Trevor Hogg chats with Phedon Papamichael about working with Alexander Payne and the cinematography featured in Nebraska…
“I was a young striving cinematographer at the time,” recalls Phedon Papamichael (3:10 to Yuma) who first met filmmaker Alexander Payne (About Schmidt) at UCLA Film School. “I had a job interview with him for his UCLA graduate film which I did not get. I ended up shooting a different UCLA graduate film with Alexander being the boom operator. We knew each other socially and lived in the same part of Los Angeles, the Silver Lake Area. I’d be aware of what he was doing and he’d be aware of what I was doing. I was happy when I saw Alexander made his first film Citizen Ruth  and liked it. We often talked about films. It wasn’t until Sideways  when he called out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to shoot his next film. I said, ‘That sounds great. I’m on vacation in Greece and I’ll be back in four to five weeks.’ He goes, ‘That’s fine. I’m tweaking the script. I’ll send you a new draft.’ We met and it started. I asked him about Jim Glennon [Flight of the Navigator] who shot his first three films and Alexander said, ‘I told him we’ve been married for a long time and now I feel like it’s time to cheat on you.’ Ironically on Sideways he mentioned Nebraska to me. Alexander said, ‘After this I want to do this small film that takes place in my home state. It’s called Nebraska and I want to shoot it in black and white.’ There was a long period between Sideways and Descendants  because Alexander was developing another script of his called Downsizing which he has commenced writing again; it’s a bigger budget film because it involves visual effects. We have certainly found a nice rhythm on Nebraska after having collaborated on two prior movies. When I read Nebraska it seemed like a much more visual and cinematic story for him; his movies are always about the characters, dialogue and the nuances of performances. I felt that we had an opportunity to support the characters whereas in other movies I’m always trying to be subtle about it and not be too aggressive with the visual interpretation.”
Nebraska is a comedy-drama revolving around an aged father (Bruce Dern) and his son (Will Forte) travelling together to collect a $1 million sweepstakes reward. “You have a certain intimacy with somebody on the road in a car,” notes Papamichael who was born in Greece and grew up in Germany. “Even before we started the movie Alexander asked me to meet him at Billings, Montana, and he drove up from Omaha. We went on the full road trip of the actual route. We drove through South Dakota, Wyoming, stopped at Mount Rushmore and got out. We were basically Woody and his son. Alexander did that mostly for me to get a sense of the vastness of the land, the actual distances, sleeping in little motels along the way, going to bars, turning into towns and cruising down Main Street. Alexander wanted me to get an impression of it without talking specifically about the movie or us looking for specific locations. It was to get a feel for the Midwest.” The four day journey by car had an impact on the cinematography. “I’ve lived many years in America and shot in Texas but it was impressive how large that part of the country is, how the landscape changes subtly, how isolated people are from each other and how they communicate. As we were entering the towns the sign would say population 12,000 or 9,000. We would go down Main Street and I’d never see any people. If you go into a small town in Italy or Greece no matter what the population is there are kids running around the streets and old men are sitting in cafés staring out at you. I’d ask, ‘Alexander where is everybody?’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know. I guess they’re inside watching TV.’”
“There’s a different dynamic that takes place and it’s all reflected in the themes of the film,” observes Phedon Papamichael. “The way the brothers and relatives communicated there was no eye contact when they talked. Everybody is looking at the football game, and its stark and minimal dialogue. We tried to reflect a lot of that in the shots and compositions. We played not only the graphic value of the wideness of the land in compositions but also the interiors. We crammed all of the brothers sitting together in living room on these awkward couches watching TV and that frame gets a laugh from the audience before the dialogue starts. It gets many more laughs once they start talking. There’s a lot of humour in those shots as well. All of those impressions were made on that first trip and I took a still camera loaded with black and white film and started generating the first images. We printed those up. We didn’t reference that many classic American photographers. We never really researched or referenced movies specifically. We showed each other movies that we liked in general. In this case Alexander was showing me a lot of Japanese films that didn’t relate to the film so much but they were black and white. We looked at Paper Moon , The Last Picture Show , and Hud .”
