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‘The Godfather’ 50th Anniversary: Why Gordon Willis Changed Cinematography Forever

17 directors of photography spoke with IndieWire about the continuing resonance of Gordon Willis' shadowy, practically lit cinematography

Cinematographer Gordon Willis on the set of "The Godfather"

Cinematographer Gordon Willis on the set of “The Godfather” with director Francis Ford Coppola and camera operator Michael Chapman behind the camera

Courtesy of the ASC Archive

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“His influence will never wane; there simply isn’t anyone who’s any good who isn’t standing on his shoulders.”

That’s what Steven Soderbergh wrote about Gordon Willis, the cinematographer who changed the American cinema forever with his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Though other filmmakers had used some of the same techniques as Willis — John Ford and Gregg Toland made extensive use of practically motivated light sources on “The Long Voyage Home,” and many noir films experimented with placing their characters in darkness — the revolution didn’t really take hold until he applied the approach to what became one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies of all time.

“The Godfather” celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and Willis’ work continues to inform the ways in which cinematographers approach their work; look no further than Greig Fraser’s character and psychology-driven lighting on “The Batman” for proof. On the occasion of a new 4K release that includes restorations of the three “Godfather” pictures (all photographed by Willis) and abundant supplementary features, IndieWire reached out to 17 working directors of photography to ask them why they thought “The Godfather” had such an impact and continued to resonate.

A Groundbreaking Style

“The Godfather” was released only three years after Gordon Willis’ feature debut as a cinematographer, on Aram Avakian’s 1969 cult favorite “End of the Road.” In the period between “End of the Road” and “The Godfather” Willis shot six movies including “Klute,” (1971) a modern day film noir in which Willis pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable exposure (and traditional coverage) in a mainstream studio film. The experiments of “Klute” were only the beginning of a revolutionary approach that would become fully realized the following year in “The Godfather.”

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather

“The Godfather”

Paramount Pictures

John Bailey (“Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters,” “Groundhog Day,” former president, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences): First of all, it was a groundbreaking style that violated almost all the precepts and the canons of what was considered dramatic cinematography. Gordon Willis didn’t use the traditional key lights, hair light, fill light. A lot of times, he would use just a single top light, a deadly sort of skeletal light. The top light box that Gordy created — soft, single source, top light — was often called coffin box lighting by older cinematographers at the time, because it made the faces look very skeletal. No fill light in the eyes, single source, very unflattering in a lot of ways. It was certainly not beauty lighting. The old guard cameramen had total disdain for it — they said, “This guy doesn’t know the first thing about lighting. He doesn’t know where to put a key light!” But my generation — Stephen Burum, Allen Daviau, people like that — we were looking for something new, and Gordon Willis gave it to us. It wasn’t about beautiful lighting, it was about revealing character through lighting.

Shane Hurlbut (“Terminator: Salvation,” “We Are Marshall”): I think it was the first time someone really used lighting to set the tone and mood for the characters; before that we were lighting areas more than characters. Gordon Willis asked, “What is this character going through, and how can I use lighting to express that?” That’s where you get the toplight, and the underexposure in the eyes — it’s a way of depicting the dark underbelly of this world, where one look can mean that someone is going to be killed. But it’s very organic. Willis lit those rooms practically — the whole idea of toplight is very realistic, in addition to creating emotion, and the naturalism combined with the emotion puts you in that world so, so quickly.

Jessica Young (“Sound City,” “Killing Eleanor”): He was a risk taker and the rare type of cinematographer that had a vision stronger than some of his directors. He very well could have been a director, but probably lacked the salesmanship qualities and patience it takes to drudge up the funding for a film. I suspect he had one of those polarizing personalities that either made you love him or hate him. “The Godfather” was groundbreaking, so much so that it terrified the producers. A major star in Marlon Brando, and you couldn’t see his eyes! A period piece all fading into the darkness! Perhaps it is what you don’t see that keeps us coming back. A well-suited metaphor for the subject matter of mobster life and what might be lurking in the shadows.

The Prince of Darkness

Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera in "The Godfather"

“The Godfather”

Paramount Pictures

“The Godfather” announced its boldness with the opening shot, a slow reverse zoom that started in a close-up on actor Salvatore Corsitto as Bonasera and pulled back to show him surrounded by darkness before revealing the title character played by Marlon Brando. The sequence that followed not only established the visual template for the film but introduced a new way of exploring the interplay between light and shadow in a color film.

Rafael Leyva (“Last Rampage,” “The Oath”): I think Willis is having an impact on modern cinematography right now more than ever, because he represents the epitome of accepting darkness as a form of exposure. People call him the prince of darkness, and it’s true — really, he’s the king of darkness, because “The Godfather” showed us how far you could go with the latitude of film to see into the shadows. It’s relevant today because films reflect society, and our world right now dictates that there’s a certain amount of darkness in our work.

Manuel Billeter (“Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage”): There had been dark movies before, but in “The Godfather” the lighting and composition are given a true voice in the film, every frame an opinion and emotion, a specific point of view, a revelation and mirror of the characters’ inner life. The thoughtful lighting and structured frames also turned locations into characters, and fleeting moments into paintings.

