The well-documented “New Hollywood” movement of the 1960s and 70s—stretching roughly from 1967 (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde) to 1979 or 1980 (Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull)—is commonly understood to be the product of a few visionary directors. Emboldened and inspired by the French New Wave, a number of young, studio-challenging auteurs (among them Scorsese, Altman, Malick, Spielberg, and Coppola) supposedly bent the system to their artistic will, creating movies that were technically and artistically challenging, and that also managed commercial viability.
This narrative plays well with our commonly held belief that a film lives and dies by its director, but it ignores the many important collaborative roles throughout the filmmaking process. In particular, the 1970s were halcyon days for American cinematography, and the decade produced a number of Directors of Photography that, within their field, equal the stature of their directorial colleagues: Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Days of Heaven), Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood), Lazlo Kovacs (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo), Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) among them.
Even within this incredible group, few DPs built a body of work as wide-ranging and influential as Gordon Willis. Known primarily for his work on the Godfather films (which, among other things, introduced the idea of sepia-tone as a visual shorthand for period sequences), Willis also collaborated with Woody Allen on some of the director’s best work, including Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, and Broadway Danny Rose. Along the way, he shot several of the decade’s most successful pictures (Klute, The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, all directed by frequent collaborator Alan J. Pakula) as well as some of its most idiosyncratic sleepers, like The Paper Chase, Alan Arkin’s Little Murders, Hal Ashby’s debut film The Landlord, and the nearly surrealist Barbra Streisand vehicle Up the Sandbox. Willis corresponded with Splice through email about his role in these storied films, the dimly lit style that earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness,” and why he retired from filmmaking in the late 1990s.
SPLICE TODAY: First, I'm curious where your interests in photography and film started. Who were the really inspiring photographers or DPs for you as you grew into this profession?
GORDON WILLIS: Actually, my father was a make-up man at Warner Brothers during the depression. That was Warner Studios on the East Coast, in Brooklyn. I sort of grew up around show business; my father and mother were dancers in the theater before he settled down at Warner…lucky break, during the depression. At any rate, I wanted to be an actor as a kid. I grew out of it, got interested in stage design and lighting (summer stock and all that) but never really got into it before I got the photo bug, [which] cost my father a lot of money.
I knew a few young models when we lived in the Village in New York; I'd shoot pictures of them so they had something to put on a composite. I was going to be a fashion photographer! I didn't know shit, [I was] dumber than dirt, as they say. No money, no jobs etc. Meanwhile my father had some friends that got me some jobs as a go-fer on some movies that were passing through.
Soon after, The Korean War came along. I joined the Air Force, got into a documentary Motion Picture Unit, learned a lot, and got out after four years. Another friend helped me get into the union in New York and I started working as an Assistant Cameraman. I had to start all over, and I was still dumber than dirt. I finally became a First Cameraman about 13 years later. Shot a lot of commercials. Out of the blue, the first director I ever shot a feature with saw something I shot and hired me to shoot End of the Road . That was Aram Avakian. Other people saw the picture and started hiring me.
You have to understand: I did things in visual structure that nobody in the business was doing, especially in Hollywood. I wasn't trying to be different; I just did what I liked. Don't misunderstand when I say I really had no particular DP I was aspiring to be. I really fell in love with the movies as I was growing up, and I must say, I was emulating things that I saw others doing, that’s how you learn, but you soon have to push past that, and do things that you feel are right…or better.
ST: Can you tell me what it was like working with Hal Ashby on his first directorial project? His body of work in the 70s rivals any American directors' in my opinion, although the stories about his eccentricities and his perceived lack of a distinct directorial style tend to obscure his name among his contemporaries'. Was that shoot notable in any way? He ended up working with a few other well-known DPs (Wexler, Kovacs, Chapman, Caleb Deschanel), so he must have respected that role in the filmmaking process.
GW: Hal loved film, and had a great respect for it. We both had the same point of view, and the same sensibilities regarding what we were doing. He was very supportive. The studio hadn't seen anything like this before; they were a pain in the ass, but it ran smoothly. You have to understand, Hal was basically an editor. [Ashby was Norman Jewison’s editor on films like In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair.] His input as a director had a lot to do with watching and suggesting, but he knew what was good. His basic problem [was that] he was a hopelessly addicted to drugs, but brought a great deal to film in the 70s. He tried very hard to hire me again for several other films but the East and West Coast unions were in the way; in my case, the West coast. I later got into the West Coast union and worked wherever I wanted to.
