by Ray Zone When director of photography Conrad Hall, ASC and director Sam Mendes teamed to make American Beauty, few could have predicted that their dark vision of suburban malaise would be such a smash success. The film won five Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography (Hall’s second Oscar, following his triumph for the 1969 Western classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).
Hall’s work also earned him his third ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography (see AC June ’00).
Road to Perdition, Hall and Mendes’s second collaboration, took the duo into decidedly different territory. Based on a graphic novel authored by Max Allan Collins, the film is a tale about the Irish Mafia set in 1930 s Chicago. At its heart is the relationship between fathers and sons; after his professional life tragically impacts his domestic life, hit man Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) sets out on a wintry journey of self-discovery with his son, Michael Jr.
Along the way, Sullivan must come to terms with his adoptive father, Irish crime lord John Rooney (Paul Newman).
“Road to Perdition is a period movie in which there are no double-breasted, pin-striped suits and no spats,” Mendes says. “I was trying to get away from all the clich ” es of the gangster genre.” Hall’s overarching strategy for the film dovetailed with the director’s goal by favoring naturalistic realism over a more stylized approach to the material. “The thing that makes this picture work so well is a kind of honesty,” Hall says. “It’s a sort of honest reality that doesn’t try to be theatrical in any way.
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There is no blue moonlight, no green vistas, none of that kind of stuff. The film has very carefully crafted compositions, it’s meticulously cut, and it’s paced very gently and slowly – all of which is good for the story.” Of his photography, Hall notes that “I’m not trying to characterize the people in the film; the actors do that. I’m trying to frame them in an appropriate emotional context for the scenes. How are their characters behaving in those scenes? Are they behaving like human beings? My goal is to make a given scene emotionally accessible for the audience.
I just try to make it real. Whatever the story is trying to say to the audience dictates to me the mood I should use to reach that audience. In this case, the film is about a father who’s trying to raise his son so that the boy won’t grow up to be like him. It’s a powerful story with great performances, but it’s not a fun-and-games type of movie.
It’s a stark story set in the Depression, and it has a serious message.” The movie’s theme of fathers and sons also factored into the production itself. Producer Dean Zanuck read Collins’ graphic novel (which was illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner) and sent a copy of it to his father, producer Richard Zanuck. The senior Zanuck subsequently sent the book to Steven Spielberg. “To my amazement,” says Richard Zanuck, “Steven called me two days later and said, ‘I love this. Let’s do it.’ ” (The Zanuck co-produced the film with Mendes. ) Hall and Mendes agree that using a graphic novel as source material simplified one aspect of pre production: they already had a form of storyboard at their disposal.
In fact, “we did work from storyboards most of the time,” Mendes notes. Hall adds, “I love Sam’s storyboards because they give me a real sense of what he’s thinking.” Mendes wanted to shoot Road to Perdition entirely on location in Chicago and the nearby town of Pullman to create an authentic Midwestern look. The Illinois State Film Commission provided the filmmakers with the Armory, the largest location mainstay in Chicago. Large enough to hold a football field, the Armory is home to the Illinois State National Guard.
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The facility offered the filmmakers considerable flexibility, and the interiors of the Sullivan house and the Rooney mansion were among the sets built there. “We needed stage space in Chicago to build a very large set, and the Armory was just that,” says gaffer Tom Stern, who also worked on American Beauty. “I think the governor got the National Guard to move across the street.” Hall appreciated the facility because it gave him complete control over his lighting environment. “The Armory was a wonderful spot in which to set up our ‘studio,’ ” he enthuses.
“It was a great space. We did all kinds of work there, including our ‘poor man’s process’ – night driving scenes where we would shake the car and create passing lights and rain.” To transform the Armory into a soundstage, key grip Bill Young and his crew hung green beds overhead to facilitate lighting, and they hung tracks around the periphery of the Armory for a movable backing. “Once the sets were built, it was an intensive rigging process to put all the scaffolding in and hang tracks for the very large backing,” says Young. “We had to have an engineer inspect the building and approve the hanging of all that weight from the ceiling. It took a rigging crew of 10 almost eight weeks to rig it.” We put up scaffolding throughout the Armory to create lighting positions, especially for lighting the backings and lighting outside the windows,” he continues. “Conrad likes to have those lighting positions so he can make the picture look great without getting any lights in the frame.” The backings – black for night scenes and white for day – were lit with a mix of 10 K Fresnels and 5 K Skypans; there were about 60 Skypans and 30 Fresnels in use at all times.
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All of the lights were patched into a dimmer board using an ETC rack system. It took six miles of 4/0 cable, which fed four 24 x 12 K racks, to light the Armory. The cable also fed two 48 x 4 K racks – enough to illuminate an average suburban neighborhood. Some 20 Ks were also used to create sidelight. Every light fixture was run through the ETC. Wall outlets on the set were practical and were also patched into the dimmer controls.
