I met Conrad Hall in 1998 when he walked into the small "American Beauty" production office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. I had been warned off him by a producer friend -- "Too old, too cranky, too slow" -- and expected a chilly, distant presence. But I couldn't resist meeting the man who had shot "Cool Hand Luke," so I made the appointment.
The fellow who shuffled in was in every way the opposite of what I had been led to expect. With his trousers hoisted slightly too high above his waist, long gray hair grazing his collar and a roguish glint in his eye, he charmed us all instantly with a combination of naivete and directness that later became all too familiar.
He was there, he said, because he loved the script: It made him laugh and squirm in recognition of himself, and how was a guy from England going to shoot it? I sent everyone out of the room, reached into a drawer and got out some storyboards. He flipped through them once, laughing all along. When he finished, he looked up and succinctly said, "Now all we've got to do is shoot this mother."
I have several abiding memories of him in the weeks that followed -- laughing so much at Annette Bening discovering her husband masturbating that he had to climb into a closet; sitting on top of a crane, happy as could be, while a naked Mena Suvari had rose petals sprinkled over her, waving back to her as she winked; high-fiving his crew when he made Chris Cooper's character disappear into a rainy night: a 70-year-old with the infectious enthusiasm of a teenager.
But as I worked with him, I began to see that Conrad was more than just a delightful man: He was one of the few genuine artists I have known. A man who never compared himself to others, except to acknowledge their mastery over him; who thought only of the movie, never the marketplace; who admired and respected actors and never lighted any two the same; who treated every shot as if it were the most important in the movie; and who took the work seriously but never himself.
Above all he was a man who understood the power of light and knew how to harness it: soft or hard, cruel or tender, unsettling or calming, exposing or mysterious, warm like a coal fire or a bowl of red flowers, or a brothel after midnight.
As I got to know him better, I discovered there had been disappointments. He had spent 10 years turning down work as a cinematographer in order to begin a directing career, to no avail. He had a simple, even simplistic, view of the world that hindered his directorial ambitions even as it helped him simplify his approach to photographing others.
Studio politics remained a mystery to him, as did much that makes up the contemporary movie industry. He hated technology and machines -- even his own camera at times -- feeling it was someone else's duty to understand how things worked ("Does a painter need to know how the bristles are inserted?"). He had a particular dislike for the DVD-induced demystification of moviemaking and for video and digital. Film was his medium, with all its texture, its instability and its mystery.
In a sense, I realize now, I chose to direct "Road to Perdition" partly for him. To see how he would light those rainy streets, those lonely interiors and lonely people, and although it was a hard shoot for an old man who didn't like the cold and didn't believe in violence, it lives as a testament to his extraordinary eye and consummate artistry. Late in the shoot, I turned to him as he was lighting an extreme close-up of Paul Newman staring into a fire, and found him crying quietly. "He was so beautiful," he said. "He still is," I said. "No, but ... 'Cool Hand Luke,' 'Harper,' 'Butch Cassidy.'... He was so beautiful." I think he was crying for both of them.
He leaves behind him three children (one of whom, Conrad Jr., is a fine cinematographer), several grandchildren and a new wife, Susan. But he will be missed by all who knew or worked with him. He was one of the greats, in the tradition of Gregg Toland, Sven Nykvist, Gordon Willis and Vittorio Storaro and others, poets working within an industry. You can still find them if you look hard enough.
Ultimately, though, I think he possessed something greater than success or even talent: When he put his eye to the camera, he found a kind of peace, like a painter in his studio. Indeed, that's how I like to think of him now, perched on his seat, faced pressed against the eyepiece, humming softly to himself like a child with a secret.
Director Sam Mendes worked with Conrad Hall, who died last Saturday, on what turned out to be the cinematographer's final two pictures, 1999's "American Beauty" and last year's "Road to Perdition."
Conrad Hall tribute
The Palm Springs International Film Festival will pay tribute to Conrad Hall with a panel discussion Saturday and screenings of five of his movies.
The discussion of Hall's career will take place at noon Saturday at the Camelot Theatre (2300 Baristo Road, Palm Springs). Scheduled to participate are cinematographers Dante Spinotti, Vilmos Zsigmond, Walter Carvalho and Adam Greenberg.
Hall films at the festival will be "Road to Perdition" (today at 12:30 p.m.), "The Day of the Locust" (today at 4 p.m.), "Fat City" (Monday at 11 a.m.), "Searching for Bobby Fisher" (Tuesday at 9 a.m.) and "In Cold Blood" (Thursday at 9 a.m.)
Information: (800) 898-7256.