Conrad Hall

This interview was first published in Issue 2 (1999) of Cinemad magazine. It appears here with permission.

A filmography of Conrad Hall as Director of Photography is at the end of this article.

Myself and co-writer Mike Gonzales met Mr. Hall in the summer of 1999 to do an interview for the second issue of Cinemad magazine. It was as simple as calling him up and asking if we could talk to him. He didn’t know us but was incredibly accommodating, and from then on, every few months we could call him up and he would go eat with us and tell amazing stories; total class act. He passed away January 5, 2003 at age 76. We are lucky to learn from his experience and wisdom.

–MP (Jan 2003)

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Conrad Hall has been considered one of the elite Hollywood cinematographers since the 1960s. His amazing work is displayed in the heavy contrast of In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967), in the super-realism of Fat City (John Huston, 1972), in the golden hues of The Day Of The Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975), de-saturated colors of Electra Glide In Blue (James William Guercio, 1973) and most noteworthy in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969), for which Hall earned an Academy Award.

With 1967’s Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg), Hall started a real effort to break the accepted rules in mainstream camerawork. The sun flaring the lens or muted colors were considered ‘mistakes’ and not allowed by the major studios. Forcing new effects on studios by using them in motivated scenes, Hall went through many battles with producers and studio honchos. But he also got many of them through, at least in the film climate of the late 1960s/early 1970s.

After watching his extraordinary work, it is surprising that Hall picked the ‘job’ of cinematographer out of a hat. Literally. In 1955, as part of a three-man production group starting a film, they had to decide who would do what. “We all wanted to direct it,” Hall remembers. “And you can’t direct by committee, so we wrote ‘producer’, ‘director’ and ‘cinematographer.’ I pulled out [makes a -gink- sound] cinematography.” And he goes on to be one of the best and most admired in the profession. “You know, half of life is accident, don’t you think?” Hall explains. “Some people choose to be a doctor and then go off and do it. But a lotta people get to do and find out what they want to do by accident. Earlier than that I tried to figure out if I had any genes rattling around from my Dad.”

Dad was novelist James Norman Hall, co-author of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy and many other seafaring novels. “I signed up for journalism at USC in 1947. After the first semester I got a D+ in creative writing. So… (laughs). I figured there weren’t any genes rattling around,” Hall says. “I picked up the liberal arts and sciences manual. A – Astronomy, B – Biology, C – Cinema. And in ’47… C – Cinema? Wow! You mean you can go to school for that? Like being a mechanic? That stopped me right away for all the wrong reasons. I thought I’d rub elbows with the stars, get to travel all over the world and have somebody else send you, you know. So I signed up and never looked back.”

At film school in the 1940s, classes weren’t so specialized. The students learned all aspects of film at the same time, from editing and shooting to producing. “When we got out of school we were immediately film bums, we did everything,” Hall says. “I made films for the Los Angeles school department, I worked doing documentaries, photography, I edited, I was production manager on some things…. You know, whatever job you could get. And there was hardly any money in it, even though television was just starting out.” Today, even film schools are very specialized in the variety of film jobs. “The business in 50 years has become a business!”

After school Hall and two friends got together and formed a company called Canyon Films. They bought a short story by Steve Frazee called My Brother Down There. The next week they got a call from producer Irving Paul Lazar offering them $25,000 for the story. “We paid 750 bucks for it!” Hall says with a laugh. “We said thanks but no thanks.” They changed the title to Running Target (Marvin R. Weinstein, 1956) and made the film. What did novelist Dad think of all this film hubbub? “Dad was not interested in it at all,” Hall admits. “A lot of his books were made into films: Mutiny On The Bounty, Hurricane, Passage To Marseilles. For him cinema was… uh…(laughs). But for me it was like being on the ground floor. Here we were, 47 years out of the invention of cinema. Graduated in June of ’49 and June of ’99 is coming up and that’ll be 50 years, my friend. (Luckily, he laughs.) That’s half the life of cinema!”

After Target, Hall helped make the film Edge Of Fury (Irving Lerner and Robert J. Gurney Jr., 1958). “It was just three of us on the whole damn production,” (we force Hall to remember). “Gripping, electrical, the whole thing. Climbing up telephone poles and hooking onto wires, stealing electricity and stuff like that.” “Crazy stuff, huh? Cuz I didn’t know enough to (not) be doing stuff like that.”

