Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on Trial of the Chicago 7 and Sorkin


Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael has had a very diverse career thus far. He’s worked with filmmakers ranging from Gore Verbinski to Oliver Stone to Judd Apatow, all of whom have incredibly different styles and methods of working. Even Papamichael’s two closest collaborators, Alexander Payne and James Mangold, approach the art of making movies in very different ways. But Papamichael says that’s exactly what makes his job so fun. It’s fresh each time.

That was certainly the case with The Trial of the Chicago 7, Oscar-winning writer Aaron Sorkin’s second directorial effort. It’s a rousing and infuriating courtroom drama about the power of protest, but largely takes place in rooms with a large ensemble of characters trading jabs and dialogue like it’s the most crowded tennis match you’ve ever seen. That offered unique challenges to Papamichael, as did working with Sorkin, whom the cinematographer says was pretty open to letting Papamichael help guide the visual style of the film.

The collaboration proved to be fruitful. Chicago 7 is an impressive and extremely timely film that speaks to the world we live in today despite the fact that it’s dramatizing events from 1968. It also marked an ambitious new challenge for Sorkin as a director – unlike A Few Good Men, this courtroom drama involves flashbacks to violent protests that drive the story at key points. Indeed, during my extended interview with Papamichael about his work on the film, he explained that although Sorkin wasn’t incredibly specific about the overall look of Chicago 7, he did have specific ideas about certain shots that needed to happen at very specific times.

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Photo by: NICO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

We all know that Sorkin’s scripts are about rhythm and pacing, but I hadn’t quite thought about how Sorkin the director might approach visual storytelling as being in lockstep with that rhythm – and the challenge that presents the cinematographer. If key scenes in a Sorkin script are like music, the words building purposefully to a crescendo that cuts like a knife, then the way that scene is captured visually (which character the camera is on during which lines) is of the utmost importance. And that’s just one of the challenges that was presented to Papamichael, who was more than capable of rising to the occasion to craft a visually dynamic and pointed film alongside Sorkin.

During the course of our interview, Papamichael explained his working relationship with Sorkin and the challenges he faced in figuring out how best to visually do justice to this impressive screenplay, working with the actors, the specificity with which Sorkin wanted to approach the protest scenes, and creating different moods for the courtroom. He also spoke at length about the differing styles of filmmakers like Alexander Payne, James Mangold, and Judd Apatow, and why he values different working experiences. He also spoke about the way he prefers to work and even revealed his next project is Indiana Jones 5 with Mangold.

It’s an insightful conversation with a really talented cinematographer that also shines a light on what it’s like for a DP to work with so many different kinds of directors. Check out the full interview below.

I’ve been a huge Aaron Sorkin fan for a long time, and I was really struck by the visuals here because I know making a movie like this feel dynamic is a challenge in and of itself.

PHEDON PAPAMICHAEL: Yeah. And that was obviously a concern when [producer] Stuart Besser — that’s my connection to Aaron, he had produced Molly’s Game and I had done 3:10 To Yuma with him —he said, “You know, Aaron has this movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Of course, it’s mostly in a courtroom.” Knowing his writing, I had read Molly’s Game, it was 200 pages. I struggle sometimes with reading a lot of scripts. But that was a pageturner, and [Chicago 7] I think was 170 pages. Very tight schedule, lower budget by my standards. You know they’re tough and my concern was this courtroom and keeping it visually interesting. Then Aaron’s writing, which is so specific, to apply a visual language to it can be limiting because he really doesn’t want to see anything other than cut to the person who’s talking.

Yeah that was one of my questions, was how you handle all that dialogue.

PAPAMICHAEL: I don’t want to really hijack a movie and take it away from a director. I really want to find how it works in his head and then serve him that way. But with Aaron it’s… my experience is more with [James] Mangold, another filmmaker who is good with actors, he writes, but he’s also very specific about shots like, “Start the push in here,” and, “No, it’s too fast.” Aaron is more like bring the actors to set, okay, why don’t we just sit and let’s read the sides, and then he would turn to me and he goes, “Okay, you’re good?”

And here I am with a really complex ensemble cast. Sacha Baron Cohen being a writer, director, producer, actor, obviously lots of ideas, very opinionated, strong personality. Mark Rylance, British trained, Eddie Redmayne… Mark directs theater and Jeremy Strong was from television, used to a lot of coverage, a lot of method acting. Everyone had lots of ideas and they quickly figured out I’m in charge of coverage, but of course knowing Aaron doesn’t really want [a lot of coverage].  So they’d come to me and say, “What about my close-up?” and “This scene is also about my character.”  Nothing Aaron wants, but I mean, they sensed that I’m kind of blocking it and setting up the shots because when Aaron would leave, I’d go through and dictate a shot list to the script supervisor and make sure we got all the beats, but also make sure we’re getting reaction shots.

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Photo by: NICO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

At first, Aaron was like, “Use long lenses.” I go, “You know, I think for something like this, you’ve got so many characters that are often in the same spots and all the defendants sitting along a bench, we really want to go closer with a wider lens, where you still get an intimate closeup and you’re in somebody’s head and you don’t isolate them, you still feel the characters and their reactions.

And I think it was very important in the courtroom. It’s a square box. People are always sitting in the same place. You’ve got the judge against the brown wall; you’ve got Abbie and Jerry… I placed them under the windows; there’s a wall right behind them. I always try to connect the characters. Connect the prosecutors with the defendants, and the judge with the witness and the jury as far as always looking at the defendants. And so my visual approach was to be more composed and static in the courtroom, but keep it dirty outside the courtroom; do little slider moves, be physically close but do these little connective tissue shots. That’s something that Aaron can conceive of in theory, but of course he recognizes when something’s working. It was an interesting lesson. You know how it’s different with every director because it’s all about the rhythm. It’s like poetry and it’s just the pacing, so you don’t want to create shots that get in the way of that.

Because first of all, it’s completely non-linear so you’re cutting from a courtroom. There’s a cop in the witness stand that says one line in the scene for five seconds, and you’re out at the right and you come back and you’re not even back with that same cop. You’re actually with somebody else, on a prior court date. Even going in and out of a courtroom it’s not chronologically linear. I created this spreadsheet because in the script, it only mentions four specific dates; opening day, Day 4, Day 27, Day 96, where I went from September, ’69 to February 1970, so I also wanted to establish a passage of time and how ridiculously long this trial expanded through the fall, though the winter. So I broke down all the days we’re actually in the courtroom and assigned a different mood for each scene, just dramatically.

I was gonna say, I really liked how you distinguished the courtroom lighting based on the mood of the scene.

PAPAMICHAEL: Yeah, like when Sacha Baron Cohen is on the stand and he goes, “Give me a second. I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.” Because that’s the last scene before the final verdict, I made that more subdued and moody, like an overcast day. And then the opening, because they’re still hopeful, I made that sunny and sort of going in with like the whole world is watching and there’s still a lot of strength and enthusiasm. And then as it drags on and all these horrible things happen, so I just created this whole visual timeline where it gets moodier. And then the verdicts when Thomas Hayden stands and starts reading all the names of the fallen soldiers, and they’re wearing, at that point, the white prison outfits. For that scene I really bathed them in harder, brighter light and almost like an angelic, heroic figure as he stands, and they all stand.

So the tracking of that with Aaron’s writing, and of course going out to events, and to the riots, and the conspiracy office, was important. I had completely different approaches where the courtroom was composed and static, and then for the riots, I went the opposite. I literally just took two cameras, handheld, and said to my operators, “Just get in the crowd and run and make a documentary about what’s happening.” Of course, it was all inspired by actual footage, and luckily we have a lot of stock footage that our editor was able to research and assemble. The other good thing is that we got to shoot in Grant Park, the actual hill with the statue. So it was nice not to have to cheat that location. At some point, production wanted us to shoot that also in New Jersey because the courtroom we were building actually was shot in New Jersey. But we got to go to Chicago, and actually have the Hilton right there, have Michigan Avenue right there, have the actual park.

