WHEN I FIRST MET Gordon, I was an AFI intern earning $50 a week, and he had just shot The Godfather. The look of The Godfather was a revelation: a moody, luminous glow that changed the direction of American movie-making. We were both on The Parallax View. I was there to stand around and watch, and he was there to make The Godfather of paranoid political thrillers.
There’s lots of forced standing around on movie sets, by smart, competent folks who like being busy. When someone stands around with nothing to do but watch, the watchers with real jobs resent him. His idleness insults their own. He’s for sure a phony. They pretend he isn’t there. So I spent long hours watching, and being ignored. But I knew this was my chance to learn the real deal, and I liked watching. There was so much to keep track of. I befriended the script supervisor, who had to keep track of it. She understood just standing around.
Gordon ruled the set. He was famously intolerant of pretense of all sorts, particularly phonies. With a mane of wiry hair and a fierce, focused glare, he’s the only man I’ve known who actually looked leonine. He liked that it kept folks at a distance. But Gordon saw everything that happened on his set. And he respected people who were good at their work. Watching me with the script supervisor, he decided I was good at watching. He folded me into conversations. The camera crew warmed up, then grips and gaffers. We were in Seattle, working six days a week. On the seventh, I went with Gordon and the camera crew to see Deep Throat: a movie with a very particular subject, but also a very particular look, crudely thrown together on the fly — the anti-Godfather of blockbusters. Watching Gordon watch, I saw he was putting that in his tool kit. There might be a moment that demanded it.
Going to see Deep Throat was the exception. Off work, Gordon held himself apart from his crew. He was congenitally alone, internal. He was the outsider, in an era when rebellion ruled. And he missed his family back east. His Godfather work had been snubbed by the Academy, and he considered himself at war with Hollywood; apparently they’d tried to keep him off the West Coast because he was only in the New York union. He said they were afraid he’d take their jobs.
I became his companion, in bars mostly. He was warm and conspiratorial. He didn’t try to use me. We only talked about movies, mostly Parallax View. I asked smart questions. I wanted long answers. I appeared to understand, and I cared. I’m sorry I wasn’t a writer back then.
There was plenty to discuss. The movie was originally the story of a New York cop who masquerades as a potential psychopathic killer, in order to infiltrate a political assassination ring. As we filmed, the hero was being re-written into an investigative reporter for a San Diego daily. This during a writer’s strike. Warren Beatty starred. He had a pay-or-play deal, and wouldn’t agree to a delay in shooting. So Beatty and the director, Alan Pakula, spent hours every day fussing with the script before they filmed.
I’d been working in documentaries, where I’d wade through reams of footage, piecing together the story. Gordon did exactly the opposite. As he put it, he saw the story in his head: every image, as it played in the picture, slammed together. He was building a solid visual structure. He never zoomed his lens; changing focal length shifted perspective in a way that destroyed the picture space. When an actor sat down in a scene, the camera couldn’t just pan down with him. The whole camera had to arm down — in effect, sit with him. When Gordon panned or tilted, the movement had to be so naturally a part of the visual story that it was invisible.
Pakula had told his cinematographer that he wanted a comic book look, which Gordon interpreted as composed flat and frontal, with bold blocks of carefully calibrated color. Mainly, Gordon struggled with the fact that Parallex was a “damn jump cut picture.” Since they didn’t have a script yet, the picture he was shooting, he knew, would be cuisinarted into a whole new story. This betrayed his visceral need to shape the visual whole. He cursed when we shot entrances and exits to establish a scene: these were “just damn shoe leather” that would slow down the picture and confuse things. He swore that it would all end up on the floor. Inevitably, he said, the movie would jump from the middle of one scene to the middle of another.
So that was how he held it all together. He photographed his close-up shots from exactly the same distance, scene after scene in the picture, and used exactly the same focal length lens. That way, Pakula could jump from scene to scene by going from one close-up to another, and the picture would still feel solidly constructed.
People said that Willis was slow, but he wasn’t. He was just exceptionally precise. He lit simply, with few lights, often just an overhead diffusing “chicken coop” that he’d devised, which cast a downward glow on the actors. He lit the scene at the bottom limit of the film’s sensitivity. Then he coaxed out shadow detail with dim fill lights. Rembrandt was a model, and Georges De La Tour.
This style had an added advantage. No one could screw with it. There was no latitude, as they say. Gordon despised latitude. Gordon told me this, but I saw it for myself. After shooting, I stayed on with Pakula, and one of my jobs was supervising the final color correction of The Parallax View’s answer print. That was the highest quality available then, or perhaps ever: Technicolor three-strip printing. The three negative strands were stamp-like matrices, dipped in dye and pressed on the film. Changing the shade of a single scene required remaking an entire thousand-foot reel. With The Parallax View, if the lab pumped in the slightest extra light when they printed a shot, the whole image went muddy gray. You had to print it just like Gordon saw it in his head. Nowadays a cinematographer can go and tweak the light on a person’s cheekbone, but back then you were stuck with the whole frame. And, in Gordon’s case, stuck with a single way of printing it.
The Parallax View was not an actor’s picture, and Beatty had a realistic sense of his own performance. There was only one scene of which he seemed genuinely proud: When, trying to pass for a psychopath in his interview with an assassin recruiter, he subtly breaks down and has a faint psychotic episode to convince the man he’s right for the job. It was complicated (this being Pakula), because Beatty’s crusading journalist actually has the very personality trait that he’s pretending to have. That was sort of the point of the picture.
Beatty knew this was his moment. He was a renowned perfectionist (our production manager had retired the slate from an earlier scene: “Warren stirs soup, take 100.”) And Pakula had, as Gordon put it, an iron ass. He liked to say “film is cheap.” Pakula pushed him, and Beatty pushed himself, again and again. In those days, there was no video playback. You couldn’t see the scene until it came back as dailies. But they both knew when they’d finally got it right. That was, I’d say, the creative high point for both of them.
The scene took place in Beatty’s seedy doss house, lit by a single overhead bulb. He is hunched over, muttering his confessional, face in shadow. Gordon used his whisper of fill light. Dailies came back the next day with Beatty’s face solid black. Nothing there. But we had moved on. That was it.
Gordon told me that he’d done it on purpose, to protect Pakula and Beatty, because he didn’t think Beatty could pull off the moment. I wasn’t present when the three of them held their very private meeting. I remember a shaken Gordon afterwards. Later I’d learn that was as close as Gordon ever came to being fired. Also, that he’d admitted he’d blown it, and felt terrible about it.
So Gordon finished the picture. And even with its best moment taking place in the dark, The Parallax View is considered a classic among paranoid thrillers. Gordon Willis won the Best Cinematography award that year from the National Society of Film Critics. Gordon was dead right in his interpretation of Pakula’s “comic book.” More than that, the shoe leather’s been stripped out, and the jump cuts hold the movie together.
And I learned that even if you’re brilliant, taking real risks is really dangerous. But without risks, there’s no picture.
Jon Boorstin was Associate Producer on All The President’s Men. He wrote, and with Alan Pakula produced, the thriller Dream Lover. He has just published Mabel and Me, a novel about the very early days of picture-making.
© Jon Boorstin