The Road To Perfection

Sam Mendes and Conrad L. Hall

Sam Mendes (l) and Conrad Hall on
the set of The Road To Perdition

With over 40 years of experience behind the camera,
cinematographer Conrad L. Hall has left an indelible mark on American
cinema. As DP on classic pictures like Cool Hand Luke, In
Cold Blood
, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (for which
he won an Oscar) and Marathon Man, he has revealed time and
again an exquisite mastery of the moving image. Hall’s work-and
even his working style-has been a major source of inspiration for
moviemakers as diverse as director John Boorman (for whom Hall shot Hell in the Pacific and Point Blank) and fellow DP
Roger Deakins, who credits Hall’s work for luring him away from
still photography and into motion pictures. Born in Tahiti to a
storytelling family (his father co-authored the novel, Mutiny
On The Bounty
), Hall graduated from the University
of Southern California’s film school
in 1949. Now an incredibly youthful and dynamic master of 74 years,
he continues to turn out brilliant work, recently picking up a second
Oscar for American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes.

Hall and Mendes have returned with The Road To
Perdition
and a cast that includes Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Jude
Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh and indie favorite Stanley Tucci. The
picture is set in an almost mythic America of the 1930s, where the Depression ate into the side of the American
dream and larger than life personalities governed big city crime
rackets with almost divine impunity. Inside that landscape Hall,
Mendes and company paint the story of a mid-level gun for hire (Hanks)
in the Irish mob who is set on a collision course with his boss
(Newman) when certain guarded “family” secrets fall on the wrong
ears.

The film is a solid second outing for director Mendes,
who has become a big fan of his DP: “I can’t even describe how attached
I’ve become to him,” he says.”.When Conrad puts his eye to the eyepiece
of the camera, magic begins to happen. If you ask him how he knows
where to point the camera he’ll tell you: ‘I point it at the story.'”
Totally laid back and unassuming about his work, Hall describes
himself as an intuitive artist who finds inspiration in the muck
of production. He took a few minutes with MM to chat about
his new picture, his collaboration with Mendes and the new blood
that keeps the Hall family tradition alive.

Phillip Williams (MM): Why did you decide
to come aboard
The Road to Perdition?

Conrad L. Hall (CH): Sam Mendes. We had such
a wonderful time together making American Beauty. When he
sent me the script it was with some trepidation because he knows
how I feel about violence.

MM: How is that?

CH: Certain kinds of violence viscerally affect
me. I don’t mind doing a picture that is psychologically violent,
like In Cold Blood, but there is not [actual] blood or smashing
against the wall. I just try to stay away from pictures that seem
to be gratuitously violent. And he said that this was not going
to be that way, and I trust Sam completely.

MM: The main scene involving violence-and
it
s such a pivotal scene-is when the boy witnesses, for
the first time, what his father actually does for a living. How
did you arrive at your visual treatment for that scene, specifically
the way you delivered the scene from the boy
s point of view
and the decision to leave out so much and deliver the action through
sound?

CH: The thing that makes it horrifying is that
it comes from the boy’s point of view. To see all of this-it’s important
[to see] that it impacts him. The violence is part of the script
but was treated by Sam to show the way it affects the boy more,
by going to slow motion when Connor kills the other Mafioso. Otherwise,
you don’t see the father actually kill the man, you just see the
boy seeing the man dead. But he knows that his father shot them
because of all the bullets that are coming down in front of him.

MM: You really get the impact of it.

CH: The impact is incredible. The noise and
the horror to this boy is visceral.

MM: Sound is so pivotal to cinema. Since
sound affects the way your work is going to be received, are you
ever part of those discussions about how sound will be used in a
given scene?

CH: Not at all. That’s something that I’m not
sure that even Sam knows about until he gets into it. We are in
an art form that is collaborative. Everybody’s job is terribly important
but it has to be looked at from one point of view, which is the
man with the baton: the director. I’m sure Sam has these things
in mind but they don’t always come out to us.

MM: Once you have a basic take on the story,
how does the image system or whatever you want to call it-the color 
palette, the approach with camera, etc.-how does that begin to manifest?

CH: It begins with the storyboards. Sam storyboards
his pictures. He did on American Beauty and he did on this
one; probably 90 percent of it, I would say. We stayed with the
storyboards. They were wonderfully thought out and beautifully designed.
But when it comes to the mood and all of that kind of thing, I have
a lot to do with that in terms of the lighting. And Sam has everything
to do with “this needs to be dark or bright, etc.”

MM: You open the film with a very arresting
image of the boy on the beach, with bleached out skies, and you
dissolve to a white tableau of hills covered in snow. There
s
a beautiful image of the bicycle cutting a path through the snow.
Were any of these images meant to support the basic themes?

CH: The shot of the boy at the lake was my
idea. I came down to work one day at sunset and I had never seen
the lake like that, ever. I pulled Sam over and I said ‘Look at
the lake, it’s so flat.’ We were searching for endings because we
didn’t have an ending that was satisfactory for Sam. I saw this
symbolic shot: somebody standing at the water’s edge, looking out
at it. It was just an image that hit me. I pulled Sam over and he
loved it so we quickly decided to shoot this image of the boy looking
out [at the water]. We didn’t know how to use it at that point but
it was just a startling image. Later on Sam decided how it was to
be used, which was to bookend the film.

MM: Why did you bleach out the image?

CH: You know what, it was actually shot at
sunset and it was much more colorful originally, but we took it
and made it bleak rather than beautiful.

MM: There are beautiful, deep blacks in
this picture that give some of the images a sort of depth; they
create atmosphere. When you get the script and see the storyboards
for the first time, are you already thinking about what type of
film stock and lenses you will be using?

CH: I always use the same lenses, which is
all of them, because I don’t know what I will need eventually. I
carry them all.

MM: So it’s not as if you will design
your approach in such a way that you might consciously limit the
use of one lens or another. Some moviemakers might say, for example,
that the first act will be shot with long lenses or whatever to
serve their interpretation of the story.

CH: No, no, no. I don’t think that way at all.
Sometimes it will develop that way. Perdition happens to
not have so many close-ups, but there are still a lot of close-ups
in the film.

MM: When you are behind the lens and you
are operating or working with your operator, is there ever anything
you will do to communicate a bit unconsciously with the audience
in the way you choose to tilt or pan or frame the image?

CH: Absolutely. For instance, in Searching
for Bobby Fischer
there is a shot that is from overhead down
on a young boy playing chess with Larry Fishburne and you kind of
build up a game that’s moving faster and faster and the excitement
is building and he’s teaching [the kid]. You can feel this approach,
which I used as a basis for that film, which was basketball: fast,
break, slam, dunk. So that when I was operating the camera I had
my hand on the zoom and I zoomed in and backed off and sort of giggled
it-jerked back and forth. It lends a kind of visceral quality; to
build the sense of the joyous excitement of the game.

MM: In Bobby Fischer you placed a
lot of hot light on actors’ faces. What was your thinking
there?

CH: I like a lot of contrast; there was a lot
of darkness also [in that picture]. What was important for me was
that it not be Leave It to Beaver. Because a story about
a boy, his teacher and his family-who argue about what to do with
this genius-could be pretty ordinary if you lit it up and didn’t
do anything with it; it wouldn’t have the dramatic aspects that
it deserves. So by making it too dark and too bright, and creating
that space of conflict, you make it more exciting.

MM: You used light on the faces the way
some people might typically use shadow, to dramatize.

CH: Yes, and on The Road to Perdition-what
I’m getting now that I watch it after the fact-is the fact that
you might characterize it as a kind of soft noir. It’s not lit like
a soft light film; it’s a hard light film, but it doesn’t look like
a hard light film. It’s full of these contrasts again: too bright,
too dark; juxtaposed in a way that makes it very interesting.

MM: This might not always be the case, but
in some pictures, when everything in the frame is etched out completely,
something can be lost dramatically. In
Perdition there’s
a way that the blacks recede.

CH: .Yes, they disappear.

MM:It lends a lot to the sense
of drama. There’s a bit more space for the imagination to
play; there’s the sense that something might come out of
those shadows and dark areas.

CH: Yes, right. There’s the scene where the
two boys are talking together in their darkened bedroom and then
the bright light [of the flashlight] comes on and you can’t see
the edge of the frame. It just goes off into black, but it looks
beautiful. You see everything you need to see of the boy sitting
there and the bright light hitting him.

MM: You get a window into that sort of secret
intimacy which brothers share; it’s inherent in the relationship. It’s something you created which really gives us the sense
of how close the boys are and what they mean to each other.

CH: Yes, Sam is a brilliant dramatist, an absolutely
brilliant dramatist. He started when he was 18 or maybe younger
and he’s been doing it ever since. I mean, how do you come out and
do a first picture like [American Beauty] unless you are
a brilliant dramatist. And then to follow it up with a picture like
this, which is a beautiful picture.

MM: You’ve worked with so many directors
over the years. It impressed me that when I spoke with John Boorman
he referred to you as a major influence. How do you nurture new
talent? What works about your collaboration with Sam Mendes?

CH: Sam is not a first-time anything. Working
with drama in theater he had to deal with lighting (which is very
important in theater), set decoration, all of that. He’s the same
sort of hands-on person with [the production designer] Dennis Gassner.
And in conversations with him or our costume designer, Albert Wolsky,
he described exactly what he wanted to see. The thing about Sam
is that he has vision. He’s a visionary; I’m not. (laughs) I can’t
think of anything to do until I see the drama unfold before me:
the actors walking through and talking. Then everything comes to
me immediately. I just feel it because I know what the story is
trying to do. That’s where I begin to come forward. Sam begins much
earlier.

MM: Given that you find the film while you
are making it, when you are shooting, does the actor’s presence
inform the way you light?

CH: Yes, but more than that it’s the drama
of the situation. I’m a dramatist, too. I don’t consider myself
to be only a cinematographer; I feel I’m a filmmaker. I understand
cutting and directing. I don’t understand acting; I marvel at acting.
Not knowing how to do it, I can’t appreciate it until it happens
in front of me.

MM: How do you feel about seeing your son,
Conrad W. Hall (
Panic Room), making it as a DP?

CH: I’m very happy with that. All of my children
are in the industry: my daughter is directing and writing a Discovery
program about New Zealand; my other daughter is a producer in commercials. We are all storytellers,
basically. My dad was a storyteller; he just used a different language.
We are visualists and not academics.

MM: I recall someone once saying that every
significant advance in human technology-the printing press, electricity,
the computer, etc.-all have in common the fact that they make stories
more accessible to people.

CH: Yes. (laughs) It’s such a gratifying thing
to be able to tell a story well. It’s about human communication;
it’s about what the audience feels about the story. What you put
into it, the audience has to be able to take out and you’ve got
to be able to see that they take it out in order for it to
be satisfying for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.