ST: Did he try and get you to shoot any of his other completed films, or were these projects that fell through once your collaboration didn't pan out? Were you slated to shoot The Last Detail or Bound for Glory, for example?
GW: Yes, Harold and Maude. I couldn't shoot The Last Detail because I was doing something else. I recommended Michael Chapman, who had been my operator [on The Landlord and The Godfather]. Bound For Glory looked like a beer commercial to me. Wexler is not my favorite DP. I never discussed the film with Hal.
ST: You've worked in a variety of classic genres, from westerns (Bad Company, Comes a Horseman), screwball comedies (The Money Pit, Little Murders), Berkley-style musical (Pennies From Heaven), to period pieces (A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, The Purple Rose of Cairo) and gangster pictures. I assume you accrued enough clout to pick your projects, so was it a conscious decision to try on all these hats, and if so, how did you prepare differently for each one?
GW: I would not classify The Godfathers as gangster movies... more like gangster operas, if you will. I accrued enough clout to do what I felt was right for the movie I was shooting, but I was also very lucky to have worked with a wonderful group of directors, who weren't simply making decisions to keep their pools filled. The prep for any film, in my case, was to fit the punishment to the crime—[to do] what felt right for the film you're doing. The truth of the matter is, everybody tends to reduce or expand things to a level that they understand. Two people can look at the same thing, [but] they don't necessarily see the same thing. Whatever happens on the screen, really comes out of you, there's no formula.
ST: Can you elaborate on this? You imply that your main concern is the story, which I'd certainly believe, but you must know that when, say, you light a character's face in near darkness or observe their domestic activity through a very detached, observant long shot, you're applying a sort of aesthetic judgment on them. Which is obviously your prerogative as an artist, but surely this kind of stylization must occasionally bug a director or writer, as it supposedly did Coppola during the Godfather shoot. So I'm curious how you view the balance between staying true to your own style and "taste," and always serving the story.
GW: You're looking for a formula; there is none. The formula is me.
ST: To what do you ascribe the simultaneity of directorial and cinematographic talent during those years? Was there a greater level of artistic freedom afforded to filmmakers then? Or was it the momentum of 60s counterculture finally reaching the film industry? Hall and Wexler have credited "accidents" like sunspots in the lenses for spurring their perceived innovations; what was it about the industry climate that allowed those kinds of accidents to stand?
GW: The studio system was beginning to buckle, but I think it's more like "A Man For All Seasons." All of us came along at the right time and did what we wanted to do. And it wasn't easy—management, and many in the old school hated us, me especially [since] I didn't live in California.
Let me clear something up: Good films are not made by accident, nor is good photography. You can have good things happen, on occasion, by accident that can be applied at that moment in a film, but your craft isn't structured around such things, except in beer commercials.
ST: Having referred to it twice now, could you clarify the "beer commercial" look?
GW: Over-rich visuals with star bursts on the beer glasses and everybody's teeth.
ST: The two directors with whom you've collaborated most, Pakula and Allen, couldn't be further apart stylistically. What was it about each of those men that made collaborations so worthwhile for you?
GW: They're both very intelligent guys who made it very easy to collaborate. They both did something very important: they listened a large percentage of time, and were not afraid to take chances. Especially Woody.
ST: Your use of black has obviously gotten the most attention in discussions of your style, but other recurring aspects have been talked about less. You have a very specific, stationary way of photographing Manhattan apartments, for example. (I'm thinking particularly of Annie Hall, Up the Sandbox, Loving, and Little Murders.) And in those movies that don't have such domestic settings, your films often have a visual "home base," like the angled newsroom shots in All the President's Men, the wide shots of the lecture hall in The Paper Chase, or the Carnegie Deli scenes in Broadway Danny Rose. What gave your camera that kind of stateliness, particularly at a time when zooms and handheld photography were so popular?
GW: You left out Manhattan, which has the strongest form of those graphics your referring to. It's really a matter of taste and relativity, of how things fit together.
ST: I'm curious about the decisions you made to end certain stages of your career. Why stop making films with Woody Allen after 10 years, for instance? And what made the late 90s the right time for your retirement?
GW: You don't want to keep breathing the same air. As for the business in general, I got tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain.
ST: What have you been up to since your last film? Have you gotten back into still photography or remained active in film in some other capacity?
GW: I shoot stills for my own pleasure. I've lectured on occasion, and did teach some classes. I always enjoy a good movie. My eyesight, however, is now failing. Ironic, I guess. I just have to watch out for fireplugs and telephone poles on the street.
As I've often told actors: It's not all autographs and sunglasses, you know. Now and then, your feet get wet.