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Image via Netflix

But we were very limited with extras. At the actual event, there were 10,000 demonstrators and we had like 200 extras on our best days. Luckily, there was tear gas and all that. But that language of just being immersive in a crowd and all that kinetic energy and the smoke… again, Aaron only needing 3 seconds here, 2 seconds there, the whole setup of taking the bridges when the daily dozers are there and the jeeps and the tanks and all this big setup. And we’re smoking and lighting, and he cuts it to 2 seconds, 3 seconds because that’s important to him, that triggers something and it’s all connected to understanding the rhythm of the language and the writing. Really, don’t design some crazy Scorsese rotation, fancy crane shots… it’s all going to destroy the pace, so you really have to fine tune stuff and really shoot it as efficient as possible, almost like a commercial. You’re telling a story in 60 seconds and have to be able to create shots that work for his writing and format.

It’s interesting because something that I love about his writing is the rhythm, but I wasn’t necessarily aware that now, as director, he’s thinking of rhythm in terms of those specific shots. Specifically for those inserts for those riots and protests.

PAPAMICHAEL: I mean, really, the only shots he was specific about in the whole movie would be the little beats that trigger something in the script. In all the setups of the riots, there were two things he mentioned where he wanted something. It was like, “I need to see heads getting hit and causing bloody injuries.” Because you know, there’s this whole key line where, “Let blood flow.” Whereas later, he actually meant “let our blood flow.” So he associates very specific images like flashes to something that’s a very key trigger in the script, and that’s the only thing he really gets involved with in terms of dictating any visual language.

And the other one was the last glass thing. We’re setting up with things in this crowd and he’s like, “I need the bottle hitting the pavement!” I’m like, we’ll get the bottle hitting the pavement (laughs). That’s like an insert. But you know, we need that. Because that makes Dave react and try to stop the crowd. It’s trying to show that our defendants were trying to prevent violence. Those are the specific moments. He’ll be the first one to admit it, he relies super heavily on the photography department. It’s basically coverage and how the camera should move and the lighting. But then he does recognize it when it’s working, but often you need to offer things to him that he wouldn’t see in his head. But he did in the edit, and the editor was super happy and embraces all that. In the courtroom, you need to see reactions like when somebody makes a statement or causes something, it plays off reactions as well.

I was curious about that working relationship. Because as you said, you worked with filmmakers like James Mangold, Alexander Payne. Is that a unique degree of creative freedom or invention that you’re given when you’re working with a filmmaker like Aaron as a cinematographer, versus maybe some other projects where it’s more of a closer collaboration or a deference to the director who chooses the shots?

PAPAMICHAEL: Well, Alexander’s also not the most visual filmmaker. I mean, to the degree that Aaron lets the cinematographer handle that, it’s to the highest degree I’ve experienced in my career. Alexander is not like Gore Verbinski who I worked with and did Mouse Hunt and who I remember was very specific. And Mangold, who is a photographer himself and understands color correction. I mean, Aaron had really no involvement in the DI so I had to control the shots, the coverage, the lensing, the camera movement. But it is freedom and I like it. As long as I feel the director knows what he wants, and I don’t need the director to be able to technically [explain it], he just needs to emotionally or story-wise be able to convey what he wants. I need to understand what he’s after. And that’s my challenge as a cinematographer. It’s not just about lighting and composing; it’s telling a story. For me, getting it to the closest degree to what the director really has in his head whether he can express it or not.

I’ve worked with some European directors and I had no idea what they wanted. Our talent as a cinematographer should be to tell the story and to lend our creativity to that, but ultimately to find what’s in the director’s head and bring it to the closest to their vision of what they’re imagining. It’s different on every movie. That was something that reminded me doing this, like it’s really the biggest part of our job. Of course, when you have a director like Mangold, he’s very specific and that’s a different challenge.  That’s perfecting very specific vision and it’s more technical.  Like how do I technically achieve that to be exactly like the way he sees it because it’s very specific? Whereas Aaron is more, “I just need to capture this.” Then the rest is up to me to understand how he wants it. What is he actually looking for?

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Photo by Niko Tavernise/Netflix

What were the early conversations when you first signed on? How did Aaron describe how he wanted the film to look? Or did he?

PAPAMICHAEL: No, not really. I mean, the first time we met was very brief. I think Stuart suggested me and I don’t think it was much like a job interview, he was just like, “Thank you for doing this with me.” And then the only thing he said was, “I’m going to rely very heavily on you.”  It was a ten-minute meeting at Four Seasons in LA. So he described a little bit about his experience on Molly’s Game and how he didn’t like improvising or altering lines. I mean, Sacha Baron Cohen is somebody who’s accustomed to trying different things and being a little free form. That makes [Aaron] uncomfortable. So I recognized that, so I never pushed something. I told him why I think it’s valuable what I’m doing. I always talked him through it; I always made sure he was understanding it. And then if I got a sense that that’s not connecting with him, I would go, “Okay, well in that case we’ll do it like this, and maybe we should do it like that.”