With Hall’s film experience so far, he got into the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the cinematographer’s union. He worked with Floyd Crosby (High Noon) as a second assistant and then as camera operator under super-old-school cameraman Ted McCord. “We shot East Of Eden, Johnny Belinda, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, all those great films,” Hall says. “(McCord) was a great, great, great cinematographer. I call him my ‘Father.’” Working with McCord on Private Property (Leslie Stevens, 1960), Hall got to know writer-director Leslie Stevens, who went on to do the television series “Stoney Burke” starring Jack Lord, Warren Oates and Bruce Dern. McCord didn’t want to do episodic television, even though it was shot on film, but ABC wouldn’t go for camera operator Hall. For Hall’s sake, McCord agreed to do the first six episodes while Hall did second unit photography, which gained him first cameraman status and ABC’s respect. After six shows, Hall would become the main man. Unfortunately, McCord became ill on the fifth episode, although it ultimately benefited Hall. “So in I came,” Hall says. “And Ted is one of these guys who’d like to say, ‘Okay, let’s get the 20 by 20 black up there and cut out the sun,’ right? And then bring in the arcs and light it all up to look like all the major studio shooting of those days. Geez, I wasn’t used to doing that kinda stuff at all.” It is the first stage in developing Hall’s great style. “So I said, what’s wrong with this thing called the sun? Can’t we use it to light scenes? And work on how to make it look good?” Hall was now a director of photography.

Marlon Brando in Morituri

When Hall was busy, Stevens made the pilot for the landmark “Outer Limits” television show with another cameraman. When the show got picked up, Stevens wanted Hall, but didn’t want to not give the other cameraman a chance. So each cameraman shot 13 episodes of the series. After making Incubus with Stevens in 1965, Hall shot Wild Seed (Brian G. Hutton, 1965). One of the producers was Marlon Brando’s father. Everything was set up for Hall. “I had known Brando from being (second unit camera operator) on Mutiny On The Bounty,” Hall says. “Go out drinking together and that kinda stuff. So when he was about to do Morituri (Bernhard Wicki, 1965), he asked the producer whom he had in mind to shoot the picture. The guy said he was thinking about Jimmy Wong Howe. Brando did one of those three minutes of staring up at the ceiling, three minutes staring at his toes, had this guy thinking, ‘What the fuck did I do now?’ Brando said, ‘Have you ever heard of Connie Hall?’ That’s how I got it. That’s exactly how I got it. And rather than upsetting Brando too much, he decided to look at Wild Seed and he liked it.”

Hall received an Academy Award nomination for Morituri. His career and influence was off and running. But before he could start breaking the rules, Hall had to get used to color. His television work and many films he operated on were in glorious black and white. (Watch the documentary Visions Of Light for an interview with Hall about the amazing shots from In Cold Blood). “I always liked doing black and white because it gives your imagination more of a sense to go out and figure it out,” Hall says. “It’s like reading a book. You don’t get the ocean painted blue, you get it painted with words. When you look at it all highlighted in black and white, you know it’s blue! You take color out of it. So in case the color is different, it doesn’t bother you. It doesn’t take away from the story of the human drama that’s going on. You get better focus on the characters. Without going along and suddenly the ocean isn’t the color you imagine or the sky’s different and you say ‘Oh, what is this?’” “Now it’s all changed because of MTV. Now it’s gotten to be all like magazines. The idea is like, ‘Hey, green ocean and orange sky.’ And wow, is that hot. Nothing wrong with that.”

On the other hand, when Hall did color he really started breaking the rules. For Cool Hand Luke, he shot straight into the sun in order to show the heat taking its toll on the chain gang. In the old studio days, any time a lens would flare like that the shot would have to be redone without question. But in Luke, a flare knocks Harry Dean Stanton out cold. “A rule is to be used appropriately,” Hall says. “If you find something about that rule that you can change, make it new and interesting, do it. Thing about it is, in film, ‘the only rule is’ doesn’t work. If it works for the film, hey, it’s the thing to do. It’s a language. I guess there are rules in language, aren’t there? But they’re broken by slang. You break them and you can make it what you want it to be.”

Also in Luke was Hall’s touch of realism, dumbing down the bright Technicolor look and using silhouettes. Of course, Hall says the studio “drove me insane. I did a shot with Paul Newman one time, coming back after they (recapture) him and line him up. They were all in backlight. So I shot the scene frontlit, over them onto Strother Martin. So I shot them all in backlight and each close-up in backlight and the studio came back and said, ‘We have to do this one over again, Newman’s close-up.’ And I did it over again and they said, (whispers) ‘Can’t see his blue eyes.’ So (in other words) they paid him three million or whatever he was getting in those days and we have to see his blue eyes.” Hall redid the shot but had to make it match visually with the shots to be edited around it. “I did it four times and it just wasn’t good enough (for them). So I finally just took an arc and went ‘whooosh-chak!’ Smashed him with light from the front, with no backlight! (laughs hard) Baby blues hanging out there, and man they loved it.”

