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From "Nebraska" to "The Monuments Men": Shoptalk with Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael ASC

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael is the answer to the question, What do father-and-son roadie Nebraska and wartime treasure hunt The Monuments Men have in common? Jolting from Alexander Payne's moony monochrome to George Clooney's full-spectrum blitz typifies one of Papamichael's favorite occupational hazards. With some 50 features to his credit as DP, including five that he directed, the Athens-born filmmaker thrives on aesthetic whiplash.

The only dizziness to result is ours as we collide with his résumé. There are his other celebrated collaborations with Payne, on Sideways and The Descendents, and with Clooney on The Ides of March, plus such critically acclaimed work as on James Mangold's Walk the Line and 3:10 To Yuma, Oliver Stone's W., Wim Wenders' Million Dollar Hotel, Jon Turtletaub's Phenomenon and Gore Verbinski's The Weather Man. And that's not counting the myriad music videos and commercials he has under his belt.

With scant weeks to go till Oscar night, where Papamichael will be vying for a statuette, reached him in Los Angeles for a chat about working with Clooney and Payne, among other highlights of his craft. 

thalo: How was it to go from Nebraska to The Monuments Men?

Phedon Papamichael: We're going from a simple black-and-white (as seen in photo 1), intimate story and no movie stars to George Clooney with an epic story, lots of extras, tanks, Patton's camp in the forest and the snow and landing in Normandy (as seen in photo 2).  From a creative standpoint what makes our job so interesting and fun is that we get these completely opposite assignments. Working on Nebraska we really really got into the black-and-white process to the degree that we were saying, "How are we ever going to shoot in color again?" And then I go to a piece about art where we have all these saturated classic Hollywood lighting setups and we're photographing the artwork, which was like another character in the film (as seen in photo 3).

th: How would you compare working with these two directors?

PP: From a practical approach to the material, Alexander and George are not that different. George really liked the way Alexander and I worked on The Descendents. Alexander and I have a very intimate set that's very much suited to working around actors, with emphasis on performance and not getting too technical or in the way with things. That's why during The Descendents George asked me to do The Ides of March.

The Monuments Men is a larger-scale picture, but ultimately don't expect a big WWII action movie. It's about the characters' relationships and interactions rather than the scope of the picture. A lot of the scenes take place in small camps and tents. And similar to Alexander, George doesn't do a lot of setups. We bring the actors in; we watch a simple rehearsal and do a blocking; and then we release the actors to get the final work and design a few shots without even making a shotlist. We shoot very specifically and there are not a lot of extra takes. George likes to be very efficient and not overly complicated and technical. He doesn't want to be in the editing room with an endless amount of material. In a way both of them are very much in the tradition of old-school Hollywood filmmaking.

th: Is Payne's reputation for being precise undeserved?

PP: Being a writer and director -- although Alexander didn't write Nebraska -- he has a very precise idea in his head, but in terms of technical resolution, he's very open. On Nebraska in particular, he allowed me to be more involved than usual. It was our third collaboration, so I was more active in suggesting and composing shots initally, and he focused more on the performances. We really complement each other in terms of our styles. But both Alexander and George are involved in every step of the way. It's not like Gore Verbinsky or Michael Fincher, where it's a predesigned show.

th: Throughout The Monuments Men the composition and lighting often brings to mind Rembrandt and other Old Masters featured in the film. Was this intentional?

PP: It was interesting because I made that observation about a week or two into the production. I go, "You know, these shots are all painterly (as seen in pnotos 4 and 5) and the compositions feel like pieces of art within themselves." Not to compare myself to Rembrandt! But it does have a painterly quality and that's how Jim Bissell approached the whole production design. It was fun running with it once I identified it. I also changed the visual quality by embracing a sort of saturation and the warmer tones that are reflected in a lot of the art work that we're dealing with in the film. The movie starts with close-ups of the Ghent Altarpiece, so that leads you right in that direction visually. When I pointed this out to Cloony, he goes, "Yeah, well of course!" (Laughs.) But it's not what you maybe would expect: a more standard approach to WWII filmmaking where you have desaturation and it's grittier and hand-held like Saving Private Ryan.

th: Who were some of the other artists you winked to?

PP: The hero of our stolen art is more the Renaissance period and Michelangelo and religious art. So I think the influence is coming more from that. We're not really dealing so much with the Modernists, although we do mention Picasso and Gauguin.

th: How did you use light to symbolize the illuminating qualities of culture and the darkness of Nazism?

