Creating the Vision: An Interview with Cinematographer Billy Williams
By David A. Ellis.
Retired cinematographer Billy Williams (born on 3 June 1929 in Walthamstow, London) began working in documentaries at age fourteen (his father, Billy senior, was also a cinematographer) and then graduated to television and feature films. He had Oscar nominations for Women in Love (1969) and On Golden Pond (1981) and had several BAFTA nominations. In 1982, he won an Oscar for Gandhi. Williams became a member of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) in 1967 and was their president from 1975 – 1977. He had BSC nominations for Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) and won BSC awards for Eagle’s Wing and Gandhi. He taught cinematography at the National Film Theatre (NFT) starting in 1978. In 2009 he was awarded the OBE for services to the film industry.
Did you want to work with film because your father was in it?
I left school at fourteen, not knowing what I wanted to do. I had been immersed in films for as long as I could remember. This seemed the natural thing to do. I had the chance to work for a stock broking firm but I thought that would be pretty dull, so I went with my father. He started in the film industry in 1910. During WW1 he went into the navy and filmed the surrender of the German fleet at Scapa Flow. After that he moved into documentaries, which included Cape Town to Cairo in 1928. He did features in the 1920s and ‘30s, so I grew up surrounded by film equipment. I was with him for around four years and the highlight was going to East Africa at the age of seventeen to make educational films for the Colonial Film Unit.
How did you get into features?
In those days features were like the premier league and I wasn’t in it I always wanted to get into them but moving into features was almost impossible. In the 1950s commercial television arrived and I got an offer to work for a commercial company. It was a company called Television advertising and they operated from a basement in Wardour Street, London. I then started to learn about lighting. While I was there I worked with a number of people that went on to become well-known directors. There was Ken Russell, John Schlesinger and Ted Kotcheff.
I got my first feature San Ferry Ann (1965) through production manager David Anderson. It was a comedy in black and white that had no dialogue. I went on to shoot several low budget films and then got a break through Ken Russell. He was about to shoot Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Cinematographer Otto Heller was engaged to shoot it but he refused to take a medical that was required. Harry Saltzman said to Ken “Who do you want to photograph it?” Ken asked for me I went along, and was able to get a reel or two of a film I’d being doing with Tony Richardson called Red and Blue (1967) and got the job.
You bypassed the focus puller and operator stages?
I operated in documentaries where it is just a two-man crew. I was never a focus puller or operator. Billion Dollar Brain was filmed in Finland and at Pinewood studios where there were huge sets, which I found quite daunting. It was nerve racking working on that scale because I hadn’t any experience of working in a big studio.
Would you tell me a bit about Women in Love (1969) you shot with Ken Russell?
Women in Love was the best visual script I ever had. It had all the opportunities that a cinematographer could wish for. It had, in addition to straightforward day interiors and day exteriors, night interiors and exteriors. There was a very extended magic hour scene and it had a lot of firelight and candlelight and a very long sequence in the snow in Switzerland. So it was a very broad and interesting palette to work with. Ken was in agreement with me that we should go for very strong colour effects like the colour of firelight, which is very orange. In the famous wrestling scene I filtered all the lamps to be the same colour as the fire and created a flickering effect.
The wrestling scene was played in a large room on location. The actors only did one day fully nude. Another day we shot them from the waist up. We photographed it with two hand held Arriflex cameras, shooting mute. This gave us mobility to follow the action. We only had two days to shoot it and shortly after that we went to Switzerland. When we came back, the editor said to Ken that we need something more. Ken wanted to do a sequence in high speed, but we no longer had the location. All we had was the rug they had been wrestling on, so we went to a little studio in Merton Park, London and I recreated the effect of the flickering firelight. By using the same techniques of lighting and shooting everything close, it cut together perfectly.
Would you tell me about working on Gandhi?
We tried to stay as close as we could to Gandhi’s life in all regards. We looked at hours and hours of newsreel footage. Ben Kingsley was just remarkable. When he played the old man in his seventies, he remained the old man in rehearsals and on the set. He stayed in character, even when he wasn’t acting. The film took around twenty-six weeks to shoot. Unfortunately I suffered a slipped disc and I had to return to the UK for treatment. Cinematographer Ronnie Taylor took over. Eventually I went back to finish it and we shared the credit and both received Oscars. The director Richard Attenborough was wonderful with the actors and very caring and considerate. I really enjoyed working with him and everyone called him Dickie. A few weeks prior to shooting Gandhi I was working On Golden Pond (1981) with Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. I got an Oscar nomination for Women in Love and another for On Golden Pond and then got lucky with Gandhi.
