Gordon Willis


Director Of Photography

About

Birth Place
Astoria, New York, USA
Born
May 28, 1931

Biography

Born into a motion picture family (his father was a make-up artist at the Warner Bros. studio in Brooklyn), pioneering director of photography Gordon Willis began as a still photographer and spent four years in the motion picture unit of the US Air Force, photographing instructional films on topics ranging from survival in the jungle to how to use a machine gun. After military service, h...

Family & Companions

Helen Willis
Wife
Married c. 1966.

Notes

Received an honoray Doctor of Humane Letters from Bucknell University in 1982

"Movies are craft, they're not art. The art comes out of the craft. For example, you may have a great idea for a painting, but can you paint? If you say 'no' then your idea is worthless because there's no way to project that idea. It's being able to execute the idea that sets you free." --Gordon Willis, quoted "Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers" by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984)

Biography

Born into a motion picture family (his father was a make-up artist at the Warner Bros. studio in Brooklyn), pioneering director of photography Gordon Willis began as a still photographer and spent four years in the motion picture unit of the US Air Force, photographing instructional films on topics ranging from survival in the jungle to how to use a machine gun. After military service, he worked in NYC as a cameraman on documentaries and commercials before getting his first opportunity to work as cinematographer on Aram Avakian's "The End of the Road" (1970, adapted from the novel by John Barth), for which he attracted some attention with the tour-de-force psychedelic montages he managed to execute at minimal expense. Though he drew praise for his color lensing on Hal Ashby's flashy directorial debut "The Landlord" (also 1970) and for his artfully composed shots in "Klute" (1971, his first of six collaborations with Alan J. Pakula) which masked off much of the frame width to emphasize a point, he first came to prominence for his contribution to Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather Part II" (1974). Although Willis retired in the late 1990s, he remained so respected among cinema fans that his 2014 death brought a slew of tributes and remembrances.

While filming "The Godfather," Willis used counter-culture visual techniques such as overhead lighting, force developing and low key interiors. Sometimes characters' eyes were not visible in this low light (when appropriate, the eyes burned through) as Willis showed the shadowy world of evil in contrast to the light of goodness. Paramount execs freaked when they first viewed "The Godfather," considering it altogether too dark, not understanding the emotional power in the new look. He also created a golden amber patina to bathe both the Sicilian countryside and the streets of Little Italy in a rich, nostalgic glow, a technique which immediately became a visual metaphor for a period look. For "The Godfather Part II," despite the much bigger budget, he employed the same camera, the same lenses, the same everything, guaranteeing with the somewhat dated equipment a consistency from one film to the next. Prior to this film, there was no history of successful sequels, but the opportunity to outdo himself resulted in a far classier movie the second time around.

In 1973, for his first of four collaborations with writer-director James Bridges, Willis filmed "The Paper Chase" in 35mm anamorphic format. His decision to use the wide-screen format (based on the content of the story) ran counter to the conventional wisdom that had previously relegated it to exterior films with big landscapes. For Pakula's "All the President's Men" (1976), he conjured up a remote camera by putting a winch in the dome of the Library of Congress, enabling it to pull back from a desk top to a full view of the library floor. On display once again was his motif for good and evil as the camera moved from the truth-seeking, fluorescent interior of the Washington Post offices to the ominous underground garage where Deep Throat tells Robert Redford's Bob Woodward to "follow the money" into a world of anonymous footsteps and long shadows juxtaposed against the bright lights of the Capitol. This world of contrasts is one to which Willis often returned as in Pakula's last film "The Devil's Own" (1997), contrasting a breathtaking seacoast panorama of Ireland with the claustrophobic basements of NYC, where his camera probed the gloom for a single source of light to illuminate the secret world that lies behind what he calls "the door."

Willis proved himself equally adept with comedy on the eight consecutive pictures he shot for Woody Allen, beginning with "Annie Hall" (1977) and continuing through "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985). "Woody always had wonderful ideas. He'd tell me what he wanted. I'd tell him how I thought he could do it . . . Woody always listened. If he liked it we'd try it my way, and if it didn't work we did it his way. One way or the other, it usually worked out." For Allen, Willis' bleak, understated hues accentuated the Bergmanesque quality of "Interiors" (1978), and his sumptuous, impressionistic colors highlighted the visually charming "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" (1982). He is best known in his collaboration with Allen, however, for resurrecting the black-and-white movie as a contemporary form of story telling, starting with the melancholy grays of "Manhattan" (1979), magnificently shot in the anamorphic format, followed by the striking black-and-white of "Stardust Memories" (1980). He moved back and forth from color to black-and-white on the director's "Zelig" (1983, for which he picked up his first Oscar nomination) and "The Purple Rose of Cairo," which he sandwiched around the black-and-white "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984).

