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An Epic Renewal

Acclaimed cinematographer Gordon Willis jumps at the chance to restore his 'Godfather' work.


Cinematographer Gordon Willis created a memorable, nostalgic world of subdued light, rich dark tones and muted colors for 1972's "The Godfather," 1974's "The Godfather Part II" and 1990's "The Godfather Part III."

But until now, Willis has felt the video and laser editions of the first two classic films--directed by Francis Ford Coppola--were just shadows of their former selves.

Willis has been working this past year with Garrett Smith, executive director of video operations at Paramount, to digitally restore the first two "Godfather" movies, which both won Oscars for best picture (though, oddly enough, Willis' cinematography failed to earn a nomination). "Godfather III," for which he was nominated, didn't have to be restored because it was so recent, Willis says.

On Tuesday, Paramount released the new digitally remastered edition of "The Godfather" for its 25th anniversary, as well the remastered "The Godfather Part II" and "The Godfather Part III" ($25 each). The films are available in widescreen for the first time and include retrospective interviews unique for each picture.

For serious collectors, there's also "The Godfather Collection: 25th Anniversary Box Set" ($65), "The Godfather Collection: 25th Anniversary Widescreen Edition" ($80), "The Godfather Collection: 25th Anniversary Widescreen Limited Edition" ($150) and "The Godfather Trilogy: 25th Anniversary Commemorative Edition" ($150).

"The original videos and lasers that were released were never done properly," Willis says. "They were just released by the powers-that-be like wallpaper. All of these videos sitting out there are all junk, basically. These people turn all of this stuff out and don't talk to anybody about what it is supposed to be like. They really perceive the people who make these movies as kind of a roadblock in their way."

The first two installments in "The Godfather" trilogy were released on video in 1979; "The Godfather III" followed in 1991. With the 25th anniversary of "The Godfather" epic coming up, Paramount Home Video wanted to do something special with its enormously successful trilogy.

"We know there is a whole generation that had not really seen it, or at least may not have seen it in a way it should have been seen," says Jack Kanne, executive vice president of sales and marketing, referring to the first film. "This needs to be seen in the best possible way. You want to do it the right way."

Willis, whose credits also include the recent "The Devil's Own," "Manhattan" and "Zelig," says that until "The Godfather" project, no one has ever consulted him about transferring one of his films to video.

The new transfers, he says, "in general terms, represent what the movies were when they were first done. It's as close as I could get it. Of course, I could sit in a room for weeks and keep tweaking it to get it right, and also possibly correct things that weren't very good to begin with, but this represents the essence of the movies that were done 25 years ago. Both movies are quite beautiful, I must say."

The films were transferred to video in Los Angeles and then sent to Willis, who lives in New Jersey. "I would look at them and then call them back, discuss it and give them suggestions. They would go ahead and redo it and keep doing it.

"They were very good," Willis says of Paramount. "You didn't have to do a lot of dancing with them. The only problems were both movies together run about 6 1/2 hours, so it was a lot of film you have to go through. So I won't say we are 1,000%, but we are very very close to it."

He's not quite sure how the "Godfather" gig came about. "I think it was all sort of laced together, with people talking to people, and one thing led to another and I was hired."

The first film of Mario Puzo's Mafia novel, Willis says, "was very difficult for Francis. The studio perceived him as a doormat and they would walk all over him and he wasn't having an easy time with anybody on that movie."

"What I give Francis so much credit for is hiring me twice and again three times," Willis says. "I was very grateful. If you are going to hit a tree in a car, you are going to hit a tree and that is the way it is in life. I got hired to shoot the movie. It was a big break for me and for everybody else."

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