The stage was kept rigged at all times because whenever exterior filming during the Chicago winter proved too harsh, the production headed indoors for coverage. Hall modulated his interior lighting shot by shot, using what he calls “room tone.”Room tone is the light that results from light bouncing off of walls, ceilings and floors,” Hall explains. “It gives a sense of presence to what I don’t want to see.” To create this effect, Stern and his crew employed LTM Peppers, and occasionally other units ranging from 1 Ks to 4 Ks. The small Fresnel instruments were usually aimed directly at white parts of the ceiling to create a soft bounce fill. If areas of the ceiling had color value, the crew put up a white show card to use instead. Because many shots in the film were captured with a locked-off camera, it was relatively easy to hide the Peppers behind objects on the set.
Hall worked closely with Mendes, costume designer Albert Wolsky and production designer Dennis Gassner to develop a cold period look for the film. “The palette for the movie was very muted,” Mendes says. “Very early on, Conrad and I talked about creating a sense of great contrast within images by using hard light from the side and chiaroscuro. We wanted dark backgrounds and dark sets with dark, muted greens and grays. Albert Wolsky’s costumes are all very controlled, with soft outlines and very soft silhouettes.” Hall offers, “I felt that a less colorful palette was best suited to the story. The film’s period trappings – the cars, the costumes and the architecture – dictated much of the look, so the photography was more about capturing our story in that heavy Depression atmosphere in a naturalistic way.” Road to Perdition was filmed in Super 35, and Hall used Pa navision Platinum’s and Primo lenses ranging from 27 mm to 150 mm.
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He used Kodak Vision 500 T 5279 for interiors and Eastman EXR 100 T 5248 for exteriors, and operator Scott Sakamoto notes that the cinematographer “consistently shot at the bottom of the aperture. We shot a lot at T 1. 9 to T 2. 5, which cut down depth of field, made the focal plane more specific and softened the backlight.”I like to shoot wide open, with only one point in the depth of field sharply focused,” Hall acknowledges. He feels that this technique gives the imagery an emotional dimension.
“With Perdition, I like to call the look ‘soft noir.’ “”We had four or five trailer loads of lighting and equipment,” says gaffer Stern, “and although production would probably say it was really big, I’d say we had just enough. Sam and Conrad try to get the emotion on a piece of film, and they ” re both masters at it. As mechanics, we try to keep all the deus ex machine elements out of the arena so they can work in any direction they want.” No matter how much pre visualization is done, Hall’s crew knows that the cinematographer won’t determine how a shot will be lit until he arrives on set. Stern says he thinks of his primary job as “holding the palette” for Hall: “Conrad will often dabble; he ” ll ‘sling paint.’ Bill Young and I stand back with a palette of about 100 paints, and Conrad will pick three. His work has incredibly smooth consistency, and he’s masterful at creating depth on a two-dimensional piece of negative film.
His tools are totally subservient to the emotion, the performance and how he gets moved artistically.” There weren’t any big, 360-degree shots, but each scene had an organic life as Conrad and Sam developed it,” Stern continues. “As the direction of a scene became clear, we’d begin to work on [lighting] it. The trick was to make it work seamlessly and quickly without a lot of compromises.”Conrad is an intuitive creature,” affirms Mendes. “I knew from working with him on American Beauty that the most important thing for him is a kind of telepathy on the day you ” re shooting. However much you plan with Conrad, he will always want to be left free to improvise on the day of shooting.
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He understands that a pretty image is not something that advertises itself; beauty is in the textures of light and the way light hits a wall, or it’s in the ‘weight’ of the image and how people move through space.” Hall often uses unorthodox methods and materials to achieve his unique lighting effects. “He’s totally different from most cameramen, and he uses a lot of trickery that he’s learned over the years,” says Young. “For example, he ” ll use black silk for daylight exteriors because it cuts a perfect amount of light to make a scene look as though it’s in the shade. White silk makes light flare, but black silk doesn’t bring all that flare back and doesn’t fill the whole scene up with fill light. On this film, we never shot in harsh sunlight; we always used black silks to dim down the scene and then relit it the way Conrad wanted it to look. He also uses different papers and double soft’s, and mixes hard and soft light almost constantly.” Given Sullivan’s moral ambiguity, Mendes was keen to keep the audience at a distance from Hanks’ character for the first part of the film – no small feat, considering the actor’s substantial box-office appeal.
