This evening, ABC will be airing "Road to Perdition," an amazing film, for which cinematographer Conrad Hall won an Oscar in 2003. Back in the summer of 2002, while living in Ojai, California, I had the great pleasure, and honor, of meeting Conrad, at the Ojai Film Festival, on the evening that he was awarded the lifetime achievement award.
I had been recovering from a nasty summer cold, and was disinclined to do much of anything except stay indoors, but had planned to go to the film festival, with a friend, and sit in the outdoor park where one of Conrad's best known pictures, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," was to be shown. Being convinced that shivering my butt off, watching a movie outside, wasn't the wisest move, I cancelled the plans, then changed my mind later, and decided to attend only the reception instead.
The reception was at the Ojai Arts Center, alas, also outside, and at about 9:30, it was already cooling off considerably, so I swallowed what was left of my bottled water, finished off some hors d'oeuvres, and started to head out. No sooner had I ventured outside, then this 40 something, bubbly woman got out of her car, and asked why I was leaving so early. "I'm under the weather," I told her. She asked how the party was: "Just a bunch of people standing around looking at each other, nobody talking really, waiting for others to arrive to stare at..." She laughed. "How about this? If you come back inside with me, I'll introduce you to Connie Hall." I glared at her like a puppy about to be placed on a short leash, and followed her inside.
"Oh, there he is at that table," she said all perky. "Hmmmmmm..... I don't know. He's busy, talking to friends. Don't interrupt him," I urged. "Give me your name, quick," and she grabs me by the arm and takes me over to this gentle, sweet sixty-something guy wearing a brown leather vest, and the kind of hat one might expect to see in Denver. "Connie--this is Jayne Stahl." He looks up at me, and smiles.
"I like your hat," I tell him. He smiles some more. He is sitting at a table with several friends, and his wife is only a few feet away. He asks me a bit about myself. I mention something about being a writer. "A writer? What do you write?" Embarrassed, I lower my head, and say "I have to confess-- I'm finishing a screenplay, at the moment, but isn't everybody--even the busboy." He laughs, and asks: "What is your favorite movie?" He got me there. I tell him "The Natural." He melts, and for the next 15 minutes we are immersed in conversation, occasionally interrupted by people asking for autographs, or wanting to take a photo of him.
He tells me about the screenplays he's written, about how his father was a writer, James Norman Hall, who wrote "Mutiny on the Bounty," and how it's damn near impossible to get a screenplay produced. He talks, at some length, about a script that he got before Jack Nicholson, and that Jack turned down. "I can't sell a screenplay in this town. Does that give you some idea how tough it is? " Then he lowers his voice, and adds confidentially: "All you need is just one other person to believe in you," and at that I see his eyes light up. I tell him I'd seen "Road to Perdition," and that if he never made another film, he deserves his place in history for that one. "Oh," he says, "it wasn't me; it was the director, Sam Mendes. He's brilliant!" " Conrad was to receive an Academy Award for "Road to Perdition" posthumously the spring of 2003.
The entire time we spoke, his wife looked over at us affectionately. She knew he was enjoying himself. It was strange really the way he and I had become instant playmates. I felt the fickle, and sometimes icy, hand of fate run down my spine. He looked at me, and asked where he could find my work: "I'd love to read something you've written--your screenplay?" Don't ask me why I responded the way I did, "Oh, you wouldn't want to read my screenplay really. It's not something you would like," and then I put my hand on his wrist, and rubbed it gently for a moment; I knew my time with Conrad was running out. Everybody at that party wanted a piece of him. I just wanted to enjoy being a part of his life, for that moment, for no reason other than because I wanted to enjoy being a part of his life, for one moment. I didn't want anything from him in return.
Again, we were interrupted by a frisky photographer, so I left, and wandered out to the dark, cool, summer air. On the way home, I knew that something indescribable, and magical happened, something that would change my life, but it wasn't until a few months later, when I tried to see if I could find him to thank him, that I found out that Conrad passed away. Odds are, he knew his days were numbered the night we met.
Looking back, months later, I realized that among the many reasons I was meant to meet him was to let Sam Mendes know what Conrad thought of him, and the kind words he had to say about his work. I know Conrad would have liked that as much as Sam did.
Thank you, Conrad Hall, for proving it's possible to make art and movies at the same time, as well as for making believers of us all.