Magazine article Variety

Trailblazing D.P. Gordon Willis Didn't Suffer Fools Gladly

Magazine article Variety

Trailblazing D.P. Gordon Willis Didn't Suffer Fools Gladly

Article excerpt

With great risk often comes great reward. That's what the filmmakers behind such classics as "Citizen Kane," "The French Connection" and "The Godfather" - three movies that challenged established modes of lighting, framing and perspective - learned the hard way.

The notoriously gruff cinematographer Gordon Willis, who died May 18 at age 82 from cancer, certainly didn't make it any easier on "Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola, who didn't have the support of Paramount brass from the beginning and found himself continually at odds with his director of photography.

And those early rushes on the film only exacerbated the matter.

"(Willis) was trying something new," explains Peter Bart, VP in charge of production at the time and studio chief Robert Evans' right-hand man. "Many of the takes were too dark and couldn't be used. So there was a ruckus about it and part of it was caused by me because neither Gordon nor Francis were of the sort who communicated. Francis was paranoid and hated Bob Evans so much that he did not confide in him. And Gordon Willis sure as hell wasn't going to explain himself; his attitude was 'Fuck you guys' "

The film - characterized by its oft-imitated sepia tones, shadowy interiors and overhead lighting so severe it would often conceal the eyes of its title character, played by Marlon Brando - would end up having a transformative effect on the director and d.p.'s career, and helped advance the language of cinema.

"It's common knowledge among his peers, film critics and cinéphiles that (Willis) stands beside Griffith, Welles and Ford as one of the great originators," said Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. "Just as those men did before him, he not only changed the way movies look, he changed the way we look at movies."

Or, as d.p. Michael Chapman ("Tkxi Driver," "Raging Bull"), his camera operator on a half dozen films including "The Godfather" and "Klute," told Variety: "Cinematography could be looked at in two ways: Before Gordy and after Gordy - he changed everything."

Willis, a rock-solid technician who started out shooting commercials and industrial films, wasn't afraid to stand his ground, a characteristic that set him apart from the mostly deferential pros in his field. "A cinematographer does have to know when to argue - even fight at times," he told the Film and Digital Times. …

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