Although working with the meticulous Kubrick was a trial by fire, “making Repulsion  nearly drove us mad,” says Taylor of his first collaboration with Roman Polanski. Originally planned as a low-budget potboiler, the project became a deliciously kaleidoscopic nightmare that employs expressionistic cinematography to detail a haunted world of sexual repression. In his 1984 autobiography Roman, Polanski wrote, “As I saw it, the only person who could do justice to our black-and-white picture was Gil Taylor, whose photography on Dr. Strangelove had deeply impressed me. I also saw his wonderful work on A Hard Day’s Night; Richard Lester, the director, was mixing it at Twickenham Studios, where Repulsion was to be made. [Our executive producer, Michael] Klinger protested that Gil Taylor was one of the most expensive cameramen in the business, but I held out for Taylor and I got him.”
“I was delighted to be asked to work with Polanski, and I turned down a Bond movie to make Repulsion,” says Taylor. “Roman had only made one feature, Knife in the Water , which I thought looked absolutely dreadful. It was very wishy-washy, no real blacks at all. So when he saw the kind of image I could give him, he was impressed. He said, ‘I never knew you could get photography like this!’”
Much of Repulsion takes place in an apartment that literally transforms as its tenant’s schizophrenia takes hold. “We had it built onstage, of course, and lit primarily through the windows Brutes, often fully spotted, just blasting in. A few hidden lamps on the floor bouncing into the ceiling completed the lighting. It was very extreme. I shot much of the film with a handheld Arriflex with a very wide lens and a tiny tobacco tin on the front fitted with a wee bulb to add a bit of fill, just enough to see Catherine Deneuve’s skin in the shadows until I moved in close.
“With light, it can’t do more than burn out, can it?” he adds. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50 times too strong. You can control it so those highlights don’t burn out, but just rest on the top. In the film’s few daylight sequences, Deneuve looks absolutely gorgeous: her face looks almost as if it’s burning out, but it doesn’t. It just rests there, with her lovely blonde hair flowing.”
“Our first day’s shooting left me amazed and a bit perturbed by Gil Taylor’s way of doing things,” Polanski wrote. “He mostly used reflected light bounced off the ceiling or walls, and never consulted a light meter. As the rushes were shown, however, he possessed such an unerring eye that his exposures were invariably perfect. We differed on only one point: Gil disliked a wide-angle lens for close-ups of Catherine, a device I needed in order to convey Carol’s mental disintegration. ‘I hate doing this to a beautiful woman,’ he used to mutter.”
Taylor earned a BAFTA nomination for Repulsion and teamed with Polanski again on Cul-De-Sac (1966) earning another BAFTA nod and The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971), a gripping retelling of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tale.
Taylor’s next project, Frenzy (1972), reunited him with Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he had worked 40 years before on the thriller Number Seventeen, albeit as a mere clapper/film loader under cinematographers John A. Cox and Bryan Langley. Frenzy, Hitchcock’s penultimate feature, tracks an innocent man (Jon Finch) who is accused of a particularly nasty string of murders, including the disposal of his ex-wife. Ironically, photographing such mayhem was a pleasant experience for Taylor. “Hitchcock, of course, never looked through the camera,” he recalls. “He would give me a list of shots and ask, ‘Can we do this today?’ He had no interest in setups, unlike Polanski or J. Lee Thompson, who both liked to work very closely with me. They didn’t say how they thought something should be done, they told me what they wanted to see, and that’s what I needed most. They gave me great freedom, and with rare exceptions including Kubrick, of course I enjoyed that freedom on all of my pictures.”
The look of Frenzy was described by one critic as “suitably muted and seedy,” and the picture features exemplary location work. With a chuckle, Taylor recalls, “Alfred said he had a liking for the 42mm lens and asked whether I had one. I had a 40mm, a 35mm and a 38mm, but I said, ‘Yes.’ Because he never looked through the camera, I’m sure he didn’t miss it! I had to persuade him to go to rushes after nearly four weeks. He said it wasn’t necessary because he had every faith in his department heads. He was a most charming man whom we all loved.”
Another of Taylor’s favorites is Richard Donner, for whom he shot the supernatural thriller The Omen (1976). “Richard was incredibly enthusiastic,” he says. “I loved him and worked terribly hard to get the look he wanted. I did weeks of tests to find the right diffusion, and it happened quite out of the blue just days before we were to start shooting. I told my wife what I was trying to accomplish, and she handed me a #10 Denier silk stocking. I stuck it on a Cooke 10:1 zoom, and Donner was ecstatic. That’s how The Omen got that soft look! The photography is very realistic, but that touch of diffusion gives it a bit of a dreamlike look. It was a freak thing, but when you get a wonderful cast and crew like that Donner, Gregory Peck, Lee Remick you pull out the stops.” The effort earned Taylor a BSC Award.
The cinematographer’s next project, Star Wars (1977), became a very different sort of high-water mark in his career. The picture’s groundbreaking visual effects earned the lion’s share of the kudos, but by grounding the fantastic story and settings with classical widescreen compositions and clean lighting, Taylor clearly set the visual tone for George Lucas’ space opera. Consumed by the details of the complicated production, “George avoided all meetings and contact with me from day one, so I read the extra-long script many times and made my own decisions as to how I would shoot the picture,” says Taylor. “I took it upon myself to experiment with photographing the lightsabers and other things onstage before we moved on to our two weeks of location work in Tunisia.”