Among “The Godfather’s” many astonishments, the photography by Gordon Willis — a rich play with light and shadow — confirmed Willis’ genius but was especially striking as an extension of Francis Ford Coppola’s creative intelligence. This landmark in cinematography was the first notable sign that Coppola’s command of the classic Hollywood storytelling style included a significant technological grasp.
Over the course of his career, Coppola has continuously sought visual innovation through distinctive partnerships with several accomplished cinematographers. In addition to a keenly developed dramatic sense, Coppola proved himself a consummate imagist, able to achieve unique visual styles for each film, and able to communicate a particular focus and quality of vision through the lighting habits of assorted directors of photography.
Coppola’s filmography is a personal history of visionary collaborators. In the tradition of John Ford’s work with Gregg Toland, David Lean’s with Fred A. Young or Jean-Luc Godard’s with Raoul Coutard, Coppola merges his narrative ideas with the lighting cameraman’s efficiency — a necessary combination of concept and skill that produced a new way of looking at the world.
This was part of the excitement of the 1960s-’70s American renaissance that saw filmmaking technique expanding along with mainstream subject matter. From his first film, “You’re a Big Boy Now” (1966) with d.p. Andrew Lazslo, Coppola pushed toward mod experimentation, a casual look composed clearly and distinctly enough to be read through fast cutting.
Experiment also was apparent when collaborating with the great veteran Philip Lathrop on the big-budget musical “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968), where the young virtuoso and seasoned pro mixed soft-focus, lyrical fantasies with sharply lit nonmusical scenes. The approach helped loosen up the conventional studio style and view of the contemporary world.
In Coppola’s central ’70s position as the definitive popular filmmaker of the New Hollywood, the role cinematographers play in the creation of his vision is of particular importance. These are collaborations that, each time out, set new industry and cultural standards. Coppola’s work with a changing roster of top-flight directors of photography was proof of an inquiring, meticulous and refined experimentation.
For “The Cotton Club” (1984), Stephen Goldblatt made an important, necessary variation on “The Godfather’s” epochal gangster/noir look; here the genre was flashier, the images more fluid, and there was an important variation on lighting for different skin tones — a central element of the multiracial tale. Michael Ballhaus’ storybook cornucopia of colors make “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) one of Coppola’s most visually extravagant films. Colors — Gary Oldman’s wizened white face and scarlet robes, swirling black skies and misty gray roads — were emphasized for eerie psychological impact. Coppola incorporated this with his use of digital special effects into layered, fast-cut, dreamlike images.
Less mannered was the simplified Americana achieved with John Toll in “Jack,” toning down the child’s-tale look of an earlier Coppola production, Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion,” into a curious investigation of aging and innocence through recognizable domesticated images.
Any major cinematographers who have not collaborated with Coppola were certainly influenced by the effect of Coppola’s work. It has an impressive range through several of the most important director-cinematographer partnerships in American movie history.
“The Rain People” (1969) will Bill Butler featured on-the-road improvisations of weather and location redolent of the late-’60s fascination with natural light. Coppola’s steady compositions offset Butler’s lightened, almost European approach that was a sign of Coppola’s straddling different artistic eras of style as the movie itself stretched from women’s-picture melodrama to road-movie exploration.
When Coppola returned to work with Butler on “The Conversation” (1974), he conveyed a similar textured vision as that acquired during “The Godfather” but with an emphasis on space and suspenseful detail. This maturation of “The Rain People’s” style portrayed the filmmaker’s personal expression of modern anomie in an entirely different setting but with a consistent, recognizable emotion. It presents paranoia not only as a central theme but as fact — evidenced by the audience’s modern movie-watching experience.
Transferring the gangster movie into the expressionism of Italian art (Visconti more than Caravaggio), Coppola made a practical affiliation with Gordon Willis, an East Coast practitioner of new style as evidenced in “The Landlord” and “Loving.” It was ideal, adding a previously unrealized American concreteness to period-picture lushness. For all the theatrical stylization of shadows and intense overhead lights, Willis’ realism stood out. This collaboration not only changed film culture’s concept of crime movies — making the moral dilemmas an observable battle between light and darkness as man fades in and out — but a new importance was placed on the use of photography as a tool for evocation as well as representation.
