Cinematographer Gordon Willis, Setting the Scene The Academy Awards aren't until February, but cinematographer Gordon Willis is receiving his honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement award this fall. Willis is the visual mastermind behind classic films like Annie Hall, The Godfather, and Pennies From Heaven. We tip the hat in his direction with a rebroadcast of a 2002 conversation about his life behind the lens.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis, Setting the Scene

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This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting its Honorary Oscars in a separate ceremony taking place in Hollywood this weekend rather than on the televised Oscar Awards in March. Planning to attend to accept their awards are actress Lauren Bacall, filmmaker Roger Corman, and our first guest, cinematographer Gordon Willis.

Willis was nominated for only two Academy Awards during his career to date, for Woody Allens Zelig and for the Godfather Part III. He didnt win for either, but his string of stunningly photographed movies speaks for itself. Here are scenes from a few of his classic films.

(Soundbite of movie, The Godfather)

Mr. MARLON BRANDO (Actor): (As Don Vito Corleone) If youd come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they will fear you.

(Soundbite of movie, All the Presidents Men)

Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Carl Bernstein) Mitchell was in control. There were men working in under Mitchell

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor): (As Bob Woodward) How many?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Carl Bernstein) I dont know how many. But the men working under Nickel are the ones that received the money from the slush fund.

Mr. REDFORD: (As Bob Woodward) Okay. Do we know how much money were talking about?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Carl Bernstein) Yeah, were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, and these men are the key to what that money was used for. Boy (unintelligible) at one point I suddenly wondered how high up this thing goes, and her paranoia finally got to me. I thought what we had was so hot that any minute CBS or NBC were going to come in through the windows and take the story.

Mr. REDFORD: (As Bob Woodward) Youre both paranoid. Shes afraid of John Mitchell and youre afraid of Walter Cronkite.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Carl Bernstein) Right.

(Soundbite of movie, Annie Hall)

Ms. DIANE KEATON (Actress): (As Annie Hall) Hi, hi.

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (Actor): (As Alvy Singer) Oh, hi. Hi.

Ms. KEATON: (As Annie Hall) Well, bye.

Mr. ALLEN: (As Alvy Singer) You play very well.

Ms. KEATON: (As Annie Hall) Oh, yeah? So do you. Oh, God, what a dumb thing to say, right? I mean, you say you play well, then right away I have to say you play well. Oh, oh, God, Annie. Well, oh well. La di da, la di da, la la.

BIANCULLI: In that sequence, we heard Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the Presidents Men, and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall - three films on which Gordon Willis served as cinematographer. He shot eight Woody Allen movies and the entire Godfather trilogy. His other films include Klute, The Parallax View, and Pennies from Heaven.

In 2002, Terry Gross invited Gordon Willis to talk about some of his films, starting with the Godfather, which was released in 1972. She began by asking him about the guiding principles behind the look of that film.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. GORDON WILLIS (Cinematographer): You know, for a while, I really didnt know what to do with that movie. You know, I thought about it for weeks and I finally decided, this should be this kind of brassy yellow look to it. Dont ask me why, it just felt right, you know? So that was the first thing that I applied in my thinking. And the other part of the thinking was, it should have this kind of New York street look, one foot in the gutter 40s kind of feeling, a little dirty.

And so I was satisfied with that kind of a feeling in my mind. And then the other thing is, well, I thought, you know, we didnt get the money to go to Sicily until about two-thirds of the way through the movie, when Paramount people realized that they had something better than a cheap crime novel on their hands. So they gave us the money to go to Sicily. So I figured at that point Sicily should look, you know, mythical and sunny and kind of storybook feeling, so that there was a juxtaposition between these two places New York and Sicily. And there was a counterpoint when I went back and forth.

TERRY GROSS: Let me ask you about one of the kind of the most famous scenes in the first Godfather movie, and thats when the studio executive who isnt playing ball with the Corleone family

Mr. WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: wakes up in his silk sheets, in his satin cover to find that his bed is basically flooded with blood because the decapitated head of his horse is underneath the covers. Can you talk about shooting that scene?

