The eyes have it
Conrad Hall, who by his own account has been "gainfully employed" behind a film camera since he graduated from UCLA in 1949, is dreaming of his own paradise: a house with five acres of coconut trees on a lagoon some 600 yards from mainland Tahiti. Hall will return there shortly after his Dallas trip for the USAFF honors. He notes that although he keeps an apartment in West Hollywood, he doesn't own any property in America; he considers himself a Tahitian, a permanent resident of the island where he was born and lived until the age of eight with his novelist father James Norman Hall, co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty.
"It's not a bad life," he says of his home inside the Great Barrier Reef. "White sand, blue water, cool breezes. I think everyone should have a paradise somewhere -- if not on a lagoon, then on a mountaintop. Film people especially need it, the way 14-, 15-, and 16-hour days have descended on the industry."
The 74-year-old Hall, one of American film's two or three most revered living cinematographers, deserves some exotic natural beauty a couple of times a year, if only because his onscreen forte -- the lighting and angling of stories that involve ethical dilemmas and layered characters and few clearly delineated heroes and villains -- doesn't allow his camera to linger over breathtaking vistas. The way he chats excitedly about American Beauty, for which he took home his second Oscar this year (he snagged his first for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 30 years ago, with seven nominations and countless other honors in between), you'd think his photographic work in stage artist Sam Mendes' directorial debut involved lounging around foreign locales full of palm fronds and servile natives. But as Hall himself notes, it was mostly a job of making suburban bedrooms, bathrooms, garages, and high schools tense and eerie environments for confrontation, revelation, tenderness, and cruelty. And he was so enthusiastic about film virgin Mendes, who had explicitly storyboarded the whole movie beforehand (details of their collaboration can be founded on the upcoming American Beauty DVD), that he didn't mind the "collaborative process" -- which in this case meant chucking a whole lotta film.
"I'd say a good 40 percent of the movie wound up on the edit floor," he says. "We shot four days of green-screen fantasy stuff [that was never used], where Kevin Spacey flies through the air over his neighborhood, waves to the two Jims, and lands in his front lawn. It was originally framed as a police investigation and a trial. But you know, that's such a traditional way of telling the story, the ferreting out of who's responsible. The film is much more powerful when it looks at dysfunctional families with laughter and with tears and without blame, and enables you to forgive your family and yourself for being dysfunctional."
The cinematographer is up-front about what he did and didn't do in the film; none of the video-camera work was shot by him, for instance. Most of it was done by actor Wes Bentley, except for what Hall sees as the film's centerpiece: the floating-paper-bag footage. Much as he loves that scene, he didn't shoot it either. But he did visually compose the moment where Bentley, who plays the drug-dealer son, and Thora Birch connect while watching it.
"Sam shot the paper bag with a couple of assistants to operate fans and trash bags full of leaves and probably a peanut butter sandwich," Hall says with a laugh. "But the way Wes' character sees beauty in how leaves and brick walls interact, where most people see nothing, is how I try to look through the camera. I made the room where Wes and Thora were watching it dim, with a harsh light from the window falling on her cheek, his ear. And you add Alan Ball's words, and that's what explains the power of it."
Getting Conrad Hall to discuss the specific contributions a cinematographer makes to a production arouses some impatience in him ("If you're really enjoying a symphony orchestra, do you have to know what the violins are there for?"). He's full of self-deprecating cant like "A cinematographer is just the head of a crew, and he has all kinds of people with him. The assistant makes sure the camera stays in focus, the operator points it after the director, and the [director of photography] decides where it should be placed." Moreover, he says he deliberately doesn't study new digital innovations because "I won't be part of that future. I feel lucky to have been a cinematographer in the second half of the 20th century. I'm only interested in basic filmic principles, not cutting-edge technology. I'm only interested in what it takes to tell a story about people."
Hall specializes in making light and shadow and composition reflect the turmoil of the characters in his movies, which he insists is just part of the cinematographer's job description. His modesty is a tad disingenuous, as anyone can testify who's been clobbered by the images in the most ostentatious of the Coen Brothers' work or a David Fincher movie (Hall's son was camera operator on Fight Club) or any other of the slew of contemporary directors who've made their names in music video. You may not notice Conrad Hall's somberly expressionistic art until you really concentrate, or until you credit an actor with giving a powerful performance that Hall, in fact, has accentuated. Watch the way Robert Blake's face is covered with streams of light shot through rainwater in the sheriff's office in In Cold Blood, or how Stacy Keach blinks and hunches over when leaving the dimness of his favorite bar for the scorching outside sun in Fat City. These reserved masterpieces, along with Marathon Man, The Day of the Locust, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and recent successes Searching for Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action, prove that Hall is one of the most performer-sensitive lensmen in the business. You've heard the phrase "actors' director"; Conrad Hall is an actors' cinematographer. The proof is in the reputation: Hall got the American Beauty gig after Tom Cruise passionately recommended him to Sam Mendes, who was directing Nicole Kidman onstage in The Blue Room.
The Hall-Mendes-Dreamworks connection will continue with the theater director's sophomore effort, a script featuring Tom Hanks and Wes Bentley as Montana brothers that will begin filming in October. Hall says he is keeping his schedule clear to accommodate Mendes and the crew, because he feels grateful that American Beauty was the apex of years of "being allowed to be picky about what I do." His affinity for that project bore strange and haunting fruit. When told that, in fact, it is his cinematography and Thomas Newman's score that enable Alan Ball's clever if surface script to burrow into you, Conrad Hall beams out enough pride from West Hollywood to melt your ear into the receiver.
"I'm glad to hear you say that," he says, taking a moment to enjoy some credit. "And certainly, the photography and music in other movies is more complex, more special. What we did in American Beauty wasn't elaborate, it was just..." He pauses to fumble for an adjective. "It got under your skin because it was right."
By Jimmy Fowler
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