It was only with the consistent sensual vision of the next two “Godfather” installations — filmed over a 16-year period — that a particular sensitivity became recognizable. With Willis, Coppola was able to vary the emotional tone of each film: the first opulent, the second complicated with more shadow and subtler colors, the third with blacks of even harder gloss and chalkiness. Their collaboration kept its high quality, but grew more bold each time.
Vittorio Storaro was Coppola’s second and most frequent collaborator. Already legendary for his partnership with Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “1900”), Storaro’s teaming with Coppola made for unique aesthetic research. Probably the most audacious d.p. of his era, Storaro fit Coppola’s risky mood on “Apocalypse Now,” filming rock ‘n’ roll Vietnam, not in an acid-trip style but with realistic hallucinogenic effect: burning colors, hyperintense focal clarity. Together Coppola and Storaro brought culture shock to war drama, an artsy extreme that might have signaled the end of the American renaissance’s revisionism in pure astonishment.
The duo leapt with “One From the Heart” (1992) from the jungle to the soundstage where super-illuminated Las Vegas was re-created. It made DeMille’s gaudiest spectacle look like a small-town tryout. This overwhelming feat was an experiment in lending to the big screen the resilience and speed of video technology.
Storaro lit complicated setups that allowed for different-hued scenes within scenes, even shooting through scrims, a stage gimmick that added magically to the dreamlike cinematic effect. But the most seamless Storaro-Coppola association came later in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988). In this almost autobiographical caprice, Storaro’s sun-bright vistas and Coppola’s heroic, towering, expanding compositions realized affectionate, atomic-age images of technological folly.
Probably the strangest episode in Coppola’s variegated arts sojourn were the 1993 Boy Movies, “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish.” These teen flicks were elevated from Tiger Beat banality by the earnestness of their visual style. These two Oklahoma-set, low-budget features contrast visually, but each is a model of pure pop imagination. “The Outsiders” takes its romantic view of adolescent boyhood from the sentimentality of greeting cards and “Gone With the Wind”. sunset-tinged skyscapes and deep-focus split-screen effects show Coppola and Burum trying out the wellspring of remembered movie nostalgia. This movie referencing is part of Coppola’s post-modern video consciousness. He’s determined to bring an enlightened sense of the movie past to the contempo audience’s attention.
To Coppola, youth experience was also an arts experience, so for the more naturalistic “Rumble Fish,” with its mature dilemma of teen angst verging on grownup existentialism, the model was Orson Welles’ black-and-white psychodramas. This was an especially remarkable showcase for Burum, who went from one virtuosic extreme to another — summer/autumn lushness to funereal iridescence. They both plunder the history of film noir to enhance “Rumble Fish’s” depiction of the emotional life of desperate youth. Burum’s time-lapse photography and outright surrealist images (including a hand-less clock) were added to Coppola’s canon, climaxing in the extraordinary out-of-body sequence where Matt Dillon floats unobserved through the lives of his town and family.
One of only three Coppola films to be Oscar-nominated for cinematography, “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986) began Coppola’s association with one of American cinematography’s mavericks, Jordan Cronenweth, the jewel-eyed fantasist best known for Phil Joanou’s films and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” With “Peggy Sue,” Coppola’s foray into “Our Town” feminist fantasy, Cronenweth lit a pretend 1960s with sparkling panache, an initiation into Coppola’s always polished point of view.
But on their second collaboration, “Gardens of Stone” (1987), Cronenweth approached the rich gravity of the “Godfather” films. This D.C.-set military drama has a burnished splendor recalled from Cronenweth’s work on Jan Troell’s mostly exterior-set “Zandy’s Bride.” But “Gardens of Stone,” another original-looking Coppola film, has in some ways the freshest imagination of any. Exteriors are impeccably, almost judgmentally sharp, while Cronenweth’s interiors are complexly beautiful. He most often cues the elegiac mood of this Vietnam-era story by streaks of heartbreaking sunlight coming through window slats — the dark world of “The Godfather” opens up to a modern, unshadowed clarity.
That richness summarizes much of Coppola’s cinematic interests — in the past, in human interaction, the company of men, the influence of women and ’60s social tumult. And through collaboration with an artful cinematographer as rigorous and imaginative as others in Coppola’s career, those concerns take on a majestic glow.