‘We were the magicians’: cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on 40 years of film-making

Estimated read time 5 min read

Phedon Papamichael is sitting in a sparse hotel room in New York, huddled in a puffer jacket and glancing at the window as his fingers play with an unlit cigarette. He’s in town shooting A Complete Unknown, the highly anticipated Bob Dylan biopic starring Timothée Chalamet – and today, at least, he seems to be channelling its subject.

The film, he says, at the moment largely involves “travelling to every corner of New Jersey on a bus”. For Papamichael, king of the road movie, this is a very good thing.

Other than the buses, two things excite him especially about the project. It’s his seventh collaboration with director James Mangold, after the likes of Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma and Knight and Day. Plus, there’s the chance to immortalise on screen “a kid who wrote lyrics so incredible they could be dictated by God”.

Timothée Chalamet is seen on location for the Bob Dylan biopic A Complete Unknown in March.View image in fullscreen

A Complete Unknown is set in the early years of Dylan’s burgeoning stardom, as he travels from Minnesota to New York and finds a home in the folk community before alienating them by going electric. “It’s about a kid who leaves his family and makes a new family and leaves them,” says Papamichael. Himself a child of the 60s, he believes Dylan’s story will resonate with the socially activist youth of today. He’s concerned more widely about their prospects. His advice to budding cinematographers comes with a note of bruised resignation: “Don’t just set your sights on Hollywood.”

He elaborates: “I think the best days of cinematography are behind us, but interesting changes are happening.” The job will evolve alongside the tech: less travel, more adventures in digital. “Back then we went everywhere,” he says, mournfully. “We were the magicians.” If his cigarette was lit, this is the moment he’d blow a smoke ring.

Born in Athens to Greek parents in 1962, Papamichael moved to Germany as a child and grew up in Munich. Limited to three Bavarian television channels, he gorged himself on John Wayne movies and spaghetti westerns before exploring the cinema on his doorstep. “German movies were always a bit cringey,” he chuckles. “I was much more fascinated with the French. We would get on a train and go to Paris for a weekend just to sit in Gare du Nord and look at the Citroëns.” Films starring Jean-Luc Belmondo were his gateway to the French New Wave, but it was Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris that changed his life. “It is the film that made me,” Papamichael maintains. “Something clicked in my brain, and I knew this is what I want to do.”

With Alexander Payne (left) on the set of Downsizing.View image in fullscreen

Inspired by Godard, he began working as a photojournalist and moved to New York in 1983 at the invitation of his cousin, John Cassavetes. “He told me my photographs captured the spirit of a generation,” he says with a mix of bashfulness and pride. In New York he worked on Cassavetes’ 1984 drama Love Streams – and hasn’t looked back since. He now has 40 film credits to his name; is a regular collaborator of Alexander Payne, Michael Mann, George Clooney and Taylor Hackford; and has twice been Oscar-nominated – for Payne’s Nebraska and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.

His creative stamp is easy to spot: a kinetic sense of adventure that can stretch from the high-octane chases of Ford v Ferrari to the bittersweet pootling in Nebraska.

Film sets, Papamichael believes, are a microcosm of the societies around them. “America can feel like the army at times,” he says, “and at other times like a circus. The Balkans favour quality of life and working less. The Brits approach film like a factory job: someone says ‘wrap’ and the lights are out.”

His most recent experience of shooting in the UK came from a long stint at Pinewood, shooting Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. He went straight from there to the set of his fifth feature film as director: Light Falls, set in Greece with a local crew and, he says, a tonic. “You have a lot more freedom, an available crew, and you’re not tied to a huge ball and chain that prevents you from making creative decisions.

‘There are not a lot of American films that interest me’ … Papamichael at the 2014 Oscars.View image in fullscreen

“There are not a lot of American films that interest me: I can count them on one hand at the Oscars every year.” He and Payne and Yorgos Lanthimos have been flying the flag for Greece this season; he has also been encouraged by the mainstream embrace of foreign-language films such as The Zone of Interest and Anatomy of a Fall.

“People are burnt out from one Avengers sequel after another,” he says. “They’re looking for something different.” Not just audience members; practitioners too. Papamichael has now moved to the Georgian Caucasus and intends to remain there as much as his finances allow: “I think it’s very important for me, as I approach the end of my career, to work on smaller movies.”

Source: theguardian.com

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