A brilliant, often controversial cinematographer shares his considerable expertise with student filmmakers of the A.F.I.
As perhaps the most important aspect of education for the Fellows in training as film-makers, historians and critics at its Center for Advanced Film Studies, located in Beverly Hills, California, the American Film Institute sponsors conferences and seminars with top technicians and talent of the Hollywood film industry. These men and women, outstanding professionals in their respective arts and crafts of the Cinema, donate generously of their time and expertise in order to pass on to the potential cinema professionals of tomorrow the benefits of their vast and valuable experience.
In keeping with this tradition, Cameraman's Local 659 (IATSE) sponsors a continuing series of seminars with ace cinematographers. These men -both contemporary working Directors of Photography and some of the now-retired "greats" of the past-meet informally with the Fellows at Greystone, the magnificent estate which is the headquarters of the A.F.I. (West), to present valuable information on cinematographic techniques and answer questions posed to them. Very efficiently introducing and moderating each of the individual seminars is "Emmy" Award-winning Director of Photography Howard Schwartz, ASC.
The dialogue which follows has been excerpted from the A.F.I, seminar featuring famed cinematographer Gordon Willis, ASC, whose credits include: "KLUTE", "PARALLAX VIEW", "UP THE SANDBOX", "THE PAPER CHASE", "THE GODFATHER", "THE GODFATHER: PART II", "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN", "ANNIE HALL" and Woody Alien's latest production, "INTERIORS".
A highly intelligent and articulate artist with impeccable technical credentials, the frequently controversial Willis is considered by some within the motion picture industry to be a kind of maverick, because he does not hesitate to break the "rules" of cinematography in order to gain the effect he considers correct for the project at hand. Some of his refreshingly off-beat views are expressed in the following dialogue, which was preceded by a screening of "THE GODFATHER: PART II", on which he functioned as Director of Photography:
HOWARD SCHWARTZ: You all know that Gordon Willis has done a lot to change attitudes toward cinematography-in terms of what is acceptable and what is good. It's a whole different game that he introduced. I think it started with his work on "KLUTE". He stayed away from lighting from the floor, he lit from up high, he had eye shadows that were natural to the situation-and that was a very daring thing to do at that time. You've just seen his work in "THE GODFATHER, PART II". For the first "GODFATHER" film he didn't have any light on the walls. This time he didn't have any light on the walls or the people.
GORDON WILLIS: Right, (laughter) You shoot fast working that way.
SCHWARTZ: Can you tell us a little about your professional background?
WILLIS: Well, I was an assistant cameraman, and I was an operator for a while, and then I finally got into features as a cinematographer. But along the way I shot commercials, industrials, documentaries-that kind of thing.
SCHWARTZ: How long did it take you to shoot "GODFATHER II"?
WILLIS: Ten months. Actually, there's quite a difference between the two "GODFATHER" movies. If you look at PART I, you'll see that most of the movie takes place in little rooms. But in PART II we were all over the place. We went from Lake Tahoe down to Los Angeles, to the Dominican Republic, to New York, to Trieste, and then to Sicily. I think I left one place out, but that's all that I can remember.
SCHWARTZ: What was shot in Trieste?
WILLIS: The opening of the movie-the interiors of Ellis Island. There was a big fish market where we did the immigration scenes and it was very much like EIHs Island in the past. And the people that we used there we could not have gotten in America. Then the shot of the Statue of Liberty I made in New York harbor about a year later. (I was the last living person on that picture to make a shot.) So the opening is really cut up between New York, Trieste and Rome. There's a little interior shot of the boy inside a room. We did that in Rome.
SCHWARTZ: The Ellis Island sequence is interesting in that it's the only interior sequence I've seen you do that had the feeling of being overlit-which was done on purpose, naturally -in order to get a bleached-out feeling. How did you handle that?
WILLIS: All of the material for the opening Ellis Island sequence was shot at 7/2.8, and all of it was one stop overexposed. That's an over-simplification, but on a mechanical level, that's what it was. The rest of the material was not shot overexposed. It was what I call "on key".
SCHWARTZ: Did you shoot at ASA 200 or 400?
WILLIS: I shot more or less with the normal ASA rating. The contemporary material was a half-stop underexposed-which was normal for the contemporary-but I worked very high on the period material.
SCHWARTZ: And how many nights did you spend at the lab getting that color into it?
WILLIS: Well, unfortunately, "GODFATHER, PART I" took eight weeks to print, but we printed "PART II" in ten days. Francis Coppola kept making changes. He kept recutting. This was the last I-B printing to be done in the United States, with dye-transfer work at Technicolor. But every time you make a cut in an I-B roll you have to redo the matrices. That's 2,000 feet. So every time he'd make a change they'd have to make new matrices, and he kept cutting right up to the very last minute. I finally got him on the phone and said: "Are you going to make any more cuts? This is impossible. We can't get it together." He finally finished, and that gave us a week before the film went into release. So we did the best we could, but I was getting tired of shooting during the day and spending the evenings at Technicolor.
QUESTION: You say that the prints were made by the I-B process. Does that mean that you used separations for all your timing?
WILLIS: Well, to give it to you from the very beginning, I'm a one-light cameraman. I pick a light and a color ratio for the movie, and then ask for one printer at the laboratory. The lab just has to do the same thing every day. They don't change anything, although I change things back and forth. Now, from those dailies-after everything has been cut-they make separations (which are the matrices) and then finally the print.
QUESTION: Was that how, in the party sequence at Lake Tahoe, you were able to let it go a bit yellowish, while the water stayed blue?
WILLIS: No. All of that was based primarily on the filter pack-the ratio that was used. It was just an overtone of yellow, which I used on "PART I", as well-but if you have a second chance to do something, you try to improve on it. I feel that I made improvements in "PART II". Also, it was a very sophisticated movie. They jump ahead 15 years in the story, and then jump back to before the first story-so that really, if we'd had the time in the laboratory, there would have been three different tones in the movie. We almost got it, but we ran out of time, as I've explained. I make it as simple for the laboratory as possible, so that they can do everything without a lot of changes. The hardest thing to get a lab to do is to leave what you've been doing alone. I mean-they feel that they must time the movie, whereas I've already timed it from the start. But matrices are very complicated. They're too expensive to use anymore. They may be used in a couple of foreign countries, but no more in the United States.