PP: The movie opens up in New York as the group is being assembled, so you have warmer and more comforting tones. As they proceed into their journey the palette gets darker and more ominous. A lot of this art was stashed away in mines, so we enter these very dark locations -- which have symbolic value -- and discover really shocking things. The men didn't get to a lot of the art in time and it was burned based on Hitler's final orders of the Nero Decree, which was: destroy everything on the way out.

th: How does the cinematography comment on the film's narrative arc?

PP: The photography has to support the friendship and bonding and intimacy that's created among this group of guys who are thrown together and sent on what's in many ways an absurd assignment. We tried to create an emotional connection among the characters, so there are a lot of closeups and small moments. Still, it's a bigger epic scale of a story. It's covered in a way that's not so dissimilar from The Ides of March or Good Night and Good Luck, where you're not just dealing with faces. We'd often have scenes with lots of tanks, but they definitely fell into the background a bit. It's more about how the characters are being affected by the experience of being sent there and realizing the importance of cultural heritage. They become quite passionate about trying to save it, but it's also about discovering each other's different personalities.

th: What's your relationship with actors?

PP: The cinematographer has a very close relationship with actors. He is basically communicating all the technical requirements to them, which is as simple as hitting a mark or looking a certain way. Our face is generally the first reaction the actor sees when the director says, "Cut!" Actors value our experience and the human interaction of us being right there and able to help them along. It's a delicate balance: you want to help them technically but not get in the way of their performances. One of my priorities when I approach lighting or shot design is that it not become too risky for them and they don't have to be too precise in terms of the marks they hit.

th: How does it affect your work when the director is also acting, as in The Monuments Men?

PP: George is not removed at some "video village" in a black tent where he's controlling everything from. He's very much a presence on set and always around the camera, so it's helpful for me to be right there and operate the "A" camera, the "B" camera (as seen in photo 6).

th: How has directing helped you as a cinematographer?

PP: It helps a lot, because anyone who's been through the editorial process knows that one scene may play particularly well on its own, or one shot might be extremely beautiful and capture a moment in a very effective way, but when you put it all together you realize that it's the overall story and pace of the movie that are far more important. Having been through editing and learned how to kill your babies, you develop a better sense of what coverage will be useful in post. What we do is a key element of the filmmaking process, but when you've been through the entire process starting from raising the money, casting accordingly, finding the locations and then of course post -- editing and working with the composer and the final mix -- you realize that there are so many more aspects to making a movie work and be successful. It puts what you do in a better perspective and you don't think you're the all-important person on set.

th: What was your role during post production on these two pictures?

PP: Typically, when you complete principal photography the director and editor come at this editing period, which lasts anywhere from 10 to 35 weeks or sometimes more. This time Alexander had a 33-week post. He really likes to massage the nuances of the story. George is a little faster. Typically then I rejoin the group and get involved in the final color correction. Both of these films were done by Skip Kimball, a colorist at Technicolor. When you're Photoshopping something like contrast, saturation, you build "windows," where you can affect things separately, like skies or faces. It's the final extension of your work. In the era of digital cinema, you're working in a Digital Intermediate -- a "DI" as we call it -- and the final product is a DCP -- a Digital Cinema Process -- which is what basically all studios now deliver to the theaters. The times of making photochemical prints and shipping them are basically over.

th: For better or worse?

PP: Look, prints are beautiful. When we did Nebraska we ordered a print of Paper Moon because I was trying to match textures and film grain qualities that you can all add electronically today. I can't say it's for better or worse. It's a nice tool; it helps us extend our creative input in a more precise way. But digital projection certainly feels different. For those of us who grew up with film prints, we will maybe have sentimental feelings. But my kids, who are six, have never seen a film print and never will. For them to see something projected where it flickers and looks grainy will seem awkward to them and they'll think something's wrong. They've grown up in an era where everything is extremely sharp.

It's almost like the technology is moving a certain way and we as cinematographers are trying to slow it down. You can certainly turn the wheel back in post and make things look like film, but the question becomes, What are future generations expecting and what are the new standards? And how will they be viewing things? Are they going to be primarily viewing things on iPads? Me and Alexander and George, we still shoot and do our post work primarily for the big screen. We're old-fashioned guys.

th: Which films did you watch while conceptualizing The Monuments Men and Nebraska?