After ending his creative partnership with Allen, Willis continued to produce exceptional work, as with Pakula's "Presumed Innocent" and Coppola's "The Godfather, Part III" (both 1990), for which he received his second Academy Award nomination. Willis only photographed two more films before retiring at the end of the 1990s, the Alec Baldwin/Nicole Kidman thriller "Malice" (1993) and Pakula's IRA drama "The Devil's Own" (1997). He made a brief, unexceptional foray to directing with "Windows" (1980), proving to himself that he was better at dealing with the mechanical aspects of motion pictures than with the directing and people-oriented aspects of it. Some of his greatest advocates are his fellow cinematographers. No less a seasoned veteran than Haskell Wexler called him "the most thorough door-to-door cameraman that there is," lauding Willis' level of commitment that begins with pre-production and extends through a close monitoring of the final process going to release print. One thing that helps his films hang together is choosing an f-stop appropriate to the overall look of a film, inside and out, from which he only varied for special shots, so that when it goes to editing there are no "matching" problems.

Hollywood was slow to get on the Willis bandwagon; despite his important contributions to such Academy Award-winning Best Pictures as "The Godfather," The Godfather II," "Annie Hall" and the nominated "All the President's Men," he was not nominated in the Best Cinematography category. An outsider living in the New York metropolitan area and doing much of his best work on the East Coast, he was also an outspoken advocate for the creative role that directors of photography play in the collaborative art of filmmaking, which ran against the grain of the implied Golden Rule that cinematographers should be seen and not heard. His associations with Coppola, Bridges, Pakula and Allen accounted for a significant percentage of the body of work that prompted authors Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato (Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers) to call him in 1984: " . . . the best cinematographer working in America today. Without a doubt. Period. End of discussion." Gordon Willis died at the age of 82 on May 18, 2014.

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

Windows (1980)
Director

Cast (Feature Film)

Fog City Mavericks (2007)
Cinematographer Style (2006)
Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (1992)
Himself

Cinematography (Feature Film)

The Devil's Own (1997)
Director Of Photography
Malice (1993)
Director Of Photography
The Godfather, Part III (1990)
Director Of Photography
Presumed Innocent (1990)
Director Of Photography
Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
Director Of Photography
The Pick-Up Artist (1987)
Director Of Photography
The Money Pit (1986)
Director Of Photography
Perfect (1985)
Director Of Photography
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Director Of Photography
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Director Of Photography
The Lost Honor Of Kathryn Beck (1984)
Director Of Photography
Zelig (1983)
Director Of Photography
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)
Director Of Photography
Pennies From Heaven (1981)
Director Of Photography
Windows (1980)
Director Of Photography
Stardust Memories (1980)
Director Of Photography
Manhattan (1979)
Director Of Photography
Comes A Horseman (1978)
Director Of Photography
Interiors (1978)
Director Of Photography
9/30/55 (1977)
Director Of Photography
Annie Hall (1977)
Director Of Photography
All The President's Men (1976)
Director Of Photography
The Drowning Pool (1975)
Director Of Photography
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Director Of Photography
The Parallax View (1974)
Director Of Photography
The Paper Chase (1973)
Director Of Photography
Up the Sandbox (1972)
Director of Photography
The Godfather (1972)
Director of Photography
Bad Company (1972)
Director of Photography
Klute (1971)
Director of Photography
Little Murders (1971)
Director of Photography
The Landlord (1970)
Director of Photography
Loving (1970)
Director of Photography
The People Next Door (1970)
Director of Photography
End of the Road (1970)
Director of Photography

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

The Devil's Own (1997)
Dp/Cinematographer
Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (1992)
Other
The Godfather, Part III (1990)
Dp/Cinematographer
Presumed Innocent (1990)
Dp/Cinematographer
The Money Pit (1986)
Dp/Cinematographer
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Dp/Cinematographer
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Other
Manhattan (1979)
Dp/Cinematographer
All The President's Men (1976)
Dp/Cinematographer
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Dp/Cinematographer

Cast (Special)

The Godfather Family: A Look Inside (1990)
Himself

Misc. Crew (Special)

The Godfather Family: A Look Inside (1990)
Other

Life Events

1970

First feature film as director of photography, "End of the Road", based on the John Barth novel

1970

Was director of photography for Hal Ashby's feature directorial debut, "The Landlord"

1971

Initial collaboration with Alan J Pakula, "Klute"

1972

Created the shadowy world of "The Godfather" for Francis Ford Coppola

1973

First of four collaborations with writer-director James Bridges, "The Paper Chase"

1974

Shot Pakula's thriller "The Parallax View"

1974

Reteamed with Coppola for "The Godfather, Part II"

1976

Created the contrasting worlds of the newspaper offices and the dark underbelly of politics in Pakula's "All the President's Men"

1977

First collaboration with Woody Allen, "Annie Hall"

1980

Sole feature directing credit, "Windows"; also served as director of photography

1983

Received first Academy Award nomination for Allen's "Zelig"

1985

Eighth and last screen collaboration (to date) with Woody Allen, "The Purple Rose of Cairo"

1985

Was cinematographer for the film sequences of the Broadway production of "Singin' in the Rain"

1988

Last film with Bridges, "Bright Lights, Big City", adapted by Jay McInerney from his novel