“Initially, we wanted to shoot on black and white film stock and were excluded from that option because the studio when green lighting the film demanded a colour version as well,” reveals Phedon Papamichael. “Hopefully with Nebraska being recognized as a black and white film it won’t be necessary. Nobody is going to ask to see a colour version of Manhattan  or Raging Bull . I was forced to test colour film stock. I was also looking at digital cameras in order to generate a colour negative which is scanned and entered into the digital world by working in a DI [Digital Intermediate]; that is where we created the black and white, and set the density and contrast levels to where we wanted. I was able to achieve that look fairly easily with my colourist Skip Kimble [A Good Day to Die Hard] at Technicolor; we experimented with adding actual film grain to the film. I asked for a print of Paper Moon and we used it as a reference in terms of how much grain those films had. I did parallel projections and tried to fine tune the texture but not to overdo it. It worked well. I had Haskell Wexler who shot America, America  and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  call and ask me what film stock I shot. I did use older film lenses, anamorphic Panavision C series that also helps with that filmic quality. They’re not as sharp and fall off at the edges. They also help to convey the feel of those classic 1970s films.”
“It is a completely different challenge to work on a big Hollywood film like Knight and Day  which involves previs, storyboards, complicated camera moves and a lot of technical aspects,” observes Phedon Papamicheal. “As a storyteller and cinematographer I’m more attracted to more intimate pieces that the capture performances and focus on basic storytelling; that’s why I enjoy working with Alexander and with James Mangold who is also like that.” The process involves not placing lot of technical restraints upon the cast members. “Nothing is storyboarded or pre-designed. We observe the actors and go, ‘We’ll start with this shot over here and if that works maybe we’ll add another shot over here.’ It’s simple and the shots never try to draw too much attention to themselves. When the camera moves it’s in a way that moves with the actor and you’re not becoming conscious of it. Also we try to save close-ups for the moments where they have enough impact. If you overuse the close-ups and coverage they lose their power. The moments that we select to go onto Bruce’s face they come at the right time and you get information that was not apparent to you as an audience before like his little insecurities or fears or confusion.” Papamichael remarks, “We don’t do a lot of takes. Alexander says that the most important part for him is the casting and editing. Once Alexander selects his thespians for a story he takes his time and we find the performance within it.”
“Nebraska is a small show and all of the houses, bars and restaurants are real functioning locations,” states Papamichael. “We altered few things in terms of set dressing. Alexander has this dogma about the reality of things. It has to be the actual road trip, it’s in geographically correct order, and you’ll never get a pretty shot of sky in Wyoming that actually takes place in Nebraska. It’s a challenge to be on the road with a small crew. I was camera operating myself. We didn’t have a video village as we call it, a bunch of monitors where people are hanging out. We only had an on board monitor and Alexander is right next to the camera. It’s an intimate group that makes a movie: boom guy, focus puller, cameraman, director and actors. It’s a challenge because you are working in the car which is street driving not in a rig. You have to take advantage of the natural light and there’s not a lot of space to put any equipment. Usually, we have 50 days but this one finished under 35 days with an additional reduced road unit for three days. You have less control, and have to be more flexible and be reactive to what happens and what the actors do and work within the constraints of the small locations. There’s this other way Alexander creates this sense of reality is by casting a lot of locals and you’re dealing with non-actors with your actors.”
“Whenever you’re shooting a movie like this and dealing with all of the real elements there are a lot of happy accidents,” believes Phedon Papamichael. “Sometimes you lose and sacrifice things but the flipside of that is you do also get lucky a lot of times. The sequence where they go to the graveyard turned out nicely. We have beautiful cloud structures and tried to take advantage of that. We shot it in a way where we could complete the scene in a period of time where you maintain that quality of light. Also when they go to the abandoned farmhouse it was difficult to light that and since the shots are selective we manoeuvred through the house in a way where we took advantage of the natural light. There’s no lighting placed in that house at all when they do that tour through his childhood home.” The cinematic effort has captured the attention of the Oscars as Papamichael has received his first Academy Award nomination. “With Nebraska the choice of black and white makes it standout and how it applied itself to this particular story and these characters, Bruce’s performance and the writing; they all work in harmony and support the story. People recognize that whether it’s consciously, technically or on a subconscious level. It’s always a great compliment to have local people, in this case the Midwesterners, responding to the story. A lot of people have a parent or a father like Woody and go through the full emotional range of laughing and crying. It means that we have captured something that feels emotionally real and also has a certain aesthetic to it that serves the story.”
Many thanks to Phedon Papamichael for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.