By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire February 18, 2014 at 3:32PM
Phedon Papamichael has shot more than 40 films, including Alexander Payne's last three. The most recent of them, the starkly beautiful black and white "Nebraska" earned the veteran Director of Photography his first Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
Although he was raised in Europe, Papamichael is well versed in American westerns and road movies and he brings that sensibility to his work. Born in Athens, Greece, Papamichael moved with his family to Germany where he studied photography and art at the University of Munich. Papamichael's father, a first cousin of John Cassavetes, worked as an art director on films such as "Faces" and "A Woman Under the Influence." "Cassavetes was definitely a big influence for me, in addition to the French New Wave and films by Antonioni," Papamichael told Indiewire. "We got to play backgammon and cards and talk about film."
After working as a photojournalist in New York City in the early 1980s, Papamichael shot his first film, the 35mm black and white "SPUD." Following a call from Cassavetes, Papamichael moved to Los Angeles where he began working as a Director of Photography for Roger Corman. After graduating from the Roger Corman school of indie film, Papamichael went on to work with acclaimed directors including Diane Keaton, Nick Cassavetes, Wim Wenders, Brad Siberling, Gore Verbinski, James Mangold, Judd Apatow and Oliver Stone. Most recently, he shot George Clooney's "Monuments Men."
Indiewire recently spoke with Papamichael from his home in Los Angeles about being nominated for his first Oscar, shooting on film vs. digital and shooting "Nebraska" in the Midwest.
This is your first Oscar nomination. Was it a surprise?
It's quite a thrilling ride. I didn't really expect it. I knew because of the black and white that we had found a lot of fans of the cinematography. I had people like Haskell Wexler calling me. The talk was positive and I'm happy so many people responded to it, especially for a small film like that and with a modest budget. I think we're the lowest budget in the group.
But you never really know. I did know a lot of people responded to the film on many levels, but I don't think we expected six nominations. I had dinner with Alexander [Payne] the night before and he thought Bruce [Dern] would get one and maybe Bob Nelson, the writer, but you and I are the wild cards -- and we were. It's gotten a lot of love from a lot of people -- especially people from the Midwest.
Alexander is not really known as a visual filmmaker compared to [David] Fincher or [Martin] Scorsese or David Lean. I feel extra proud to have gotten my first nomination for Alexander because, in a way, it's maybe a little harder. It's not the kind of film that normally gets attention from that category.
What was it like shooting in the Midwest? Especially as a foreigner?
I moved to New York in 1983, but I've done a picture in Houston, but nothing quite as stark and void of people. When Alexander took me on a road trip where we got in a car and drove from Billings, Montana and and drove the actual route.
You've heard about Montana and Wyoming, South Dakota, but to actually drive it for days and days and to look at the wide horizon and skies and the occasional freight trains and trucks. We'd drive into towns that were supposedly highly populated and we'd take a turn down Main Street and I'd never see anybody on the streets.
What was your biggest influence on "Nebraska" and how did you decide on the look of the film?
The film is different than every other Alexander Payne film. When you first read the script, it feels more cinematic than his other films. It read more visual and sometimes when you are a foreigner and you're exposed to these images and you don't grow up in them, you have a more keen eye that might seem every day to a lot of people. I grew up in Munich and was very influenced by "Paris, Texas." I grew up watching black and white films -- and John Wayne westerns. We have all those images and a fascination with this country not just for what it stands for, but visually.
Road movies -- I was influenced by Wim Wenders, "Alice in the Cities" and "Kings of the Road" and "The Last Picture Show" and "Paper Moon," which I saw in the theater. I had a very strong emotional connection to the film. Those are all things that live somewhere in your subconsciousness. When you're in that world, it's easy to find the inspiration and capture that. Alexander said he wanted to let the actors play with the frame where we hold them in a single shot, we'd show how small and lost they are in this world and the loneliness and isolation -- all these themes that we have in this film, the lack of communication, when people talk, they rarely have eye contact, they stare at the TV. I really think the photography in this case really supports the mood and the themes of the film.
How did you get the black and white film look?
