James Mangold’s remake of the 1950s classic western 3:10 to Yuma represents the third collaboration between the director and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC. It also continues their assured exploitation of the dramatic dimensions and visual richness of the big-screen format. They had previously teamed on Walk the Line (2005), the Johnny Cash biopic, a hit with the critics and at the box office, and Identity (2002), a psychological thriller.
“All three films were done in anamorphic and Walk the Line in super 35,” notes director of photography Papamichael. “We just love that 2:40 frame,” he adds, “especially the way we go in with slightly wider lenses on the close-ups. It gives you all that negative space to compose other elements in the background. You feel the surroundings, and it creates a lot of tension.”
In approaching the well-mined genre, “we definitely wanted to make a modern Western while not disregarding the elements of the classic Western,” says the DP. The film stars Christian Bale as a struggling rancher who volunteers to deliver a crafty outlaw, played by Russell Crowe, to justice. It is both a character study about the ambiguities of good and evil in frontier days and a guns blazing action piece. Papamichael’s lensing captures both dimensions.
The DP says he checked out the work of Italian director Sergio Leone, especially Once a Time in the West. “Jim and I like shooting close-ups and juxtaposing them with wider compositions,” he explains. “And when we go in, we really go in close. There’s an absence of medium shots. These are all elements we found in those spaghetti westerns and it wasn’t much of a stretch to apply them to 3:10 to Yuma.”
The biggest difference involved the action and fight sequences. “We went with more of a handheld feel, putting the camera right in the middle in order to get a less designed and composed result—almost as if it were a documentary,” the cinematographer said. “The objective is to give the audience a sense that they are a part of the scene, which is a very contemporary way of telling the story.”
The 53-day New Mexico shoot in the middle of winter was challenging. “Three hours of usable daylight before lunch and three hours after lunch was our shooting day,” he points out. “That left little room for error.” Meanwhile, weather conditions varied from super blue skies to overcast to snow blizzards, creating continuity problems.
Papamichael never went to film school, instead cutting his teeth during the mid-1980s as a cinematographer working with renowned B-movie producer Roger Corman. He did films about subjects such as serial killers stalking strippers with vampire romances. “You had to do whatever movie he had set for that month,” says the DP. Others on the camera crew he worked with at the time included presently prominent DP’s including Janusz Kaminski and Wally Pfister, ASC. “It was the best film school,” says Papamichael.
In addition to working with Mangold, Papamichael lensed Sideways (2004) for director Alexander Payne and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) with director Gabriele Mucchino, among others. Lately he’s turned to directing. He recently completed From Within, about a community of religious zealots, and he’s prepping a film that may be filmed in his native Greece.
–By Jack Egan
Written by Jack Egan