An Interview with Gordon Willis

My first experience with Gordon Willis was a decade ago, when I was tracking him. I had just graduated from film school at NYU and had used all of my funds to travel to New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji.

I was destitute and had returned to my hometown of Cape Cod in order to work the night shift at a local Stop & Shop to save up money to move to California. During this time, my parents informed me that Gordon Willis had taken up residence across the street.

Gordon Willis, born in New York City in 1931, is renowned as the cinematographer of some of the greatest movies of the 1970s and 1980s, such as The Godfather I and II, Klute.

All the President’s Men, The Paper Chase, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Interiors, Stardust Memories, and Zelig.

He was awarded the Governors Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is essentially a lifetime-achievement Oscar, in recognition of his work as a director of photography.

Away from the cameras, he and his wife, Helen, share a beautiful home with a view of a local cranberry bog, making them popular amongst their neighbors.

During that difficult summer, I set out to become friends with Gordon, believing that some of his success could be transferred to me. My account of this venture was published in a short story called “Stalking Gordon Willis” by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in 2003.

 A few months later, Gordon suddenly appeared in my kitchen, and said, “Hi Chris, I hear you’re a writer.” I then realized he had used Google and had come across my story. Surprisingly, he was not angry about it.

A decade has passed since then and Gordon and I remain good friends. We keep in touch via emails. I was privileged to receive his own copy of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, which is one of my favorite movies, and he was the director of photography for that film.

Being a member of the Writers Guild of America, I am sent movie screeners each year around the holidays and I make a point of going to his house across the street to ask his opinion of the award contenders that year. His observations always come out with a confident tone and he speaks as if he has an expert’s grasp on the craft.

— Chris McCoy

It is said by Chris McCoy that…


I was interested to hear about your experience with the Air Force Photographic and Charting Service.

When I initially joined the Air Force, I followed the standard process and completed basic training. Afterwards, I made an effort to transfer to a photography unit.

Although I was put in the Air Transport Service, a buddy of mine in the Cinematographers union in New York City managed to get my transfer to go through. Consequently, I ended up at a photo unit in Mountain Home, Idaho.

It was a very remote location, surrounded by jackrabbits. I remained in the photo lab there for quite some time.

BLVR: What kind of project were you working on?

GW was taking pictures and developing them for certain assignments when he was given the opportunity to work in the photo lab, all paid for by the taxpayers.

He longed to get into the Motion Picture Division, which he eventually was able to do and was sent to Burbank, California. After some time, he was appointed to a photo unit in Panama.

BLVR: What was the rationale for being in Panama?

During his time in the Army Air Force, GW was stationed at a big base with a lot of photo facilities. He made films about jungle survival and whatever else was required of him.

Though he spent many years there, he refuses to return, calling it a horrible place. Later on, he was transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

There, he found great resources for photography and managed to squeeze in some documentary projects. However, the work was often difficult, as few people were truly enthusiastic about making films.

BLVR: Did the other individuals attempt to gain access to the photography unit or were they simply placed there?

At GW, a combination of career Airmen and other personnel managed the departments. I created a strong bond with a Master Sargent who had been known to smuggle moonshine from Georgia. Weekends were spent this way, though it was a bit of a challenge to get around.


BLVR: After leaving the Air Force, did you have a desire to be connected with the film industry?

GW: My parents had a background in the entertainment industry prior to my birth.

As a makeup artist, my father got a job with Warner Brothers on the Brooklyn stage during the economic downturn. In the beginning, I harbored hopes of acting, but ultimately I decided to pursue something else.

When I finished my military service, I falsely assumed I knew everything, when in reality I was completely uninformed. This eventually led me to a career in filmmaking.

BLVR asked what the individual was engaged in at that moment.

It took me a while to join the union, and I had some friends who helped me out. Soon after, Helen and I got married in Florida and moved to New York, where we had no place to live. My dad helped us until I was able to get into the union, but still finding work was difficult.

I started as an assistant cameraman and that’s when I realized that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere without the help of somebody else.

