Phedon Papamichael: “If you can identify a cinematographer, he isn’t doing his job right”

Recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’, Phedon Papamichael recently had a humorous and passionate talk with Flix.

Phedon Papamichael has the makings of a man who could have as easily been found standing in front of the camera lens, or perhaps he would have been tucked away somewhere, writing volumes of literature. Instead, he is one of the world’s most distinguished cinematographers, nominated for an Oscar this year, for his work on Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’.

The son of the production designer and art director Phedon Papamichael – a cousin, friend and colleague of John Cassavetes, Phedon Jr. was born in Athens, grew up in Germany, studied Photography and Art in Munich and settled down in New York to work as a photojournalist. The invitation to Los Angeles and the world of movies, came by way of a collaboration with Roger Corman. Phedon worked as a cinematographer, on seven of Corman’s films, in the period of just two years. Since then, he’s worked on over 40 films, ranging from Wim Wenders’ ‘The Million Dollar Hotel’ to Judd Apatow’s ‘This Is 40’. He has had long lasting relationships with directors like James Mangold (‘Identity’, ‘Walk The Line’, ‘3:10 to Yuma’, ‘Knight and Day’), Gore Verbinski (‘Mousehunt’, ‘The Weatherman’), George Clooney (‘The Ides of March’, ‘The Monuments Men’) and of course Alexander Payne, who he met at UCLA in 1986. They have collaborated on ‘Sideways’, ‘The Descendants’ and ‘Nebraska’. Phedon Papamichael talked to Flix from Los Angeles and we didn’t want the conversation to end. Full of humor, insightful and with a generous sense of life, read on for what he told us.

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I’ve observed how ‘Nebraska’ has affected audiences everywhere. Alexander grew up in the Midwest, in similar towns, so he knows these themes, the lack of  communication, people’s isolation and parents like the film’s. I’m surprised by how it has touched people. I’ve seen the full range of emotions, from crying to laughing. This illustrates how Alexander manages to blend heavy things with humor. I also had the pleasure of shooting Bruce Dern, just picking up on his subtleties. I knew he was doing something special and I was lucky enough to be there and capture it.

This was a different kind of shooting. In pre-production, we started by getting into a car and driving through Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska. We weren’t just scouting locations. We wanted to get impressions of the land and its vastness. So we drove into these towns, onto their main streets, towns with populations ranging from 12.000 to 22.000, and there was never anybody in the streets. I had just returned from Europe, where town squares were full of children, and old men would spend their days at cafes, and I remember thinking “Where is everybody?” Why weren’t people out enjoying the sunny day? Slowly, I came to understand their world. When Bruce appeared, with his sloppy hair, in an oversized coat, he asked us what to do, and we said “Don’t do anything, just stand there.” I had a very special subject indeed. He became this ghost-like figure, a metaphor of death in a Bergman-esque way.

Regarding his recent Oscar nomination, he told us jokingly that it would probably mean no more work, since everyone will think he’s too expensive now. “They won’t call me anymore. Actually, it’s very exciting. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was before I was in it. Along the way we were nominated for and won numerous awards for the film’s cinematography, and I thought it was enough that we had gotten people’s attention. Then, when it happened, people start to talk to you, you get enormous attention, so it does mean something, because it stands for something, it’s the ultimate prize! People cried telling me about it. My wife was nervous and worried I’d be in a bad mood for a long time. I’m trying to enjoy it. You got to parties, and you meet people that you respect and like. I’ve been an Academy member since 1997, but now it’s like this bizarre elite club. I have a lot of friends who have won. Some of them used to work for me, but I was the last one! Even they treat you different. I’m sure the enthusiasm will wear off. I looked on Wikipedia, checked to see how many Greeks had been nominated for an Oscar. There were very few. So, this makes me very proud.”

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About the stylistic decisions in the cinematography of ‘Nebraska’, “It had been decided that the film was going to be black and white, from the beginning. When we discussed shots, Alexander said he wanted fewer shots at a slower pacing, not quite like ‘Strangers in Paradise’, but in that direction, wider shots allow time to take in the characters and examine frames on your own, without manipulation, as if they were tableaux. Close up shots were rare and for this reason more effective. They captured moments of confusion or fear. We didn’t overuse them, we shot wider and then did close ups for moments with specific emotional content.”

Discussing cinematography through the years, he says that “Cinematography hasn’t changed essentially. Styles change, like fashion. When I started in the ’80s it was about stylization, we used lenses and colors and had fun exploring. Corman was my film school, as long as we fulfilled sex and violence quotas, we were given a lot of freedom visually. Then I saw ‘The Last Emperor’, came back, went to the set and shot everything in golden light, even though it was a film about strippers getting murdered. After that, I took a different direction, I wanted more natural lighting and subtle work with the camera. Others opted to remain stylized. I didn’t want to draw so much attention with my photography. So I didn’t attract too much attention to myself, by consequence. I think a compliment for a film’s cinematography is a bad thing, they should like the movie. Cinematography is there to support the film. That’s why I apply a different style for every movie. It’s hard to identify my work, unless you go in knowing I did it.”

About directing, he told us: “I’m always looking, but not actively pursuing it (to date he has directed the films ‘Dark Side of Genius’, ‘From Within’, ‘Arcadia Lost’ and ‘Lost Angeles’). The main reason is I like working with the directors I get to work with. Directing is a much more complicated process that involves financing, casting, you have to have the right timing. It’s a difficult and long process. And then I have to go back to work…”

About ‘The Monuments Men’ he said: “I suppose George Clooney’s ‘The Monuments Men’ was the exact opposite of ‘Nebraska’, cinematography-wise. It was closer to old school Hollywood filmmaking. Clooney turned to classic ’70s films. Visually it’s a much more traditional film, colorful and saturated”.

About collaborating with the same directors on films he said: “You never know, in a new relationship, with a new director, people say all the right things, and then when you get married, things can change. With Alexander things weren’t as easy when we were filming ‘Sideways’. We have traveled a distance. This time I asked him if I could compose the shots, instead of him looking at them. He graciously let me do that. We respect each other. I know he appreciates my shots. It takes time for a relationship to develop. Mangold and Alexander Payne have similarities. With Clooney it’s more spontaneous and flexible, he relies on the actors a lot, and we’ve developed a certain comfort level. Clooney works short days, six or seven hours instead of the usual twelve, and 1-2 shots of each scene, because he’s very experienced. In any case, it’s great when you have a common language and an understanding with a director.”

Read here Flix’s review of ‘Nebraska’