Mendes Pays Homage to Hall
By Bill Desowitz
The following conversation, in which Director Sam Mendes discussed his award-winning collaboration with Conrad Hall on American Beauty and Road to Perdition, took place last summer. Mendes had just learned that Hall was dying of cancer.
Below the Line: After making history with Conrad Hall on American Beauty, what was it like the second time around on Road to Perdition?
Mendes: I think knowing how he worked on American Beauty meant that I was able to conceive Road to Perdition. I storyboarded American Beauty before I even met Conrad. But now storyboarding, knowing that Conrad was shooting it, helped me envision the scale of the film much more. And also I was imagining things that I knew he would light spectacularly. I was working within a color range and on locations that I knew would allow him to bring his special brand of magic to it. Plus the fact that when we got together and started shooting the movie there was now a kind of telepathy that exists when you’re used to working with someone. That emerged on the second half of the American Beauty shoot and became more magnified on Road to Perdition. It’s a dynamic that you get used to because there a days when you walk onto the set where you both know instinctively what to do. And there are days when you walk on opposite sides. I’d say we were coming from the same place about 80% of the time.
BTL: How would you describe his contribution to Road to Perdition?
Mendes: We kind of came up with this description in pre-production, which is a soft noir. I said very early on that wanted the film to have very mythic element to it. I wanted it to be, very, very simple compositionally. And I wanted it the silhouettes to be soft—I wanted the rooms to disappear into darkness. Kind of mirroring the sense of inevitability of death in the cinematography so that rooms hang with darkness and shadow, suggesting that there was something lurking just behind the corner. And so everything followed that. The other aspect was emotionally the story is about the gradual thawing out of a man [played by Tom Hanks]. It sounds prosaic but the film begins in a frozen landscape with the central figure emotionally paralyzed. Then the gradual thawing out and the movement to spring in parallel with the humanizing of the central figure. One of the ironies I loved about the story is that half-way through the film the two people who are being pursued, father and son, Sullivan and Michael, are cut loose…and the two people who you think are really safe—the other father and son—are really imprisoned. And that needed to be conveyed through production design and cinematography. And I was conscious during the choice of locations of allowing Conrad to do his magic with light, which is art that is achieved through craft.
BTL: What were some of his specific ideas?
Mendes: It’s everywhere with him. It’s very difficult because filmmaking is truly collaborative, and it’s difficult to say which was his idea and which was my idea.
BTL: You know, I wanted to interview him too but couldn’t because of his illness.
Mendes: Yes, he’s quite a frail man and I’ve not heard him this low, and I was very upset to learn the extent of his illness. Frankly, my one goal in life is to get Conrad the Oscar for this movie. And I’m shameless in my desire to do that. I love him dearly and literally the thought of making a film without him is depressing. And the moment I started working with him I knew that I was very, very fortunate…
BTL: To be mentored that way. He’s your Gregg Toland.
Mendes: Yes. It’s a wonderful thing to have learned at the feet of a master.