July 12, 2007

Letters From Gordon

Legendary cinematographer Willis on the theory and practice of Allen's Manhattan

By S.T. VanAirsdale

"I always wanted to come home": Gordon Willis on the set of Manhattan (Photo: Film Forum/Photofest)

A few days ago I received a brief note. "Hi Stu......" it began. "I'll be happy to answer some questions by Email. Write when the mood strikes you.

"Best, Gordon."

As in Gordon Willis. The mood struck pretty quickly.

Perhaps the world's most influential living cinematographer, Willis' work in the 1970s with Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfathers I and II), Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All the President's Men), Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Interiors) and others endures as the standard for portraying urban life in the shadows -- both literally and figuratively. No film depicts his mastery better than Manhattan, Allen's 1979 black-and-white valentine to the city; a pristine new 35mm print screening at Film Forum from July 13 - 19 showcases Willis' brilliant widescreen tableaus, his trademark use of underexposure, an aching balance of stillness and kinesis and a candor unmasking the mechanics behind everything it sees, from cocktail drama at Elaine's to the film's climactic romantic showdown. No character is safe from Willis' eye, and to the person, they're better for it.

As is the audience, of course. I had (and still have) a million questions for Willis about the dynamics at play in Manhattan; for better or worse, I stuck with nine. The Queens-born, Boston-based DP fired back replies with a relative stream of consciousness whose style I eventually decided to leave intact.

THE REELER: Manhattan hasn't aged a day; it feels like a film that not only longtime collaborators could have made, but has a purity of expression that you and Woody Allen likely really had to work up to. At what point in your relationship did he propose the idea, particularly that it would be black-and-white?

GORDON WILLIS: After the completion of Annie Hall we simply proceeded to shoot Manhattan. Woody felt New York should be in black-and-white... we both did. I pushed for anamorphic (widescreen) because I like the graphics.... thought it would be a very good combination for the picture........ Widescreen.... black-and-white. I think we talked about shooting it at lunch one day. We both like the same things..... it was an easy decision.

R: Of course, most of your films haven't aged much -- even the period work in The Godfather Part II looks and feels wholly contemporary. It sounds kind of silly, but is there a specific factor in your approach that adjusts or compensates for something like era? How did it apply in Manhattan?

GW: Aside from doing what I think is appropriate for the movie....... there is no factor. You fit the punishment to the crime..... so to speak. What finally shows up on the screen is something that comes out of you. If I do anything, it's that I take away.... I don't add... I don't embellish. The thing that you want to do is take a sophisticated idea and reduce it to the simplest possible terms.... so that it's accessible to everyone. Generally the opposite happens, people take a stand-alone idea and tie into knots. Very few people understand the elegance of Simplicity. I hate clutter.... or motion confused with accomplishment. Two people can look at the same thing, they don't always see the same thing. I think with Woody, we would always see the same thing. We both love New York.

R: When was the last time you saw Manhattan? What were your impressions, and how had they changed since seeing it the first time?

GW: I don't know, maybe a year or two [ago]. I still like the movie for the most part. Visually and emotionally my fix on New York is Romantic Reality.

R: The famous shot of Mary and Isaac at the 59th Street Bridge -- what's the backstory of how that shot came to be?

GW: Well, there's really no backstory, it's a button that ends the sequence. ..... They sit by the bridge at dawn..... again..... Romantic Reality. We did it several times. It took about 20 minutes after the initial set-up. It was around 5:30 AM. The choice of the location was really based on how good it was visually.

Advertise on The Reeler

R: Had Woody told you about the Gershwin score in advance, and if so, how did that influence your visualization of the story?

GW: He may have mentioned it toward the end of the shoot......... but, no, it had no influence on the visual structure.

R: You've said before that you don't necessarily need to see an actor onscreen at all times -- mood is the thing. The tableau shots in Manhattan support this philosophy. But on the flipside, considering what a character New York itself plays in Manhattan, how did you determine when and where actors should reclaim the mood from the city around them?

GW: You're overthinking things..................

R: From off-ramps to Yankee Stadium, what were some of the specific urban and architectural influences that informed how you envisioned the film?

GW: We were both born and lived in New York. It's like playing the piano..... you go up and down the keyboard.... you really don't think about it.

R: Manhattan is notable for its long, expansive tracking shots (among other things). At that moment in cinematography, though, the Steadicam had just begun exerting its influence, which dominates today. Did you have any experience with the Steadicam at the time, and was it ever an option for Manhattan?

GW: Some of the shots you're referring to were too long, and at night, required traveling key lights. It would not have been a good application for Steadicam. The shots were done on Western Dollies with stabilizers.

R: You've been pretty explicit in your distaste for Los Angeles. Conversely, what are the emotional or psychic benefits of working on a project so invested in your hometown?

GW: It's always nice to work where you live. You go home and drink at your own table. I have, however, spent months on LA sound stages...... that's the way it has to be sometimes.......... but I always wanted to come home.

Comments (5)

Man, what a wasted opportunity this was. You get the man for an exclusive and you contain all your questions to one film, and not about mechanics but about impressions.


Not sure what Al Gore was getting at with his one word comment, but I'll agree with the first post. The man's done incredible work that deserved more coverage than just the one film. Klute is a favorite of mine and I'd have loved to hear his take on that experience.

what a lame interview. i could sense how awkward gordon felt even though the layers of email and the final text

Having met Mr Willis, and had the privilege of working on an interview with him (Jon Fauer's Cinematographer Style), I think this interview is actually quite good, and really represents the way Gordon WIllis thinks and speaks: no bull, no artifice, an idea tht gets executed with simplicity - that's his strength, and I think it explains the timelessness of his imagery. Thumbs up for this (very brief, granted!) interview!

Post a comment


TrackBack URL for this entry: