Born into a motion picture family (his father was a make-up artist at the Warner Bros. studio in Brooklyn), pioneering director of photography Gordon Willis began as a still photographer and spent four years in the motion picture unit of the US Air Force, photographing instructional films on topics ranging from survival in the jungle to how to use a machine gun. After military service, he worked in NYC as a cameraman on documentaries and commercials before getting his first opportunity to work as cinematographer on Aram Avakian's "The End of the Road" (1970, adapted from the novel by John Barth), for which he attracted some attention with the tour-de-force psychedelic montages he managed to execute at minimal expense. Though he drew praise for his color lensing on Hal Ashby's flashy directorial debut "The Landlord" (also 1970) and for his artfully composed shots in "Klute" (1971, his first of six collaborations with Alan J. Pakula) which masked off much of the frame width to emphasize a point, he first came to prominence for his contribution to Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather Part II" (1974). Although Willis retired in the late 1990s, he remained so respected among cinema fans that his 2014 death brought a slew of tributes and remembrances.
While filming "The Godfather", Willis used counter-culture visual techniques such as overhead lighting, force developing and low key interiors. Sometimes characters' eyes were not visible in this low light (when appropriate, the eyes burned through) as Willis showed the shadowy world of evil in contrast to the light of goodness. Paramount execs freaked when they first viewed "The Godfather", considering it altogether too dark, not understanding the emotional power in the new look. He also created a golden amber patina to bathe both the Sicilian countryside and the streets of Little Italy in a rich, nostalgic glow, a technique which immediately became a visual metaphor for a period look. For "The Godfather Part II," despite the much bigger budget, he employed the same camera, the same lenses, the same everything, guaranteeing with the somewhat dated equipment a consistency from one film to the next. Prior to this film, there was no history of successful sequels, but the opportunity to outdo himself resulted in a far classier movie the second time around.
In 1973, for his first of four collaborations with writer-director James Bridges, Willis filmed "The Paper Chase" in 35mm anamorphic format. His decision to use the wide-screen format (based on the content of the story) ran counter to the conventional wisdom that had previously relegated it to exterior films with big landscapes. For Pakula's "All the President's Men" (1976), he conjured up a remote camera by putting a winch in the dome of the Library of Congress, enabling it to pull back from a desk top to a full view of the library floor. On display once again was his motif for good and evil as the camera moved from the truth-seeking, fluorescent interior of the Washington Post offices to the ominous underground garage where Deep Throat tells Robert Redford's Bob Woodward to "follow the money" into a world of anonymous footsteps and long shadows juxtaposed against the bright lights of the Capitol. This world of contrasts is one to which Willis often returned as in Pakula's last film "The Devil's Own" (1997), contrasting a breathtaking seacoast panorama of Ireland with the claustrophobic basements of NYC, where his camera probed the gloom for a single source of light to illuminate the secret world that lies behind what he calls "the door."
Willis proved himself equally adept with comedy on the eight consecutive pictures he shot for Woody Allen, beginning with "Annie Hall" (1977) and continuing through "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985). "Woody always had wonderful ideas. He'd tell me what he wanted. I'd tell him how I thought he could do it . . . Woody always listened. If he liked it we'd try it my way, and if it didn't work we did it his way. One way or the other, it usually worked out." For Allen, Willis' bleak, understated hues accentuated the Bergmanesque quality of "Interiors" (1978), and his sumptuous, impressionistic colors highlighted the visually charming "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" (1982). He is best known in his collaboration with Allen, however, for resurrecting the black-and-white movie as a contemporary form of story telling, starting with the melancholy grays of "Manhattan" (1979), magnificently shot in the anamorphic format, followed by the striking black-and-white of "Stardust Memories" (1980). He moved back and forth from color to black-and-white on the director's "Zelig" (1983, for which he picked up his first Oscar nomination) and "The Purple Rose of Cairo", which he sandwiched around the black-and-white "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984).
After ending his creative partnership with Allen, Willis continued to produce exceptional work, as with Pakula's "Presumed Innocent" and Coppola's "The Godfather, Part III" (both 1990), for which he received his second Academy Award nomination. Willis only photographed two more films before retiring at the end of the 1990s, the Alec Baldwin/Nicole Kidman thriller "Malice" (1993) and Pakula's IRA drama "The Devil's Own" (1997). He made a brief, unexceptional foray to directing with "Windows" (1980), proving to himself that he was better at dealing with the mechanical aspects of motion pictures than with the directing and people-oriented aspects of it. Some of his greatest advocates are his fellow cinematographers. No less a seasoned veteran than Haskell Wexler called him "the most thorough door-to-door cameraman that there is," lauding Willis' level of commitment that begins with pre-production and extends through a close monitoring of the final process going to release print. One thing that helps his films hang together is choosing an f-stop appropriate to the overall look of a film, inside and out, from which he only varied for special shots, so that when it goes to editing there are no "matching" problems.
Hollywood was slow to get on the Willis bandwagon; despite his important contributions to such Academy Award-winning Best Pictures as "The Godfather", The Godfather II", "Annie Hall" and the nominated "All the President's Men", he was not nominated in the Best Cinematography category. An outsider living in the New York metropolitan area and doing much of his best work on the East Coast, he was also an outspoken advocate for the creative role that directors of photography play in the collaborative art of filmmaking, which ran against the grain of the implied Golden Rule that cinematographers should be seen and not heard. His associations with Coppola, Bridges, Pakula and Allen accounted for a significant percentage of the body of work that prompted authors Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato (Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers) to call him in 1984: " . . . the best cinematographer working in America today. Without a doubt. Period. End of discussion." Gordon Willis died at the age of 82 on May 18, 2014.