Hallmarks of a master

Hall's boldness set him apart in d.p. pantheon

When musing about cinematographers who dared directors to be great, the late Conrad Hall comes first to mind. Hall, who died Jan. 4, 2003, was a three-time Oscar winner, including his posthumous honor for “The Road to Perdition.” He also bagged four awards from his peers, the American Society of Cinematographers, not including the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, reserved for the Mount Rushmore of d.p.’s.

But it was Hall’s tendency to challenge filmmakers to break the rules that might be his lasting legacy. “He was the boldest cinematographer I ever met,” says fellow ASC lifetime honoree Owen Roizman. “When he didn’t like something, he’d tell you. He’d say, ‘You shouldn’t work with that director, he’s not helping you.’ ”

But Hall’s ability to help directors, especially novices, was indisputable. Among the first-time feature helmers who were the beneficiaries of his wisdom and daring are Steve Zaillian (“Searching for Bobby Fischer”) and Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), who was undoubtedly aided by Hall’s Oscar-winning photography in earning a statuette of his own for directing the film.

“The first thing I noticed when we met was the twinkling, mischievous gleam in his eyes,” recalls Mendes. “I could see that he was extremely intelligent and artistic, and he was also very opinionated.”

Mendes was initially reticent, even a bit intimidated, about approaching Hall to work on what was then considered a small film with a rookie director who hailed from the London stage. “I was reluctant to show Conrad my storyboards,” Mendes says. “But he was anxious to see how I saw the story in my mind, and he took it farther than I imagined.”

If directors are considered the rock stars of their profession, then Hall might have been considered the George Martin of his — the “fifth Beatle,” as it were. Hall’s subtle but rigorous approach has served as a model for scores of d.p.’s who’ve followed in his wake. And his tendancy to try new techniques, sometimes on a lark, often resulted in “the happy mistake,” as he called it.

One such instance was the effect, unplanned, of shadows from raindrops streaming down Robert Blake’s face as he pours out his soul to the prison chaplain in “In Cold Blood.” Another was allowing rays of sunlight to ricochet off the inner glass of his zoom lens, creating a flare that visually punctuated the misery of midday heat in “Cool Hand Luke.”

“He inspired all of us to be more daring,” says Scorsese’s d.p. Michael Ballhaus. “But no matter what you did he was always more extreme.”

Of course, filmmakers not comfortable with being second-guessed would not have been prone to collaborate with the master.

When Zaillian was casting about for someone to shoot “Bobby Fischer,” he remembers, “(Paramount) warned me not to hire Conrad. They said he was too old, too crabby and too opinionated. He’d come in each morning and ask, ‘What’s the point of the scene?’ He made me think. He convinced me it was better to trust your instincts.”

Like fellow d.p. Gordon Willis, who made life miserable for Francis Ford Coppola on the “Godfather” movies — but with brilliant results — Hall’s brand of tough love was not for everyone’s tastes. But the dividends were more often than not priceless.

“He could be as cranky as an old sea captain,” says scribe-turned-director Robert Towne. “If he didn’t like something, it was ‘Jesus! God! That’s terrible.’ But if he loved it, he’d say, ‘That’s wonderful!’ He’s irreplaceable.”

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