Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, known for his versatile array of visual styles, from Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” to James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari,” says he knew going into Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” that he would need to do some reading between the lines.
Sorkin’s Netflix original film, which recounts the notorious political prosecution of eight defendants charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, is an impressive ensemble piece, combining courtroom drama with an almost forensic examination of the events that led to so much bloodshed as police cracked down brutally on protesters.
Papamichael, speaking in a masterclass at the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival, recalls that Sorkin, intensely focused on crisp dialogue, timing and performances from the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne and Mark Rylance as legendary civil rights attorney William Kunstler, tends to entrust the visual conception to his cinematographer.
Sorkin is “not a person who comes in with a strong visual concept or a design that he dictates,” Papamichael says.
“It’s just something you have to understand – what’s important to him, how does his mind function, how does he write? And how do I apply a visual language to something like that?”
A well-rounded background is helpful at such times, says Papamichael, recalling his early days shooting low-budget films for Roger Corman in L.A. at a time when speed was everything and even using dolly tracks was against the rules.
Later work with Jon Turteltaub on features such as “Cool Runnings” or with Wim Wenders on “The Million Dollar Hotel” offered different lessons in visual approaches, he recalls.
“It’s fun, really, to go from one director to another,” says Papamichael, recalling that Alexander Payne once told him “I feel like we’re married and you get to cheat on me all the time.”
As for Sorkin, says Papamichael, he’s “really just a man of the rhythm, the poetry, the word.” After having actors run a script read-through, he recalls, “He’d just look at me and go, ‘We’re good?’”
In studying Sorkin’s script for “Chicago 7,” Papamichael was able to see quickly that elaborate camera moves wouldn’t work, he says, because shots needed to grow out of a “complicated 160-page script” with “a lot of 16-page scenes.” The story also featured “one-line scenes” and was “very fragmented, non-linear.”
What’s more, since the sensational trial lasted six months from 1969-70, expressing time passage in the courtroom was another challenge.
Keeping shots simple during the trial sequences was key, he says.
“I’m not a big fan of unmotivated camera moves. Little push-ins, little wrap-arounds for key moments but not really moving the camera when an actor’s moving so not drawing a lot of attention to it.”
The emphasis was more on composition and allowing space for performances, Papamichael says. “I wanted to apply that more classic, more composed approach to the courtroom.”
Riot scenes filmed outside, recreating the chaos of hippie confrontations with police offered the opportunity “to get a little rougher,” he says, “basically handheld and really not so controlled in terms of what the cameras were doing.”
Even these sequences were built around essential dialogue, Papamichael says.
“These beats that are important to him are often like three seconds or five seconds.” That meant it was not important to create “a big cinematic crane shot for the riot scenes because it won’t work with the pacing of the edit.”
Reaction shots of actors was crucial, however, and Papamichael found his solution by doing them “widescreen expanded anamorphic with the Arri LF, which allows me to get intimate close ups but also tie in the other players and the environment.”
The film’s tight production schedule also ruled out more balletic camera moves, he says, recalling the film was shot in 35 days with just 12 alloted for the courtroom scenes covering “probably 90 pages.”
When working at that pace, says Papamichael, it’s important not to create shots Sorkin hadn’t asked for – those “he can’t use that get in the way of the rhythm of the language.”