How Gordon Willis Inspired Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh

How Gordon Willis Inspired Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh
How Gordon Willis Inspired Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh

American Cinematographer magazine’s upcoming October issue will be devoted to the career of the legendary Gordon Willis, ASC., including never-before-published excerpts from a conceptual memo on “The Godfather,” a pictorial spread featuring rare behind-the-scenes photos with Willis’ own comments and personal memories from his collaborators and peers.

This marks the second time in the magazine’s history that it has devoted an entire issue to a sole ASC member (the May 2003 issue was devoted to Conrad L. Hall). 

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“Gordon Willis had a tremendous impact on the art form, and we wanted to honor and acknowledge his contributions in a meaningful way,” said American Cinematographer Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Stephen Pizzello, author of the forthcoming book “Gordon Willis on Cinematography.” “If there were a Mount Rushmore for cinematographers, Gordon’s features would surely be chiseled into the rock face.”

Willis, who passed away in May, was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 2009 for his lifetime of achievements in cinematography. Previously, he was nominated for Academy Awards for his work on “Zelig” and “The Godfather: Part III.” The ASC honored Willis with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. His other credits include “The Godfather” trilogy, “Klute,” “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall,” “Presumed Innocent,” “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men” and more.
The commemorative issue will feature interviews with prominent directors, actors, crew members and others who worked with Willis during his career, including Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, Jane Fonda, and ASC members Owen Roizman, Michael Chapman, Caleb Deschanel and John Bailey, among others.

American Cinematographer has given Indiewire permission to publish these advance excerpts from the upcoming issue:

Steven Soderbergh:

“He was, to my mind, the first American cinematographer to really embrace the idea of competing color temperatures within a frame. It was shocking to hear that he didn’t own a color meter, and that he would do all of that by eye! He really pioneered the idea of setting a certain color temperature as a base and letting everything go.

“He also ended a practice that I think we all used to look at and be somewhat unsettled by: You’d have a lit lamp sitting on a table against a wall, and there would be another light lighting the lamp and casting a shadow of that lamp on the wall. But he looked at the space and said, ‘What’s the source?’ And once that was decided, that was it. His relentless fidelity to the source was new. His whole thing was, ‘Just because we turn the camera around doesn’t mean the source turns.’ He was very clear and very clean in his approach, and the influence is significant.”

Francis Ford Coppola:

“The word he used a lot was ‘structure,’ and by that he meant that when you lay out a scene and decide how to shoot it, each shot [should have] a reason for existing. [To Gordy’s thinking,] the word ‘coverage’ wasn’t really about shooting the same thing from a bunch of different angles. If in one shot you excluded a particular character or just showed a piece of his arm, then in the next shot you [would reveal] who that arm belonged to. In other words, every shot shouldn’t have to do everything; the lens was very selective in what it showed, and each sequence was like building something out of bricks. Each brick contained a reason why it was the next brick — it had more information, or it showed something. 

“There were shots he called ‘shoe leather’ — shots that showed people going from here to there. To him, that was just a waste. I guess he got all of that from observing as he was coming up. There was a lot to learn from him, and I did learn a lot. I was young, so it was good that I had that opportunity.”

Woody Allen:

“I remember the first shot that I made with him was in ‘Annie Hall’ with the lobsters. The lobsters dropped on the floor, and we panned slightly from one lobster to another. And he said, ‘No, we should cut.’ It was the first time we’d ever worked together, and I said, ‘No, no, it’s more exciting to pan over with a sort of handheld look.’ He gave in to me on that, and he couldn’t sleep nights for the rest of the picture! I mean, it bothered him so much — this minor, minor intrusion on this set of rigid rules that he had about his aesthetic. He was never comfortable with it. If you watch the picture, you see this little pan for a second; there’s not a single human on the planet who ever raised any question about it, nor would anyone. It looks perfectly fine, but not to his superb eye. To him, it should have been a cut, even though it was [a move of] probably a foot from right to left. And he couldn’t live with it. Two months into the picture, he’d say to me, ‘If we get a chance, let’s go back and make that shot again.’ We couldn’t make it again; it was [just] impossible to make it again. But that’s how much it bothered him!”

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