Take five with Gordon Willis
Having been the cinematographer for Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men already makes Gordon Willis a master of light. But having worked on the Godfather trilogy and eight Woody Allen films establishes him as a legend. More than any other director of photography, Willis defined the cinematic look of the 1970s: sophisticated compositions in which bolts of light and black put the decade’s moral ambiguities into stark relief. On the occasion of Film Forum’s weeklong run of Manhattan, TONY got in touch via e-mail with the 76-year-old Queens native for some insights into the making of the Woodman’s romantic masterpiece—and how current filmmakers are technologically constipated.
Did Woody Allen want to shoot in b&w anamorphic widescreen, or did you?
I sold Woody on it. Anamorphic is my favorite format. I love the graphics and the relativity of actors in that kind of space. Depth of field is another tool—it makes it easier to paint. And we both felt that New York was a black-and-white city.
The Hayden Planetarium scene is downright surreal. How did it come together?
Woody had written the scene well for the Hayden. But if you go into a planetarium, you lie down and stare at the ceiling. So I suggested we manufacture our own deal. I came up with a series of shots, some done with mirrors, some done with set pieces. The cut in front of Venus was a matte shot—Woody, as usual, gave me visual control to paste it together. We were harmonious: What I wanted, he would do; what he wanted, I would do.
In The Paper Chase and All the President’s Men, you make atmospheric use of Boston and Washington, respectively. How do other cities compare to New York?
Boston is very fife-and-drum: small, conservative, lots of students and lawyers—a little more starch in their underwear. Not always a knockout visually. Washington is monolithic. It’s not a place I much like looking at. I get the sense there’s no one really living there. New York has great soul. The light in the city is wonderful: canyon upon canyon, changing all day long. And the relativity of the graphics: So much buried in and around buildings, stuffed between two rivers. I love all of that.
What do today’s Hollywood cinematographers get right—and get wrong?
I think it’s amazing they get anything right. The ones that do, I give a world of credit to. Most DP’s are faced with “motion confused with accomplishment”—that is, directors who do not know how to tell a story.
Your work predates digital special effects. Jealous?
Everyone’s lost in a sea of special effects. I’m not against anything as a tool—it just shouldn’t be a way of life. I think a digital enema would do the most good for everyone right now.
Manhattan opens Fri 13 at Film Forum.
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