If you work long enough in Hollywood, you're going to run into a lot of people, especially if you're one of the best cinematographers ever. Phedon Papamichael is proof of that. He’s worked with Gore Verbinski, Oliver Stone, Judd Apatow, Alexander Payne, and James Mangold.
All of them have their own ways they like to operate, and now he's adding Aaron Sorkin to the list.
This kind of versatility keeps him in business, but it also means he has a lot of wisdom to impart to us.
In a recent interview with Collider, Papamichael opened up about how he adapts to all these voices and how he continues to excel at a high level. Oh, and he talks a ton about achieving the look and feel of The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The hiring process was unique, with Sorkin and Papamichael not so much as interviewing as meeting and having him accept the job. He told Collider:
"I don’t think it was much like a job interview, he was just like, 'Thank you for doing this with me.' And then the only thing he said was, 'I’m going to rely very heavily on you.' It was a ten-minute meeting at Four Seasons in LA. So he described a little bit about his experience on Molly’s Game and how he didn’t like improvising or altering lines. I mean, Sacha Baron Cohen is somebody who’s accustomed to trying different things and being a little free form. That makes [Aaron] uncomfortable. So I recognized that, so I never pushed something. I told him why I think it’s valuable what I’m doing. I always talked him through it. I always made sure he was understanding it. And then if I got a sense that that’s not connecting with him, I would go, 'Okay, well in that case we’ll do it like this, and maybe we should do it like that.'"
Okay, you have the job, but how can you make a courtroom still visually interesting? Even if it has a sizzling Sorkin script?
"Knowing his writing, I had read Molly’s Game, it was 200 pages," Papamichael told Collider. "I struggle sometimes with reading a lot of scripts. But that was a page-turner, and [Chicago 7] I think was 170 pages. Very tight schedule, lower budget by my standards. You know they’re tough and my concern was this courtroom and keeping it visually interesting. Then Aaron’s writing, which is so specific, to apply a visual language to it can be limiting because he really doesn’t want to see anything other than cut to the person who’s talking."
Okay. There is a lot of talking in this movie, which is great, but that has to be a challenge for even an experienced DP.
"A movie gets made three times: on the page, and then during the filming process, and then in editing." -Phedon Papamichael
When dealing with Sorkin, Papamichael had to find a real balance between suggestions and his intentions.
"At first, Aaron was like, 'Use long lenses.' I go, 'You know, I think for something like this, you’ve got so many characters that are often in the same spots and all the defendants sitting along a bench, we really want to go closer with a wider lens, where you still get an intimate closeup and you’re in somebody’s head and you don’t isolate them, you still feel the characters and their reactions,'" he told Collider.
And the landscape of a courtroom is also pretty boring. It's one large room. That proved to be its own challenge. He told Collider:
"...the courtroom. It’s a square box. People are always sitting in the same place. You’ve got the judge against the brown wall. You’ve got Abbie and Jerry… I placed them under the windows. There’s a wall right behind them. I always try to connect the characters. Connect the prosecutors with the defendants, and the judge with the witness and the jury as far as always looking at the defendants. And so my visual approach was to be more composed and static in the courtroom, but keep it dirty outside the courtroom. Do little slider moves, be physically close but do these little connective tissue shots."
With that all built, it seems like they decided what looked best in the edit, and had plenty of options.
That covers the court scenes, but if you've seen the movie, you know they cut back and forth from there, to the house, to the actual events, and everything gets stitched together in different times. So it wasn't just composing one look for the film, but several distinct looks that also had to cut together later.
Papamichael continued, "I had completely different approaches where the courtroom was composed and static, and then for the riots, I went the opposite. I literally just took two cameras, handheld, and said to my operators, 'Just get in the crowd and run and make a documentary about what’s happening.'"
He said they had the benefit of stock footage, as well as shooting in the real-life Grant Park.
So how do you work with a new director? How can you anticipate their aesthetic style and come together on a look and feel for the project?
"A movie gets made three times," he told Collider. "On the page, and then during the filming process, and then in editing. I would say with Aaron, less so. It’s really not three stages, it gets made on the page and then in the editing room it’ll be pretty much 90% of the way it was written."
I think their collaboration went swimmingly. The movie really moves and highlights both the characters and the script. The visuals provide subtlety and boost the narrative when it begins to slack.
Let us know what you think of the film and its cinematography in the comments!