DP Conrad L. Hall Lights the Deep Depression-Era Road to Perdition in Tones Brown and Somber

Since its release in July, Road to Perdition has received critical plaudits for its acting, its powerful and economical storytelling and, not least, for its dark-toned, rain-drenched cinematography. Despite the reviews, DP Conrad L. Hall, ASC, says he didn't intend the film to be perceived as "beautiful." In fact, says Hall, director Sam Mendes and he knew what they didn't want: "A beautifully lit Mafia movie. We didn't want idealized light, or that beautiful bronze that Gordon Willis did in the Godfather movies. People say it's very painterly, but there was no attempt to be painterly. We were after simplicity and honesty of light." Maybe Hall's images just can't help but be beautiful.

The 75-year-old director of photography's work on Mendes' first film, the 1999 American Beauty, earned him a second Oscar (the first was for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969). This veteran of such masterfully shot films as The Professionals, In Cold Blood, The Day of the Locust, Marathon Man, Tequila Sunrise, and Searching for Bobby Fischer is widely acknowledged as one of the industry's cinematographic treasures, and could probably work with any director he wished. But there's something about working with tyro filmmakers that particularly appeals to him. "I love first-time directors," he says. "If the director is uncertain about what he wants to do, I'm there to help him." That said, he adds, "I can tell you that Sam didn't behave like any first-time director I had ever worked with. He was a veteran from the moment he stepped on the stage." Hall chalks it up to Mendes' theatre experience, and to the fact that the 36-year-old Englishman is a "prodigious learner," studying old films intently on DVD.

Plus, the DP continues, "Sam has vision, which I think comes from his understanding of plays and how to interpret them. He storyboarded American Beauty, and 90% of Road to Perdition. He's always an open book, but he's a control freak like all the good directors. On the first film, he knew almost everything; on this one, he knows everything."

Road to Perdition tells the story of a hit man (Tom Hanks) for a crime boss (Paul Newman) in the 1931 Midwest, and is based on a graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner; both book and film are seen through the eyes of the hit man's 12-year-old son. David Self's screenplay expands on the source material's scenario, but some of the form's compositional features remain. Each shot is carefully framed, in a nearly stand-alone style, yet the movie doesn't feel static. Hall avoided looking at the graphic novel before shooting, though other references came into play: painter Edward Hopper's Depression-era work, in particular. But apart from Mendes' storyboards, the DP says the most important influence on the film's look was what was in front of the camera. The Chicago-area locations included the Pullman company town, which housed workers who built railroad cars. "Sam wanted to feel the weight of steel on top of things," says Hall. "The elements we had to work with—the 30s streets and hotel rooms, the empty warehouses and those awesome, end-of-the-industrial-age edifices, the rain—give you a good feeling for a desperate time. We weren't intending to stylize it any way."

Costume designer Albert Wolsky and production designer Dennis Gassner were crucial to setting the film's visual tone. "Albert Wolsky brought in period materials he intended making the suits and the raincoats from," says Hall. "Sam went through and picked dark grays, blacks, browns, dark greens—that was the palette. Dennis Gassner's sets were very monochromatic: green interiors with dark brown wood. Some marble was used, and some of the light shades created some color, but they were just small points of light. We discussed shooting it in black and white, as you always try to do, but the studio feels audiences won't accept it."

The movie's look is a major departure from the floodlit vibrancy of American Beauty. "In American Beauty, we needed a visibility into the actors, to be able to understand their idiosyncrasies," Hall says. "Road to Perdition, which is a fable about fathers and sons, has more of a mythological sense. It's certainly the darkest of my movies. The faces stand out starkly against dark backgrounds, and the use of rain gives it texture and symbolism in terms of the hardships of the times."

The movie's ubiquitous use of rain is most striking during the bullet-splattered climax, set on a Chicago street (but actually shot, unlike the rest of the film, on the Warner Bros. backlot). "It was lit from above by a 20k with some diffusion in front of it, backlighting the street," says Hall. "It's not any kind of motivated light, it's just a 20k; you're so involved in the story that you don't worry about it. I had lights on top of the buildings that were augmenting streetlights in the scene, and occasionally a focused light crashing down through the rain on the characters. Things were etched in, indicated—the men had these dark overcoats that, along with the black cars, gave us great silhouettes against the brightly lit rain, and created this dark and foreboding sense of the street."

On interiors, which were primarily shot either on location or in a converted Chicago armory, Hall augmented period lamps with a sprinkling of babies, juniors, peppers, and "fluorescents with paper in front of them to soften them." It's been widely reported that the cinematographer describes the film's look as "soft noir." He explains, "Noir is a word I never understood, because I started shooting black-and-white films before the word had been invented. We talk about lighting contrast, is what we do. But because I do shallow focus—I work with the lens wide open, at 1.9 most of the time—what you get is a plane of focus in the middle that's very shallow, and you get an out-of-focus background, and out-of-focus foreground. With the kind of lighting I was doing, you get almost a hard light look, but softly focused. So I call it soft noir. I didn't say this to begin with, I said it after I had done it; I don't know how to characterize what I do until after I see what I've done."

The movie's softness is not attributable to camera filters. "I shot with lenses clean, because I was shooting with Super 35, and you lose a lot of definition when they make an optical for the anamorphic release print," says Hall. "On American Beauty, I used 1/8 Black Pro-Mist®, but I didn't use anything on Road to Perdition." On both films, the DP chose the Super 35 format because "I like the anamorphic frame, I just don't like to work with anamorphic lenses. I have to use too much light to make them work at their correct stop; I can't do 1.9 on an anamorphic lens very successfully. My eye is attuned to using fast films and the least amount of light to give me the palette and the contrast that I want. I don't need more than a few footcandles to work with, and that makes it a cooler place for actors to work, too." For film stock, Hall used Kodak Vision 500T 5279, plus 100T 5248, a medium-speed film "which hardly anybody uses anymore," for daylight scenes.

Since he couldn't shoot in black and white, the DP hoped to use the silver-retaining bleach-bypass process on Road to Perdition. "I thought it would look great, that it would give it a real gritty sense of the times," he says. "From time to time, the laboratory gave a scene the bleach-bypass treatment, and in every instance, we liked it better than the dailies, which were done on Vision. But Sam, on consideration, said, 'Conrad, the thing with bleach-bypass is, it loses all your beautiful, subtle lighting.' I said, 'Not really, what it does is take the pink out of the faces, which I find distracting—too colorful against the bleak backgrounds.'" Eventually, Mendes prevailed, but agreed to release the film on Vision Premiere stock, "which is a more contrasty film, with better blacks than Vision. In the final analysis, it looks good, because the contrast keeps the blacks."

Though Hall half-heartedly disavows the description of Road to Perdition as painterly or beautiful, he does say, "My painterly sense comes from the beauty that I see about me, and the way light hits people in buses, cars, restaurants, wherever. I always drift towards realism or naturalism. I take my palette from nature's palette, which is full of beauty and full of grit, and the kind of elements that you need to help tell a story. A poetic sense of the times is a better way to describe what is achieved, I think.

"The reaction to the movie has been mind-boggling," he concludes. "You know me—I just shoot a film."

Photos: DreamWorks/François Duhamel