PP: George pushed me in a certain direction by watching these '60s and '70s movies that he very much liked: The Great Escape, A Bridge Too Far, The Guns of Navarone. And we started by watching a bunch of documentaries like The Rape of Europa. Besides Paper Moon, one of the visual references for Nebraska was The Last Picture Show.

th: How did the decision come about to shoot Nebraska in black and white?

PP: When Alexander first approached me about it, which was about 10 years ago while we were prepping Sideways, he said, "Well, I have this little film I want to do my own state. It's a little road movie and it's in black and white." So I never thought about it in any other way. Alexander and I took his mom's car and drove from Billings through South Dakota, Wyoming and all the way down to Lincoln, Nebraska. I had my black-and-white still camera with me and all the images were generated in black and white.

We grew up with black-and-white films and our film history -- the language of films that affected us as young filmmakers -- was in black and white. I grew up with the early Westerns and black-and-white television. My early influences were French New Wave, Japanese films -- Ozu, Kurosawa -- and then the German Neu Welle -- Wenders' Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road -- and Antonioni, Fellini, De Sica. So for us it doesn't seem like an extreme choice. And it seems perfectly appropriate for a lot of the themes of this movie. It also supports the actors. Orson Welles said black and white is "the actor's best friend." You're not distracted by palettes and a cacophany of colors and shirts. And here you're able to focus in on subtleties of Bruce Dern's performance: the closeups, textures of his face, these little moments of confusion and fear and anger (as seen in photo 7).

th: Is it true that Paramount also required a color version?

PP: Paramount was not too excited about the whole black-and-white thing. They said, "It limits our sales to certain markets." We kept asking, "Well, who is that, precisely?" We were told, "You know, HBO..." So we had to shoot in color, because we had to deliver a color version, which I didn't supervise. Alexander wasn't too concerned about it, and I wasn't either. And now that the film has found its identity as a black-and-white film, it's hopefully never going to be seen as a color. No one's going to ask to see Good Night and Good Luck, Raging Bull or Manhattan in color. Now of course Paramount has come full circle: they love the black and white.

th: How did you produce both versions?

PP: You have the option of shooting color stock or a digital camera, which records in color and then when you go into the DI, just like in Photoshop, you convert it into black and white. On Nebraska I was working off monitors on set that generate an image in black and white...basically the look that we think the final product will have. We light off of that and view all our dailies in black and white. So we're only living with the material in the format that we want it to be. And Paramount also only gets black-and-white dailies (as seen in photo 8).

th: Which camera did you use?

PP: I settled on an Arri ALEXA, which is the digital camera that's pretty much dominating theatrical features these days. But I used Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses, which were developed in the '70s. So you get that more film-like quality from them.

th: Was Nebraska's use of available light inspired by Dogma -- or the likes of Shohei Imamura?

PP: There's a lot of natural light involved. I don't overly stylize. On all of my films I try to be inspired by the natural light situation. But it requires a lot of lighting and a lot of equipment to maintain this natural light for a 12-hour period. But my approach in terms of logic of direction of light, quality of light, is very much based on the natural light. For Alexander it's really important that locations be actual locations. We never build any sets. We chose the real bars and restaurants, and we cast the people who actually work in them. When we do the road trip all of the shots are in the correct geographical order. I guess it's Dogma in a way.

Photo credits:

Photo 1: Will Forte stars as David Grant and Bruce Dern stars as Woody Grant in "Nebraska." Photo courtesy of Paramount Vantage.

Photo 2: Bob Balaban and Bill Murray in "The Monuments Men." Photo by Claudette Barius courtesy of © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Photo 3: Matt Damon (left) and George Clooney in Columbia Pictures' "The Monuments Men." Photo by Claudette Barius courtesy of © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Photo 4: (l to r) Dimitri Leonidas, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bob Balaban in Columbia Pictures' "The Monuments Men." Photo by Claudette Barius courtesy of © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Photo 5: (l to r) Walter Garfield (John Goodman), James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), and Frank Stokes (George Clooney) work to put weight on a "booby trap" that James Granger has stepped on in Columbia Pictures' "The Monuments Men." Photo by Claudette Barius courtesy of © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Photo 6: Photo of Phedon Papamichael and George Clooney courtesy of Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

 Photo 7: Photo of Bruce Dern and Will Forte courtesy of Paramount Vantage.

Photo 8: Photo of Phedon Papamichael and Alexander Payne on the set of Nebraska courtesy of Paramount Vantage.