A Chat with Filmmaker Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC

By François Reumont for the AFC

La Lettre AFC n°249

[English] [français]

Looking back at the beginnings of his career and his education, Phedon Papamichael admits that he didn’t attend a cinema school. “I was originally a photographer, and I learned to make movies on the job, by filming lots of short films using the Éclair 16 camera that I owned at the time.” Bit by bit, he went from short films to feature-length films under the guidance of Roger Corman of Concorde Pictures, for whom, beginning in 1989, he signed off on a number of low-budget B series films produced in a fortnight. At that time, he began to work with a number of his future colleagues, Raphel Sanchez, who was a key grip and later became a gaffer, Wally Pfister, who is one of his sparks, and Janusz Kaminski, who was also working as a gaffer at that time.

“For me, it’s really important to work with someone over the long-term. Once you’ve found someone with whom you get along, you can develop a magical mutual understanding on the set. I remember the story a friend told me about the set of Wings of Desire, in Berlin, where Henri Alekan teamed up with his gaffer, Louis Cochet, who was also about 90 years old.
It was crazy, Alekan only had to lift his head towards a spot for Cochet to immediately understand what he had in mind, and to get up on a ladder to adjust the light. With 25 years of working together and 22 films under our belt, Rafael Sanchez and I share many things together. I can even tell you that he is the person in the world with whom I have spent the most amount of time in my life… !”

Being a director also (five feature-length films to his credit and many television ads), Phedon Papamichael admits that he has a hard time of really defining the role of the director of photography : “I like to consider myself as a filmmaker…, there’s nothing pedantic or vain about it. It’s just that I feel that I’m at the director’s service, and that we’re creating a common project together. It’s true that one learns a lot about how to direct actors from working with James Mangold… or on editing with Alexandre Payne, who is completely fussy. Let me tell you that on Nebraska, he almost never talked about filming the move, only about editing it. He spent 33 weeks on the final cut, and even after it was premiered at Cannes at an event where Bruce Dern received a fifteen-minute-long standing ovation, well, he still went back to the editing room, and the final version of the film isn’t exactly the one screened at Cannes.”

Regarding the experience of simultaneously being the director and director of photography of the same movie, the American filmmaker admits to having done it two times, but more for production reasons than artistic ones. “When I’m directing, I try to give one of my close friends control over the image. For example, Wally Pfister did the image on one of them. I believe I would have a hard time working with another cinematographer that I don’t know, and maybe I’d be a bit afraid that they take over control…, or that we might not see eye to eye.”
So why has he gone back to directing on multiple occasions ? “Simply,” Phaedon Papamichael explains, “because at certain times, I was making too many movies where the director couldn’t care less about the image or about camera work… I felt frustrated about having to decide everything in his stead. From that point of view, I’m 100 times more willing to work with people like James or Alexander, who will amplify my creativity by giving me challenges, and by directing my work in a certain direction.”

When we ask this cinematographer whether he prefers comedies or dramas, he answers, “I have no preference. It entirely depends on the director. And their styles can be very different. What is most important is just that he communicates with me regarding his vision and his manner, no matter in what way that communication takes place !
For example, with Judd Apatow, who is 100% focused on the actors, we have to film in digital because the takes can last for twenty minutes until he finds the right rhythm, the right tempo… But that’s the way that he works, and he makes his films funny while editing them.”

A piece of advice for young cinematographers ? “Don’t be too choosy when you start out. Film, film, film… That’s what’s most important. You will always have the time afterwards to choose what projects you work on and reorient your career. That’s exactly what happened for me when I had to gradually leave the B-series scene and films with John Tutlelaub, for example, in order to film what I really liked.
Be realistic : besides unbelievable strokes of luck like Rodrigo Prieto’s when he was chosen to film Amores Perros as his first movie, you’ll have to make movies that have been commissioned, or that don’t jibe with your style. The only thing that you have to keep in mind is that you’ve got to propose the director a style that he feels at ease with, and never impose something personal that would conflict with the rest of the film.”

On his work on advertisements, where he combines filming and directing, Phedon Papamichael admits that he mostly works in Europe. “In the USA, you’re almost always confronted with an army of thirty people working for the agency or for the client who are all there to give their opinions and who generally have no film culture. In Europe, I have more freedom. I can even sometimes almost have carte blanche entirely, and surprise and delight the agency after editing by proposing a black-and-white film, with an unexpected soundtrack, as I did for example on a film in Greece. Objectively, this kind of work is unique and requires a lot of tact ! And from a technical standpoint, I like advertisements because I can test out a lot of new techniques and materials !”

Lastly, when asked about his relationship with the storyboard, he replied : “I always try, as a cinematographer, and, of course, as a director, to get the most information possible regarding the artist in charge of the storyboard, or even try to recommend one that I know well already. Indeed, his influence on the direction of the movie can be decisive, and that is why I always prefer someone who is going to set the tone of the movie via his drawings rather than to precisely block off certain shots or camera movements. Of course, when you have to work with special effects, you have to be precise. But, in my opinion, that must never be allowed take the place of the director’s personal style.”

  • Visit www.advancedfilmmaking.com, a website dedicated to online cinema education, mostly based on interviews with experienced professionals. Access via subscription.

(Translated from French by Alex Raiffe)