time with a very small unit, we functioned more like photographers than filmmakers.  The fireworks in Central Park culminating with the ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ finale was shot out of one of our location scouts’ parents bathrooms on Central Park West.

My indelible mental image of Gordy and I is standing on a Bronx rooftop together one summer night – overlooking Yankee Stadium – waiting for a subway train to arrive just when we needed it for the perfect shot.

For someone who taught me a lot about labs, bromide drag, cameras, and staging.  I sure had a good time with someone so ‘Cranky.’  Happy Birthday Prince of Darkness!”
Bob Greenhut-Producer

“I met Gordon on the set of ‘Pennies from Heaven.’  I had the thrill of teaching him about the camera and what all the little buttons were. It was fun to run around the set with him and show him how to plug in a nine-light, and to hear him try to pronounce ‘cucoloris.’   He also would constantly ask me questions like, ‘Steve, what is lighting?’ I remember him asking me one time about the big funny thing on the end of the camera.  I said, ‘it’s the lens.’  He said, ‘why does it always point at the people wearing the make-up?’  ‘Because, I said, ‘if it doesn’t, the people wearing the make-up get very angry.’

Gordon, you have taken what little knowledge I shared with you and turned it into a dinner, as well as giving the world cinematographic masterpieces.

Thank you,”

Steve Martin

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