PHEDON PAPAMICHAEL, ASC, LENSES "THE IDES OF MARCH"

Phedon Papamichael, ASC was born in Athens, Greece, and grew up in Germany, where he completed his education in fine arts at the University of Munich. He began working as a still photographer for various European magazines and later relocated to New York City. With an entertainment pedigree including the son of art director/production designer Phedon Papamichael Sr. and the cousin of Nick Cassavetes, it wasn’t long before he moved to Los Angeles and began working in the entertainment industry.

After shooting a number of shorts, including a UCLA graduate film, he was hired by Roger Corman to shoot features for his company. Phedon loved the intensity of working for Corman, whose company was set up like a mini-studio, and features were shot in the span of 15 days. Phedon met and worked with several people at Corman’s company who later went on to have their own career as cinematographers, including Wally Pfister, ASC, Janusz Kaminski, ASC and Mauro Fiore, ASC. At the beginning of his career working for Corman, Phedon met director Katt Shea and worked with her on three movies almost back to back: “Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls,” “Dance of the Damned” and “Streets.” He then re-teamed with her on “Poison Ivy” a few years later. He collaborated with director Kathryn Bigelow on a mini-series called “Wild Palms” for which he was nominated for an ASC Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography Award. In 1993, he worked with director Jon Turteltaub on “Cool Runnings,” and worked again with him on “While You Were Sleeping” and “Phenomenon.” Phedon paired with several directors on multiple films including his work with Wim Wenders on “Willie Nelson at the Teatro,” “The Million Dollar Hotel” “Ode to Cologne: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Film” and “Other Side of the Road” (short). His work with James Mangold included “Identity,” “Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma” and “Knight and Day.” His most recent collaboration on “The Descendants” was with Alexander Payne, who he also worked with on “Sideways.” Phedon also took time to direct, adding five features, “The Sketch Artist,” “Dark Side of Genius,” From Within,” “Arcadia Lost,” and Lost Angeles” to his resume. He has racked up numerous awards for his work, including two ASC Award nominations (for the pilot “White Dwarf” and the mini-series “Wild Palms”), three Camerimage Award nominations for “Walk the Line” (which he won the President’s Award), “27 Missing Kisses” and “The Million Dollar Hotel,” an Avignon Film Festival Prix Vision Award for “27 Missing Kisses,” a Special Award Commendation from the Festival of Fantastic Films UK for “From Within” and a Gerardmer Film Festival Award for “From Within.” In addition to his feature work, Phedon has shot and directed over 100 commercials for clients such as BMW, Audi, VW, McDonald’s, Bud Light, Good Year, ESPN, Target, and many more. George Clooney, who also starred in the recently released “The Descendants,” directed his most recent work, “Ides of March.” He is currently shooting “This is Forty” with director Judd Apatow. Phedon spoke with Panavision about his work.

Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
PP: I first used Panavision on “Poison Ivy,” which was a while back. We prepped through Panavision Hollywood at the time. When I started at Roger Corman, he had a BL2 and lenses that required a blimp. I didn’t really use zooms then, because they were old, so it was a big breakthrough when the 4:1 came out and I started using Panavision. I would use the zoom a lot, I still do. It was the first time I found a zoom with the quality I could use. I lived on the 4:1 from then on. Later, I began working with Phil Radin out of Panavision Woodland Hills. Since then, I have used Panavision almost exclusively…it’s been at least 20 years.

Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
PP: I was always into visual arts; my dad was a painter and a production designer so I was drawn to painting early. As I grew older, I switched into photography pretty seriously. But my love for movies and then discovering the fact that there was actually a job description for cinematographer was a revelation to me. The first time I wrote down a cinematographer’s name it was Raoul Coutard. I thought it would be more interesting than still photography, which is such a lonely profession, because you are creating things on your own, all the time. With a film you have the chance to be a part of a story and create a look, rather than just finding images. And when you are done interpreting that story, you don’t have to spend more time making it into art. I like that we are given the story and then are done with it. I also think it was a lifestyle choice for me. I was into design but didn’t want to work in an office, and I liked the idea of always having a new group of people to work with and travel with. It seemed more interesting to me.

Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, key grip, operator and assistant?
PP: My gaffer, Rafael Sanchez, and I have been together since “Prayer of The Rollerboys.” Initially, he was my key grip but became my gaffer on “Unstrung Heroes.” It’s a funny story: I offered the position of gaffer to him, and he said, “Everyone knows me as a key grip.” I said, “Think about it, ask your wife…” Three days later, he called me and said he decided to remain a key grip, and I said, “Sorry, but the key grip position is no longer available.” He said, “Okay, I’ll be your gaffer,” and he took the job. Now, he’s one of the biggest gaffers in town. We have done 22 features and have a lighting company together, Bella Luce Entertainment Lighting, which we use for our own shows. I have been working with him for 23 years. My first assistant, Bob Hall, and I have worked together since “Unstrung Heroes” all the way to “Pursuit of Happyness,” and then Wally (Pfister) started doing the “Batman” films and we got out of sync. Wally and I still share a lot of the same crew. More recently I’ve been working with Trevor Loomis. Trevor did “Night and Day,” “The Descendants,” “Ides of March,” and then “This is Forty.” My key grip is Ray Garcia, who also works with Wally now, but I have used him since “Identity.” We have done 8 or 9 movies together. I usually stay with my crew and we move people up from within the group. Wally operated for me for about a decade, starting with “Unstrung Heroes,” but he was also a DP in his own right.  He was attending AFI when I started shooting at Roger Corman Studio, so was Janusz Kaminski, who gaffed for me, and Mauro Fiore, who keyed for all those early films.  Since they were all at AFI, everyone assumed that I had gone to AFI as well, but I never made it to film school. Recently, I’ve been working with operator David Luckenbach, “3:10 to Yuma,” “Night and Day,” “This is Forty.” Scott Sakamoto operated on “The Descendants” and “The Ides of March.”

Q: What is your decision-making process between shooting spherical or anamorphic?
PP: I used to favor anamorphic because the bigger negative would provide greater latitude. We did a test on “Million Dollar Hotel,” which Fotokem called the ‘million dollar test,’ and I was in shock at how grainy the negative looked on Super 35 after the optical blow up. I had a whole package on hold at Panavision and I called Phil and said “Oh my God, we have to switch to anamorphic,” and we switched a week before the shoot. Recently, I started using DI so we don’t do the optical blowup anymore; the stocks are better, and I can control the grain and the blacks, so it’s much less critical. I have been shooting Super 35 since “Walk the Line.”

Q: How much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?
PP: Few directors are aware of the subtle differences. Alexander Payne asked about the difference and I told him about the characteristically anamorphic flares. He wanted those flares, and he asked if we could replicate them in the DI. So, just for fun, we did. Yes, a trained eye will be able to see the difference, but I rarely get a director who could identify an anamorphic show from a Super 35. Mostly we talk about the aspect ratio and how it is relevant to telling the story when composing. I like the widescreen because I am used to that now; I like all the extra space to play with and put things off-center. I have a hard time with 1:85 right now, but I don’t use it very much. Last time I used it was on “Sideways.” The director usually defers the technical aspects to me, so it doesn’t really come up. We usually prefer Super 35 because we have more lenses available, and there is no weight issue for hand-held and Steadicam.

Q: Do you have a different approach in how you shoot anamorphic vs. spherical?
PP: I used to use more light because I wouldn’t shoot the anamorphics wide open, I would shoot at a 4-stop; but with Primo anamorphics I shot at 2.8, which held up better. I was always worried about tops and bottoms being soft, so one of the advantages when I shoot Super 35 is that I can shoot at a more wide-open stop, on spherical Primos.

Q: The film you shot, “Ides of March” was shot in Super 35 spherical. Was the decision to shoot in that format made between you and the director or were there other influences?
PP: I brought it up, and we talked about what would be good for the story and it was a pretty brief conversation. With “The Descendants,” it was the same thing. We talked about widescreen and Hawaii as a character in the movie and it was the right choice because the landscape was so powerful and important to the story.