Mr. WILLIS: It was very hot that day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIS: It was kind of smelly. I think for animal lovers, you have to know this was a real horses head, by the way, but it was a horse that had already died and one that was (unintelligible) in the glue factory already. So they acquired the horse and kept it on ice and, you know, we put it in bed and when we were ready (unintelligible) and off we went.

But as I say, I preface by saying it was hot that day, so once you took this horse out of the ice, it got a little gamey, so it was kind of the last thing we did. But it was, it was real, real horse.

GROSS: And what were your concerns as a cinematographer of that scene?

Mr. WILLIS: Well, my concern always is just getting it right. I mean, you know, getting the visualization of the moment, getting that right. Thats always my concern.

GROSS: What does getting it right mean in this situation, where a guy is kind of waking up out of a dream, senses somethings wrong, and then realizes this absolutely horrible thing has happened, this absolutely horrible thing is happening in his bed and hes just like screaming?

Mr. WILLIS: Well, from my point of view, getting it right means seeing it at the level that you should see it from an audience point of view. Perceiving it properly, visually.

GROSS: What are some of the changes you made between the first Godfather and Godfather II in terms of, for instance, how you shot the interiors? Because Godfather II, its a different decade, its a different generation.

Mr. WILLIS. Right. Well, one of the things you have to do, or one of the things that I decided to do, was that since these are sister movies and that they really work together in a sense, is that I maintained the same color structure in the second Godfather. It was this yellow, kind of yellow (unintelligible) however, the content of the structure of the photography I changed because of this turn-of-the-century feeling in the retrospective footage. And then we went from, you know, 1902 up to 1950-something in Lake Tahoe. So it was tricky because you had New York and you had Sicily, which had to be different but still in the same time period. And then, you know, you had Lake Tahoe in the 50s. So when you have an audience watching this kind of film, you dont want to push too much visual information at too many different levels. You want to be able - they should be able to watch the movie, take it in, know theyre in a different place and be able to accept that without getting in the way of telling the story.

I mean at one point, Francis said to me: How are we going to know where we are here? Were going from here to there to there to here. I said, look, you know, we get to New York and you say its New York, 19 so-so. When you get to France(ph), say, put it - you know, put a one-liner under it. I said, its been done for years, its classy, everybody will and everybody will know where they are and there wont be a problem.

So there were presentation of a story that was that long and that complex, you want to present simply, you know, because simple is the most elegant. You know?

GROSS: What were the streets in New York or the parts of New York that were easiest to transform convincingly to the turn of the century?

Mr. WILLIS: Jesus, none of them. It was, you know, we were downtown in the Lower East Side. And what happened was we had one - actually one east to west block, which the art department, Dean Tavoularis, who did a great job, it changed.

Changed means, you know, you redo everything. You redo all the storefronts, the buildings. And the buildings, for the most part, the superstructure of the buildings were about the same. But all the storefronts and everything had to be put back in time.

So it was very complex. And then, of course, you see past that into more contemporary streets at the very end, which I had to block out with big tarps and things that became sort of transfused into the visual. You couldnt see them. It was tough.

GROSS: You had to put tarps over whole buildings?

Mr. WILLIS: I put tarps over whole buildings, not based on what I just said, but I'd hang them like two blocks away so you couldnt see down. But I had to tarp one whole side of the street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIS: People yelling at us. We pulled tarps right up in front of their windows. But because the sun would hit that side of the street and that side of the building and bounce into the street and we didnt - we couldnt do that. You know, we had to have continuity in the visual structure. So that was there were two reasons for tarps: one to kill sun and one so you couldnt see across town.

BIANCULLI: Cinematographer Gordon Willis, speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. This weekend, he accepts an honorary Oscar.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with cinematographer Gordon Willis, who is being awarded an honorary Oscar this weekend for his work on such films as "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "All The President's Men" and the "Godfather" trilogy.

GROSS: In the "Godfather" films, there are so many great actors

Mr. WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: different generations of great actors, different types of acting styles. Youve got De Niro, Pacino, Brando, Lee Strasberg.