1990

Earned second Oscar nomination for "The Godfather, Part III", directed by Coppola

1990

Reteamed with Pakula for "Presumed Innocent"

1993

Worked with Harold Becker on the suspenseful thriller "Malice"

1997

Sixth and last film with Pakula, "The Devil's Own"

Videos

Movie Clip

Landlord, The (1970) - Great Costume! The bustling costume-party scene from Hal Ashby's The Landlord, 1970, featuring Lee Grant, Beau Bridges, Marki Bey, Susan Anspach, Robert Klein (in black-face!) and Walter Brooke, photographed by Gordon Willis.
Landlord, The (1970) - It Ain't Your Baby Explosive scene in which Elgar (Beau Bridges, title character) overhears tenant Fanny (Diana Sands) telling husband Copee (Louis Gossett) she's pregnant, and it goes badly, in Hal Ashby's The Landlord, 1970.
Landlord, The (1970) - I Never Eat Lunch Society mom Joyce (Lee Grant) gets lubricated by fortune-teller and tenant Marge (Pearl Bailey) on a visit to her son's Brooklyn apartment building, in editor-turned-director Hal Ashby's debut film The Landlord, 1970.
Landlord, The (1970) - Open, How Do We LIve? Opening with emphasis on Beau Bridges, the title character, addressing the camera, in the little-noticed but well-regarded satire/melodrama about urban race relations, and the first feature by whiz-kid editor Hal Ashby, who was given the directing assignment by his mentor Norman Jewison who stepped aside to produce, The Landlord, 1970.
All The President's Men (1976) - Somebody Got To Her Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) in the Washington Post newsroom, decide to follow up on damning calls to the White House, in Alan J. Pakula's All The President's Men, 1976, from Woodward and Bernstein's book and William Goldman's screenplay.
All The President's Men (1976) - Possible Burglary The security guard is Frank Wills, the actual guy, who called in the Watergate burglary, staged by director Alan J. Pakula, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam and Dustin Hoffman also introduced, in the 1976 version of the Woodward & Bernstein book, All The President's Men.
Interiors (1978) - As Direct As Possible Beginning with Renata (Diane Keaton) and her unseen analyst, we jump to father Arthur (E.G. Marshall) breaking big news to her sister Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and their mother Eve (Geraldine Page) in Woody Allen's Bergman-influenced Interiros, 1978.
Interiors (1978) - An Enormous Abyss Coming from the opening credits, writer-director Woody Allen leaps into the existential void, with Arthur (E.G. Marshall) reflecting on his marriage, and daughters (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt), in Interiors, 1978.
Interiors (1978) - As Good As I've Seen You After their separation, Arthur (E.G. Marshall) visits Eve (Geraldine Page), who takes desperate action, leading to testy conversation with his daughter Renata (Diane Keaton) in Woody Allen's Interiors, 1978.
Pennies From Heaven (1981) - Chicago, 1934 Opening from director Herbert Ross and writer Dennis Potter (from his BBC TV series), Steve Martin as sheet-music salesman Arthur, Jessica Harper his wife Joan, with the first mimicked song, “I’ll Never Have To Dream Again,” recorded by Elsie Carlisle, in the retro-musical hybrid Pennies From Heaven, 1981.
Pennies From Heaven (1981) - Did You Ever See A Dream, Walking? Working his east-central Illinois sheet-music sales territory, Arthur (Steve Martin) haggles with shopkeeper Barrett (Raleigh Bond) then sees Eileen (Bernadette Peters) for the first time, miming the Bing Crosby recording of the song by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon, in Pennies From Heaven, 1981.
Pennies From Heaven (1981) - It's The Girl With fellow traveling salesmen Al (Robert Fitch, with glasses) and Ed (Tommy Rall, mustache), Arthur (Steve Martin) concedes it’s a girl he’s on about, song by Abel Baer and Dave Oppenheim, recorded by the Boswell Sisters and the Dorsey Brothers orchestra, in Pennies From Heaven, 1981.

Trailer

Companions

Helen Willis
Wife
Married c. 1966.

Bibliography

Notes

Received an honoray Doctor of Humane Letters from Bucknell University in 1982

"Movies are craft, they're not art. The art comes out of the craft. For example, you may have a great idea for a painting, but can you paint? If you say 'no' then your idea is worthless because there's no way to project that idea. It's being able to execute the idea that sets you free." --Gordon Willis, quoted "Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers" by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984)

"I believe in the relativity of moviemaking, which includes a world of light and dark, big and small, high and low, good and evil. In the opening of 'The Godfather', I thought juxtaposing an underbelly of evil in Don Corleone's darkened room with this bright, festive wedding that was taking place outside was a wonderful way of doing it. You cut back and forth between these two things, offering a visual subtext to the wedding, and the audience is immediately aware that not everything is always what it seems here. It painted a picture and laid a foundation for the rest of the the trilogy." --Gordon Willis quoted in DAILY NEWS, March 31, 1997