Cinematographer Gordon Willis Remembered at Memorial

"You really can't have a serious conversation about cinematography without mentioning his name"
Everett Collection
Gordon Willis (left) with Francis Ford Coppola

Cinematographers and additional members of the Hollywood community gathered Saturday to remember the life of legendary director of photography Gordon Willis, whose credits include Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Willis died May 18 in North Falmouth, Mass., due to complications from cancer. He was 82.

Held at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse in Hollywood, the memorial was attended by leading cinematographers including John Bailey, Caleb Deschanel and Haskell Wexler, as well as guests such as director Steven Soderbergh.

“We all know about Gordon’s work, and you really can't have a serious conversation about cinematography without mentioning his name," said ASC president Richard Crudo. "It’s hard to imagine there was once resistance to his work,” he added, referring to the moody style of lighting that earned Willis the nickname “Prince of Darkness.”

Recalling working as a first assistant camera for Willis in the early 1980s, Crudo said, “I was spoiled. He had total control of the set. He had a reputation for being tough on set, and he was, but in the best of ways. … The actors did hit their marks for Gordon. That was legendary.”

Recalling that he was also "devastatingly funny," Crudo described one day on set when another great cinematographer, the late Sven Nykvist, stopped by. "Gordon was several hundred yards away with a 400mm lens when Sven unwittingly stepped into the shot. I was on the radio [to tell Willis that Nykvist was there to visit]. [Willis] first said, 'Sven who?,' then 'Tell Sven I said hello' — then tell him to get the f— out of my shot."

Stephen Pizzello, editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer, recalled that Willis had said making The Godfather "was like trying to serve dinner on the deck of the Titanic." Pizzello related that Willis had shared that when shooting the wedding scene in Sicily, Coppola pointed out that fireworks were common. They tested some, "putting holes an inch thick on the wall … people were diving under chairs." Willis had recalled Coppola saying "maybe we shouldn’t use that," and Willis simply replying, "probably not."

Recalling Willis’ tendency to “take chances and go out on a limb" with his photography, ASC past president Woody Omens urged the crowd to honor the late cinematographer by “telling young people about him, and to go out and take those risks … smart risks, informed risks, that is how we grow.”

The ASC screened a montage of Willis' work, including clips from the Godfather trilogy; a number of Woody Allen comedies, including Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo; and work with director Alan Pakula, including Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. The Society also showed images of Willis on set, including during the making of The Godfather.

Following the memorial, the ASC held a screening of The Godfather: Part II, which Crudo noted was what "Gordon always maintained to be his best work."

In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Willis with an honorary Academy Award. He had previously received Oscar nominations for Zelig and The Godfather Part III.

Twitter: @CGinLA