The Cinematographer And The Projectionist

I first met Gordon Willis in 2002 when I was working as a projectionist at the Nickelodeon Cinemas in Hatchville.

In the beginning, I had no idea that the guy with white hair and glasses, who came in once a week and always complained about the projection, was Gordon Willis.

Every time he came to the movies he would point out at least one technical issue with the projection, a problem that most people never notice or aren’t bothered by. The picture was slightly out of focus. The framing was wrong. The image was too dark.

When a co-worker told me who he was I couldn’t believe it. You mean the guy who always complains that the picture is too dark is the “Prince of Darkness?”

After that, every time he and his wife, Helen, came into the theater, his comments made me work harder to get the projection right. I learned about the equipment and how to tweak it to make the movies look better for everyone.

He even showed me how to focus the picture on the gleam of light in the actor’s eyes.

The highlight of my career as a projectionist was screening “Manhattan” for the Woods Hole Film Festival with Mr. Willis as the guest speaker. He came in a week or so before the screening with his light meter and we got as much light out of the old dim bulb as we could.

I’m sure the projection was not to his standards, but I think he appreciated the effort.

It was the least I could do after all he had done for the movies that I loved. Years before I met him, I watched, obsessively, the films he shot. Even as I got lost in those movies, I would stop and marvel at the images that he created.

As a teenager, I thought I might be a photographer and I tried to emulate some of his compositions to see if I could get my pictures to look cinematic. I couldn’t, of course, because I didn’t have his eye.

I met Gordon Willis again in 2009, when I did a story about him for the Enterprise, after he received an honorary Academy Award.

We sat in his Falmouth home with the shades drawn, and he wore a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. He explained that his eyes were failing him. “I used them up is what I think,” he said.

We talked for about an hour, about his life and movies. Toward the end of the interview, he said, “I am one of those people that can walk into a room or stand in the middle of something and see the best way to look at it, and I was very good at that when I was making movies.”

I knew I still had to take a picture of him for the paper, so I asked what he would do if he were taking the photograph.

“Well, I tell you what,” he said and glanced around the room. His voice picked up a little excitement and in a few seconds he pulled up the shades, took off his baseball cap, and sat on the window seat. He crossed his legs and hands and told me to sit a few feet away from him and to use the zoom to get closer.

As I looked through the viewfinder, I didn’t even try to wrap my mind around the idea that I was taking a picture of the man who had captured some of the most iconic images in film history.

I showed him the pictures on the little camera display and asked him if he would have done anything differently to improve the shot. “No, I think that’s a good job actually,” he said.

Even on that tiny screen, I could see his pensive expression highlighted by the bright windows on one side and the dark room on the other, and a perfect shadow cast by the pleat of his trousers.

It is still the best picture I’ve ever taken.


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