Andrew Droz Palermo (“The Green Knight,” “Moon Knight”): It’s hard to overstate Gordon Willis’ impact on light levels. It’s clear from frame one of “The Godfather” that he’s not afraid of darkness, and uses it to great effect thematically. In the shot, the camera slowly zooms out from a close-up on an undertaker making his case. You see heavily shadowed eyes, with just a glint of eye-light to guide us, and as it zooms further out, we begin to see the space, but his black suit jacket is barely discernible from the inky shadows behind him. He’s just a skeletal, desperate face. Further out still and we are over the shoulder of Brando, who is in full silhouette. It’s haunting. Of course, there are roots of this style in noir and German Expression, but to bring it to color film on the heels of an era when everything was overfilled, edged, illuminated was so bold.

John Bailey: Gordy’s lighting was very much coming out of the European tradition of how to use color, where you didn’t light color the way you lit black and white. A lot of the Hollywood cameramen that came out of the studio era continued to light the same way they always had when there was a transition from black and white to color. They used the light to separate planes as though they were still working in a gray scale, even though it was in color. The European cameramen like Nestor Almendros and Willy Kurant that were coming out of the French New Wave used color as separation, not lighting. Gordy understood that instinctively, and in terms of the color palette itself he preferred a kind of warm tone. People called it chocolate or yellow, which, again, was anathema to the Hollywood establishment. They would have considered it amateurish because it wasn’t flattering to the skin tones.

Denson Baker (“The Colour Room,” “The Luminaries”): It is very important to note that he didn’t shoot “The Godfather” in this style just to do things differently, he did them because it was what he enjoyed, what he liked and what felt instinctually correct for the film. Thanks to the film’s success, every cinematographer who came after him can reference him as an example of bucking the trend, putting an actor in the shadows, being bolder, playing it less safe. If a producer or an executive questions if a scene is too dark or that they can’t see an actor’s eyes, we can always reference Gordon Willis and the success of “The Godfather” and that is often enough to convince someone that they needn’t worry, it can work.

Jonathan Furmanski (“Life After Beth,” “The Dropout”): If I remember correctly, when asked about the soft top lighting he used on Marlon Brando in the opening scene of “The Godfather,” Gordon said he just “liked how it looked.” Now, I’m not sure I believe that someone so accomplished and exacting would be so glib about their work; I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and by lighting Don Corleone only from above, Gordon made the character quietly powerful and enigmatic — witness the lighting on almost everyone else in the room, where you can see their eyes. Maybe the anecdote is apocryphal. Does it matter?

Telling the Story Through Lighting

The wedding portrait from The Godfather

“The Godfather”

Paramount Pictures

Willis’ willingness to let his frames go dark was easily replicable by cinematographers looking to recreate his striking effects, but the real power of his technique was its inextricable connection to theme and his use of contrast — he knew that for a film to look truly dark, there had to be light for the darkness to react against.

Nancy Schreiber (“P-Valley,” “Your Friends and Neighbors”): It wasn’t just the darkness of the interiors, it was the contrast with what was going on outside. The way he photographed that dark cave of an office was already mind-blowing, but then when it was cut against the wedding, where you have the bright lie being told that everything is right with the world, that’s where the substance and the style really merged for me. It’s not just that you didn’t see the eyes, it’s what that told you about the power in the room — Don Corleone was so powerful that the people around him didn’t need to see his eyes to know what he was thinking.

Jayson Crothers (“Cruel Summer,” “Chicago Fire”): Gordon Willis’ work was always stunning, but the unifying thing I’ve always been inspired by was his impeccable taste and his mastery of the visual structure of his films. He understood that each shot gained its true impact from the shot before and after it, and that each scene built upon what came before and after it; not just narratively, but visually. Some scenes or shots might look, without context, a little pedestrian by themselves, but when you see them in the context of the whole film you really understand and appreciate his mastery of the art and craft of visual storytelling — he had an innate sense of what was appropriate for each scene because he was thinking about the story and the film at large instead of the photography by itself, and he understood when (and how) the photography should be more expressive and when and how it should be more presentational.

Ian Seabrook (“Slumberland,” “Army of the Dead”): Willis’ subtle yet constant use of negative fill, high contrast & shadow and the utilization of negative space within the frame draws the viewers eye to the stark, tone setting imagery, a synchronistic companion to Coppola’s and Puzo’s dialogue. This is displayed from the very first image in the film, the interior of Corleone’s office, where a barely perceptible slow hand zoom meshes beautifully with Willis’ iconic top light (initially conceptualized to mask Brando’s make up), in conjunction with Dean Tavoularis’ set designs which the lights push through. Willis’ modern approach to an old concept, the gangster picture, is an example of the blending of artisans from production design, costumes and cinematography to create a look that redefined and set the standard for the genre moving forward.