He and Hall achieved this through lighting and composition. “Tom is an actor audiences feel they know very well, and I wanted them to have to lean forward to try to penetrate the inner world of the characters, especially his,” Mendes says. “I wanted them to have to fight their knowledge of him as an actor and to be drawn in on some level because they weren’t being given the usual signals. So in scene after scene, Tom is either partially obscured or seen through doorways, and he disappears into shadow and then reappears. We always used wide lenses and stayed a distance from him.” Throughout the film, we tried to fill the top of the frame with heavy objects to create a sense of compression and claustrophobia,” the director continues. “When Sullivan and his son are released into the second and third act of the movie, there’s a sense that they ” re cut adrift in a mythic, empty landscape.” The paintings of Edward Hopper were a primary reference for the filmmakers.
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(See sidebar) According to Sakamoto, “We did a lot of tableau shots, wide shots that let the actors move within the frame, and we didn’t move the camera much. Sam lets his actors tell the story within the frame.” Hall agrees, while noting that Perdition has a distinctly different feel than his previous outing with Mendes. “The compositions in American Beauty were very symmetrically controlled, which created a formalized claustrophobia; the characters were often placed in the dead center of the frame with something like a tree or a lamp on either edge. The story we ” re telling in Road to Perdition doesn’t have that kind of rigidity, so we were open to whatever seemed to work for the scene.”Every shot needs to tell a story,” declares Mendes. “There’s a good quote attributed to Conrad, and it’s true with him most of the time. Someone asked him, ‘How do you know where to point the camera? ,’ and he responded, ‘I point it at the story.’ “Filming exteriors in Illinois in the winter and spring meant that the filmmakers were often filming in real snow, rain and mud.
“We all got very wet,” Mendes recalls. “It was very cold and really tough, but this is a movie that’s told more through images than words, so I shot more film. Consequently, I pushed the crew much harder than I had on American Beauty.”Road to Perdition is the hardest picture I’ve done,” agrees Stern. “Rain is fairly easy to light with back-cross light, whereas snow has to be lit from the front, and Conrad did some really interesting work that required us to hide lights behind trees.” The crew used many different sizes of fluorescent lights, most of which were 40 watts. They also employed a lot of different color-corrected tubes, in addition to a large number of high-frequency ballasts. The crew often hid the ballast lines by covering them with snow.” I think the soul of the movie is expressed in the exteriors,” says Mendes.
“That goes for the skies, the rain and the way that [production designer] Dennis Gassner chose and controlled the exterior locations. In a way, the landscapes express the emotional states of the characters.” The town of Pullman, on the outskirts of Chicago, needed little redressing for the film’s 1930 s period, and it became a key location for the film. Pivotal confrontations take place in a number of settings there, including the historic Florence Hotel. “I wanted slate-gray skies and a sense of weight of the gray and red stone of the Thirties,” says Mendes. “I wanted heavy industrial architecture, abandoned warehouses and streets teeming with rain. Atmospherically, the landscape is a violent and magnificent canvas on which is told a mythic story of a father and son in the last period of lawlessness in American history.” Hall and the rest of the crew readily concede, however, that they were glad to get out of the frigid weather and back into the Armory.
“It was a great comfort to get out of the cold,” Hall admits, “and we had some beautiful sets to work with.” During post production, Hall considered using a bleach-bypass process on the negative to de saturate the images further, but Mendes was concerned that the special process might “undermine what is brilliant in Conrad’s lighting of the film. Conrad takes his own lighting skill for granted, and I felt that putting a post process on top of his work might make it look like… something that could be done on a computer, as opposed to what he actually did. I think Road to Perdition is the most dazzling work he’s ever done. He really wanted to take the image closer to black-and-white. He dares to light very, very little; he deals in shadows, in half-light and in muted shades of gray.” Hall and color timer Phil Hetos put the finishing touches on the film at Consolidated Film Laboratories.
“Conrad wanted to keep the look neutral and not have much color in the faces, with no pinks,” Hetos recalls. “The film has a certain cold look.” Hall ultimately decided to print on Kodak’s Vision Premier print stock, explaining that “it gave us better blacks.” Mendes marvels that during post production on American Beauty, “Conrad was never happy with the film. He wasn’t happy with it until it opened. For him, it’s as though every film is the first time he’s ever shot a film. He’s almost like a child in his endlessly renewable enthusiasm for the medium.
It’s amazing how, as a man of 76, he’s retained that sheer joy and exuberance. He instinctively feels how infinitely more complex pictures are than words.”Cinematography is just the language of storytelling – it’s not academics, it’s not literature, it’s just pictures,” says Hall. “Of course, it’s a very complex language. The piano has only 88 keys, but just think about what they can do. Likewise, the few things that cinematographers have to work with can create nuances in the story that are infinite and just as complex as music.” From American Cinematographer, August 2002. Reprinted without permission..