Dave Quaid, a great DP and mentor, took me under his wing and showed me the ropes; he took me to commercial houses, steel mills and coal mines. Working in these places was dangerous and I’d often be on fire from sparks flying around.

At first, I couldn’t believe what I was doing, but eventually I learned a lot from him.

BLVR: Were you in the industrial film industry?

GW: Indeed, the place of the glowing embers.

BLVR: You have previously mentioned your opinion of color and have noted that it can be a challenge to handle. What is the basis for this opinion?

GW: When you are dealing in black and white, you are dealing with a spectrum of a wide range of values. It becomes a challenge to ensure uniformity in color when shooting a movie; I found that to be a difficult task.

To avoid this, I would work with the wardrobe, scenic, art direction, and props departments to make sure nothing too bright or out of place was being used.

I prefer to stick with earth tones for an unobtrusive look. With black and white, you have to keep an eye on the overall design, but you don’t have to worry about colors clashing.

When I directed a film in color, one of the actresses had an outfit she really wanted to wear. Supposedly, I had not been keen on it. At one point, she called me to her motel room and said, “I trust you.

What do you think is wrong with this dress?” I replied, “If you wear this dress in the middle of a group of farmers out in the middle of nowhere, you are going to stand out like a beacon! It is just not practical for the scene.”

We were able to come to a resolution by having the dress washed and toning down the colors. It was a successful compromise in the end.


BLVR: Could you explain what it was like to collaborate with Woody Allen on blocking for his comedic films from the 1970s, and where you derived your own idea of blocking from?

When speaking with a director, GW’s foremost thought is not where to place the camera. Instead, his initial thought is to view the scene, and secondly, to discern the purpose of the scene. Next, they must figure out how many edits they must make to make the scene effective.

In Woody’s situation, he could go on without interruption for a while, and he relished that, because from a performing point of view, it’s more effective–the actors could keep going, get it done. I had a great time with Woody in that I was able to plan out scenes with him.

In several cases it would play out in a single take. Observe the rehearsal, note what he wanted to do. He planned to pursue the girl around this room, then climb up the steps, and then head there. I’d say ‘Do you feel like talking? Because we can organize this into one.

The dynamics are ideal.’ In many cases he would opt to do it since, as I mentioned, it’s better for the actors.

BLVR: Previously, Woody Allen’s movies often featured him chasing after a girl; however, the way you portrayed him doing so was distinct from what had been seen before.

GW wants to bring life and depth to shots. Proper blocking and editing is critical to accomplish this. Additionally, a lot of the “taste” comes from the creator themselves.

An example is the scene from Manhattan at night. Woody and Keaton get out of a cab and the shot follows them for a city block and ends with them sitting under a bridge. This complex shot was done with only four cuts. It looks effortless and natural on the screen.

This is the essence of great style and elegance in simplicity, which is not always recognized.

Before Woody joined forces with BLVR, he had not yet created a film in black and white.

GW: Not at all, and he had a fondness for monochrome.

Did you two just have a talk?

After Annie Hall was released, Woody Allen wanted to make a black and white movie and the idea of Manhattan as a backdrop came up. It was thought that the gray and black palette of the city would be a great fit.

The idea of shooting it in widescreen (scope) was also discussed and eventually used. The biggest challenge was that there was no professional lab to do the development of the negative, so they used a duping lab and then Technicolor New York for the prints.

We were watching scenes in dailies one day and noticed that Manhattan was all shot on Double-X, which was a black and white, high speed negative. It looked like lightning was sporadically striking throughout the scenes.

We asked the lab if they were grounded and they confirmed that they were and that there should be no electricity, yet something was occurring.

I discovered an interesting fact about the stock Double-X; if it was not handled delicately, like if a can was dropped, it would produce an electric spark. So I had to make sure that the negative was looked after with great caution.

I had some further issues with labs later on that had nothing to do with electricity build-up.

BLVR: What was the situation?

