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].