We were asked by Paramount, as one of the conditions to shooting in B&W, was that we had to also deliver a color version, so I was restricted from using B&W film stock. We ended up shooting digital because my digital intermediate process in post was supposed to emulate the look of film stock. I had Paramount sent me a copy of "Paper Moon." I was quite happy with the results. I've told everybody it's digital, but a lot of people assume it's black and white [film stock].
What are your thoughts on shooting on film vs. digital?
There are a lot of people who would like to continue to shoot on film. It's not a problem of someone manufacturing it. There's lack of demand and there are just two labs left in L.A. It becomes very expensive to ship and process. I think we're seeing the end of it. With digital projection dominating, it's beautiful seeing a black and white print. We made some release prints for Nebraska on B&W print stock, there's a lot of texture that people won't be accustomed to anymore.
Who knows what the future generations will be viewing these things on -- whether it's iPads or iPhones or High Definition 3D televisions. Cameras are getting sharper and it's almost like the technology is moving one direction and we as storytellers are trying to hold it back because we don't want it to go to 4K and 8K and dealing with actors that we have to show in a nice light. You can always degrade an image by adding film grain and stopping this trend, but I think we'll find a way to balance all these things. People are testing different looks and different technologies and eventually, we'll find something that people are comfortable with.
Do you have a favorite camera?
It depends on the project and I can't even try to keep up with all the new developments. I usually wait until I have a project and determine what the project requires and what the best tools are at that moment. I shot with ARRI Alexa on "Nebraska." If Cassavetes was working today, he would shoot with a small digital camera and the movie would be just as good. If David Lean was working, he'd be trying to find a 70mm film. It's nice that there are so many options available to us. It also allows up and coming filmmakers and lower budget filmmakers to make films that before wouldn't have been possible. Anyone with equipment at home can create quality film that can be released in theater.
"Nebraska" is your third collaboration with Alexander Payne. Can you communicate in shorthand?
We have similar cultural backgrounds. He had a lot of exposure to Europe. In terms of humor, we've always had a similar language. Our aesthetics and our visuals are very different. He's a writer and takes things in a different way. I like to get a little less objective with the camera, a little more subjective. It's a process -- we started on "Sideways" and it took certainly the first two to three weeks on "Sideways" before we were really in sync. Of course, it's developed much further through "The Descendants" and on "Nebraska," we've found a way to complement each other's cinematic tastes to a much more effective way. We watch a lot of movies together, not specifically related to the movies we're doing -- Italian neo-realism and Japanese films like [Akira] Kurosawa.
You've worked with Oliver Stone, James Mangold, Wim Wenders and other acclaimed directors. What sort of directors do you like to work with the most?
I like them to be complete filmmakers. There are directors that focus on the actors and the characters. It might seem very different. With James Mangold and George Clooney, we worked pretty similar than when I worked with Alexander. We don't preconceive that much. It's not that rigid a design that we plan. We like to bring the actors to set and come up with the shots after that. It's a more organic process, which I enjoy. With Gore Verbinski, who comes from commercials, everything is storyboarded. It's also creative, but it happens at a different time. My preferred way is to be open to have happy accidents and to find them and let the actors roam freely and not restrict them too much technically. George [Clooney] likes to do very few takes -- just one or two.
Speaking of working with Clooney, how did you prepare to shoot "Monuments Men?"
We prepared by watching a lot of documentaries from that period and WWII documentaries, a lot of those classic American Hollywood films that deal with WWII that George really likes and that this is a tribute to -- "The Great Escape," "A Bridge Too Far," "The Dirty Dozen." When you see the film, it very much feels like an old school Hollywood film in tone as well. Don't expect a high action WWII film. It focuses in on the characterization. It's not a modern treatment in terms of frantic camera moves. It's very classically crafted. It's different from "Nebraska" in terms of scale and scope. We had big sets and lots of extras. In a way, the heart of the story is told in a similar way as "Nebraska," it's pretty simple.
Finally, which cinematographers do you admire?
The great American cinematographers: Bob Richardson, Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, Caleb Deschanel, Raoul Coutard, Nestor Almendros and Robbie Mueller.