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Oscar-Nominated Papamichael Talks Making 'Nebraska' in Black-and-White (VIDEO)

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 17, 2014 at 2:02PM

There was never any doubt about making Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" in black-and-white. It always lived in his imagination as the best way to convey the film's sense of isolation and loneliness. For Oscar nominee, Phedon Papamichael, it was like returning to his old still photography days when he would carry around both color and black-and-white Nikons.
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Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"
Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"

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.

"But one of my favorite shots is just the two brothers [Dern and Rance Howard] passed out in front of the TV and sleeping. That tells you so much about where they're at."

This article is related to: Nebraska, Immersed In Movies, Cinematography, Oscars, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards, Awards Season Roundup


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.