alan j. pakula

The Late Great Gordon Willis

The late great Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

The late great Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

On July 15th, 2003, I had the pleasure of interviewing master cinematographer Gordon Willis. I was writing a story on the Woods Hole Film Festival, which was presenting a Master Class with Willis that year (which I also attended).

Born in Queens, N.Y., Willis lived in Falmouth and confessed he didn’t really like to get too involved with film societies, etc., but he made an exception for the Festival. Willis left a significant mark on the world of film. He was often called “The Prince of Darkness” for his ability to use darkness in creating a stunning cinematographic look. You can see it in his major works: The Godfather (both I (1972) and II (1974)); Annie Hall (1977); Manhattan (1979); Klute (1971); Zelig (1983); All the President’s Men (1976); and many others. These are films that show the mark of a visionary cinematographer who held his own with strong directors.

Willis passed away on Sunday, May 18th here on the Cape. I was able to dig up my transcript from our  interview and, although it reflects a different cinematic landscape being 11 years old, I’d like to share some of it with you here…..

Rebecca Alvin: How did you get involved with the Woods Hole Film Festival?
Gordon Willis: I don’t know, it’s like everything that I’ve done. Actually, I’m kind of a recluse when I’m not shooting. I’ve never been socially oriented, even in California. I’d go out to dinner. I’d go to wrap parties once in a while. I go out to dinner with friends and stuff, but I never really availed myself of film festivals especially, you know….I teach at colleges, film schools, etc. So to answer your question, it’s not something I try to do. I have friends who like to do it, but I don’t. If somebody gets me on the phone and I feel like doing it, I’ll do it. In this case, you know it’s just down the street, and I live here and feel like I’d like to contribute something to anyone who’s interested.

RA: Do you live here year round?
GW: I do live here year round, in fact winter around here is my favorite time.

RA: How long have you lived there?
GW: I don’t know, time doesn’t leave a big impression on me. It’s like I don’t remember anything. It’s like it was yesterday. I think all in all, 12 going on 13 years now.

RA: You originally went into theater, correct?
GW: My original background, well yes. My family’s in the motion picture business. My father was a makeup artist for Warner Bros. I sort of grew up knocking around in the family. And I wanted to be an actor for a while. I did a lot of summer stock. In fact I did a number of years up in Gloucester… But I found that…stagecraft and then finally photography, were better….Luckily, I forgot about acting (laughs). Then I was in the service and I was lucky enough to get a bypass photo assignment….I came out in the 70s. Then I did my time as assistant cameraman, operating cameraman, all that….

RA: How has your work changed over the course of your career?
GW: That’s an interesting question actually. You’re the only one that’s asked that. I don’t know, I look at things that I first shot on my first job….and you become more sophisticated. You don’t carry a lot of baggage with you. What you learn over a period of time, if you’re smart, is that you subtract, not add. So I think if you look at things that I’ve done, you’ll see that I’m a minimalist; I reduce. I believe in the elegance of simplicity. I think over a period of time that’s what happens. Over 35 or 40 years of dealing with it, you learn to throw away and not add, so I think simple. Not simplistic, but simple.

RA: Do you have a favorite film you worked on?
GW: Well, I have a bouillabaisse of things that I like watching, retrospectively. I think probably Godfather II was the most–I’m proud of that movie based on the fact that it is quite an accomplishment. And I think that a lot of the choices that were made by me and by Francis Coppola were the right ones, and it’s probably, in my opinion, better than the first one…I also loved things that I did with Woody [Allen] and Alan Pakula. You know, I loved Klute, one of the first movie I did with Alan Pakula, and I loved Manhattan, which I did with Woody, and Annie Hall and some others, so I have a place in my heart for a lot of stuff. But if someone put me up against a wall and said, “pick a movie,” I’d probably say Godfather II .

Al Pacino in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part Two"

Al Pacino in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part Two”

RA: You worked with a lot of great directors. How does the process differ with different directors?
GW: Well, that’s a little like asking who’s your favorite wife, you know. I’ll simplify it by saying I was a very lucky person, because all the people who gave me the benefit of working with them were, first of all quite intelligent, but also very nice people. And without exception, I had the freedom to formulate the visual structure of every movie that I’ve ever worked on… Mostly I worked with a lot of writers, which was a good experience because if something wasn’t working, we could always just rip the page out…And that was always good. So there was that difference, like with Francis and Woody it was easy to fix things from a writing point of view. Alan Pakula was a different kind of thinker; he probably kind of over-thinks stuff. I’m just the opposite. But I’ll tell you what tied us all together was we all loved movies and we all had the same sensibility of what should happen on the screen. So , probably the most difficult operating relationship I had was with Francis, but it was a good one. In terms of the three times that I was with him, the first time was very bumpy, but the last two were fine. But all the rest you know, as I said, I didn’t deal too much with politics with any of these people. We were very, very easy and close. I mean working with Woody was like working with your hands in your pocket. And I don’t mean that he wasn’t difficult to deal with to get it right, it’s just that it was a very pleasant experience.

