Rob Hahn
Rob Hahn on the set of The Stepford Wives.
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Who says that sucking up is the only way to pry open Hollywood’s firmly closed gates? For cinematographer Rob Hahn, who counts Frank Oz, Sydney Pollack, Owen Roizman and the late Conrad Hall among his closest collaborators, success was a result of simply being himself—and having a sense of humor.

Making the jump from camera operator to director of photography on In & Out, Hahn has since logged many more hours behind the camera for Oz, on the star-packed heist movie, The Score and, more recently, The Stepford Wives. Here, Hahn speaks with MM about getting ahead in Hollywood and why a cinematographer should never play it safe.

Jennifer Wood (MM): The Stepford Wives is just the latest in a series of collaborations you’ve had with Frank Oz. How did you first meet and begin working together?

Rob Hahn (RH): I was called for my availability to operate In & Out with Kevin Kline. Wanting to move up, and knowing that Scott Rudin was producing (I had worked for him on The Addams Family), I asked to be considered as DP. I met with Frank and the first thing he said to me was, “I hear you’re a jerk to work with.” Without missing a beat, I said, ‘First-class.’ From that moment, we both knew we had the same sense of humor.

After our very enjoyable meeting, he called me three days later and said, “Well, you don’t have a reel, you’ve never really done anything of note before… I’d like you to shoot my film!” He said he was going on instinct. Of course I was jumping out of my seat with excitement, but also really scared. Thankfully, the chemistry we had in our meeting lasted for the entire shoot and continues to this day. 

MM: What is it about Oz—as a director and collaborator—that keeps you coming back?  

RH: Frank and I talk about the look of a film beforehand, then he leaves me alone to achieve what we talked about. The great thing about him is that he doesn’t second-guess or nitpick me while we’re actually shooting, which is truly confidence-building. It makes it easy to listen to your own creative inner voice while you’re lighting without having to explain every little thing. That kind of trust is worth coveting. 

MM: When beginning a new project together, what are the main questions you want to address? Do you find that, when collaborating with a director for a second or third time that you address your previous projects—and how to make the next one different? 

RH: We question each other about our expectations based on the script, then try to reference existing films. When we were preparing The Score we watched Touch of Evil. I’ve always loved that film, so it was a real pleasure to use Welles’ masterpiece as our touchstone. Frank told me to be as bold as I wanted and he would support me. He said not to be afraid to go dark and he also said it wasn’t always necessary to see the actors’ eyes. That was it. I never heard any more comments about the lighting except during dailies (which thankfully, were always a pleasurable experience). 

That said, we have a very organic way of working. Frank was less specific with me about the look of The Stepford Wives than he was with The Score. During location scouting we often talked in general terms about the feeling of the film before and after the characters move to Stepford (cool, blue colors before, warm rich colors after), but it didn’t get more detailed than that. He really left the visuals to me.

Working with the art and wardrobe departments, I strove to keep the “real” world of Joanna icy and cool and the “idyllic” Stepford world very colorful. We all agreed that Stepford should be a place you’d want to live in. Still, that didn’t mean the look had to be bright all the time. Though our film is lighter in tone than the original Stepford Wives, I felt that didn’t preclude going darker as the story progressed. I should add that I purposely didn’t look at Owen’s version of the film. I wanted to create my own take on the story and didn’t want to be subconsciously influenced by what he had done on the original. Also, the tone of the remake was so different that it didn’t seem appropriate to reference the first film. 

MM: Do you find that you tend to light for theme? So that your approach to a more action-oriented drama like The Score would be a lot different from a broader comedy like In & Out?  

RH: I tend to ignore the bright for comedy, dark for thriller ‘rule.’ For example when I got the job as DP for In & Out (definitely a comedy), I decided I was going to light it the way I wanted and if they didn’t like it, they could fire me (of course I never said that to anyone, I only thought it). I had recently been Conrad Hall’s camera operator on Searching for Bobby Fischer and I was on Owen Roizman’s crew for 20-plus years as assistant and operator. I learned a most important lesson from them: Find a lighting and shooting scheme that illuminates the inner voice of a film that’s appropriate for the story and forget whether it’s a comedy or drama.

In & Out is a film is about someone who is hiding from his loved ones and, more importantly, himself. That gave me the license to shadow the characters’ faces… no flat lighting required. Frank completely backed me up on this look, never once saying, “Do you think you’re making too many shadows?” 

Certainly, when we tackled The Score, that kind of lighting was even more appropriate and Frank pushed me to go even farther than I had on In & Out. I really can’t stress enough how important it is to the creative process to have an environment in which you feel safe. By the time we filmed The Score I felt completely comfortable with our relationship and I believe I did better work because of that.

“I really can’t stress enough how important it is to the creative process to have an environment in which you feel safe.”

MM: You’ve been working in the film industry for almost 30 years now. What’s been the most fulfilling experience for you so far? Do you have a favorite film? Or a kind of film that you haven’t yet made, but would like to?

RH: I think getting my first feature film (The Electric Horseman) as a second assistant cameraman working for Owen Roizman was an amazing experience. I revered Owen’s work when I was attending NYU and here I was working on his crew! I couldn’t believe it.

Owen really took me under his wing and we’ve had an intensely close relationship for more that 30 years. To this day, when I’m shooting, he is on my shoulder, telling me how to approach any number of situations with some measure of confidence. There’s a complicated scene in The Score with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton that takes place in a public park. Because of my experiences with Owen, I knew exactly how to shoot the sequence. Having worked with such a master artist, one tends to acquire a creative shorthand, where one can dip into a well of knowledge that’s hopefully been absorbed during the years. 

Another great experience was interning with Conrad Hall on Marathon Man (while I was attending The American Film Institute). I stuck to Connie like a fly on flypaper and we also became very close. He was like a second father to me. Years later, as I mentioned earlier, I found myself as his camera operator on Searching For Bobby Fischer, a simply indescribable experience.

I had to take over for Connie for a week as first-unit DP on the film while he went off to time (color-correct) Jennifer 8. I was so scared. He was hard on me and my work, but no harder than he was on himself. If he didn’t like what you did, he’d tell you… no holding back. I knew when he came back and saw my week of dailies, he wasn’t going to sugarcoat what he thought. But when he left me for that week, he gave me a great gift. He pulled me aside, put his arms around me and said, “I don’t care what you do. But whatever you do, be bold.” That gave me the freedom to follow my instincts, and I think I found my voice during that week. Bottom line: I learned from both Connie and Owen that if you start playing it safe, you might as well hang it up.