Gordon Willis, who passed away on May 18, 2014, will always be best known as the cinematographer of The Godfather films. At least one recent poll ranked The Godfather as Hollywood's top movie of all time, and it’s not surprising Coppola's epic crime drama is still revered after all this time. The incredible scope and power of the story still holds up, and it gave a generation of new actors like Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan their career breakthroughs. Not to mention it was one of Marlon Brando’s best roles, and the movie that revived his career.
The Godfather also made cinema history by introducing a new style of cinematography.
Before Willis shot The Godfather, movies were vastly overlit so they could be seen in the drive-ins and not disappear into the dark of the night. But Willis’ cinematography was a bold step forward, changing the look of movies forever. Because of The Godfather, studios actually had to make two sets of prints, a lighter one for drive-ins, and a darker one for theaters.
It’s easy to take this for granted today because dark cinematography is an accepted norm, and with the latest digital cinema cameras you can shoot with almost no available light. But for the time, Willis’ approach was very groundbreaking, and many cinematographers followed his lead into the dark.
Willis had shot several films before The Godfather, including Loving, which was directed by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), and The Landlord, which was directed by Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude). The Godfather was going to be filmed in New York, which meant that Coppola had to hire a cinematographer from the New York unions. Willis was recommended to Coppola by Matthew Robbins, a friend from the Bay Area who went on to write The Sugarland Express for Spielberg, as well as direct the fantasy Dragonslayer. (Robbins knew Kershner from USC, where the latter taught film.) Willis was also picked for the job because Coppola wanted a cinematographer that could capture a period look.
In interviews, Willis made it clear there was no master plan to change cinema with his approach to the film.