When we began shooting Stardust Memories, the lab we had been using on Manhattan chose to no longer develop negatives. We sent the work to MGM in LA, but someone who should have known better told me they were still great with black and white.

They had underdeveloped the first two days of the shoot, which caused quite a problem since they attempted to blame me for it. I argued that I had tests that proved the lab was the one who had underdeveloped the material.

We faced an issue, as few labs knew how to do it properly. Back then, Technicolor and other good laboratories were very dependable and repeatable in terms of their results. After the fiasco with MGM, out of desperation, I went to DuART, a small lab in New York.

They did outstanding work, and I stayed with them for all of Woody’s black and white films.

BLVR: There are outdoor screenings of Woody Allen’s Manhattan taking place in Manhattan parks. Viewers are making the most of the experience with food and drinks.

GW: I’m really pleased with that. We had the opportunity to shoot the fireworks scene for Manhattan from a rooftop–it was an incredible view. I’d never seen fireworks in New York with such an unobstructed view until we did the sequence.

BLVR asked if Woody was with them while performing the task.

GW: No, not always. On occasion, we’d go out together. I would also sometimes take photographs by myself.

BLVR: That seems like it could be an enjoyable day. Capturing stunning views of New York with a camera would be a great way to spend the date.

GW: Absolutely.

BLVR asked if the speaker was shooting a lot of footage with Woody.

According to my philosophy, the ratios were low. Woody didn’t like to film high ratios either, preferring to wrap up for the day early if possible. If it became difficult, he found it upsetting.

There was a walk-and-talk scene in Annie Hall with Keaton that took four or five takes, which was rare for Woody. After the last take, he said he couldn’t do any more and I reassured him that take three was great. I look back on it fondly.

BLVR: Those detailed shots in Stardust Memories, focusing on the limo from the inside…

As Woody arrived in his car, GW wanted to give the visuals of the people present–the reporters, audience members, and others–a slightly off-the-wall look. To achieve this effect, 40mm lenses were used to slightly distort the faces of the people in the scene.

BLVR: For Broadway Danny Rose, you opted to use black and white, which is a movie that I really like.

I’m delighted to receive such an opinion from someone.


BLVR: Do you have an ache for the Big Apple?

GW: I have a yearning for it. However, I feel that I would not be able to cope with it any longer, if I’m being honest.

BLVR: Your films presented a rendition of New York City that no longer exists. They are almost like a timeline, providing a glimpse of what these places were like in the past.

My daughter made an interesting comment when I told her what I do for a living; she said that I “shoot romantic reality,” and I had to agree with her assessment.

BLVR: There is something so romantic about the reality of life.

GW noted that she was highly astute. He went on to explain that this was what he termed, “romantic reality”.

BLVR: It is quite remarkable that you have worked with directors such as Woody, Coppola and Pakula, who possess different character traits. What is it that has enabled you to be able to effectively interact with these various personalities?

Regarding my relationship with Woody, it was a highly productive one. I am always eager to give advice on blocking and photographing and Woody seemed to appreciate the input. On one occasion, he remarked, “We both hate the same things,” and that sentiment was true.

By the time we finished shooting, Woody became concerned that I was doing too much, so he chose to step away, but we remain friends.

What was the experience like when working with Coppola?

GW: Woody and I never conducted a thorough review of the script page-by-page. We simply looked at the location for the day’s shoot and then he’d run the scene and I’d offer my input. Once he was satisfied with the plot, we would then block, light, and film.

It was an enjoyable process that was done quickly and easily. It was like working with your hands in your pockets.

In the case of Francis, there was undoubtedly a considerable level of disarray. On Godfather I, this was completely understandable due to the fact that Paramount was treating him with disdain and he was feeling an abundance of stress.

I was not exactly amiable at times and there were often debates in regards to shot structure, what to film, and when to film it. The initial movie was crafted as if one was attempting to detonate an ammo dump: a great deal of clandestine thought and poor communication.

I always find it amusing when I recall a story about Godfather I: At the wedding, after Al Pacino and Apollonia leave the church and start walking down the hill, Francis had firecrackers placed along the stone wall.

I questioned him, “Don’t you think we should try these out first? They’re awfully big.” Francis replied, “No no, they use them all the time.” So, I requested the prop man to light a small string of them to check. He attached them to the wall and lit the fuse with his cigarette.

All of a sudden, the prop man fell to the ground, with pieces of stones scattered in every direction and everyone ducking. We didn’t end up using the firecrackers in the end. Francis always had something unexpected up his sleeve.

And, I must say, using too much dynamite when they blew up Apollonia’s car was not a smart move; it even caused a crack in the villa. One should never turn their back when Francis was speaking; he had a way of making a different movie with each person he talked to.


BLVR: Taking into consideration the grim nature of The Godfather, how did you manage to avoid giving the studio a panic attack?

GW recalled that almost getting fired occurred, as he believed the “dirty brassy look” suited the movie best. Francis, he thought, endured the brunt of the studio’s ire, and GW gave him credit for not getting him dismissed.

Even though there had been times of disagreement, Francis was confident that GW was making the right choice.

BLVR: Was it necessary to begin the movie with stunning visuals to persuade them it would look alright?

At the beginning of the film, we start with a black face seeking help for his daughter, and then gradually divulging the details of the scene.

This proved contentious when, after screening it at the Gulf and Western Building (Paramount at the time), producer Al Ruddy commented that it was “really dark”.

I countered that it was presently dark, but that when accompanied by the visuals of the Italian wedding taking place outside a room of “bottom-feeders”, it would be seen in a different light.

BLVR: In Godfather II and Zelig, you established a distinctive color scheme that is now associated with nostalgia. For example, in Godfather II, you used warm yellows and oranges to great effect.

GW: Agreed.

BLVR asked about how the idea for the project had originated, mentioning that it has a component related to memories.

In a discussion with Francis, GW proposed a strategy for identifying changes in time periods within their story. He suggested that by clearly labeling a new location, viewers would have a better understanding of where they were in the story.

Additionally, GW proposed that the same color should be used throughout the story, but the quality of the visuals should be changed in order to create a distinction between time periods. This way, the audience wouldn’t be confused or overwhelmed by an intrusive design change.

BLVR: Was there something that drove you to make the film with the idea that our memories will fade with age in mind? Does this concept reflect in the film?

GW: Correct, all you have to do is spin it. It has always frustrated me to see a movie that is set in a time period such as 1872 and the people are on horseback and dressed in the appropriate clothes, yet it appears as if it was just filmed. I really loathe that.


BLVR asked how it felt to collaborate with Coppola again after sixteen years had passed since their previous working relationship on Godfather III.

GW: The atmosphere on Godfather II was much more congenial. In comparison, Godfather I was pretty poor, it was a difficult shoot for everyone. However, I must give Francis a great deal of credit for having the courage to return to direct the sequel. I am pleased that he did.

The most impressive follow-up ever created is BLVR.

GW asserted that the first Godfather movie was better, but wasn’t sure about the third one.

He commented that it was an impressive feat for all the same people to be able to come together years later, noting that the movie wasn’t as good and the writer may have been lost during its creation, though it was still a good overall experience.

BLVR asked whether, due to the success of their joint effort on Godfather II, Francis Ford Coppola had tried to include them in the production of his next movie, Apocalypse Now?

GW :[ laughs ] I’m so thankful I didn’t get caught up in that. No, he never proposed it to me, because he was in an intimate relationship with Vittorio at the time, and I think Vittorio is the only person who has the strength to handle that in a rural area.

I’m a firm believer in incorporating relativity into film production–which is basically playing with contrast. For me, this relates to changes in light/dark, large/small, and good/bad. When I worked with Francis on The Godfather, we would discuss using size, distance and lighting to convey the story.

Once he was done with that, he continued with Apocalypse Now. I was relieved to be not involved with it, since I detest jungles.

I was working on a different film and I received a message from Francis: ‘I’ve finally comprehended relativity. I’d like you to handle the filming of all my future movies.’ I never heard from him again until Godfather III.

