The secrets of 'American Beauty'
How Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall made American so beautiful—and shot an ending you'll never see. Plus, a look at his brilliant career.
It’s gotten the best reviews of any movie so far this year. Amazingly, when it was on fewer than 500 screens, the dark suburban comedy came in among the top five box office moneymakers. But when Conrad L. Hall, the 73-year-old eight-time Oscar nominee who served as American Beauty‘s director of photography, sat down to watch the finished film with British director Sam Mendes, 34, he felt he was witnessing an artistic homicide.
”It was like somebody had taken a sword and drawn it through my gut,” says Hall, forcefully miming a hara-kiri gesture. ”I felt like, what the hell happened?”
A radical postproduction rejigger, that’s what. In a bold move that has certainly paid off, Mendes unflinchingly sliced out a number of scenes that had been shot. Out went the original opening, which showed Kevin Spacey as a dead Lester Burnham flying down from heaven in a bathrobe to revisit his old suburban hood. More radically, out went the entire last five minutes of the plot, in which the Burnhams’ neighbor Ricky was shown being framed and jailed for Lester’s murder. Not only did the chopping radically alter the ending of the film (which we won’t give away here), it also left some of Hall’s most ravishing work in the trash bin.
Was Hall freaked? Absolutely, but Mendes won him over by running the movie for him two more times in quick succession. ”The final time, I showed it to Conrad on film instead of video, and he started to get excited,” says Mendes, making his movie-directing debut after success on Broadway with the revival of Cabaret and last season’s The Blue Room. ”He started giving me ideas about ‘what if we printed this or that a little darker,’ and that’s what I wanted. The process of perfecting prints is gobbledygook to me. Conrad is magnificently skilled at it.”
Few in Hollywood would argue, since Hall ranks among the most renowned directors of photography. With credits ranging from Cool Hand Luke to last year’s A Civil Action, Hall’s been helping movie directors realize their visions for four decades, finding myriad ways to sculpt with light and dark. He wound up collaborating with Mendes thanks to Tom Cruise, who read Alan Ball’s Beauty script while Mendes was working with Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room. Based on the work Hall had done on Without Limits (a 1998 film Cruise produced), the actor advised Mendes, ”Get Connie.” On the following pages, we deconstruct Hall and Mendes’ extraordinary approach to American Beauty — and look back on Hall’s long-thriving career.
PETAL-PHILIA In fantasy segments storyboarded by director Mendes, Spacey’s character sees his daughter’s high school-cheerleader pal (Mena Suvari) in come-hither, rose-petal-drenched poses. Mendes wanted Suvari floating on the ceiling in a ”lake of roses” for one shot. Hall attempted a suspended-water effect, but says, ”You’d have to build a tank system to get it right.” They modified that image to a petal cascade, and Mendes got his H2O in this tub shot.
FEIGN DINING Hall intended the family table, set by Annette Bening’s Martha Stewart-gone-haywire character, to “look so fastidious and elegant it would put over her personality, the way she obsesses about appearances.” He hid tiny extra lights behind the flower vases near Thora Birch, who plays the daughter of Bening and Spacey, to give her “a purity” and an “ironic sense of a perfect family, which of course they’re not.”
THIS OLD HOUSE Does the Burnhams’ suburban neighborhood look familiar? It should. Their home was created by modifying an existing facade on a studio backlot street—the same street that’s appeared in lots of old TV sitcoms. “We had to do it on a lot because Sam wanted to be able to shoot from all these specific angles looking between two neighboring houses, and you couldn’t do that on a real street with a bunch of residents hanging around.” The downside: rats. Attests Hall, “These facades are just infested.”