Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael
Phedon Papamichael. Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

Athens-born cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC made his first trip to the United States at the age of four when his father was the art director on John Cassavetes’ Faces. And it was Cassavetes who encouraged him to move to New York 15 years later “to shoot his next picture,” after seeing some of his still photography.

After a year in New York, Papamichael moved to Los Angeles and supported himself by shooting medical films for $100 a week. By 1988, he was shooting one ultra-low budget film after another for director Roger Corman. He worked as a gaffer on one film and a director on another and gradually began getting pictures with somewhat bigger budgets.

Though still in the dawn of his career, Papamichael has already compiled an impressive and eclectic list of narrative credits including Phenomenon, Patch Adams, The Million Dollar Hotel, Moonlight Mile, Sideways, The Weather Man, Walk the Line and the upcoming The Pursuit of Happyness. Here, Papamichael talks about getting started, working for pennies and getting his degree from the Roger Corman School of Moviemaking.

Bob Fisher (MM): When and how did you become interested in photography?

Phedon Papamichael (PP): My dad was a painter and I started drawing at a really early age. I wanted to be a painter initially, and then I got interested in industrial design. One day I was in a ski cabin and everybody was asleep. There was a Super8 camera on the table. I remember the moment I decided to pick it up; I was instantly fascinated with the framing.

MM: How did you start shooting films

PP: I shot a bunch of shorts for that group of friends. Of course, I wasn’t getting paid. After a while we moved to Los Angeles and I began shooting medical videos once a week UCLA for $100. I was making $400 a month; I paid $225 in rent and lived on the rest. I kept pretty busy. I tried to get into assisting cameramen just to make some money. I interviewed with Robbie Müller for Barfly, Theo van de Sande on Miracle Mile and also with Mikael Salomon.

MM: When was this?

PP: It was in 1985. I wasn’t a first cameraman, so I didn’t get any of those jobs. I would get Dramalogue and call people who needed someone to shoot their shorts. I ended up shooting a UCLA graduate film. Alexander Payne was actually the boom man on one short I shot—that was the first time I met him. I had a reel with a lot of footage, but I hadn’t made any money yet. Then I got my first job with Roger Corman.

MM: How did that happen?

PP: A friend who was a graduate of AFI got a second unit job directing on a picture called Deadly Dreams. She asked if I wanted to shoot second unit with her. I was really fast because I was mostly shooting in natural light. They introduced me to director Katt Shea Ruben. We did three movies, almost in a row, Dance of The Damned, Stripped to Kill II and Streets, which had Christina Applegate playing a teenage junkie who was a hooker. The great thing about Corman was that we had to shoot these features in 15 days. You shot for 16 to 18 hours a day with maybe 60 setups. I remember on Stripped to Kill II, I had 66 setups in one day. It was just fantastic training; it was like a mini-studio system.

There was a UPM who was concerned about the budget, and Roger Corman would come down sometimes. He had these weird hang-ups, like we weren’t supposed to use dolly tracks. We had a PA in the parking lot waiting for his Mercedes. If he spotted his car, he would run in or radio us, and we would yank the dolly off and hide the track. Corman would visit for half an hour and then he’d leave and we would put the track back down. The bottom line was he didn’t really care as long as the movie had full frontal nudity and people were getting killed. They were definitely B movie genre films, but at the time he had actual theatrical distribution from MGM. MGM brought me in once, supposedly to interview me for a studio picture. I could tell in the interview what they really wanted to know. They kept asking me how much Roger was making these movies for, because he was actually selling them to the studio for $1 million apiece. Body Chemistry, which I shot, ran for five weeks in a theater in Westwood. We were making those films for about $200,000.

MM: Who were some of the other people you met at that time?

PP: Everybody always assumes that I went to AFI, because everybody I knew and was working with at Corman’s place was either just out of AFI or still going there… Janusz Kaminski, Mauro Fiore, Wally Pfister and others. Janusz ended up gaffing for me on two or three Corman films and Mauro was my key grip. Janusz shot second unit on Streets and then he got his own Corman movies.