QUESTION: Then that's why Technicolor Plant Four closed?
WILLIS: Yes. They kept it open for us. There was a lot of hysteria, because they'd already had so many advances of money, and where was the movie? They said, 'We’ve got to get this out; we're closing down the plant." And I won't tell you what I said, because you can't print it. But I got Francis on the phone, and we kept the plant open, and got more of the materials needed for printing out of Eastman and finished off the initial run-which in itself was an accomplishment. That's the reason I can't look at it anymore. There are a lot of things in it that aren't right, but rather than be reminded of it, I have to close it out of my mind.
QUESTION: How many prints were made?
WILLIS: Well, I went home and got drunk after I heard that they were ready to punch out a thousand prints of a halftimed movie. That's when I started screaming and yelling and all that, but it all calmed down. The next crisis came during the exhibition. I'm sure you've all heard that when they put movies in the theaters, they'll just arbitrarily drop out a reel in the middle of the show, so that they can sell more popcorn or get an extra showing in. Evidently they'd been dropping a double reel out of this show here and there. The movie's complicated enough without dropping 20 minutes out of it.
QUESTION: If you were to reshoot "THE GODFATHER: PART II" would you go for those low lighting levels again-to the same degree, I mean?
WILLIS: Probably. There's a philosophy to it-a kind of Greek tragedy thing. I surrounded Pacino with all that because of what the character was and the environment was. I made it even darker than the first movie for that reason. In my opinion, it worked. The only time it doesn't work is when you run it in a theater with below-standard projection. In order to be at a standard for viewing film, a theater screen and projector must produce 16 foot-lamberts. I mean, that's it. And if it's not, you're not going to see what you're supposed to see.
QUESTION: You said that you shot most of the footage a half-stop underexposed. Do you get any problems from having such a thin negative you know, like negative scratching?
WILLIS: Well, I've heard all the stories. I get them from laboratories and producers and all that. But I don't really have any problem. There's a translucent quality to exposing at that level-which I kind of like. There's a great deal of latitude in the Eastman color negative. A lot-an incredible amount. But you have to know where it is you're going to put it.
SCHWARTZ: In regard to your question about scratches on a thin negative, I'd like to say that you underexpose day-for-night two stops and you don't have a scratch problem, so that's not a consideration.
WILLIS: Your biggest problem in anything you do-and I don't mean this to be a negative remark-is keeping control at the laboratory level.
QUESTION: Do you underexpose just to keep from getting detail in the shadows and then print up for the release print? Because I would think it would make your flesh tones go too dark.
WILLIS: No. As I said, I pick a printing light for the movie and I work to that light. I don't print up or down. The dailies looked about like what you saw in this release print. What I mean is that if you A and B'd the dailies with this print, you'd see that they were just about the same.
QUESTION: This is meant as a compliment, but was there any effects photography in the picture -front projection, rear projection, blue screen?
WILLIS: There was a quick shot of De Niro on a train in which we used rear projection.
QUESTION: In those flashback sequences to an early period on a New York street, was that a painting in the background?
WILLIS: No. That was the real thing-three blocks of an awful place in New York, the Lower East Side. But it's the only place left that looks like that. It was pretty dreadful.
QUESTION: About your lighting of certain closeups-there were several times when the lighting was so low key that the actor was just silhouetted. You couldn't see his face to see distinctly what he was feeling or anything. I was wondering what you felt about that.
WILLIS: I'll answer that in a general way, because I'm not a great believer that you have to see an actor all the time on the screen. I believe that the scene has to be played properly, but sometimes it's better not to see what is going on until a given point in the scene. Then you see something.
QUESTION: Were these things discussed with the director-such as when you wanted to see a face or when you didn't want to? Did you arrive at an understanding about that somewhere along the line?
WILLIS: Well, I'd worked with Francis on "THE GODFATHER: PART I"-which was a hair-raising experience-and we had done a lot of fighting on that one. But on "PART II" we didn't. We had a good relationship and we had a lot of fun. What happens is that you get to know about each other and you tend not to discuss as much as you would, say, with a director who is new to you. Such a director is having a nervous breakdown until the first week of dailies, and you're worrying about whether he likes this or that. But when you work with a director for the second time, it minimizes the discussion. He knows what he's buying. In my case, he knows that if I'm going to shoot his movie, he can almost predict how certain things are going to look.
QUESTION: How much did you guys talk about concept on "GODFATHER ONE"?
WILLIS: On the first one we were too busy fighting with Paramount to discuss anything. It was like staying on your feet 24 hours a day. But conceptual discussions were long on "PART II" and very interesting. I'm very proud of the movie. It may fail on certain levels, but it's an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, if you look at it carefully.
QUESTION: I'd like to ask about the festa sequence-that parade through the streets of New York. Was that a real festa or was it done for the movie-and did you have to light the whole street?
WILLIS: The festa was staged specially for the movie. As for "lighting" the street, I'm a bit tongue-tied about that because it was such a nightmare. It's things like that which sometimes make me want to become a still photographer-because you don't have to cut anything together. A still photographer doesn't have to match light from scene to scene. We started the festa sequence in overcast-and I might say here that I think the only thing that Francis and I didn't really agree on was the use of soft-light. He didn't like it, but I like it for period work because I think it tends to look more like period lighting. Anyway, trying to shoot that entire festa sequence in overcast turned out to be a horrendous experience. It took weeks, because we kept cutting it up from day to day. The sun would come out and we wouldn 't be able to shoot. I had tarps strung for two blocks (because it was an east-west street, which was swell), but there were windows built all the way along one side, above the period work which had been done. When the sun would hit them, the reflections would come down and hit the street.