Considering music videos and their influence on films today, the way they go nuts with light flares and missing frames and other rhubarb, it’s a shame Hall couldn’t have copyrighted some of that look. “What can you copyright? It’s a language,” Hall says. “No, what you can pray for is a good story. A blockbuster could be a good story. It’s often not but that doesn’t mean it can’t be. If you find a good story, that’s the important thing. Somebody’s got to have a vision about it. I’m not a visionary. What I do is, when I get into a situation I can quickly come up with a visual answer. But I can’t imagine it. I can when I write it. But hey, wait a minute, I don’t know whether the sun’s going to be shining. What if the sun’s not shining? I want to wait until everything is there and then boom! Lay it in there.”

What really impresses us about Hall and many of his peers is the attention paid to the script by a cameraman. They are not just equipment techs, they really care about what context they’re filming. “Your most powerful tool is yes and no,” Hall says. “Turning something down or accepting something. When you accept something, it’s a big responsibility. You feel like you want to be involved in telling that story. You feel like it’s something worthy of being out there and people knowing about.” “You don’t to begin with. I didn’t. I was a film bum. Anything that came along to begin with was worthwhile doing in order to gain the experience. In doing “Stoney Burke”, 20 episodes, and “Outer Limits”, 13 episodes, those were little feature films, an hour film. A lot of experience going down two years, and you wait to get your next break, your next script. I’ve been lucky all along, but it’s because the work that I did was something people remarked on. ‘This is a comer.’

“The script has to mean something to me in terms of the story. It’s got to be something that I feel is not just about entertainment. It’s about communicating the ideas, whatever the ideas that are expounded in the story. Whether they be social, human, whatever kind of elements the story is about. I’m not so good at keeping people on the edge of their seat. If that’s the idea, to scare people, I’m not into scaring, basically just for scaring sake. I’m certainly not into violence for violence sake.”

Fat City

Hall picks many scripts with people on the downswing of life. The script is the driving force behind John Huston’s great Fat City, following Stacy Keach as a small-time boxer. You know in the first scene that this is no champion. Not just at boxing, but at life. We can all relate in some way, at some time. “I think this is about failure, basically,” Hall says. “I know John Huston brought the production designer, Dick Sylbert, into a meeting with him and me and said ‘What do you think the picture is about?’ And Dick gave him his idea and I gave him mine. Huston said, ‘Well you know what I think the film is about? It’s about people whose life is running down the drain and they don’t know how to plug it.’ And you know how your life can hit the toilet real quick and you can’t figure out how to stop and go into a different direction or bring it up again, you end up watching cars go by or sitting, becoming those kind of people. It’s kind of an important story.

“It’s what happened to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Hall says in discussing the real people he helped bring to film in 1969. “This is bank robbing, right? This is what they did for a living. And along comes super-posses, technological advancement and invincible banks and what are you gonna do to make a living? It’s about people not being able to make the change and give up bank robbing and take up banking! It’s what’s happening nowadays. This is about people not being able to regroup and do something with their lives. Pretty powerful feat.”

Even in the early 1970s, Fat City wasn’t terribly popular with people. “It wasn’t successful at all in fact,” Hall remembers. “But everybody who loved it thought, ‘My God, what happened? Why didn’t anybody see it?’ So they took out an ad in the LA Times, full-page ad, signed by hundreds and hundreds of movie stars: Paul Newman and all kinds of people. Urging you to go see this picture. They re-released it. “Guess what? Nobody went to see it. It’s a cult film. Nobody wants to know about failure. ‘Hey kids, you want to go to the movies tonight? It’s all about this guy who can’t get it up (laughs).’” But if a viewer can’t handle a film that’s realistic, how do they handle reality? At least after seeing films like City one might feel better about one’s own situation or maybe even relate and get something positive out of the film. “I guess what’s happened is that we’ve gotten into a mentality that’s different than what pictures used to be,” Hall says. “The ‘blockbuster’ mentality. There’s no place for anything else but blockbusters. In the ’70s we didn’t have blockbusters. When they’d release a picture they put out, what, 60 prints? 300 was big stuff. Now it’s like 2500, 3000. Even more than that.”

