There was never any doubt about making Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" in black-and-white. It always lived in the director's imagination as the best way to convey the sense of isolation and loneliness being swallowed up by the vast, cloud-covered landscape. For Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, it was like returning to his old still photography days when he would carry around both color and black-and-white Nikons.
"He's from Nebraska so he probably understands the poetic and emotional strength that black-and-white gives you from that particular region," Papamichael explains. "But after a recent screening, his 90-something-year-old mom went up to him and said it would've looked bad in color. It certainly seemed to help this story. It narrows it down so you can focus more on Bruce Dern's face with its textures and crazy, glowing hair. It almost becomes ghost-like at times, like a corpse."
In fact, Papamichael, who also shot Payne's "The Descendants" and "Sideways," instantly recognized the special quality of black-and-white when filming a test with the Oscar-nominated Dern in a parking lot. He turned the actor's face sideways to get the backlight glow from his long hair. "I immediately knew that I had this special object in front of me with little subtleties of expression and the body language and the awkwardness of the wardrobe."
Technically, though, because Paramount was contractually obligated to play "Nebraska" in color in certain TV markets, the cinematographer recorded in color with the digital Alexa and an older set of anamorphic lenses. But they used a black-and-white monitor on set at all times, and transferred the dailies to black-and-white. This allowed Papamichael to make tonal adjustments in post, including the addition of film grain. He also got help from production design and wardrobe in choosing appropriate primary colors. "I could isolate red and play with tonality, which was interesting to rediscover how to use black-and-white with these new tools."
For reference, he looked at Peter Bogdanovich's "Paper Moon," which Payne watches once a year, as well as "The Last Picture Show," along with Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" and some obscure Japanese movies from the '60s. But definitely not the brilliant cover from Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" album.
"We don't preconceive too much and let the actors invade the space and come up with very simple shots in about five minutes," Papamichael continues. "It's classical storytelling. Editing is quicker and you don't have time to change composition and so this movie was shot more for pacing, allowing scenes to play out longer in takes.