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Phedon Papamichael Eschews Visual Flash for Authenticity, Humanity

Phedon papamichael might not have the name identification of such fellow directors of photography as Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki or Roger Deakins, but his status among his peers is no less elite. He has brought out the best in directors like Alexander Payne, James Mangold and Gore Verbinski. And he has demonstrated a mastery of several genres, from psychological thrillers to dramedies, from biopics to Westerns, from arthouse curios to mega-budget blockbusters.

If cinematographers like to think of themselves as chameleons, Papamichael prides himself on an oeuvre in which no two movies look alike.

“It’s not really applying a style, it’s really adjusting to the story,” says Variety’s latest Billion Dollar Cinematographer. “Not just that, it’s really saving all those decisions — (involving) the performances and locations and actors — until you have all the elements unfold in front of you the moment you’re about to do it. I never want to fall back on established patterns.”

On April 22, Papamichael’s latest effort, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” a sequel of sorts to “Snow White and the Hunstman” — which grossed almost $400 million worldwide — is rolling out from Universal. And he’s now in the midst of shooting his fourth collaboration with Payne, “Downsizing,” which neither will call a special effects movie despite a story involving characters reduced to a fraction of their size — miniatures among relative giants.

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On the surface, both films would seem to rely heavily on CGI, but Papamichael says “Winter’s War,” mostly shot on sets and forests in England, for the most part did not use any artificial landscapes, and that most elements in “Downsizing” will be reality-based.

“In my films there is actually very little CGI,” says the d.p. who was born in Greece, educated in Germany and now lives in the Hollywood Hills. “If you put a percentage on it, it’s maybe 5%.”

“In my films there is actually very little CGI. If you put a percentage on it, it’s maybe 5%.”
Phedon Papamichael

Papamichael didn’t attend film school; instead he studied photography and art. “My influences were (Wim Wenders’ DP) Robby Muller, so I didn’t use a lot of lights. I came from still photography so it was always about working with natural light.”

He learned filmmaking on the job by working with Roger Corman, churning out exploitation films at a steady clip, sometimes in as little as two weeks. He would hire future cinematography luminaries like Janusz Kaminski, Wally Pfister and Mauro Fiore for his camera crews on films with titles like “Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls” and “Dance of the Damned.”

“When I started we were all very stylized because with Corman we had to do pretty banal storylines with strippers getting killed,” recalls Papamichael, “so it was very tempting to continue on that route because it got a lot of attention.”

What did get attention was the decision to shoot “Nebraska” in black and white, resulting in an Oscar nomination for Papamichael. “I look to a cinematographer to take my ideas and lend them more pizazz or elegance or economy than I would have thought of,” says Payne. “So he and I have a very personal artistic-creative rapport.”

There’s a reason why certain director/DP partnerships have resulted in a filmmaker’s high-water marks: Francis Ford Coppola and Gordon Willis, Oliver Stone and Robert Richardson, Steven Spielberg and Kaminski, and the Coen brothers and Deakins are a few examples.

Add to this list Papamichael’s collaborations with Payne. Their alchemy is notable for its naturalism. It’s not the kind of cinematography that wins awards, but the verisimilitude is remarkably authentic. As the writer-director says, “humanity is first and foremost.” Even on their upcoming film “Downsizing,” Payne talks about the need to make the film “so believable (that it’s) almost banal as opposed to eye-popping.” Papamichael says he and Payne aim to give the movie “a ’70s feel and not have it be this sterile, futuristic film.”

Thus in their work together we see settings and locations that are all too familiar in their lack of fussiness and pretense: a drab Midwestern living room in “Nebraska” with overstuffed chairs and wood-paneled walls; sprawling, un-landscaped lawns in the Honolulu suburbs of “The Descendants” with a goat or a rooster in the frame; a sterile-looking McMansion in L.A.’s Pacific Palisades near the beginning of “Sideways,” or the sad, overlit fast-food burger joint toward the end where Paul Giamatti’s woebegone oenophile drinks his prized bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc out of a Styrofoam cup.

“He takes everything from real life so anything that’s theoretical or involves storyboards is an extra step and difficult for him to wrap his head around,” Papamichael says about Payne. “That’s why when we walk into a restaurant and he sees a certain décor or even certain artwork, he really doesn’t want to change anything. He’s an observer as a writer and he takes in the surrounding the way it exists.”

“Nebraska,” shot in stark black and white, earned Papamichael, left, an Oscar nomination.
Courtesy of Merie Wallace

There are a variety of hallmarks that distinguish the great cinematographers past and present: the way they manipulate light for dramatic effect, their problem-solving prowess no matter the budget, the ability to improvise and work quickly to catch lightning in a bottle, and the way they encourage an actor’s best work by not complicating what can be a delicate, volatile process.

Mangold — who has worked with the DP on four films, including “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma” — talks about “the bubble of trust” Papamichael helps create, allowing performers to “expose something raw and unpredictable.”

“He’s inquisitive, wonderful with actors and a lot of that is the ability to listen and to watch, instead of talk,” Mangold says. “He’s a big believer, as am I, in finding and letting what’s working work as opposed to trying to change what’s working to work for the camera.”

Adds Payne: “A director needs a DP who has a great rapport with actors. They have to feel like they’re in good hands with both me and the cinematographer.”

The result of that camaraderie is amply evident in “The Descendants,” which centers around a Honolulu lawyer, played by George Clooney, whose wife has fallen into a coma after a water-skiing accident and must brace his family for her inevitable loss. Clooney, with whom the DP has worked as both a director and leading man, has never played a more vulnerable role, and the film displays the best work of supporting players Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster and Judy Greer. In one particular scene, when Clooney tells his oldest daughter (Woodley) that her mother will never wake up, we see her express her grief under water in their backyard pool. The sequence is a visual tour de force of emotion, all the more devastating because it’s conveyed without words.

Hawaii’s climate proved tricky, with its ever-changing skies and precipitation. But instead of holding out for ideal conditions, DP and director just rolled with the punches. “They have all of these microclimates and rain,” says Papamichael of the islands. “It’s pretty difficult. We can’t control it. If it rains we shoot. And if it’s sunny six minutes later, we still shoot.”

On the old-school Western “3:10 to Yuma,” Papamichael and his director also played with the cards they were dealt, shooting in New Mexico during the short daylight hours of winter. “Our strategies were about using the low sun at both ends of the day,” says Mangold.

“He’s inquisitive, wonderful with actors, and a lot of that is the ability to listen and to watch, instead of talk.”
James Mangold

In the film’s climactic shootout, Christian Bale’s deputized rancher is shepherding his prisoner, the outlaw played by Russell Crowe, to the outbound train of the film’s title. “The reason they run through an unfinished construction site is because there was a second street we were going to add to the town, but we ran out of money,” explains Papamichael, “so we just abandoned it and decided to run them through there.”

In the film’s last shot, a mortally wounded Bale is cradled in his son’s arms as the train pulls away, with the sun creeping underneath the boxcars and projecting across their faces. The effect would not have worked with a second take, since the light would have been gone in a matter of minutes.

“(The sun) is so low that it creates this incredibly dramatic effect,” says Papamichael. “It was one of those beautiful accidents that happen when you’re shooting quickly and uncontrolled and using natural light.”

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