With Fat City, and again for Hall, the studio didn’t like the dark, realistic photography. “I had a run-in with (producer) Ray Stark,” Hall says. “Everybody was saying it was too dark. I operated the (camera personally) and they didn’t want the DP operating. I did all of it. I get all these letters (from the studio) – there’s nothing on the negative, I can’t see that, I can’t see this. I said, let’s just take the dailies to a movie theater and see if we can see anything or not.” “Wooowwww! Did it look great! So Ray was saying ‘I can’t see his face here,’ and I said you’re gonna see it in the next moment, you know what I mean? You don’t have to see it all the time. We got into a big argument. I said, ‘It looks great. I shoot for this guy, not for the producer.’ They took it out on me later on, wouldn’t let me time the picture.” A quarter of a century later, Fat City is still an amazing piece of film. The great direction, writing, acting and images hold up.

Hall used less realism on Day Of The Locust, another story about people who aren’t exactly on top. Set in 1930s Hollywood, it outdoes even L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) in showing the city’s lurid qualities. “Oh yeah, I love that film,” says Hall. “I did the video some years back. I went in, there were some pieces missing from the negative. They would take (frames) for publicity purposes and never put it back. So we had to reconstruct the negative….” The images are realistic, but when a budding actress, played by Karen Black, walks in a door, she’s got a studio-lit backlight from the sun, glowing over her. She thinks she’s really gonna get the big lights. John Schlesinger directed Locust. Hall says, “When we talked about doing (Locust), I had just done Fat City and he said, ‘Should we do this gritty, Conrad? In black and white?’ Because the story is really a gritty story. It’s about the failures in Hollywood and the 90 percent of the people who don’t make it, but live next to the people who make it. And as long as they rub elbows with the stars and can go see the premieres and can dress up and be like it and live in the little courtyards and all of that kinda thing, they were perfectly happy. Like the moth near the flame. “So I said, ‘You know, I just made this picture…(laughs) about losers. And this is about losers. And if we do it gritty – nobody will go see it.’ So we decided to make it about what they imagined themselves to be. They were all the failures, but they were always ‘about to make it.’ Right on the cusp of stardom, on the cusp of getting a break…like the moth near the flame. The golden tones and everything just came out of the nature of the flame and money and gold.”

Hall didn’t watch ’30s era films to get the right look. “I take from life,” Hall says. “I don’t take from pictures. The reason I’ve done more gritty stuff than I have the painterly thing is because I’ve never studied the painters! Lately I’ve gone to see them. My girlfriend takes me to the art shows and stuff like that. I didn’t come from a painterly background. I came from looking at the streetcars going by and the people walking by. And the situations you get in and reading the paper and reading books. I got my information from that and visualization from everything I see. Right now, you’re against that window, backlit, I can’t see your face! Later on, I’ll be doing something and I’ll pull that image out and use it.” But does Hall like the painterly look for what it’s worth? “Oh, are you kidding? Do I love Vittorio Storraro (The Conformist, The Last Emperor)? Yes I do. Do I wish I could do what he does? Yes I do! As well as he does.”

As with City and Locust, Hall’s work on Electra Glide In Blue has become a cult favorite. For this one, Hall’s fight was with color. “At that time I was sort of moving into breaking a lot of rules. One was over-exposing so you would get rid of saturation, the Bill Clothier look (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). With the deep blue skies, the John Wayne look, Technicolor look. I was working toward taking color out of it, leaving color in it but using it more like black and white.” “I was paling things out with color. I made some tests beforehand and (director James William Guercio) saw them and didn’t say much. One day I got word that he wanted to see me. So I went up to his room and there’s this great big corkboard and on it were tacked postcards. And you know – the donkey with the blue sky and the cactus. Arizona – in it’s most lurid! Colorful. And we talked a bit about the script. He said, ‘Conrad, I see what you’re doing. But can I tell you something? This is what I like. And the deep, rich blue sky.’” “And my heart sank. Oh, there’s a guy who does this thing named Bill Clothier. Get him! I said, ‘Hey, listen. Okay. I know what you want. Let’s see what happens.’ So what I did is gave him almost Bill Clothier to begin with. And then weaned him away from it – little by little! As the dailies came out, a little less blue sky, stuff like that. While we’re shooting. But I also gave him what he wanted. I never saw him being disappointed.”

Electra Glide In Blue

But Hall did a lot of things different from the old school. “Clothier never used a long lens. When you’re shooting fucked up images like through the back window, through the front window to something happening over there with other people crossing out of focus, smoke. Needless to say it’s not Bill Clothier. But we had a great time. I love Guercio.” Glide features the character actor, Elisha Cook Jr. “I first worked with Elisha Cook on “Stoney Burke”,” Hall recalls. “If not I saw so many movies with him I felt like I worked with him. He was great. He was an old-timer who would do it just any way you want it. Real professional. He was like Strother (Martin). Any way you want it. He’s amazing. Rambling on. [Hall then actually does a good impression of Cook.] I had a good time working on that film.”

