American Cinematographer Magazine

Road to Perdition, a Depression-era drama about a conflicted hit man, reteams Conrad L. Hall, ASC with director Sam Mendes.

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' 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 1930s 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. (Tyler Hoechlin). 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 clichés 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. 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 Zanucks co-produced the film with Mendes.)

Hall and Mendes agree that using a graphic novel as source material simplified one aspect of preproduction: 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. 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 greenbeds 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."

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.