Given Sullivan's moral ambiguity, Mendes was keen to keep the audience at a distance from Hanks' character for the first part of the film — no small feat, considering the actor's substantial box-office appeal. He and Hall achieved this through lighting and composition. "Tom is an actor audiences feel they know very well, and I wanted them to have to lean forward to try to penetrate the inner world of the characters, especially his," Mendes says. "I wanted them to have to fight their knowledge of him as an actor and to be drawn in on some level because they weren't being given the usual signals. So in scene after scene, Tom is either partially obscured or seen through doorways, and he disappears into shadow and then reappears. We always used wide lenses and stayed a distance from him.

"Throughout the film, we tried to fill the top of the frame with heavy objects to create a sense of compression and claustrophobia," the director continues. "When Sullivan and his son are released into the second and third act of the movie, there's a sense that they're cut adrift in a mythic, empty landscape."

The paintings of Edward Hopper were a primary reference for the filmmakers. (See sidebar) According to Sakamoto, "We did a lot of tableau shots, wide shots that let the actors move within the frame, and we didn't move the camera much. Sam lets his actors tell the story within the frame."

Hall agrees, while noting that Perdition has a distinctly different feel than his previous outing with Mendes. "The compositions in American Beauty were very symmetrically controlled, which created a formalized claustrophobia; the characters were often placed in the dead center of the frame with something like a tree or a lamp on either edge. The story we're telling in Road to Perdition doesn't have that kind of rigidity, so we were open to whatever seemed to work for the scene."

"Every shot needs to tell a story," declares Mendes. "There's a good quote attributed to Conrad, and it's true with him most of the time. Someone asked him, 'How do you know where to point the camera?,' and he responded, 'I point it at the story.'"

Filming exteriors in Illinois in the winter and spring meant that the filmmakers were often filming in real snow, rain and mud. "We all got very wet," Mendes recalls. "It was very cold and really tough, but this is a movie that's told more through images than words, so I shot more film. Consequently, I pushed the crew much harder than I had on American Beauty."

"Road to Perdition is the hardest picture I've done," agrees Stern. "Rain is fairly easy to light with back-crosslight, whereas snow has to be lit from the front, and Conrad did some really interesting work that required us to hide lights behind trees." The crew used many different sizes of fluorescent lights, most of which were 40 watts. They also employed a lot of different color-corrected tubes, in addition to a large number of high-frequency ballasts. The crew often hid the ballast lines by covering them with snow.

"I think the soul of the movie is expressed in the exteriors," says Mendes. "That goes for the skies, the rain and the way that [production designer] Dennis Gassner chose and controlled the exterior locations. In a way, the landscapes express the emotional states of the characters."

The town of Pullman, on the outskirts of Chicago, needed little redressing for the film's 1930s period, and it became a key location for the film. Pivotal confrontations take place in a number of settings there, including the historic Florence Hotel. "I wanted slate-gray skies and a sense of weight of the gray and red stone of the Thirties," says Mendes. "I wanted heavy industrial architecture, abandoned warehouses and streets teeming with rain. Atmospherically, the landscape is a violent and magnificent canvas on which is told a mythic story of a father and son in the last period of lawlessness in American history."

Hall and the rest of the crew readily concede, however, that they were glad to get out of the frigid weather and back into the Armory. "It was a great comfort to get out of the cold," Hall admits, "and we had some beautiful sets to work with."

During postproduction, Hall considered using a bleach-bypass process on the negative to desaturate the images further, but Mendes was concerned that the special process might "undermine what is brilliant in Conrad's lighting of the film. Conrad takes his own lighting skill for granted, and I felt that putting a post process on top of his work might make it look like ... something that could be done on a computer, as opposed to what he actually did. I think Road to Perdition is the most dazzling work he's ever done. He really wanted to take the image closer to black-and-white. He dares to light very, very little; he deals in shadows, in half-light and in muted shades of gray."

Hall and color timer Phil Hetos put the finishing touches on the film at Consolidated Film Laboratories. "Conrad wanted to keep the look neutral and not have much color in the faces, with no pinks," Hetos recalls. "The film has a certain cold look." Hall ultimately decided to print on Kodak's Vision Premier print stock, explaining that "it gave us better blacks."

Mendes marvels that during postproduction on American Beauty, "Conrad was never happy with the film. He wasn't happy with it until it opened. For him, it's as though every film is the first time he's ever shot a film. He's almost like a child in his endlessly renewable enthusiasm for the medium. It's amazing how, as a man of 76, he's retained that sheer joy and exuberance. He instinctively feels how infinitely more complex pictures are than words."

"Cinematography is just the language of storytelling — it's not academics, it's not literature, it's just pictures," says Hall. "Of course, it's a very complex language. The piano has only 88 keys, but just think about what they can do. Likewise, the few things that cinematographers have to work with can create nuances in the story that are infinite and just as complex as music."


Super 35 2.35:1
Panavision Platinum
Primo lenses
Eastman EXR 100T 5248, Kodak Vision 500T 5279
Printed on Kodak Vision Premier 2393

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.