I wondered how much influence or control cameramen have with the art director on films, the person most responsible for the set and how it looks. “Not that much,” Hall says. “I take what’s given me and try to make something wonderful out of it. I’m not about to take anything away from anybody. Unless I see that it’s not working. In A Civil Action (Steven Zaillian, 1998) there’s a blue jacket that, oh my God! (laughs) I tried to get rid of that thing best I could. But I don’t go over there and say, ‘I think he should wear something with wide lapels.’ I think that’s a little too much. It is a collaborative process. Now, the director is the bet-on leader and he can say, ‘I like something with stripes.’ And that’s his area to work with.” “I do work with the production designer a lot on color of walls. Color of floors, material of floors, whether it’s going to be bouncing light, whether we shellac the walls, or something shiny or carpeting. Carpeting absorbs the light, it doesn’t reflect light. I have a lot to do about the materials involved. When I see something is very sort of orange and skin tones are warm, and I want cool skin tones I want to work out the compatibility of the skin tone with the wall. Somewhere we are gonna be for awhile.”

Sets are usually built for the studio films, but many still use real locations. “There you can get a wall painted, too. Less likely, normally it’s pretty good. The way I look at it… (points around the room) here we are in this room. May not be the bookcase that you want. Is that really it? (laughs) And the main thing about it, just take a look at it…” It has lots of glass doors. A million reflections. “A millllllion reflections,” Hall continues. “A fucking billion. And every set I get, they use so much glass and all these reflections, (Hall actually shudders at the thought) which forces me into lighting situations that are so brutal.”

Even in the desert, lighting situations are complicated. “You’re choosing where the light’s gonna be, what time of day you’re shooting, all that,” Hall says. “It’s not just ‘here we are folks.’ Nowadays it gets to be that way. Without Limits (Robert Towne, 1998) – what are you gonna do? You got eight, nine track meets to do in two weeks because that’s how long you got the stadium, right? You got to make eight track meets look like they were shot in all different places.”

I had heard about Limits, a biography on stud runner Steve Prefontaine. But I could think of about 20 reasons why I wouldn’t like it. I watched it before meeting Hall and guess what — I thought it was great. Hall explains, “The reason I took it finally is that he made a drama out of it rather than track and field. It was track and field when I got it. Then he rewrote it and rewrote it and at the end there were great feelings that were brought up.”

In an interview about the film in American Cinematographer, Hall mentioned Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965), a forgotten masterpiece. Hall says, “That’s another reason — I saw that damn thing and said, ‘Holy shit!’ If I can make a film look like this! You know what I mean? But you can’t. They had all that wonderful weather over there. And probably 80 cameras shooting all slo-mo this and slo-mo that.” Olympiad had over 100 cameramen shooting all the time. “Exactly. And I had four doing eight track meets in two weeks.” But Hall pulled it off beautifully.

Now, after being inactive through much of the 1980s, Hall has made seven films in the last nine years. Still working 12 or 14-hour days, six days a week, operating almost every shot. “I’ve got three or four directors that like to work with me,” Hall says. “I think probably because I’m 72 years old, they want to work with Connie Hall before he passes on. That’s my take on it. I work with some of the neatest guys. Young, doing stuff that’s way out there. I think they like to listen to the old time stories.”

Filmography as Director of Photography

2002: Road to Perdition
1999: American Beauty
1998: A Civil Action
1998: Without Limits
1994: Love Affair
1993: Searching for Bobby Fischer
1992: Jennifer Eight
1991: Class Action
1988: Tequila Sunrise
1987: Black Widow
1977: It Happened One Christmas (TV)
1976: Marathon Man
1975: Smile
1975: The Day of the Locust
1974: Catch My Soul
1973: Electra Glide in Blue
1972: Fat City
1969: The Happy Ending
1969: Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here
1969: Trilogy (segment “A Christmas Memory”)
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
1968: Rogues’ Gallery
1968: Hell in the Pacific
1967: In Cold Blood
1967: Cool Hand Luke
1967: Divorce American Style
1966: The Professionals
1966: Harper
1965: Incubus
1965: Morituri
1965: Wild Seed
1964: The Ghost of Sierra de Cobra (TV)
1963: The Outer Limits (TV Series)
1962: Stoney Burke (TV Series)
1958: Edge of Fury

About The Author

Mike Plante is editor and publisher of Cinemad magazine, programmer at the CineVegas International Film Festival and short film coordinator at the Sundance Film Festival.