Mr. WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Was there anything that had to change in your approach to shooting them because of their different approaches to acting? I mean, for example, is one of them the kind who wanted to do a scene over and over again and another the kind of actor who believes first take is best take?

Mr. WILLIS: Yeah. Youve always got a certain amount of that while youre working. Regarding the structure of the movie, they had to do what, you know, we had laid out. And you sort of work in concert to make sure everybody's comfortable, but that's the design of the movie. As far as the way they function, yeah. You know, Al would like to do things in a certain way.

And actually the most definitive actor was Lee Strasberg. He had no problems doing it and doing it well and not doing it a whole lot, you know? Marlon Brando didnt like to do a lot of takes, either. Al - I dont remember him being particularly indulgent, wanting to do too many. But, you know, it depends on how secure an actor is within the structure of the scene and the material and how far he wants to go with it.

But I think Bobby De Niro was kind of the most method actor in the group, and Bob would take a while to get to the place that he thought was good, almost to the point, drive you crazy. You know, how to pick an apple, you know, 25 minutes later he's still trying to pick it up three, four different ways.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIS: And I mean, you know, and Francis said just pick the apple up and eat it. I mean, you know - so, but everybody has their own way in, you know. And finally, if it works, that's all that matters.

GROSS: I'm sure you realize that, you know, when Brando was in the "Godfather, that everybody would be studying him to see: What did he look like? How had he changed? What's his acting like now?

Mr. WILLIS: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So how did that affect how you shot him, knowing that he had to look, you know, pretty iconic in this movie, that he was a much older man than people remembered and that he was no longer going to be like the kind of a sex icon that, you know, that he was?

Mr. WILLIS: Yeah, well, of course, all that worked in our favor because just to recap this business about asking about photography on the first movie, this -the thing that happened, or that had to happen, was Marlon said, well, I have this idea, you know, about this makeup and everything. He says but, you know, it has to be photographed. I said sure. I know. So we shot these tests, which are actually those tests that are available on some of the rereleases of the "Godfather" on DVD.

But - so we went into the studio, and he stuffs this stuff in his mouth and he puts on a few things, and he - and to make a long story short, I had to design the lighting from, so that Marlon looked right in the movie when you first see him in the office and when you see him in the rest of the movie.

And the design of that lighting had to work for Marlon, but it also - I had to be able to take in through the rest of the movie, to be able to apply it everywhere. So actually, it was him and his makeup and his look that actually were responsible for the designing, the overall look of the lighting, which was not only carried through one, but it was carried through two, as well.

GROSS: So what was it that you needed to do lighting-wise to get his look right?

Mr. WILLIS: Yeah, the bottom line of it is it all had to be overhead lighting, because, I mean, there were two things. They didnt really want to see his eyes that well, although I was criticized for it because I didnt want anybody to say, well, you didnt want to quite know what he was thinking all the time, you know.

And in order to make the makeup work, we had to have this sort of overhead lighting to give him this look that he had. And, of course, everybody else had to have - selectively, had to be subjected to the same kind of lighting to make the movie hold together visually.

GROSS: There's this great operatic sequence in "Godfather I" that intercuts between a baptismal scene in a church and these Corleone mob murders. And could you talk a little bit about the kind of shooting that you did to give it that operatic look?

Mr. WILLIS: What happened was it was Francis's idea to use this counterpoint of taking this baby, this child in the environment of a church and the dialogue that went with it denouncing the devil, etcetera, and at the same time putting the counterpoint of killing everybody against that image. So that idea in itself sort of holds the whole thing together.

So it's the idea - it's the counterpoint that makes this so strong, of a baby renouncing the devil and a baby being christened in the middle of the church, and then the counterpoint of all these people being murdered. So it wouldnt mean much - a lot of people have tried to do that in movies since, by the way, one form or another. But

GROSS: I noticed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIS: Yeah. Who wouldnt? Yes. But it wouldnt mean much if you, you know, finished that scene, got in the car and drove away then started the other stuff. So it - what means something is the counterpoint of it, you know, of, you know, Richie Castellano shooting somebody in an elevator and then somebody in a machine and somebody else in bed and then somebody getting shot. It's - I dont want to use the word fun, but it's fun to watch that kind of structure. It's definitive, and it works, you know.