Stylized Naturalism

On the set of The Godfather

“The Godfather”

Paramount Pictures

Perhaps the most influential aspect of Willis’ cinematography was not its innovations, but its marriage of those innovations to classical Hollywood storytelling. For all his new techniques, his end goal was still the same as that of the old guard: to make the filmmaking invisible and draw the audience into the narrative.

John Matysiak (“Old Henry,” “Still the King”): Gordon Willis and Conrad Hall really changed the game in the sense that what you didn’t see was as important as what you did see. “The Godfather” raises the question of what naturalism is. Just because it’s dark and has shadows doesn’t mean it’s not natural. It’s interesting because it’s stylized but still rooted in Willis’ interpretation of reality — it’s like super-stylized naturalism.

David McFarland (“12 Mighty Orphans,” “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”): I think the method in which they made this film is as inspiring as the overall outcome photographically. The fact that they chose to shoot on location when they could have built, the fact that he ditched the big arc lamps and leaned more into natural lighting and really tried to see the locations for what they were and choose the locations for what they represented photographically, and then not come in and steamroll it like other cinematographers would, but come in and embrace it.

Nicole Whitaker (“Shining Vale,” “Truth Be Told”): Gordon Willis set the stage for so many cinematographers to think outside the box, not only in his lighting choices but also his camera work. He and Coppola did not use traditional methods of covering scenes with wide, medium and close ups but rather used stillness or subtle movement to connect the audience to the character. For me as a viewer I was able to feel closer to the characters and not feel manipulated by the filmmaker. It almost was a documentary sensibility how you felt so part of their world, but of course completely planned and stylized.

Denson Baker: The beauty of Gordon’s work on “The Godfather” is that it doesn’t look constructed, it just looks right, it works for the scene, the atmosphere, the contrast, the texture of his lighting. Obviously it is very much constructed, it is the kind of precise lighting that is very intentional, but it doesn’t look it — it doesn’t draw attention to itself because it is simpatico with the performances and the tone of the scene. This famously did cause some tension on set, because his lighting approach required the cast to hit precise marks. If they didn’t they could be left in total darkness.

Confidence and Patience

A behind the scenes photo from The Godfather

Gordon Willis (behind the camera) with Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando

Courtesy of the ASC Archive

Part of what pulled the audience into “The Godfather” was Willis and director Francis Ford Coppola’s supreme visual confidence; from that opening scene in Brando’s office, the compositions, lighting, and cutting were so purposeful and deliberate that the viewer subconsciously registered that they’re in good hands — a feeling that made audiences willing to go along on the journey even when it wasn’t following the visual and narrative “rules” to which they had become accustomed.

John Bailey: Gordy’s lighting forces you to emotionally pull yourself into the movie. It grabs you and brings you in. If you want to see and understand what’s going on, you have to kind of work at it. It’s not given to you on a plate. He demands something of the audience to participate in the emotional experience.

Tommy Maddox Upshaw (“Snowfall,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth”): The attention to framing and camera movement is very patient and intentional in Gordon’s work. He didn’t start shooting features until he was around 40, and he really took all the knowledge he had accumulated and applied it in a daring, confident, meticulous way that became his brand — it was just the way he saw the world. It’s a great lesson for cinematographers: those years that you spend waiting for your break, you’re actually building your toolbox and acquiring life experience so that when you get your chance you’re ready to deliver something special. I don’t know if a 30-year old Gordon Willis would have been ready to create a masterpiece the way that the 40-year old Gordon Willis was when he shot “The Godfather.”

Matthew Chuang (“You Won’t Be Alone,” “Blue Bayou”):  I remember reading Gordon Willis say “See what you’re looking at. Don’t walk into a situation and re-manipulate it. Look at it!”. These words always remind me to be stay present and truthful to your instincts. There was always a boldness to Gordon’s approach yet he always described it as “mechanically simple.” His choices in “The Godfather” were unapologetic and daring yet it always felt sincere.

Jessica Young: Caleb Deschanel was a camera intern on the film and recalls that Gordon shot the film very straight – as in straight on, eye-level. Only in the shot before something bad is about to happen, does the camera find an overhead frame or obtuse angle to jolt the audience. A good Hitchcock trick, and perfect cue to carry what seems a moment of banality into a violent scene.

A Timeless Masterpiece

Marlon Brando and John Cazale in The Godfather

“The Godfather”

Paramount Pictures

Checco Varese: Cinematographers paint with light — Gordon Willis painted with shadows to make sure you were only seeing what he wanted you to see or what the director wanted you to see. He was the first one to say that there are some things you don’t need to see. In 1972 that was groundbreaking — it was like watching the first movie in color, or with sound. “The Godfather” came at a time when the studio system wanted movies to look a certain way, partly because of the drive-ins — they wanted to make sure you could see everyone’s faces at the drive-in. This kind of thing goes on from generation to generation — a few years later they would say, “You need tighter close-ups because TVs are so small.” Willis doing what he did in that environment was a revolution on the level of the first caveman drawing on a wall with charcoal. Why is it relevant today? It’s relevant because Rembrandt is relevant, it’s relevant because the Parthenon is relevant, it’s relevant because the pyramids are relevant. It’s relevant because a masterpiece is timeless.

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