It was quite amusing to receive an unexpected telegram from Coppola when BLVR was in the middle of filming Apocalypse Now.

GW: During his time in the jungle, Francis stumbled upon various ways of altering his perspective on life.


It is widely accepted that the most effective way to do something is the best approach.

BLVR: The cinematic language employed by you is remarkable.

I’m delighted to hear this. What I long for, yet seems to be absent in the movies, is the presence of narrative. It almost feels as if narrative film-making is on the brink of extinction.

In your opinion, how would you define narrative filmmaking?

GW commented that good storytelling is paramount – even if the photographs are not of great quality, the story will still be successful. However, if the story is bad and the pictures good, it’s still not going to make a difference. When the two are combined, though, the result is great.

In the past, conversations have been held concerning Hal Ashby’s first movie, The Landlord, which was shot by you.

GW and Hal had a close relationship. Hal was a heavy user of drugs, to the extent that this was his primary lifestyle. Despite this, he was an excellent editor and had a deep understanding of films.

BLVR inquired if he requested the actor to participate in Harold and Maude.

GW: He requested that I ,, however, I was situated on the East Coast and had not yet joined the Los Angeles union at that time.

BLVR asked if the West Coast guild was trying to exclude the East Coasters from their organization.

GW expressed that the organisation running the group was very powerful.

Did the filmmakers from New York feel as if they were on the outside looking in?

For a long time, shooting had a certain way of being done. Those who grew up in New York City, however, had a different approach. My own was to be efficient and get the job done right. I was always looking for the quickest and most effective way of doing it and that was the way that I shot.

BLVR: In The Landlord, viewers can experience a very realistic version of New York due to the utilization of naturalistic lighting. What was your thought process behind selecting this type of illumination?

GW: Film is not selective; it is up to the filmmaker to make it display what they want. It is a common problem for movies and people who work on them that two people can look at the same thing but not necessarily perceive the same thing.

On the other hand, when I walk into a room or onto a set, I can immediately envision how it will appear on the screen. This made it easy for me to block out scenes as I could easily frame up people who were standing in the middle of a room, confused as to what to do.

People tend to overlook what is before them. They might enter a room, or come across a person, and not truly appreciate it. They will start to think of ways to change it to something they prefer.

I always asked them, ‘Why are we here? What are we doing if these changes are necessary?’ I believe that it is better the way it is, so why switch it up?

A lot of individuals think they need to do a lot because they are being paid generously, but the people who are most valuable are the ones who recognize what should remain the same–resist the urge to alter it.

I always found that not doing something is a more important decision than doing something.

If you decide to take action, make sure it’s a firm decision.

I can’t stand it when people say, “This might not work.” People who are scared of the potential failure of an idea have been pushed aside by me–not literally–in the past. When they ask,”What are my choices?” the answer is that there are no alternatives.

You must stick with your plan and see it through. If it doesn’t succeed, then it’s finished.

You tried, and then you must move on and try something different. But don’t ask, “What are my choices?” because that means you’re thinking, “What if this doesn’t work?” In the back of your mind, you already think it won’t.

BLVR: Has it been fifteen years since you last made a movie? Has the urge to return to film struck you since then?

A few years ago, Woody reached out to me with an idea for something to do in New York. I had to let him know that I wasn’t able to take it on due to deteriorating vision, and added that I thought all women were now looking lovely to me.

Read Full Biography
Back to previous

You May Also Like





An Interview with Doseone Copy

Adam Drucker, better known by the alias Doseone, has said his initial attraction to rap was as much about the……



An image of Susan Straight was uploaded to the website in 2013. My mother was so grief-stricken when President……

related articles

Hunting the Windy Vapors

“Comics” No. 31


articles about Archive

Hold On

March 7, 2022

Yellow Faces

March 7, 2022

Rae Armantrout One Thing

March 7, 2022

Bijan Stephen – Side Quest Issue 139

March 7, 2022

Songs in the Key of Childhood

March 7, 2022