QUESTION: The sequence looked very moody. Did you use any smoke or fog filters?
WILLIS: I used a low contrast filter for all of the period work, which is touchy, because I feel it's like relying on fog filters. A lot of people's answer to period work is: "Well, I'll drop in a fog filter" But that's bull, because it doesn't do anything. It's basically the photography that has to carry it. Just dropping something in front of the lens won't do it. As for smoke, there was one point in the sequence where the fireworks were throwing a lot of smoke around.
QUESTION: Apart from low contrast and 85 filters, did you use any other diffusion or color filters?
WILLIS: Nothing-except for the required neutral density filters, which meant that the operator couldn't see half the time. You see, all the period work was shot at T/2.8 and it was all forced developed, exterior and interior. I don't have to tell you how horrendous the neutral densities were that I had to drop in, because not only was I shooting at T/2.8, but I was forcing it. That meant that there were a lot of N. D. filters that the operator had to look through.
QUESTION: Why did you choose to shoot at T/2.8 for daytime exteriors?
WILLIS: Well, lenses change qualities as you stop down, so I just chose that stop for the entire sequence, in order to maintain a consistent feeling.
QUESTION: I'm curious about the yellowish-reddish color cast you had in one scene. It was a period scene in an olive oil office and you were shooting from the back of the office toward the window. Did you intend for it to be that warm?
WILLIS: Yes, I know what you're getting at, but let me tell you what happened there. I never could straighten it out. As you know, one of the things you have to watch out for when you're shooting a movie is to maintain lighting continuity, so that the scenes within a sequence will cut together smoothly in the visual sense. There was a lamp in that room over his desk and it was prominent in the master shot, but the master shot was cut out of the movie, so you never saw the lamp. In the closer shots, I had put a color cast on De Niro's face because of the lamp. So I made a mistake; that's what it amounted to. I should have either placed the lamp so that it was always in, or cut it out completely.
QUESTION: In that scene, the exterior showing in the background went a bit blue. Was that because you used no 85 filter?
WILLIS: No. There was an 85 on the camera. How you light an interior exterior scene depends upon the circumstances. Sometimes you shoot tungsten inside and sometimes you light for a daylight balance, depending upon what is more convenient to work with at that moment. In this case, the lights used inside were of a lower Kelvin. That's all that made the interior warmer.
SCHWARTZ: I wanted to ask you what type of units you used with blues on them inside that gave you so much control over them. You must have used pretty good sized units: You didn't use soft-lights, did you?
WILLIS: No. When I did this movie, I'd finally refined a system which I'd been using for several years. What it involves is either daylight photo-floods, five to a diffuser-or it might be FAY lights bounced off. (I'm using that less and less now because it's so cumbersome.) So I take daylight photo-floods and fire them through a diffuser which is in the ceiling. But then I'll take quarter booster blues, which are available from Rosco, and I'll just keep adding them. A daylight photo-flood reads 4800 Kelvin anyway, so it's red to begin with. I either add blue or subtract blue, depending upon what it's supposed to look like,
QUESTION: The period interior sequences in New York were very, very brown and there was no blue in the scenes at all. Did you influence the art direction in order to get that effect?
WILLIS: Yes. I don't like blue in movies, especially period movies. I don't even like it in contemporary movies. I think it's a vulgar color on the screen. I don't hate it. I wear it, but I mean that on the screen I don't like it. I think it overwhelms actors and overwhelms the screen.
QUESTION: You used a lot of blue in "PARALLAX VIEW", if I'm correct.
WILLIS: There was a lot of blue in the light on that picture. Those were mercury vapor lamps. But that, again, was a total treatment in a room, as opposed to someone walking around in a blue jacket.
QUESTION: What kind of lighting units do you use outside?
WILLIS: Sometimes I use absolutely nothing, but on "PART II" I used probably more exterior light than I have in the past, because of the period element. I needed a lot of control in order to make it work. So I used arcs in Sicily. I used arcs at Lake Tahoe-for two reasons. First of all, it's very expensive to shoot there. Secondly, if you've ever been to Tahoe, you'll understand why the Donner Party got trapped there and all of them ate each other. The weather there is horrendous. In about 20 seconds you'll have a snowstorm, and in another 20 seconds the grass will be growing. It became a horrendous experience trying to paste exteriors together there. In a case like that, it pays to have lights that can help you out, because you can't make sunlight. The producer was always coming up to me and asking, "What are we waiting for?" I said, "I'm waiting for you to ask me what we're waiting for." He said, "Well, why can't we shoot?" I said, "Because we have 15 minutes on continuity in the sun, and now it's raining. We can't do anything else." But, in general, I used a lot of light primarily for the look.
QUESTION: That snow sequence at Tahoe, where Michael's inside a room talking to Fredo-was the snow an accident?
WILLIS: The snow was actually an accident. A couple of days before that we were photographing the party sequence outside, with the band and the whole thing, and then it snowed. So we took advantage of that particular snowfall for the scene in the sun parlor. That night the roof collapsed because there was so much snow. It's wonderful up there. I can hardly wait to go back.
SCHWARTZ: You told me you love snow.
WILLIS: I do, as long as it's not in the movies I'm working on.
QUESTION: For shooting that period stuff in New York, did you use old lenses-old Cookes, old Baltars?
WILLIS: I used Baltars for both movies. I used the same camera and the same lenses on the second one as I did on the first one-mainly because I'm hopelessly romantic and I thought it would be a nice idea to do that.
QUESTION: I was curious about why you picked the interior-exterior balance that you frequently did. You would let the interior foreground go dark, but what could be seen out a window would be hotter than normal, and bluer, too. Was that concept a matter of your personal taste?
WILLIS: That concept applied to this movie, as far as Lake Tahoe and the boathouse were concerned. As for it being bluer, again that was because the Kelvin of the interior light was lower than the Kelvin of the exterior light.
QUESTION: But I'm sure you had the facility and resources to say, "Put more neutral densities on the windows." Why did you elect not to?
