Noted cinematographer Gordon Willis died last weekend.
Willis, whose moody aesthetic earned him the nickname “Prince of Darkness,” died Sunday at his home in North Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod. He was 82.
Despite his no-nonsense, often prickly attitude on set, he became a favorite among top Hollywood directors such as Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Alan J. Pakula. He served as the director of photography on nearly three dozen films, including such classics as “The Godfather” trilogy, “Annie Hall” and “All the President’s Men.”
His most frequent collaborator was Allen, with whom he worked on eight films, including “Manhattan” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” The pair enjoyed such a long partnership, Willis once surmised, because neither enjoyed “fooling around” while working.
…”In his day, everyone wanted to see big movie stars lit up,” Stephen Pizzello, editor-in-chief of American Cinematographer magazine and a friend of Willis, said Monday. “He went to the other way and really stood firm on it. He almost got fired a few times on ‘The Godfather,’ but Coppola backed him up. And now, a lot of the stuff you see is moody and dark — that’s all because of him.”
Obits often exaggerate. Film noir had been an established movie genre long before he came along, but his lighting was superb.
As a photographer I am always noticing light, how it enters a room and bounces around, how it gives dimension to objects and so forth. It’s an endless source of pleasure.
“I hate to be in rooms that don’t have dimension and beautiful light,” he told NPR’s Gross. “And I have the same feeling about living in a place that doesn’t have dimension and beautiful light. I mean, I hate Los Angeles. It’s like living inside a toaster oven, you know. I mean, it’s awful. The light stinks.”
As one who lives in Southern California, this puzzles me. If you want flat, lifeless light, try the east coast on one of its many overcast days. There are no highlights, no shadows, just a colorless blanket of blah.
“The smells and vegetation and the light, which I have become even more conscious of, are still here. I’m still deeply attracted to the physical environment here. Unlike East Coast nature which is lush monolithic, a small variety of green trees and bushes), here every lot has a wildly different set of plants on it.
It’s brilliant and white. It’s even more so in Orange County. My mother lives in Irvine. I wonder if it is because the light reflects off of the ocean and bounces off the open hills. You feel like you are in a big bowl of light. It’s the most wondrous feeling. Here it is a little thicker but still in the evenings, it reflects off the white stucco houses in a way that makes you feel like you are in the sky. In the East Coast, the humidity is constantly so much heavier, that the light never produces that clarity and sharpness of outline.”