In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

Thumb can forgive

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? comes from a place of understanding and love that few other biopics do, and it makes this difficult character a…

Thumb halloween poster


Do you know the biggest sin of the new Halloween? It’s just not scary. And that’s one thing you could never say about the original.

Other Reviews
Review Archives
Thumb xbepftvyieurxopaxyzgtgtkwgw

Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

Other Reviews
Great Movie Archives
Primary the godfather i the godfather trilogy 2728400 1020 576

The art of darkness: Robert Yeoman on Gordon Willis

Gordon Willis, the influential cinematographer of the 'Godfather' films, 'Annie Hall,' 'Manhattan,' 'The Parallax View,' 'All the President's Men' and other classics died this weekend at 82. I briefly talked about his legacy with Robert Yeoman, the cinematographer for all of Wes Anderson's features.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Could you talk to me a bit about Gordon Willis? What did his work mean to you, and to your profession?

Robert Yeoman: Gordon Willis was one of the great cinematographers. He really pushed the limits of cinematography, particularly in the way he shot interiors. We've all heard those stories about how, on 'The Godfather,' the studio was worried that the interiors were too dark, but Francis Coppola said, 'No, no, that's how I want it in this movie.' [Willis] had a very strong vision, and he put a mark on every movie that he shot. Even in his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and other strong directors, you could see the Gordon Willis trademark on it. 


The key to his work was its simplicity. His photographic approach was, 'The camera goes here.' It was very simple. The idea was, you don't make camera moves just for the sake of making camera moves. If the scene calls for you to move the camera, then you move it, but not in a way that's showy. His work favored beautiful, classic photography. He was very much a pragmatist about that, and I think a lot of cinematographers were influenced by his example.

MZS: I've read interviews with Gordon Willis where he talked about the value of taking things away rather than adding things. He once made a comment to the effect that when there is a problem realizing the potential of a scene, the solution of many cinematographers, indeed many directors, is try to solve it by adding things. Willis had the opposite approach. He said that his solution was to take things away, and that it seemed to work pretty well for him.  It might partly explain his signature, his use of negative space and darkness to fill up a frame and highlight the important action within it.

Yeoman: The simplest solution is almost always the best. I find that many times, in commercials, the less experienced directors are constantly trying to spice it up and do something that, in the end, detracts from the scene. It's artificial. 

If I can do something with one light, I'd rather do it with one light. If I can do it with no lights, I'll do it with no lights. I don't want to overcomplicate anything. Sometimes a scene requires a hundred lights, but in general I do think the simplest approach is the best, and I strive to do that. It's also the fastest approach, which is an important factor when you're shooting, for sure. 

MZS: If you were to revisit the work of Gordon Willis, what movies do you think you'd reach for?

Yeoman: I love the 'Godfather' movies. They just look so great. I remember that when I saw the first one as a kid, even though I was not a cinematographer, I recognized that there was something special going on there. That was certainly a movie that inspired many. 'Manhattan' was another one. I remember that when I saw that film I was just inspired, so inspired, by the cinematography. I know that I've said before that as a cinematographer I generally want  to try to stay in the background, but I love how in that film Gordon Willis just jumps out at you! 

But for me, those are the two. Those are my favorites.


Popular Blog Posts

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...

Netflix’s Terrifying, Moving The Haunting of Hill House is Essential Viewing

A review of Mike Flanagan's new horror series based on the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

Always Leave 'Em Laughing: Peter Bogdanovich on Buster Keaton, superheroes, television, and the effect of time on movies

Peter Bogdanovich, film historian and filmmaker, talks about Buster Keaton, the subject of his new documentary.

Why The Godfather, Part II is the Best of the Trilogy

A look back at one of the best films of all time.

Reveal Comments
comments powered by Disqus