From “2001” to “The Godfather” to “The Matrix”
It was a night out of your dreams. We’d been invited by James Bond, the famed projection wizard, to see the new Kinowerks post-production and screening facility he designed and built on Chicago’s north side. You have James to thank if you’ve ever attended the Grant Park outdoor film festival or Ebertfest. He’d arranged with Robert Harris, the famed restoration wizard, to show us Paramount’s new print of “The Godfather.”
Kinowerks’ post-production sound, editing and screening facilities are state of the art. The screening room has big reclining chairs. Who walked in but Andy and Larry Wachowski and their S.O.s. They’re zillionaires after the “Matrix” trilogy, but they looked like guys who had spent way too much time playing “Speed Racer” before making it into a movie. Nice people. Friendly. No Hollywood attitude. The blogosphere paints them as mysterious recluses, which may add to the legend but doesn’t match the reality.
The print was sensational. I saw “The Godfather” at its World Premiere, and I swear this print looked better. Afterwards, we settled down in the bar and lounging area. Larry praised the perfect shadows in the blacks of the print. The film was photographed by Gordon Willis, the “Master of Darkness.” Willis was famous for doing shots that theoretically couldn’t be done on 35mm film. “He even invented the lenses,” Larry said. “One of the problems of 35mm is that it’s so hard to hold perfect focus in a shot that’s moving toward something. He has a shot in ‘All the President’s Men’ where he starts by showing Robert Redford way on the other side of the big Washington Post newsroom, and then moves all the way in on him, always keeping him in focus.”
I think Larry said Willis invented a “variable lens” to do that, but I don’t want to misquote him. He invented something, anyway.
“I’ve always been fascinated by films that draw you visually into the picture,” he said. “I first experienced that when I was taken as a kid to see Kubrick’s ‘2001.’ I told my dad, ‘That black box is the key to everything! What do you think it means?’ My dad said, ‘Maybe it’s the consciousness of God.’ I went back and was even more deeply drawn into it.”
He said if there was one film that inspired the visual look they were trying to create in the “Matrix” films, it was “2001.” And digital technology allowed them to hold perfect focus as Willis had inspired them to do.
His brother was still talking about “The Godfather” with James McTeigue, also at the screening. He directed “V for Vendetta” (2005) which the brothers wrote and produced. It joined “The Matrix” in IMDb’s list of the 250 top films of all time. The Wachowskis are producing McTeigue’s “Ninja Assassin,” now in post-production at Kinowerks.
“Yeah, we’re resurrecting the ‘Ninja’ craze,” Larry said. One thing he noticed in “The Godfather,” he said, was how director Francis Ford Coppola filmed the moment when Michael finds the gun in the restroom and pauses before returning to the restaurant to commit murder for the first time.
“Michael stops, runs his hands through his hair, stares at the door and prepares his mind,” Larry said. “Coppola does that moment as a high-angle shot from behind. Any other director would have moved around for a close-up. It’s so much better the way he does it. We’re forced to think about what’s ahead of him that he’s walking into, not just look at a shot of his face.”
“I can see the whole camera crew jammed up there next to the ceiling in the john,” Andy said. Everyone laughed. It occurred to me that the scene might have been shot using a studio set. But why bring it up? They knew that.