WILLIS: I always elect not to do something that is going to be more complicated than is necessary. As it was, there were $20,000 of neutral densities that were cut for that boathouse. But whenever anybody elects to look out windows in a movie, the price goes up. I mean on location. I use about a three-stop balance between interior and exterior, because at three stops you can still see people. Now, if you want to see more detail, then you've got to start throwing stuff on the windows and bringing up the interior light level and all that kind of thing.
QUESTION: So your choice was based upon time and money, rather than on what you wanted the result to be?
WILLIS: No. It was a combination of both. Had it been time and money, I wouldn't have gotten $20,000 worth of neutral densities to put all over the windows. There's much more of the action that took place in that boathouse that's been out out of the movie. So there was a large investment made to shoot scenes in that room that you'll never see. But it was an aesthetic choice to make it look the way it does. My choices are always aesthetic, but after you've made that choice, then you have to decide how you're going to spend money-what's best, what's fastest. You know there's a limit-although there didn't seem to be a limit on that movie, now that I think of it.
QUESTION: How much footage did you shoot on "PART II"?
WILLIS: I don't really know. The assistants were laughing about it in Sicily. I seem to remember a figure of about 900,000 feet, but. . .
SCHWARTZ: You were Eastman's biggest customer.
WILLIS: Yes. I mean they loved us at Eastman and Technicolor.
QUESTION: Does anybody know?
WILLIS: Yes, the editors know the total. By the time it reached those proportions, I was very interested in holding my head together to finish the movie at the right level in Sicily-because if you've ever traveled in Rome and into Sicily, that alone is enough to put you away.
QUESTION: Whose place was that where you shot in Tahoe?
WILLIS: It was the old Henry J. Kaiser estate. It was wrecked when we found it, you know. It was coming apart. So the art department went in with a quick half-million dollars and fixed it all up. They fixed some of the inside and some of the outside. They put in a lot of grass-you can't put in a fake lawn, after all-and it was quite beautiful. In fact, Francis was living there. He moved his family in. There were a lot of spaghetti dinners and we had a lot of fun.
QUESTION: Do you use a color temperature meter?
WILLIS: I've never used a color temperature meter. I'm not a Kelvin freak. I know what the standards are and I like to bend them to this or that. So I do it all by eye.
QUESTION: But you were talking about photo-flood bulbs and throwing in blues and all that. Would you use a color temperature meter then?
WILLIS: I do it by eye-always by eye.
QUESTION: How would you light an actual interior in which you were going to shoot a lot of day action, as well as a lot of night action?
WILLIS: I would rig the room so that I could work both tungsten and daylight-balance lights. And the best way to do that, I've found, is to have an interchange system, so that all I have to do is change bulbs. This eliminates constantly having to relight the same situation.
SCHWARTZ: I happened to visit with you that day you were shooting in Corcoran and you had a very interesting rig there. The room was about five times as big as this one and you had 10Ks popping down through the diffusor on the top, so that the people in the background were all lit. You just had to light the foreground where the principals were talking.
WILLIS: Yes. There's a big advantage to using overhead diffusion, once you know how to use it. It's not indiscriminate. It's very discriminate. But it takes care of things very nicely.
QUESTION: Is there any problem in fighting mike shadows from overhead lights?
WILLIS: Not if it's done properly. The sound people probably have less problems with me than they have with anybody. But they have to watch it, because if I'm working on the edge and they get the mike in the wrong way, they won't see a shadow, but they'll be chopping a certain percentage of the exposure off. So they have to keep moving the mike around to find their spots.
QUESTION: Do you ever put white paper or card on the floor to reflect up?
WILLIS: Yes. I do it whenever necessary.
QUESTION: I'd like to ask about the film "PARALLAX VIEW". That convention center at the end-the whole place from the catwalk to below had a tremendously even light source, and I was wondering . . .
WILLIS: Well, I didn't light that. I used the source lighting that was there. The first thing I ask myself when I walk into a place of that kind, or of any kind, is: "What does it look like with the lights on that are there?" That place happened to be loaded with mercury vapor lamps. And I thought, "Goody-goody!" Because if I'd actually had to light that place, I'd have gone bananas.
QUESTION: How do you filter for mercury vapor-and what kind of cast would you get if you shot it unfiltered?
WILLIS: In that case the light was unfiltered, because I like that kind of blue quality. But I mix light a lot-like fluorescents and tungstens. I just put a 2C filter in for the fluorescents and it shaves just a little bit of the ultraviolet, the awful part of that bluish cast. In other cases, we just change the fluorescents. I put daylight fluorescents in so that I won't have to fool with them. Fluorescents are very versatile.
QUESTION: Are there any fluorescents that are about 3200 Kelvin?
WILLIS: Yes, but you can't get any light out of them. Nothing happens.
QUESTION: You said before that you had a lot of preliminary discussions with the director about concepts. What decisions did the two of you have to make?
WILLIS: By the way, that goes on with me in regard to any movie I shoot. Because I really don't believe that you can just photograph a movie; you have to decide what it's supposed to look like before you can make a decision on how to light it. In this case we had to decide how to handle the earlier period material, as opposed to the later period material. Structure is very important. We had to decide such things as: how we should structure it, how we should frame it, how we should handle it so that there is definition between the various periods of the story. There's a lot of tableau photography in this movie, especially in the period work; 90 percent of it is tableau.
QUESTION: What do you mean by that?
WILLIS: Well, tableau or proscenium kind of shooting. Tableau is where a scene will play within a frame without making a cut. But it's also a more formalized way of framing a shot-so that it has, in my opinion, a better period feeling than a three-quarter long shot from the corner, which tends to lack definition.
QUESTION: I believe you said that during your training period you did TV commercials for a while. What, if any, influence did that have on your style?
WILLIS: It had no influence. But it was very good for me as a learning experience, because during the period when I was working in commercials, they were very sophisticated and expensive. Not that that's the key to anything, but the point is that I had the opportunity to learn a great deal and file it away in my head. I used more technical reference than aesthetic reference; at least, I did in that period.
