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Phedon Papamichael talks about his Oscar nomination for 'Nebraska'

Oscar nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael for "Nebraska" talks about working with filmmaker Alexander Payne and receiving his first Oscar nomination in this exclusive interview.

Photographs from the Alexander Payne film 'Nebraska.'
Photographs from the Alexander Payne film 'Nebraska.'
Photograph courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Phedon Papamichael talks about his Oscar nomination for 'Nebraska.'
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael is no newcomer to the world of filmmaking. Related to John Casavettes, Papamichael admits that filmmaking may not be genetically linked to his family, but that artistic pursuits are definitely so. Papamichael was born in Greece, raised in Germany and came to New York in 1983 to work as a photojournalist.

When Ben Gazzara's daughter, Liz Gazzara, decided to shoot a short film, she enlisted the help of Papamichael. The two found an old 16mm French camera in the closet of the Cassavetes' home and used Nick Cassavetes as one the actors - this became the debut of Phedon Papamichael as a cinematographer.

"I never got the chance to go to film school," Papamichael said, "I just started shooting films back to back and ended up at Roger Corman's studio in Venice and that kind of became my film school. I did seven feature films there in two years. We were shooting 35mm film and it was like a mini studio. Roger as head of the studio had requirements, we had to be fast, 15 day features. In terms of how we approached things visually we had a lot of freedom. As long as we delivered certain elements we were allowed to be experimental and stylized. We had a lot of fun playing around."

Working for Corman, Papamichael said that he learned more for about his craft than if he had attended a traditional film school. He said it was helpful working in a real world environment. He had to deal with a studio head, a production designer and a director that all want things as well.

"I got to meet a lot of directors who I transitioned out of Corman with, such as Carl Franklin and Katt Shae Ruben. With Ruben I made "Poison Ivy" that starred Drew Barrymore and Tom Skerritt. And those were like real movies."

Being creative and innovative, yet still being fast has kept Papamichael in the business. "George Clooney uses me because I am fast. He doesn't like to mess around too much. He's fast, he does one take, especially if he is in it." Papamichael was the cinematographer in Clooney's 2011 film "The Ides of March" and in his most recent film "The Monument's Men."

Papamichael has worked with Alexander Payne three times. He has shot "Sideways," "The Descendants" and "Nebraska" for the popular director. Papamichael has known Payne since Payne was at UCLA film school. They met each other when Payne was looking for a cinematographer to shoot his graduate film, but Payne didn't hire him. While Papamichael was shooting someone else's graduate film, Payne worked as the boom man. The two live in the same area and have kept in touch over the years.

Payne simply called him one day and asked him to shoot "Sideways," and it was as simple as that. "Nebraska" was actually talked about at the same time as "Sideways," but Payne wanted to shoot the film in black and white and this became a small battle between Payne and Paramount.

After "Sideways," Payne had Papamichael shot "The Descendants." Papamichael commented on the importance of taking moments of time in "The Descendants" to capture the beauty of the islands, "In order to understand the conflict that the characters are having with the land you have to understand the strength of the beauty and the nature. We always get comments from the locals that we captured something about the place that feels very authentic, captured the mood and it isn't the usual images captured in the tourist industry. They say we really got a good sense of what it is was like to live there."

Papamichael said that the success of "The Descendants," help to increase the budget of "Nebraska." Especially when "The Descendants" went on to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Alexander Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon.

After "The Descendents," Payne was given the green light from Paramount to shoot "Nebraska" in black and white and Papamichael went with Payne to the Midwest to make the film. The two filmmakers made their own road trip from Billings, Montana to Norfolk, Nebraska."

To Papamichael he wanted the filming of "Nebraska" to be more poetic and cinematic than that of "The Descendants." Similar to his feedback from shooting the landscapes of Hawaii, people who grew up near or in Nebraska have made similar comments to Papamichael regarding the scenery captured in "Nebraska."

According to Papamichael, it was very important for Alexander Payne to capture the real vibe, the society and locals he wants to portray. In "Nebraska," they used real farmers, the real waitress in the Karaoke restaurant and even the real bartender in the first bar Woody and his son attend."

"We complement each other very nicely and when you do three films together you developed an understanding of each other and I know what is important to him and what he focuses his story telling on. I really wouldn't describe his movies like those of David Fincher or David Lean. His films are always about intimate characters."

When the talked turned to Papamichael's first Oscar nomination he got pretty modest stating, "Pretty predictable what will happen. Emmanuel Lubezki for 'Gravity' will win for Cinematography. It's my first Oscar nomination and I am happy it's for a smaller film. I am happy for Alexander as well. I am also happy that the audiences responded to the film and the characters and I think that the black and white photography was an important part to setting up that world."

As far as a speech, Papamichael has a speech tucked away just in case and if the moment should arise and he plans to, "thank Alexander for being stubborn and insisting on it ('Nebraska' being shot in black and white) and willing to walk away from it."

Phedon also hints at a reunion with Payne in his next film, which may be Payne's science fiction flick titled "Downsizing." This film has been in the works for quite a while, and according to Phedon, Payne is rewriting the screenplay right now.

After the Oscars Phedon Papamichael will be heading off to shoot an unnamed project in London and Vienna. He is also teaming up with some of his filmmaker buddies Wally Pfister and Janusz Kaminski to start on online film school for filmmakers that have just graduated from film school. This school will address the real world applications of filmmaking such as how to read a script, how to pick a director, how to not get fired and how to juggle traveling schedules and still raise a family. This project will hosted on the website, and until the website is up and running, fans can keep posted on all the exciting news via the Facebook page: or on Twitter @advancedfilm.

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Whatever your movie choice this week, please remember your movie theater etiquette: silence your cell phones and no texting, please don't talk during the film and remove your children if they become a distraction to other audience members. Don't forget that laughing, crying and cheering are always approved behavior and even encouraged.

-Kay Shackleton is a film historian with special focus on Silent Films, see her work at

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