On the film On Golden Pond, Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda were absolutely delightful. She was very opinionated; she was a driving force, an absolute dynamo. I think she was seventy-three years old and she had so much energy. Henry Fonda was around seventy-six and not in very good health. He was no problem at all; he would do anything you wanted. Hepburn could be feisty and determined to get things her way. It was a marvellous experience. It was shot in an idyllic location in New Hampshire, USA, and I stayed on the other side of the lake where we did all the filming. The whole film was shot on location. We shot in a beautiful house on the edge of the lake, and again it was a film with lots of interesting opportunities. With the interior being on location we were able to link up the interiors with the exteriors in a way you can’t do in the studio.
Did you want to direct?
I directed a few commercials but I didn’t feel I had the talent or the experience to direct. Working with and understanding actors is the most important role of the director. Also being able to interpret the screenplay is important. I didn’t feel I had the background. I was happy to stay a cinematographer.
Which was your most difficult film?
Women in Love was really my most difficult because I was doing things I hadn’t done before, except in an experimental way in commercials. The film was difficult but worth it because it was so rewarding. Ken was such an inspiration and a sort of great visionary. He had wonderful vision, so it was all worth it. Gandhi was difficult physically, but an even more difficult picture from the physical point of view was a film I shot in Montreal, Canada, in the winter and then in the arctic called Shadow of the Wolf (1992). It was difficult because we were shooting in extreme cold and igloos – real igloos and igloos created in the studio. That was difficult and we weren’t rewarded with a good film at the end of it.
Did you have a favourite director you worked with?
Well, all directors are different. Some are more demanding than others, but in the end you feel it was worth it all if you get good results. Ken Russell was very demanding and very imaginative, but I was prepared to stand my ground with him and stick out for what I thought we ought to do. There was a particular case in Women in Love where there is a long, complicated scene with Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. All the principles sitting around a very long table under a beech tree. It is a scene with a fig. If you look towards Alan Bates, he was in complete silhouette with a very bright background behind him. When you look in the opposite direction towards Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson, you had much more of a balanced picture. So I said to Ken, “I have got to put some lighting here to bring up the shadows on Alan Bates.” He said, “No, I don’t want it to look as though it is lit.” I said, I will light it so you won’t know I have used any lights.” I had a huge twelve-foot square white silk, which I shone a couple of brutes through. It was a very soft diffused light and it didn’t look lit at all. It created a good balance so the scene cut together well. In the end Ken was pleased, but I had to fight for that one. Another interesting director was John Schlesinger. A year or so after shooting Women in Love, I shot Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). I got a BAFTA nomination for that as I did for Women in Love and Gandhi, but I never won a BAFTA. Schlesinger said he didn’t want any anything as colourful or flamboyant as Women in Love. Guy Green was interesting to work with. I did two pictures with him The Magus (1968) and The Devil’s Advocate (1977). He let me do my own thing; he didn’t tell me how to do it. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if he had given me a few hints. Peter Yates was another director I enjoyed working with. I shot Eleni (1985) with him in Spain. I also worked with him on Suspect (1987), a courtroom drama with singer Cher, which was filmed in Washington.
Would you tell me a bit about your acting?
I played a small part in The Wind and the Lion (1975). I played a small part as the British consul Sir Joseph. The film was shot in Morocco and I had an action scene where I had to do a lot of shooting with an automatic. I was all dressed up in a white suit and Eaton tie. I had to shoot Berbers who were intent on kidnapping Eden Pedecaris, played by Candice Bergen. That was a departure for me.
Did you enjoy acting?
I did. It was quite difficult being in front of the camera because there are so many things you have to remember. At one crucial point there was a stunt set up with five cameras and I had to fire the gun at a certain point. I did everything except fire the gun. The stunt happened and I hadn’t fired, so we then had to shoot it from a different angle.
Why did they ask you instead of an actor?
I don’t know. Perhaps he though I looked like a British diplomat. I just walked into the office one day. He was casting. He looked up and said, “You can play Sir Joseph.” I said, “ What are you talking about John, I am not an actor.” He said, “Oh yes, you can do it.” So I played the character, which was a lot of fun. A few years later when I was on Suspect with Peter Yates, we didn’t get to a scene in the courtroom. We had an actor cast but he wasn’t available the next day, so I stood in for him.
When did you retire?
I decided to retire on New Year’s Day 1996. For a while I missed the buzz of it, but I was able to continue working with students, so I spent a few weeks a year with them. I feel I have been very lucky to have had a career in filmmaking, which has been the most satisfying, rewarding, exciting job I can imagine.
David A. Ellis has written for a number of magazines and newspapers. He regularly writes for The British Cinematographer magazine and is the author of the books In Conversation with Cinematographers (Rowman & Littlefield), and Conversations with Cinematographers (Scarecrow Press).