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Gordon Willis

     Gordon Willis, the most influential cinematographer during Holywood's adventurous 1970s, has become a Massachusetts resident. He's moved to Cape Cod. Last July, the Woods Hole Film Festival celebrated Willis's Cape residency with a 35mm screening of Manhattan (1979), at which Willis talked about his friendly collaboration with Woody Allen, for whom he shot eight comedies, including Annie Hall, Zelig, and Broadway Danny Rose.

     Willis also spent a day at Woods Hole leading a six-hour seminar. He showed clips from films for which he was the director of photography – from the three Godfathers to 1997's The Devil's Own – and he gave pointers about filmmaking and free associated about his career. His earliest DP work for various emerging directors includes future cult items: End of the Road (1970), Loving (1970), The Landlord (1970), Bad Company (1970). It is Willis's visual stamp that gives The Godfather movies their luster: the golden glow of the Italian scenes, the underlit underworld of Don Carleone. Nobody has illuminated better the paranoia of the American city than Willis's striking trilogy for Alan J. Pakula, Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and All the President's Men (1976).

     Willis has been called "the prince of darkness" by fellow cinematographer, Conrad Hall, for his underexposed expressionism: the shadows hiding Brando's eyes in The Godfather, the blackness enveloping Allen and Diane Keaton when they meet at Manhattan's planetarium. Credit Willis with the gloriously gloomy ambience of Pennies from Heaven (1981).

From Willis's seminar:

     "I'm a mimimalist. I see things in simple ways. But people take a simple idea and tie it into knots, thinking 'It's not complicated enough.' It's human nature to define complexity as better. Well, it's not."

     "It's hard to believe, but a lot of directors have no visual sense. They only have a storytelling sense. If a director is smart, he'll give me the elbow room to paint. It's OK for directors to change their mind. The cinematographer can't. You have to keep the balance.

     It's the judgment they're paying for."

     "I never allow editors on the set. Never. What they see is what they get. If the material doesn't work, fifty cuts won't help."

     "I don't really like directing. I've had a good relationship with actors, but I can do what I do and back off. I don't want that much romancing. I don't want them to call me up at two in the morning saying, 'I don't know who I am."

(Boston Phoenix – August 2003)


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