RESPONSE: The reason I asked is that there seems to be a little schipol of people these days who are coming out of TV commercials and getting into whatever else. Their styles seem to be similar.
WILLIS: I had an advantage over them. Most of the people who learn the business in television commercials and then move on to features are at a disadvantage. Because you can talk to a lot of people who shoot commercials, and they'll say, "Gee, if I can only get to shoot a feature. I'm going to direct a feature. I'm going to photograph a feature. I'm going to . . ." Well, that's swell-only the problem is that when they have their first confrontation with something that runs an hour-and-a-half, they suddenly realize that they have a problem. They have to tell a story and tell it well. Fortunately, I grew up in the motion picture business, so I learned about feature movies before I went into commercials. I learned a lot mechanically in commercials, but as far as structure and story were concerned, I learned that before I went to commercials.
What follows is the concluding segment of a seminar sponsored by the American Film Institute (West) for Fellows of its Center for Advanced Film Studies.
The seminar, moderated by Howard Schwartz, ASC, featured cinematographer Gordon Willis, ASC, and was preceded by a screening of "THE GODFATHER: PART II", on which he functioned as Director of Photography.
QUESTION: Do you have any opinions as to whether you're more effective with limitations or freedom?
WILLIS: That's a good question. I have friends who are actors and some of them become confused in making movies because they're undisciplined. In my opinion, you have a lot of freedom in the movies if you work within the limitations; then you're free. But I think that you do work better with a certain amount of limitation. There are some things you can't do if you're too limited, but the essence of good movie-making is discipline. There is nothing more horrifying than an undisciplined filmmaker. Things don't just happen; you've got to make them happen. So, yes, I would say that you do function better in a limited environment, because you're going to use a lot more skill and a lot more brain power to make it happen. In fact, I've probably done some of my best work photographically in a bad situation. I wouldn't want to shoot my way out of it again, or even get involved in it, but you learn a lot. If you have everything at your disposal, it can get raunchy. Like having too much time to rehearse, or having too much of this, or too much of that. You've got to face up to the fact that eventually you've got to shoot, and this is it. What I said about actors-any good actor who works in movies for any length of time realizes that he's going to get the best of himself or herself on the screen by working within the structure of the frame. He can act in the corner, and he can act between his legs, and he can act anywhere, but if he's not acting relative to what you're all there for-which is the camera-he's wasting his time. Good motion picture actors understand that limitation and know how to act within it, as do directors and cameramen. You learn to work within limitations. You are limited. It's true.
QUESTION: Do actors ask you what the framing is so that they'll know the limitations?
WILLIS: Yes. They want to know where they are in respect to the frame. Brando was very heavy with that, because he would never destroy himself in a performance if you were a mile-and-a-half away. At that distance, it's a physical performance, a body thing, not an acting thing. So he saves himself until he gets to the closeups, It's the same with any good acting in the movies, and good directors don't bum actors out in long shots. Acting in a long shot is a purely physical thing. You get it out of the way and then continue on to something else.
QUESTION: You mentioned the fact that as you and Francis Coppola worked more together, you communicated better and the need for dialogue between the two of you became less and less. What about your communication with the people on your crew? Do you keep the same operator, the same gaffer?
WILLIS: I've used several operators. I had one operator who did six pictures with me and then it was time for him to go on and start shooting his own pictures. So the answer to your question is, yes, I like to keep the same people, especially gaffers and grips. Grips take a terrible beating on shows that I shoot, much more so than electricians, because they have a lot more to do. But I do like to keep the same people, for the reason that I don't have to say as much to them. They already know. I'm exhausted at the end of a movie. I mean, it's a campaign for me, even though I enjoy it. Mostly my head is always going on a concept level, not simply a photographic level. As I said, photography comes out of a concept. If I get hung up on a sef, It's because the concept is no good. There's no direction. We don't know which way we're going.
QUESTION: Speaking of concept in terms of photography, I noticed in "PARALLAX VIEW" that the photography really seemed to change when Warren Beatty became involved with the Parallax Corporation. The shots seemed to change compositionally; they took on a different look. Was that something that was planned, or did it come out of the locations?
WILLIS: For the most part, such things are planned. It's like picking focal lengths to shoot with. There are a lot of machine-gun shooters in the business right now, which is a shame. They just arbitrarily cut closeups with a zoom lens. For example, let's suppose I shoot a closeup of an actor at 150mm. Then I turn around to shoot the matching closeup of another actor, only to find that, because of the physical limits of the location, I can't get far enough away to shoot him at 150mm. I end up shooting his closeup at 50mm-and you're forced to that occasionally-but I'll do anything to avoid it, because when you cut those two closeups together the backgrounds won't match, the perspectives won't match, and the feeling won't be the same.
QUESTION: Do you have a more difficult time working with directors because you do have very strong opinions, rather than simply saying, "I'm going to photograph the film."? Does that make it kind of harder in a way?
WILLIS: I never have a difficult time working with directors. You always try to look for people that you know you can get along with. It's like choosing the girl you marry. There are some directors who wouldn't touch me with a ten-foot pole. But there are others that I work with and have a wonderful time with. Directors have a difficult time shooting a movie. It's a horrendous experience. They're getting beaten to death by the company; they're getting beaten to death by actors who don't want to cooperate; they're getting beaten to death by everyone. The mere fact that a director stays on his feet for eight or ten weeks, or sometimes many months, is a miracle. So I'm a director's cameraman. I would not take a job via a producer, because I feel that when you make a movie, you've got to have a united front. Aesthetically, physically, you're taking on a whole group of people. I don't get along with all directors, but that's a personality thing that everybody has to cope with.
QUESTION: Speaking of that, would you like to get into directing?
WILLIS: Not really. I'm actually better as an improver; that's what I am. I'm better at working out concepts with directors. With me a director can feel very secure if he has an idea about a movie, because when he's tired, I haven't forgotten the idea. And when I'm tired, I expect the same thing from him.
