In 1979, Woody Allen collaborated with cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather Trilogy, Annie Hall, All the President’s Men), on what would come to be regarded as one of America’s motion picture masterpieces. Manhattan, starring Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Michael Murphy and Meryl Streep, is the story of a divorced middle-aged New York writer looking for love and meaning in his life. While almost every scene in the movie qualifies as memorable, a couple of my favorites are the opening montage love letter to the Big Apple and Allen’s monologue-reverie on the things that make life worth living. Last month, a quarter of a century after its release, Willis took a few minutes to tell me about the experience from his home in Cape Cod.—Tim Rhys

How do you recall the Manhattan shoot in general—was it one of your more chaotic DP experiences, or was it like clockwork?

Nothing I do is ever chaotic; I won’t allow it. I think a great deal of bumping into walls and yelling comes from people getting motion confused with accomplishment. Manhattan was a very good shoot. Everyone has a problem now and then, but with Woody, they were always resolved quickly and without fanfare.

How did you first meet Woody Allen, and what was your working relationship like with him?

I met Woody when he wanted to hire me for Annie Hall. I arrived at his apartment, we said hello, he gave me the script and I proceeded to read it right there. He didn’t want it to leave his apartment. He left the room, and I sat there and read it through, laughing out loud, all by myself. That’s how we first met.

What was your lighting and camera package, as best you can recall? What stock did you use and why?

It was Panavision equipment with their anamorphics. One real problem for a while was the raw stock. The whole picture was shot on Double-X.... interior and exteriors. We had a lot of static electrical charges showing up on the negative. This can happen in labs if the rewinds aren’t properly grounded, or they rewind too fast. However, we discovered that the handling of the raw stock was causing some of it—changing bags, putting a can down to hard… Anyway, we got it ironed out.

What were some of the other technical challenges you faced?

Well, anamorphic can be problematic regarding depth of field, but I tend to use that as a tool as opposed to something detrimental. Some very long “walk and talk” shots on the streets. If you have actors who aren’t afraid to do five minutes on the screen without a cut, it can be a bit of a challenge. Not so much in daylight, but at night. You do have to engineer a certain percentage of lighting, and of course make it look like you didn’t do any. Most of the moving shots on the streets were done at that time on a Western dolly, a Gimble tripod and a Dyna lens on the camera. On some of the night stuff, the dolly had some lighting attached as well. A Steadicam would not have been a good choice... way too much going on, for too long.

What were some of the human challenges? Allen supposedly didn’t like his own work in this film—did that create a tense environment?

Woody’s sets are never tense. You have to understand that Woody is almost always questioning what he’s doing. That’s who he is. We rarely got headaches over it. It was not something he would pass around to everyone.

“Manhattan is romantic reality... it’s the things Woody and I both loved about New York.” Willis on the 1997 set of The Devil’s Own.

Any production anecdotes that stand out in your memory?

There’s the famous “bridge” shot where Diane and Woody are sitting, talking… at first light. Well, this was shot about 5 a.m. The bridge has two sets of necklace lights, which the city has on a timer. When the light comes up, the bridge lights go off. Knowing this, we made arrangements with the city to leave the lights on. We said we’d let them know when we had the shot. After that, they could turn them off.

Something always tells me to never totally trust these arrangements. Anyway, I turned to the production guy who made the calls to the city, and in my calmest tone, said… “You know I need these bridge lights, right? You know that if they go off when the light breaks, I will kill you.” Ten minutes later, they were on the bench, dawn broke and... one string of lights goes out. What’s in the movie is a great shot... but it’ll forever be with only one necklace.

How was the decision made to shoot in 2.35:1 anamorphic? I think this is the first film ever released on video “letterboxed.” Was that a stipulation you asked for?

Woody and I both like black and white. It feels like New York. After a beat or two discussing it, I suggested anamorphic. “It would encompass the city well, and give us a better sense of Manhattan.” Turns out it was a good combination for the film because a) it’s a New York story, and b) it’s widescreen. At any rate, we both felt good about the decision, and we did it. What we perceived this film to be was “romantic reality,” the things we both loved about New York. Growing up there, I found it very easy to do. The “letterbox” idea for video was all Woody… he refused to let them scan it. I give him great credit for that.

The romantic New York setting, combined with the theme of love and loss, the pitch-perfect acting, the incredible cinematography—everything came together on this picture. I’m sure you knew the material was decent, but did you have any idea at all while shooting that Manhattan would become one of the seminal films in American cinema? And looking back, how have your perceptions changed, if at all?

Well, I’ve never, ever tried to shoot “art” or even think for a moment that “I’m doing a fabulous movie; this is important.” Never. But I’ve always given a thousand percent, and I’ve always done what’s meaningful to me.
I can’t explain how another person can transpose the same idea the same way. It just won’t happen. You give it your best shot every single time, and if other people perceive it as great and accept it as something wonderful, then you’re quite lucky. I still love the movie. That said, you can’t go back, and you can never do the same thing over the same way. So I’m content with what we did, and the way we did it.

Were you hugely disappointed or even pissed off that neither you nor the film won the Academy Award? Or did it not matter to you then or now?

I would be much more disappointed if the film had not been received as well as it has. Your benchmark for success or failure cannot be an Academy Award. Hollywood can be a fool’s paradise. It’s a place to work, not a place to forget who you are. Besides, I have lots of company that stand head and shoulders over me. As somebody once said, “Life is short. Have dessert first.” Well, I have—many times. I’ve been blessed with a great string of movies… but I think Manhattan is still closest to my heart. MM