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Gordon Willis to Steven Soderbergh: "The Last Thing I Think About Is Where to Put the Camera"

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by Sam Adams
June 18, 2014 12:30 PM
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Brian Hamill/Getty Images Gordon Willis and Woody Allen shoot "Annie Hall" in 1977

In 2012, Steven Soderbergh directed a half-hour documentary called "An Amazing Time: Conversation About 'End of the Road,'" chronicling the making of the 1970 film which American Cinematographer's Jim Hemphill called "a virtually unclassifiable distillation of 1960s rage, paranoia and fear in the form of an impressionistic character study." Part of Soderbergh's initial interest was that the film was co-written by the satirical novelist Terry Southern, whose screen credits include "Dr Strangelove" and "Easy Rider." But it was also a chance to interview cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose penchant for low-light photography -- he was known as "the Prince of Darkness" -- left an indelible mark on the 1970s. (See "The Godather" or "Klute" or "The Parallax View" or "Manhattan"; it's quite a list.)

Now, Soderbergh has posted the entire text of their interview at his Extension 765 site, where Willis, who died in May, reveals that he left the crucial matter of camera placement until the last minute, after a scene had already been blocked and lit:

Q:  Why do you think it took so long for certain ideas to take hold, like absolute adherence to the source? I recently watched "The Long Voyage Home" and what Gregg Toland is doing there is just spectacular--

A:  Right.

Q:  --he’s being really rigorous at a time when it was difficult to do that.

A:  Right.

Q:  So why wasn't it really until you and Watkin and a few other people came along that those ideas finally started to take hold, even though that's the way nature works? Did you ask yourself, "Why are people moving these lights around every time the camera changes angles?"

A: It's a good question actually, because, well, to sort of scratch around the dirt about my thinking about that -- I don't know if I'm answering the question -- but the last thing on my mind is where to put the camera. You got to talk things out with the director, decide what the scene's about, what he wants to do and blah-blah-blah. Then, does the scene work in four cuts? Does it work in one cut? Does it work in twenty? And then, OK, the scene's in a bedroom, there are two people sitting on the bed and they're having an argument. And, OK, you have to make the decision what to do. Well, there's one light on by the bed. Click. I turn the light on. And it feels very good, and it feels very --well, that's the way I'm going to shoot the scene, with this one light on next to the bed, which is horrific for certain people at that point in the business, who would say, "What?" You know, "You're going to put on a 100-watt bulb and shoot the--?" Sure. It looks good, it feels good. It's absolutely wonderful, actually, for the most part. Thus, the source.

More indelible insights from the late, great Willis at -- where else -- the source.

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