QUESTION: In that same direction, could you talk a little more about what you expect from a director?
WILLIS: I have to know from him what it is we're doing with the movie-what is the basis of the movie. This comes out of philosophical discussions and it's the most important part, in my opinion. I never walk into a room and ask him, "How do you want me to light this room?" You can light it 50 different ways, depending on what it is you have to accomplish. So what's important to me, that has to come from the director, is: "What is the movie about? What is it you want to say, and how do you feel like saying it?" Then it boils down to: "How do we handle these things?" After that, you go out and start doing it and that goes on from day to day. But once you have the philosophy of the movie set, you're no longer vulnerable. Your working decisions can be made from day to day, minute to minute, because you know what it is you're trying to do, or what you're trying to say. Sometimes the script's being turned upside-down and nobody is really sure what it is they're trying to do-what the scene's about, what the picture's about. But it's very easy to set a camera when you know what it is you're trying to do. It goes all the way from the philosophy to where you're standing at the finder and you've got to put down the shot. But it's based on the philosophy.
QUESTION: Do you think such discussions help to avoid the question of whoJs picking the set-up?
WILLIS: Yes, because you're working together. Some directors like to lay out shots. Other directors give you the shot. It depends on who you're working with.
QUESTION: In reference to that, could you explain how you worked with Coppola in blocking out each shot for "GODFATHER II"?
WILLIS: Well, it was much easier the second time, because we had become nicer to each other. But, especially at the beginning of shooting, Francis would spend a great deal of time laying out the way he wanted sequences to play. And he had very definite ideas about how they should be structured. So you'd end up with ten cuts in a sequence that you'd know about in advance. He'd lay them out and we'd go over them together. When things are thought out that well, they go much more smoothly.
SCHWARTZ: It's great that Coppola could give you ten cuts from the beginning of a sequence. It's beautiful when a director can do that, because then you can plan your lighting so that you don't trap yourself. That's the problem with directors who can only tell you about one shot at a time. You establish lighting, and now what do you do on the next cut? It's in the way and you've really got problems. Now you've got to hang lights from trapezes and do all sorts of other things to match your breaks. It's a luxury when a director can give you ten shots in advance.
WILLIS: If he gives you the set-up and tells you what he's going to do, it's terrific.
QUESTION: When he blocks things out for the set-up, does he include camera moves at specific points? In other words, does he do that or do you do it?
WILLIS: Sometimes it's him, sometimes it's me, sometimes we work it out together. It all depends.
QUESTION: But he has a strong idea to begin with?
WILLIS: Oh, sure. Sometimes you don't have any strong ideas. I mean, you have the philosophy, but you have to sort of develop the structure as you go along. You can tell when a director's having problems. He stays too long in the corner with the coffee. If he gives you ten shots as I said, and you get through two of them, and then he's too long in the corner with the coffee, you realize you're about to make another five cuts, or maybe you're adding one, because it's not working. If a director's a good cutter, he can see it coming-which is great, because I hate to see it coming at the end of the day when there's no way to solve it, generally, except to start over.
QUESTION: When a director lays out the ten shots for you, I take it that those are specific shots and it's not sort of "Okay, let's cover the scene."
WILLIS: It ranges from specific shots to "Let's cover the scene." But if you know a director well, you know what he means when he says, "This is what I'm going to do here: I get a shot of him, I get a shot of her, and I get a shot of the cat." He doesn't have to draw a picture beyond that, because you know the story and you know it has to be done in a given way.
QUESTION: But when Jim Bridges was here, he talked about the fact that no matter where you put the camera, or what the shot was going to be, he would actually run the scene all the way through for the actors. It seems to me that in doing that, you're never really sure how you're going to cut the scene together.
WILLIS: You're talking about "THE PAPER CHASE"-which is a good movie, in my opinion. It's a simple movie, and I liked it. But what Jimmy was actually saying, I think, was that for the actor's benefit, for the sake of the performance, he was letting it go all the way through. Some actors need that, some don't. You may only be doing a closeup of one actor, and he may have only one or two lines, but you're playing the whole thing to get him up to where he's supposed to be.
QUESTION: Did I understand you to say that you took stills before "GOD-FATHER ONE" started in order to get your color right?
WILLIS: No, no. The very most I do is run a test for the laboratory just before I shoot simply to get the printing light. I don't do anything else.
QUESTION: But did you show this to Francis? Did he know what he was getting?
WILLIS: No, because on "GODFATHER ONE" he was having a lot of problems. He really didn't have time for that. I was very happy that the movie developed into what it did, because it was very difficult to shoot. It was hard for him because he was under attack.
QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about the rhythm that takes place on a set when you're shooting that has to do with camera rehearsals, the time you need to light, and when you light, if it all unfolds ideally?
WILLIS: Well, the director gets the set, works out his problems with the actors, and stages the material the way he 'd like to have it run. There are directors who push actors around within a given frame during rehearsal, but for the most part you'll find them working it out with the actors so that the scene falls into place and plays well in the room from the point of view that he wants to photograph it. Once that's done, and the actors are comfortable, then you come in and set up a finder, and you start cutting it up as to how he'd like to cover it. Then the actors go away, the stand-ins come in, and you light. That's the right way to do it. Now, a lot of times a director will say, "They're going to be over here in a corner and he's going to be reading a book. " Well, that goes over like a lead balloon with me, because they'll go away and rehearse and change the blocking, and the result is that he's not in a corner reading a book anymore; he's over at the refrigerator. So what you've done is a lot of lighting for a set-up that is irrelevant. It's best that they work out all the problems in blocking on the set, because you're not saving any time by doing it twice. So rehearse, block, go away and rehearse on a verbal level, then come back and we're ready-we shoot. It goes much faster that way.
QUESTION: Could you tell us a little more about how you control diffused light?