GROSS: Let's talk about working on Woody Allen's movies.

Mr. WILLIS: Hmm.

GROSS: "Manhattan" is shot in black and white.

Mr. WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Was that your idea or Woody Allen's idea?

Mr. WILLIS: Well, actually, it was Woody's idea, because he loves black and white. So do I. It was

GROSS: Why do you love black and white?

Mr. WILLIS: I dont know. I look at New York. It's kind of a black and white city to me. It's, you know, when you work in color, it's a burden. It can be a burden to an audience if you dont use it properly, and it's burden to the people that are working with it because if you dont make the right choices in color, you dont make the right choices in clothes, you dont make the right choices - you know, then it all comes together. It looks good.

Whereas in black and white, youre really working in values, you know, grays, blacks and white. So, actually, the visual structure in a black-and-white movie can become more difficult in one sense, because you have to pay attention to values. You know, separating people from backgrounds and etcetera, etcetera, where if I just find the content of black-and-white movies sometimes, sometimes can be a lot easier to watch because you dont have this kind of color thing going on. You know?

GROSS: Did Woody Allen ask you to go back and watch a lot of Ingmar Bergman movies before working?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because Woody Allen's such a Bergman fan, and there's so many Bergman references in his films.

Mr. WILLIS: Yeah. Right. No, he never asked me to watched anything. And all of all of his movies are designed from the ground up. I mean - I must say that working with Woody for 10 years was like a vacation. I mean, I had so much fun. And I think I probably like Woody a lot more than he likes me, because I'm kind of a carnivore when I'm making movies. You know, I want to get it done. I want to get it done the right way, and I dont, you know, want to fool around.

But from the standpoint of working with a man who's - you know, it's like working with your hands in your pockets when youre working with Woody. It's a very easy, off-the-cuff kind of day. And I dont mean that we dont plan. We do. And the movies are designed to look like they're off-the-cuff, but they're not. But it's just working with him as a personality was a pleasure.

And I also like working with writers, you know, because if something's not working, you know, you take the pencil, you cross it out and throw the page away and you do something else. You know, and it's much faster than working with a director who can't write, who has to get on the phone and talk to the, you know (unintelligible). This way, you know, its right there. So he tears it out and then you start again. You know, it's quick.

GROSS: You live in Cape Cod now, which is known

Mr. WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: among other things, for its beautiful light.

Mr. WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Is that something that means a lot to you?

Mr. WILLIS: Yeah. It means a lot to me, not so much from the standpoint that oh, I, you know, want to rip out a camera. Light means a lot to me in life. You know, I mean I hate to be in rooms that are not - that dont have dimension and beautiful light. And I have the same feeling about living in a place that doesnt have dimension and beautiful light. I mean, I hate Los Angeles. It's like living inside a toaster oven, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIS: I mean, it's awful. The light stinks. The only time I like it there is, really, in winter, when it's a little bit better. But, I love New York light in the winter. Winter light is so beautiful. Its beautiful here in the winter.

GROSS: Can you describe New York light?

Mr. WILLIS: I can describe New York light mostly in the winter because it's like my favorite thing. You move from light to dark. You know, you move from a brilliant splash of sun to kind of like a midnight shadow, you know, and you watch the sun come up in east and go down in the west in New York, and it's like, you know, it just looks like welding sometimes it's so beautiful.

It's stunning, mainly because it's moving through all of these buildings, you know, and it bounces through windows and off windows and down into the street. It's - and it's always changing, which is quite wonderful, unless you happen to be photographing something, then you want to hurry up so you get it the right way. But it's just stunning.

BIANCULLI: Cinematographer Gordon Willis speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. The man who shot "Manhattan," "All the President's Men" and "The Godfather," among others, receives an honorary Oscar in Hollywood this weekend.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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