Q: When shooting “Ides of March,” what can you tell us about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?
PP: I used very simple, single soft sources, because it’s a dark and moody story. I used big soft sources that I would wrap around, and then apply a little fill light. It’s a very intimate, character-driven picture, almost like a political thriller but also a claustrophobic story, in a sense. It was influenced by films from the 70s, “Three Days of the Condor,”  “The Conversation,” “Godfather II” and “The Candidate.” It’s nice that a lot of reviewers have picked up on that. There have been comparisons to Gordon Willis and Conrad Hall’s films…that’s the ultimate compliment! George and I also decided to apply some desaturation in the DI, so the color pallet is restricted: browns and greys. The story is set in Cincinnati but most of the interiors were shot in Detroit. A lot of those interiors were deprived of color. We stuck with monochromatic tones, same as the wintry cool exteriors. We only used primary colors (red and blue) for the campaign office and venues, but even those were kept slightly muted by production designer Sharon Seymour.

Q: Are there any particular scenes in “Ides of March” you can talk about where you really pushed the envelope on lighting?
PP: There were two scenes. One scene kicks off the third act; it’s a dramatic turning point where the film takes on a whole different, darker tone. Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood have this encounter in the staircase, and Ryan, who you can’t see at all, steps forward into the light. It’s a very dark, dramatic scene with no detail in the blacks. There is another situation later on, at the height of everything going wrong. Ryan’s character is sitting in the car and he’s listening to voice mail messages. We hadn’t planned for rain but it rained consistently all night long. So while he is sitting in the car we had this lucky accident, similar to what happened to Conrad Hall on “In Cold Blood,” where he gets this pattern on his face from the rain as if he’s crying. It was perfectly appropriate for the scene, and we certainly hadn’t thought of it beforehand!

Q: This is the second film you shot recently that stars George Clooney. Did you notice a difference in how you lit him based on the different characters he played?
PP: “The Descendants” has a completely different approach to the story. It’s about a family that is foul from the inside, but ultimately heals itself. The drama reveals itself in a more subtle way. “Ides” is a much darker, dramatic piece about corruption and selling your soul. Also, the environments are completely different: Hawaii in the summer, versus Ohio in the winter …completely different color pallets. As far as Clooney, I think he responded to the way Alexander Payne and I work together: economical, fast set-ups. On “Ides” we did an average of two takes and around ten setups a day. Eight to ten hour days were not unusual. 

Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses? If so, why?
PP: My favorite lenses…I have always liked the Primo Primes. I like the 4:1 zoom, which is my main workhorse, but for wide shots I take off the zooms and use a Prime: 17 or 21 because I think they resolve a little better. The 11:1 is a fantastic lens as well. I usually live with 4:1 on A-camera and the 11:1 on B-camera. Though I am looking forward to Panavision building some smaller, lighter zooms, especially for the new digital cameras.

Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite? And why?
PP: Visually, I really liked “Unstrung Heroes” and “Million Dollar Hotel.” “Walk the Line” I liked because it was inspirational shooting those performances on stage with that great music. The most fun was “Sideways,” because of the locations and drinking wine and Alexander Payne…after shooting, we would wrap at a vineyard. It was similar on “Descendants,” Alexander just creates a very respectful, intimately creative environment. With George it was also creatively highly stimulating. There is a lot of precision in the way George approaches the story. Ultimately, whenever you have great performances, it inspires everyone and I always try to pick and work on movies that I would go see myself …which are not that many! I try to stay away from big-budget action-hero movies because I feel you can easily lose the connection to the characters in them. I like the simpler, smaller, more intimate fare.

Q: Any advice you could give to a young cinematographer today?
PP: Things have changed since I started; we had that great opportunity with Roger Corman films…we could play around and experiment with any colors or stylistic devices, as long as we fulfilled capturing his elements: nudity and gore! We just tried to have fun!  That’s the main thing I would try and pass on to a young DP: keep shooting and have fun experimenting…take every opportunity even if it doesn’t seem like it’s what you want to be doing at the time. On every picture you will meet someone you will feel close to creatively and will want to work with again. Try and meet people who want to tell stories the same way you want to, and build that group; on every project you learn something. Just be daring and don’t be stuck in set ways and apply the same approach over and over again. You will find a new language when you take chances. The payoff it offers is that we’re not all manufacturing the same product.