WILLIS: I used to bounce light, and I'll still do that for quickie shots. But what I do now-and I've got it down to a fairly good system-is just use 4x4 diffusers. There are two of them, actually. One's the frame and the other's the frame with the diffuser on it. We have various methods of using them in a room. Usually the grips will put them right into the ceiling. The second diffuser, which is hanging from that particular frame, is 14 to 20 inches from the bulbs, which are in the first frame. All four sides of that are black fabric, which is rolled up. Now, let's say, for one in the middle of the room, you'd just chop the walls by letting the fabric down. Of course, the higher it is, the less you have to fool with it because of actors walking under it. But when you have actors who are getting too much light in a certain position, you can just slip nets under the top of it.
QUESTION: Are the bulbs pointed directly down?
WILLIS: No. Usually you have them going sideways.
QUESTION : When you speak of a 4 x 4 diffuser, is that a standard lighting fixture?
WILLIS: No. It's one that I made. I made up a whole series of the frames. I used to use silk in them a long time ago, but it's not as effective. It's also too expensive and you can't get it anymore. So, like the rest of the world, I've gone to plastic-which is cheaper. I use a material that I had Rosco make. I call it "shower curtain". It comes in two densities. They came in and showed me the full density, which was very thick. I said, "That's great. Make some half that thick." So they made two densities, and it's terrific stuff.
QUESTION: When you have an idea for something like the "shower curtain" or a special kind of frame or a light that's named after you, do you go to a company that you like and say, "I'd like you to make this."? Do they give you a free supply for the rest of your life-or how does it work?
WILLIS: I've never gotten a free supply of anything-and I don't want it. But, no, you sort of cooperate with each other, so to speak, in the business-because you're doing them a service and, in return, they're doing you a service by manufacturing the idea. So just making it available is a service. The hard part is to get somebody to do something new.
QUESTION: Then, does that become your invention, or is it just a contribution that you've made to the industry?
WILLIS: You owe it-I think you owe it. This business has been very good to me. The people in it have been very good to me. I think you owe it to the business to teach people whatever it is that you know-if it's worth anything-and to contribute whatever makes it easier. Movies are very expensive, so whatever you can do to move things along or make production more efficient is worthwhile. I mean, there are many camera manufacturers around who are using ideas that I gave them, but those ideas help other people because they make for a more efficient, more systematic way to work. So, to go in and say, "I've got an idea," but then stick them up is a total waste of time. You get nothing out of it.
SCHWARTZ: This is the only major industry that doesn't have a facility for conducting research on a regular basis. The research comes from guys like Ed Di Giulio, who's in the business of manufacturing cameras. He gets his ideas from Gordon and other cameramen and this is how progress is made. But it's not through the studios having any kind of research organization.
WILLIS: There's more old junky equipment sitting on studio lots than you can imagine. When you do a studio picture, they're always trying to get you to use their junk that has been sitting there since 1908. It's ridiculous. It's all pig iron; it weighs a ton; and it's unusable, really-at least for me. It's not contemporary material and I can't work with it. They ought to take it out to sea and dump it.
QUESTION: I understand that you did not have a detailed shooting script for "GODFATHER TWO"-a script that spelled out every shot in detail, that is.
WILLIS: No, we didn't. In fact, I hate scripts that say, "You move into that and you cut here. " Because, first of all, that makes it hard to read and, secondly, nobody cares. The fact is that the director is going to take it and shoot it the way he wants it anyway. So, no-there's only things like: "Cut to interior, day. "
QUESTION: And you don't feel that takes any longer than if it was spelled out?
WILLIS: No. Sometimes you get directors who are writers, but otherwise it's very difficult to predetermine the shot. You can predetermine a concept when you're writing, but a shot you can't. Afld it clutters the script. In fact, by the WfTJe1We film's cast and everybody's together, the whole thing is changed anyway.
QUESTION: Do you think that Francis Coppola changed the concept of the film at all as it was being shot?
WILLIS: A little bit-because, as directors work, they see that certain things aren't working. That's working and this isn't. And so, they'll change. But, basically, no. The real changes came in the editing-a six-hour film cut to three hours.
SCHWARTZ: A lot of good work went down the drain.
WILLIS: I don't even want to think about it.
QUESTION: Does it bother you that a lot of your work will never be seen?
WILLIS: It bothers me. I'm not bothered on a personal level because it won't be seen. But I hate to shoot that way. You always have to shoot excessive material for a movie in order to give the director and the editor enough to work with-so that scenes play properly, and also because things you think are working when you do them don't work when you cut the whole thing together. But to shoot double-which is what we did-is horrible. None of us knew what was going to be in the movie. There were no throwaway shots. Everything was hard to do.
QUESTION: Do you think there's any way it could have been planned more economically-so that you could have shot less than double?
WILLIS: Well, as Francis said, if he'd had more time to write, then he could have cut it back.
QUESTION: But doesn't writing involve planning in his own mind what the shots will be?
WILLIS: Sure. But not the shots-the story content, what he has to say. I always told him he loved shooting 200 pages. That's a director's dream-200 pages. But, really, he just didn't have time to, you know, cut it back.
QUESTION: How do you go about reading scripts and making any kind of decision on them?
WILLIS: Badly. I'm what they call a two-time reader. When someone's good enough to send me a script, I'll read the first 12 pages and, if it's no good, I won't read the rest of it. Meaning that, after a while, you know whether there's any taste, any maturity in the idea. It's very quick. Then you read the end of it and, if it looks good, you read the whole thing. The reason that I read a script twice is that a lot of things I've shot I've hated when I first read them.
QUESTION: In preparation for shooting on a particular set, do you like to go in ahead and get it in your mind? Or would you kind of like to forget about it until you're lighting it?
WILLIS: No. I'll get it in my mind ahead of time, because that saves a lot of time. Especially if it's an important set, I like to think about it. I may not know then what the set-ups are going to be, but I'll know how to treat the room, so to speak, and that saves time.
QUESTION: I'm curious to know if you used any post-flashing throughout filming of "THE GODFATHER"?
