Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Meeting with the Don

Magazine article American Cinematographer

A Meeting with the Don

Article excerpt

On January 25, 1971, prior to the start of production on The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola met with cinematographer Gordon Willis, production designer Dean Tavoularis and costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone in the offices of Alfran Productions, on the 28th floor of #1 Gulf and Western Plaza in New York. There, the group engaged in a lively, in-depth conceptual discussion that was transcribed for reference. Although the resulting 84-page source memo has never been published, Coppola and his longtime archivist, producer Anahid Nazarian, generously allowed AC to excerpt some fascinating passages for our Willis tribute.

A period look, with tableau compositions

Coppola: Maybe just before we get into the scenes, a couple of generalities.

It's sort of a classic in my mind. It would be a very respectful, wellmounted film, with nothing in it that would detract from the period. As we have talked about it - to forego the use of stylish 1970 film phenomenon and try, in some way, to get the essence of the period without being an old-fashioned movie.

Johnstone: You can use old photographs and newsreels, but old films are our resource of actual research, because on them are people's memories of the past, of that era.

Willis; Maybe I misinterpreted, but it would be a mistake, as I said to you on the phone, to rebuild a 1945 or a 1940 movie. I think that's an error, because I think we are talking more of an impression of one than constructing a film in the way they would have [back then].

Coppola: His point is that a 1945 movie, in some way, helps to guide us into - stylistically, would help lead us to the true period, that period reflected by those movies.

I think it's a matter agreed that we really have not talked in any way of rebuilding a 1945 movie, but just to learn about them and to just take what we want.

Tavoularis: Just what we can.

Willis: I think it's very important what you said. I don't think we should revert to that kind of contemporary attack, because I think it's wrong. It should be -

Tavoularis: Just like I mentioned; if somebody in 1989 wants to make a '68 film, they would look at Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider and have zooms and a socio-political content in their film. And I think that would be a valid thing.

Willis: I tend to lean [on] my own feelings, and it's a very fine line. As I mentioned to you, I tend to lean toward the tableau.

Coppola: That's a very strong element of it.

Willis: A great deal. As a matter of fact, if you looked over films that are so-called contemporary films, you'd find there are no zooms. But tableau is a very strong form of statement, even used relative to cuts.

Coppola: But it's very right for this material, because this is classic drama in a way, and the tableau - from the first time you mentioned that, I have been thinking from that point of view in terms of the staging.

A period color scheme

Willis: Let me ask one question. The color coordination for the movie, let's talk about that for a minute, because this is the beginning, and we can carry it through.

When you sort of think of 1945, everything especially related to films, and everybody always relates it to a black-and-white period in everybody's mind. But we are not doing that. We are doing a color movie, right?

Now, my feeling is that [we should give] thought to every counterpoint, or the position of the scenes, New York, Sicily, and whatever. But I don't know how anybody else feels, but I, generally, feel that I work, myself, as often to get the color in a movie down to where it's at a minimum, so to speak. So that, when you have something that you want to use, you can use it.

I mention this: I don't care for blue and I don't care for too many primaries, because there is so much color built into the structure of motion pictures; because it's very hard to control it as it's picked, if you go into monotone. It seems like there is nothing there, and it hits the screen and there is a lot there. …

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