This post continues excerpts from a tribute to the late, great Gordon Willis, ASC, that I organized with Stephen Pizzello at Camerimage last November, with help from ASC members Caleb Deschanel, Ed Lachman, Matthew Libatique and Vilmos Zsigmond. My friend Stephen is both Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the American Cinematographer, and has also recently finished writing a book about Gordon.
This third post focuses on the wonderful cinematography of The Godfather, Part II. If you haven’t read the previous posts about the first Godfather, I encourage you to do so before reading this one.
Gordon Willis, ASC, takes a reading on the set of The Godfather as director Francis Ford Coppola and camera operator Michael Chapman, ASC, look on in the background (photo: ASC archive at AMPAS)
During the tribute to Gordon Willis at Camerimage, we screened excerpts from The Godfather, 1972, and The Godfather: Part II, 1974 by Francis Ford Coppola.
After the world-wide triumph of The Godfather, Coppola had carte blanche to offer a more intricate, dual-stranded story, with Al Pacino giving a formidable performance as Michael Corleone descending into darkness in the late 1950s, and Robert De Niro replacing Marlon Brando as a younger Vito Corleone in the early 1900s. Michael is the story’s tragic hero, a man who starts by putting family above else, only to lose his wife and kill his brother in his ruthless pursuit of absolute power.
Alongside Carmine Coppola’s score and Dean Tavouloris’ art direction, Gordon Willis’ cinematography gives a formal coherence, notably in the color palette, to the first two Godfathers, making them true companion films.
However, Gordon also added to the visual scope of the sequel, notably by frequently revealing exteriors through windows, as in the Godfather’s Lake Tahoe office. To give the early century footage a distinctive look, he shot with a wide open iris, obtaining a shallow depth of field, and used camera filters to lower the contrast.