It was a lot of fun because we didn’t have any stylistic or visual restrictions. We could do anything we wanted. I remember we went to see The Last Emperor, and then we went back to work at Corman’s on Monday and tried to make everything look golden. We did a lot of expressionistic photography with colors and smoke. We could shoot in real darkness and it wasn’t like for a studio, where you would get execs freaking out, saying you are taking too many chances. We could do stylistic work and have a lot of fun. Janusz went on and shot The Rain Killer, his first feature, and Mauro ended up gaffing for me. Wally Pfister was an electrician at the time and he ended up being my operator on probably 10 films. Mauro ended up gaffing for Janusz, and he shot the first movie that Janusz directed. This connection and friendship between us has remained for 15 years.

MM: How do you pick movies that you would like to shoot?

PP: The two main factors are the script and director, but it’s never that simple. Sometimes I will get a good script but it’s not a director who I want to work with—at least on that project. Sometimes I will get a script that’s not that great, but there is a director who I think can do something with that material, or it is an interesting director who I want to work with. Ideally, you are happy with the script and the director, and those are the only deciding factors.

I will work on a lower budget film if I like the script and the director. It doesn’t have to be a famous director or a well-known, established director. I will usually look up their work and try to look at some of their movies. If I think they are interesting, I’ll try to work with them.

MM: What are some of your films that you feel particularly good about?

PP: Unstrung Heroes is one; it was directed by Diane Keaton. Unfortunately it wasn’t seen by a lot of people, but I’m still very happy with it. I recently screened it at AFI. They asked me what movie I wanted to screen for their students and they found a really nice print. I thought it held up really well. Million Dollar Hotel didn’t really find an audience in this country but I think, visually, it’s one of my favorite movies.

It’s interesting when I travel to film festivals around the world, to see how different cultures respond to different films. In Poland, Million Dollar Hotel is considered one of the greatest films of the last decade. I was at the CamerImage Festival and people told me that they’ve seen that film eight or nine times—and it’s not just the younger generation. They also liked it in Italy and in Japan, but the French and the Germans hated it. It just goes to show how film is such a unique language that can work around the world. I also feel very good about Walk the Line.

MM: What is Pursuit of Happyness about?

PP: The director is Gabriele Muccino. It was his first picture in America. He did Remember Me, My Love and The Last Kiss, two very successful movies in Italy. Will Smith stars and is also a producer. He basically chose Gabriele to direct this picture. It’s based on the true story of this man, Chris Gardner, who sells medical equipment door to door, very unsuccessfully. He decides to change his life and become a broker.

It’s a story about how, through sheer determination and persistence, you can accomplish anything you want. It’s really about the human spirit and how when you set out to do something you can succeed. Will Smith was incredible and his real son played his son in the movie. We shot that in a very non-Hollywood way. Gabriele had European sensitivities that brought a lot of energy to the film. We ended up shooting it almost like a documentary with two or three cameras, sometimes handheld or with long lenses capturing a lot of running footage. We created the feel of a race against time. He is always trying to get some place on time. He’s on the streets running through the crowds, trying to get to an appointment or pick up his kid, and trying not to be late. The real Chris Gardner went on to own his own brokerage firm and become incredibly successful.

MM: What format did you shoot in?

PP: We shot Super 35. I used to insist on shooting anamorphic all the time. I just loved it, having the large negative. But now, having the DI and the new Kodak Vision 2 stocks, I’m much less concerned. Film stocks in general have improved immensely. And with the DI process, I’m not worried about the optical blow-ups anymore. Walk the Line would have been really tough to shoot with anamorphic lenses, because of the weight of the zooms in handheld shots. That would have meant to stop and change lenses during a performance.

MM: With all this technology, are you confident about the future role of cinematographers?

PP: Yes. Movies will continue to be made, but the budgets will probably come down, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think the studios are realizing that you can make really good films for $10 or $20 million and less. There’s a lot of product out there and there are only so many theaters, but I think film has become the most dominant communication art form. People want to watch movies, even if they end up watching them at home. Their systems at home are going to be much improved and, in fact, some people have better viewing options at home than at some multiplex theaters. I don’t even care if they end up watching it at home on a great high def screen, as long as the movie is letterboxed and formatted right. People want that kind of entertainment. It’s part of our culture. I don’t think it’s going to go away.