RA: Do you have any pet peeves about working with directors?
GW: I block very quickly, meaning that once directors finish rehearsing and see what the scene is going to be, I’m very quick to pick up whether we need one shot to make the scene work or whether we need ten shots to make it work. So I perceive that very quickly and [then there are the] discussions that I have with the director after that, (I get his point of view and I give my point of view), and then, as I say, I block very quickly and I set camera very quickly, so I don’t like too much in-depth dealing with it. Alan was very bad with that. He would overthink it. Woody didn’t overthink much and moved very quickly… So the only thing I had a peeve about was overthinking: the What If syndrome, I called it–”What if we tried this?”…I had no patience for options. Six months after shooting  you look at all your options in the editing room, and you can’t remember what movie you made. I don’t care for that. I like camera cutting, making decisions and shooting, and if you just cut the slates off you’ve got the movie. Most of the time we’d do that.

RA: Is there a difference between working with Hollywood and working with independent directors?
GW: See that was one of the good breaks I had; I never really got bogged down with quote Hollywood types. I mean Francis wasn’t a Hollywood type, Alan Pakula wasn’t a Hollywood type. Woody certainly wasn’t a Hollywood type. Some of the others I worked with weren’t Hollywood. Although they may have been embedded there because of business reasons, their mentality was not structured that way. And it took me a long time to move into Hollywood and…. I always hated it… the studio structure and a lot of the people.

Diane Keaton in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall"

Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”

RA: Do you use video at all, or just film?
GW: I don’t shoot any film at home. I shoot the digital video and I shoot digital films mainly because I cut my own stuff, and it’s all home-related; it’s all my grandchildren. But the bottom line is I have control of it all… Let me be careful how I say this – technically, I’m not in favor of it, but the philosophies of shooting apply, whether you shoot video or you shoot film. How you do it, how you put it together, the thought process should stay the same. But, the mechanics of film, as opposed to video–film is still a more organic process. I think one magical part about film is that it is organic: the distance between the audience and the story. And I like that. Video has sort of this immediacy to it, which I don’t particularly care for when I’m watching a movie. I love it when I’m doing a film thing at home. I love it that way, but I’m not too enamored of it on the screen at this point. I’m not saying it won’t happen, because it is happening. But it doesn’t change, as I said, your thought process–it’s how you cut, how you think–but it is visually not the same.

RA: What about the significance of post-production now? Is the cinematographer’s role now limited?
GW: Well, the whole thing about being a photographer or a cinematographer was that there was this kind of mystery to it because nobody really knew what it was going to look like except you, (I mean if you knew what you were doing)… But, what a lot of people have tried to do,  they’ve tried to remove the barrier. They want this immediacy and they want this control, and the post-production problem is a problem. Actually, it’s  not problem; they can make it problematic because everyone wants to re-paint. I don’t like it. I never liked it even when we were shooting. I was very nasty about everybody sitting there at the end discussing options, and wanting all these options. You know, print it this way, we shot it that way. The other thing is a lot of people are in love with the visual. I mean I know it’s a very important tool. Like any tool, when you need it use it, but I don’t think you should jump into bed with everything that comes along. I mean it doesn’t replace thinking. It never will replace thinking.

RA: Do you have any advice to people starting out in cinematography?
GW: Okay, that’s what I’m going to talk about in the master class. I always ask this question and nobody knows the answer, or they won’t give it to me. I say, “can anybody give me a definition of what a camera is?” So I ask this question and everybody sits there and looks at me. Nobody wants to give me a stupid answer. Well, it’s a tool. It’s a tool. Film is a tool, videotape is a tool, an actor’s a tool, the director’s a tool, and your job is to transpose a script into visual imagery, tell a story. And whether you do that with a video camera or you do that with a film camera, the means is irrelevant. You can have preferences, but it’s irrelevant. The process should be the [thing]. And at film schools I wouldn’t let anybody have the film camera, if I had my way, or any camera, for the about six months, so other things would proceed. It’s not a good idea to shoot a lot of stuff, then go into a room to decide if there’s a movie in this pile of junk that you’ve got. So I think what people should learn is what’s the idea? What am I trying to say and how do I perceive this? And the most important thing is definition, because that’s missing from a lot of things. So people do not know how to do this, whether they have a video camera or they have a film camera. Definition – why I’m doing something. How they do it doesn’t matter to me. That’s craft. I don’t think you have art without craft; it’s part of the equation, but it’s not the most important part.