WILLIS: I'm not a flasher. (Laughter). It works very well for some guys, and to each his own. The reason I'm not is that I don't believe in introducing anything more into a laboratory than delivering the film and letting them do what I told them to do. I say, "Just do the same thing every day and everything will be cool." Flashing means handling the film more and more, because they run it through a printer. You can get hung up on so much technology in shooting a movie that pretty soon you can't function, because you've got so much going on. The simpler the tool and the more effectively you use it, the better you can get things done. I don't believe in flashing. I know what it does-I've done it-but I would rather introduce things photographically that I can handle in the camera, whenever possible, because that simplifies it.
QUESTION: Working with your system of overhead lighting, do you still use Obie lights?
WILLIS: Yes, I use Obies. Howard was kidding me before about not putting any light on the actors, but it's true. They accuse me of not letting the audience see the actors' eyes. A lot of times in a scene I'll shut down on an actor's eyes; then, at a given point, you begin seeing his eyes. For that purpose I use Obie lights and I use open bulbs fixed to the front of the camera.
QUESTION: Do you use Foamcore the same way, to put a light in someone's eyes?
WILLIS: Yes, or a white card. There are actors who act to the floor. They come out of the Lee Strasberg school. It's good for theater-in-the-round; it's good for digging ditches; it's terrible for motion pictures. I got mad one day at Pacino and said, "Why don't we get a glass table and just put the camera under the table? All right?" I mean, there's a point where you can't lower the key light anymore. So yes, Foamcore 'or a white card works very well with overhead lighting.
QUESTION: Did Lee Strasberg in "GODFATHER II" act down at the floor?
WILLIS: Oh, Lee's terrific. He's a nice man. I don't think he believes half that stuff. He once believed it, I guess, but I think the actors do a lot of numbers on him. He was wonderful. He's right there.
QUESTION: Do you want to shoot a black and white picture?
WILLIS: Yes, I'd love to. I've shot a lot of black and white, but never on a feature. The problem with black and white is that it tends to make statements. Somebody says, "Well, we'll make it a black and white film." They don't just shoot the movie in black and white. Now it's become an important "statement" to shoot it that way; whereas, if they'd just go ahead and select it occasionally for a movie, I'd love it. I think black and white is great. It doesn't get in the way of the story. It's actually a more interpretive medium than color.
QUESTION: Do you still use any bounce light techniques?
WILLIS: Yes, I do. I did a movie with Barbra Streisand and bounced myself to death. (Laughter) The way I finally licked Bar bra's problem was to have practically all of her key lights coming off the walls. I would key a lot of times by just hanging something onto the wall.
QUESTION: What material do you use for bouncing-space blankets?
WILLlS: No, they're horrible. White sheets, white cards, white walls. I just have the ceilings painted white on location sets, and use that. It's less directional, very soft, and it works.
QUESTION: Did Barbra Streisand request that?
WILLIS: No. She's really wonderful, actually, in many ways, because she feels and knows that she looks good in certain ways. Most of the time she's right. So your advantage there is that she'll work with you. If you say, "Don't do that, do this," she'll do it, because it's to her advantage. She's interested. She likes to talk about lighting. She had a "left-side, right-side" kind of concept about herself. I said, "Are you going to go through this whole movie left-to-right, Barbra? Aren't you ever going to go right-to-left?" The truth of the matter is that she looks good from both sides, but she thinks she only looks good from one side. Well, if that's on her mind, that's on her mind, and you have to deal with it. I don't particularly like having to light actors for ego reasons. To me it gets in the way of the movie. You can't imagine how difficult it is to do, because you've got a concept for the look of the movie, and at the same time you're dealing with how a personality is supposed to look. It's tricky, because you've got to make the movie look like one thing, while making him or her look like another thing within it. But I managed to do it, actually, and it worked out pretty well. It didn't bother me.
QUESTION: When you bounce light off the white material, do you always use it on a flat surface? The reason I ask is because many still photographers use curved reflectors, umbrella lights and such-but Billy Putnam once said that using them generally was a mistake, because a parabolic reflector focuses the light.
WILLIS: He's right. When you take a light and flatten it out against a wall, it won't be as directional as umbrella light, but I like umbrellas sometimes. They're terrific for certain things.
QUESTION: How about parachutes?
WILLIS: Only for jumping. (Laughter) They get too big.
QUESTION: But they give a nice soft light. They're used in shooting commercials-why not features?
WILLIS: Because you've got actors and hundreds of people walking around and talking-and soundmen. You sort of have to make everything work within the structure that you're faced with. On the other hand, one man's thing is another man's poison-or something. If somebody's used to working with a certain thing, he should work with that.
QUESTION: With your concern about laboratories, did you have the European footage developed by Technicolor in Europe?
WILLIS: Yes-Technicolor in Rome, for both pictures.
QUESTION: What was your comparison between the labs?
WILLIS: The Italians do very good work-better work, actually-if you can live through the emotional upheaval of getting to them. It has nothing to do with technical things particularly. It has to do with the emotional aspect, but once you solve the emotional problem and they understand what the movie is about, they're wonderful. They just do lovely work, but you've got to go through a thing.
QUESTION: Are you at all concerned about how your photography will look in the drive-ins? Everybody hates them.
SCHWARTZ: The drive-in screens are a lot better than they used to be. You get a lot more illumination in drive-ins now than you used to when the question was first raised. As a matter of fact, I haven't heard a producer raise this question in years.
QUESTION: So you're not really concerned about maybe printing up a little bit-requesting lighter prints for the drive-in release?
WILLIS: No, because the truth of the matter is that you're second-guessing every theater in the United States and all over the world. The question used to be: "What're they going to do in the drive-ins?" Well, a lot of drive-ins are still sub-standard in projection, but so are a lot of hard-top theaters. All of them should have to conform to a certain standard of quality. They should have police doing it-running around fixing up theaters. (Laughter)
SCHWARTZ: Gordon, thank you very much for a most interesting discussion.