Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael Talks About His Work On NEBRASKA
On Thursday, NEBRASKA received six Oscar nominations including Best Cinematography. Up until the 30th Academy Awards (1958), Best Cinematography was divided into two categories – Color and Black & White. According to AMPAS, the last entirely black-and-white film to win Best Picture was THE ARTIST (2011). Prior to that, The Apartment (1960) held this distinction; Schindler’s List (1993) had some color elements.
One of the first decisions director Alexander Payne took in making NEBRASKA was to shoot the film in black and white.
He knew it would be a risk, but it was central to his vision of the story. “Visual style was my window into the picture,” he notes.
“Black and white just felt like the right choice for this film, because that’s always how I read it and saw it,” explains Payne. “I’ve also always wanted to make a film in black and white. It’s such a beautiful format. And this modest, austere story lends itself to a visual style as stark, plain and direct as the lives of the people in the film.”
Director of Photography, Phedon Papamichael, who also shot “Sideways” and “The Descendants” with Payne, says that Payne talked about black and white from moment one. “That’s how he saw it in his head,” he says, “so even though there was a series of struggles about how to make it happen, that was always the plan.”
The specifics of tone and texture emerged from a series of tests. “We did lots and lots of testing,” Papamichael recalls, “to find the particular look of black and white that was right for the film. There’s nothing stylized about it, though. It’s a high-contrast look that supports the human comedy and really sets that mood.”
Have a look at Phedon Papamichael’s evocative images from the film.
Papamichael notes that they all wanted to make the most of the opportunity creatively. “We definitely knew this might be the only time in our lives we’d have a chance to make a black and white film, which I think is a dream of a lot of filmmakers, so we really enjoyed it. At the end, there was the feeling of ‘how can we ever go back to making color films again?’ It’s like a whole new reality.”
To fully explore that reality, he and Payne perused film noirs, Italian Neo-Realism and contemporary American film such as “The Last Picture Show” (notably, Papapmichael’s father shot the sequel to “The Last Picture Show,” “Texasville”), but the biggest driving factor was the characters.
“The way that the black and white works with the texture in Bruce Dern’s face alone, with all of the subtleties of his performance, is so powerful,” he notes. “Equally important was the decision to shoot with anamorphic lenses, which really lend themselves to these landscapes — the vastness of them, the power of the sky, the texture of the fields, the feeling of Midwestern communities.”
The decision to shoot with Arri Alexa cameras came after extensively testing color and black and white stock, and realizing digital would offer the most range and flexibility. In post-production, a layer of authentic film grain was then added to the digital print to echo the warp and weave of celluloid.
This was the first time Papamichael had shot in the Midwest, and he found himself charmed by the locales and more so the people. “You have wonderful, archetypal landscapes, but some of my favorite scenes to shoot came in these little, powerful moments that are so human,” he says.
After receiving a sweepstakes letter in the mail, a cantankerous father (Bruce Dern) thinks he’s struck it rich, and wrangles his son (Will Forte) into taking a road trip to claim the fortune.
Shot in a black and white Cinemascope that mirrors the dusky beauty of small-town USA and the film’s high contrasts of humor and heartbreak, the film gives comic consideration to questions of family roots and family riddles, delusion and dignity, self-worth and the quiet yearning for a dash of salvation.
NEBRASKA is in theaters now.
Photos: Merie Wallace. (c) MMXIII Paramount Vantage, A Division of Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.