Do Not Avert Your Eyes

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

It has taken me a while to write about 12 Years a Slave, which I saw several months ago, because so much has already been written about it. But with the film now back in theaters on the Cape, now is as good a time as any to weigh in. But also, as I hear more and more from people who have avoided it for fear of being too deeply affected  by it, I want to encourage you to see this film in a movie theater, while you still can. Although it is already available on-demand and probably will soon be on Netflix, the theater affords us a dedicated space for connecting with the characters and with the past that is not easily duplicated at home.

When I was 11 years old, my father took me and my brother to see Alan J. Pakula’s devastating Sophie’s Choice. While the horror of the Holocaust had already been brought to my attention by my Jewish grandmother (only in passing, like when a movie about it might have been on TV), and the film itself did make an impression on me, my deepest memory of this movie is of my father uncontrollably sobbing in the car afterward. He tried to explain to us why the choice Sophie had to make broke him down like that (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you – go see it and then read this), and I think we got it on some level, but not completely. His reaction is testament to the power of the film, and it may be one of the things that drew me to study film later, in fact.

Sometimes movies are extremely difficult experiences and I don’t think that is a bad thing.

As you probably know by now, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a real-life African-American from New York State who, despite having been born a free man, spent 12 years as a slave in the South after being kidnapped. The film shows us his journey from freedom through slavery and back again, with some of the most wrenching, magnificent moments coming at the very end when Northrup finally does return home.

The film, while widely praised, has had some detractors who found the director’s choice to not allow us to look away (by cutting or moving the camera to a safer angle) too extreme for the violence and degradation represented here. But for me, the scenes in question are necessary and as uncomfortable and difficult as they need to be. They are not the most devastating of McQueen’s choices.

Much critical attention has been paid to a particularly violent scene in which Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced to beat a fellow slave, Patsey (Nupita Nyong’o) because her slave master (Michael Fassbender) is unable to do it himself. Yes, this scene is very hard to watch, but for me it is the more subtle scenes that are the most affecting. For example, there is an absolutely breathtaking scene where Northup is strung up to be lynched, but is saved at the last minute. While he waits to be cut down–his neck still in the noose, but feet lightly grazing the ground, enough to stay conscious–McQueen gives us a long-shot so we can see the other slaves, many of whom are children, going about their business as though nothing out of the ordinary is dangling from a tree. It is like a dream, but not. No one flinches, no one cries or screams, no one is surprised. The sounds of daily life, mixed with the birds chirping and sounds of an otherwise pleasant day, go on. It isn’t that McQueen is trying to show that these people don’t care about each other, it’s that this is the routine humiliation and violence of everyday life for them. That moment saddened me so deeply; it was more powerful a statement than anything I’ve seen on film in recent memory–certainly with regard to slavery.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Ejiofor’s powerful, subtle performance drew me in, and made me not only think about, but really feel, as a free person, what it would have been like to suddenly lose my freedom with no real hope of returning to my family and my life. And at the same time, while I did not identify with the white plantation owners/slave masters, I also saw greater depth in them than I had before. The direction is powerful and the editing choices, deliberate, painful, and beautiful in a way. And that is my point: something can be horrific and revolting to watch and yet profoundly beautiful in its embrace of the cinematic potential.

In some respects, it resembles Roman Polanski’s brilliant 2002 Holocaust film The Pianist, also based on the records of a survivor. In that film, Adrien Brody, (who plays the lead character) slowly descends from being an attractive, talented, middle-class young man to a half-dead, starving fugitive from the Nazis. Again, this is a painful film, but I can’t imagine a more cinematic and beautiful telling of Wladislaw Szpilman’s true ordeal. And yet, portrayals of Holocaust suffering–as devastating as they are in many, many films–seem to have obtained a level of acceptance that we still do not have, at least in the U.S., for slave stories. Perhaps Americans can’t stomach our own past, preferring to look at the atrocities of other cultures from a safe distance across the ocean, but I don’t think that’s it. I think we just haven’t been offered the opportunities to revisit this aspect of American history because we don’t have a lot of writers and directors interested in pursuing it. It’s taken a British director to bring this point home and he does so with great skill.

What do we want out of our movies? Is it only an entertaining escape, a good story, a pleasant evening with a friend? Why are our expectations–no, our demands–so low when it comes to this art form. When you’re at the movies, in the dark, looking up at that screen, you should be given an experience to take with you. And whether it is a thrilling, tightly constructed cinematic adventure like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (especially so in 3D), or a piece of our history that we haven’t truly come to terms with even 150 years later, we should be made to feel something substantial. Filmmaker Werner Herzog has said, “the poet must not avert his eyes,” and neither should the  audience.