This year, director of photography Phedon Papamichael has applied his considerable skills as a cinematographer to two very different films that both happen to star George Clooney. In The Descendants, Clooney is the conflicted scion of a clan with deep roots in Hawaii whose wife is in a coma from an accident. At the same time he has to decide whether to dispose of the family’s heritage for generations, a pristine expanse of beach property, which his cousins want sold and developed so they can cash out. In The Ides of March, Clooney not only stars but is also the director of a political melodrama about corruption on the campaign trail.
Papamichael renews his collaboration with director/screenwriter Alexander Payne in The Descendants. The two last teamed seven years ago on Sidedways, a serio-comic buddy film set in California wine country that set off a national craze for Pinot Noir and garnered numerous awards including an Oscar for Payne for best adapted screenplay.
During the filming of Descendants, Clooney asked the DP if he would consider lensing Ides. “I think George liked the way we worked on Descendants,” says Papamichael. ”With Alexander it’s an uncomplicated, fast, fun set – no egos. George runs a very similar set. He likes to fool around, but he is also the ultimate professional.”
The look Payne wanted in Descendants was of a deglamorized Hawaii that fits the tale of the dysfunctional family. “It was all about showing Hawaii in a realistic way, not the beautiful vacation spot everyone believes they know from the tourist ads,” says Papamichael. “There are all kinds of people living there with all the little day-to-day problems: illnesses, divorces, extreme poverty and traffic chaos like cities on the mainland U.S.”
Because of Payne’s penchant for a relaxed realism, “we try to stick with very natural lighting and keep things simple,” he adds. Not that that the film lacks for colorful camerawork. The tension in the movie contrasts today’s grittier Hawaii, with the untouched paradise that still exists but is threatened, like the family parcel. At one point, a dazzling crane shot catches the expansive property, with its deserted beach and the ocean beyond. “I got lucky,” says the DP. “It was as if God lit the scene.”
Papamichael shot with a Panavision Panaflex Platinum, camera with Panavision Primo lenses. He went with Super 35mm, three-perf film. “We felt like the 2.35:1 aspect ratio would serve our nature shots well, but also allow us to place our actors into interesting compositions,” he observes. “I love having that extra space to offset things.”
The biggest challenge was the constantly changing weather and light. “Conditions would go from bright high-contrast sun, to dark moody rain clouds within minutes, followed by heavy rain, then back to sun,” he says. “It really made completing scenes and matching coverage a challenge, especially since we were mainly on practical locations.”
Ides of March, observes Papamichael, “had the complete opposite mood, atmosphere and setting – winter on the East coast, with a brown-grey color palette, and some additional de-saturation in the DI.” The DP describes Clooney as “very at ease in the director’s seat. He’s been around the block. When he directs he is Spartan and economical. He knows exactly what he wants and gets it seemingly effortlessly. You’ve just got to keep your guard up for the practical jokes – they can come anytime, out of nowhere.”
Payne and Papamichael have already started prepping their next film, Nebraska. It is set to start shooting in April and will be filmed in black and white. (A trend now that The Artist is a hit?) The film is a variation on the road movie meme. A father and son travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim a questionable sweepstakes prize. “Again it’s a very intimate story. They end up visiting places from their past in what’s a kind of last journey,” says the DP. “Alexander and I are very excited to be doing the film in black and white, which we really had to fight for. One thing I do know now is that I want to shoot true anamorphic. I’ve already put a lens package on hold. I think it will be Alexander’s most visual film yet.”
Papamichael was born in Greece, but grew up in Munich, Germany. His father, Phedon Papamichael I was a famous European production designer whose credits include Jules Dassin’s Never on Sunday and a score of films done over 25 years for director John Cassavetes, a second cousin. The younger Papamichael arrived in New York as a photojournalist at age 20 and soon wound up in Los Angeles. There he learned the ropes as a cameraman and cinematographer on seven low-budget movies produced by Roger Corman over a two-year period.
In addition to Payne, he has repeated as a DP for directors Gore Verbinski, Brad Silberberg, Jon Turtaltaub and James Mangold, with whom he’s done four films – Identity, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma and this year’s Knight and Day. Other credits include Patch Adams and Pursuit of Happyness. Papamichael also has directed four films.
He twice received best cinematography nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers for Oliver Stone’s television mini-series Wild Palms and for White Dwarf, a TV movie produced by Francis Ford Coppola. An Oscar nomination has so far eluded Papamichael, but he has received a number of international kudos, including the Camerimage President’s Award in 2005 for his cinematography on the Johnny Cash biopic, and also a nomination for the festival’s top honor, the Golden Frog.