Filming The Light and Dark Side of The Godfather

By David Konow

Remembering the work of the late Gordon Willis, who changed modern cinematography forever with the way he shot The Godfather.

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.

As Willis recalled in the book Masters of Light, “That technique or that approach to the movie visually just came out of a thought process. And the process, in my mind, was based on evil; it was based on the soul of the picture.” The wedding outside had “a very sunny, almost Kodachromey, 1942 kind of feel to it. Then when we cut inside the house with Brando, it was very down and very ominous…so it was a very simple philosophy. However, the overall look of The Godfather was a kind of forties New York grit, with the exception of the scenes in Sicily. The Godfather II is basically the same approach only more romantic.”

The heavy make-up that Brando was wearing was also a consideration in how Willis shot and lit his scenes. As he told Brando biographer Peter Manso, “I knew that if I simply put light directly in front of him, the effect of the makeup would be neutralized. So I had to come up with the kind of lighting that would not only be right for him, but also the right for the rest of the movie.”

The segment in the beginning of the film, where The Godfather is in his office, was shot with overhead soft light “with the addition of whatever was necessary on the floor to accentuate someone’s face or eyes,” Willis said. “I didn’t give a shit whether I saw their eyes or not. My thought was that it was better not to see their eyes in some scenes. It seemed more appropriate not to see their eyes because of what was going on in their heads at certain moments.”

Because The Godfather's lighting was a new approach for the time, it took a while for everyone else to catch on. Cinematographer Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), who was Willis’ camera operator on The Godfather, says, “I think movies having a dark look have been around since film noir, the idea has always been that the way it looks should metaphorically reflect the subject matter. Gordy’s darkness was just a more startling version of it.”

Yet while The Godfather was in production, Paramount was in a panic over the fim’s dark look. Willis told writer Peter Biskind, “Screens were so blitzed with light that you could see into every corner of every toilet and closet on the set. When that dark stuff started to appear on the screen, it seemed a little scary to people who were used to looking at Doris Day movies.”

Dean Tavoularis, Francis Ford Coppola’s longtime production designer, had spent a lot of money on the sets, furnishing them with hardwood floors and oriental carpets, and now you couldn’t see them. Paramount ultimately didn’t understand what Coppola and his crew were going for with the film. Not only did the studio executives dislike the film’s darker look, but they also thought the pacing was too slow, and they didn’t like Brando’s mumbling, although Brando kept the Don’s voice quiet because he believed powerful people didn’t need to yell.

While Coppola supported the film’s darker cinematography, he had a number of clashes with Willis as well. “Gordon would light so precisely that if Pacino bound around a bit or moved his head, he went into darkness,” says associate producer Gray Frederickson. If the cast didn’t precisely hit their marks, Willis’ shots would be ruined. Coppola wanted his actors to feel free to move around, and resented Willis trying to restrict them. Frustrated, Willis posted a sign on his camera: ACTORS THINK MARKS ARE GERMAN MONEY.

Chapman recalled Willis and Coppola having a number of “operatic theatrical arguments that I would try to stay out of. Francis rather enjoyed a certain amount of chaos on the set. Gordy was enormously devoted to a very rigid order in set ups, in how things should go, and Francis was more laisez-faire. The interaction of those two different personalities worked out very well in a complicated, almost argumentative way, and I think that friction turned out marvelous.”

“At that point in his career Francis didn’t realize that you can’t get art without craft,” Willis said. “He knows it now, but he didn’t know it then. You can’t just arbitrarily block a scene and forget the fact that you’re making a movie. The blocking had to be basically comfortable for the actors and it has to function for the director, and then finally it has to work for the camera. If the scene doesn’t fit in that little hole that you’re looking through, then it’s all irrelevant. Unless a director can transpose his feelings and interpretations into a visual structure, they’re meaningless.”

When The Godfather was released in 1972, it was an enormous hit that indeed made cinema history. It was not only the biggest money maker of its time, it also created a new group of movie stars, reinvented the gangster genre for modern audiences, and thanks to Willis’ cinematography, filmmakers could now shoot darker than ever.

“Francis did not make these movies playing down to an audience,” says famed casting director Fred Roos, who worked with Coppola on a number of movies. “The Godfather films are quite sophisticated in their artistry, the look, the cinematography, the style, and it still captured a wide audience.”

While Chapman says that “The Godfather transformed how cinematography was thought of, it was one of the those landmark movies,” he also adds, “There was a certain amount of resentment against Gordy in that he shook everything up and he made the rules that other cinematographers had to live by no longer so applicable.”

This is why Chapman felt Willis didn’t win an Academy Award until late in life. (In fact, Willis had only been nominated for Best Cinematographer twice.) But Willis did indeed get an honorary Oscar in 2009, along with B movie king Roger Corman.

In addition to shooting The Godfather trilogy, Willis was also the cinematographer on Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, and Manhattan, among other credits. He finally walked away from the business and retired after shooting The Devil’s Own in 1997.

In his memory, Coppola said in a statement that Willis was “a brilliant, irascible man, a one of a kind cinematic genius with a precise aesthetic. My favorite description was that ‘He ice-skated on the film emulsion.’ I learned a lot from him.” Woody Allen also called Willis “a huge talent and one of the few people who truly lived up to all the hype about him.”

Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer, told The Hollywood Reporter, “There is no greater influence or inspiration in my life as a cinematographer than that of Gordon Willis. His exceptionally bold lighting choices. The careful composition and movement of his camera. Gordon has left us with an incredible body of work that will live on to inspire filmmakers and audiences while acting as a reminder of the critical role dramatic lighting plays in guiding a narrative to its highest visual level.”