You talked a little bit about his rhythm and his pacing being so specific. I’m curious if that was its own unique challenge, because you know that the way that the dialogue is spoken is building, kind of like music, to a crescendo. And it’s on you now how to figure how the camera is visually going to make sure that that builds correctly to that crescendo.

PAPAMICHAEL: Correct. So that’s why shot selection is important, not designing shots that can’t play in that rhythm, not creative moves that prevent that rhythm from being executed. And then being the right size at the right time. Because he also doesn’t want a lot of different sizes or different shots. He’s like, “I’ve got to be closer to this.”

You know there’s that big scene where they do this sort of fake trial interrogation between Kuntzsler and Tom Hayden in the conspiracy office and everyone’s standing around the table. I mean, we’ve got 10 characters there. And I set them and I put them against the wall and somebody over here. And I’m thinking, this thing is going down between Kuntsler and Tom, and I’m thinking we’re going to see everybody and Aaron goes, “I don’t care if I see anyone else.” I look and they’re all standing in the room. And he’s like, “I don’t want to see them”. No other director I know would not cover the other people. I mean, Sacha’s right there. His character actually later goes, “Oh, that’s what he meant. He always does that.” If I really just did what Aaron said, literally we would just have those two close-ups of Hayden and Kuntsler and that would be it. That’s where I go, “Well, let’s get a different shot or change how I lens it at least, so you feel their presence.” That’s where a bit of pressure comes in.

Of course, I have all the other actors going, “What about my shot?” People want to be on screen when he doesn’t need them to be on screen. So that’s where I try to be helpful and I try to integrate some of them somehow, in the story frame so at least they don’t completely disappear from that screen line.

I’m curious how that contrasts with working with someone like Judd Apatow on This Is 40, who I think uses multiple cameras and tons of improv.

PAPAMICHAEL: He’s the opposite. I mean, multiple cameras. Judd says the camera never cuts. It’s almost like the way [John] Cassavetes would rehearse. That was like a 3 to 6 month process where they actually got to this script by running lines and trying different things. But when John actually shot a movie like Husbands, it was completely unscripted. And then they would throw in amateurs who didn’t really know where the scene’s going, but it was completely controlled by John, Ben [Gazzara] and Peter [Falk]. With Judd, you know Janusz [Kaminski] had shot Funny People and I asked him, “How’s it going to be with Judd?” He goes, “Oh, it’s fine. Very nice man. Just bring a book.” (laughs) Because it’s just like the camera keeps running and doesn’t cut.

Judd sits there and has a writer next to him, and he writes new lines on post-it notes and slides them over, and he just feeds new stuff to the actors all the time. They’re accustomed to it and keep going. I actually found that was quite interesting, too. Not the way I work, but it’s just fascinating on these jobs to see these different methods.

Alexander [Payne] is more like Aaron. Alexander, you watch Sideways between Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church and the dialogue seems so real and natural. That’s the art of Alexander’s writing. It’s so specifically scripted, like Thomas Hayden also likes to free flow a bit. Once he said, “Do you mind if I say this instead of this word?” Alexander paused for like a minute and a half and said, “No, lets stick with the screenplay.” He has fathered this work for a long time, over and over, and chose that particular word vs dumb vs stupid. There’s a reason for it, and he trusts his word. Aaron is more like that. “There’s a reason I wrote this. I don’t need it to be funnier. I don’t need it to be more dramatic.” Sacha always tried to offer something funny.

I do find it interesting that, you know, I love Ford v Ferrari; I love The Trial Of Chicago 7. These are two completely different styles of filmmaking. You as the cinematographer get kind of a close up view of that, working with all these different directors. You are then, also, forced to work in completely different ways on different movies. Like there’s no one right way to make a good movie.

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Photo by: NICO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

PAPAMICHAEL: That’s really what I enjoy about my job the most. I mean, like Janusz is doing mostly Spielberg movies. He got to do something different when he did Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and it think it’s very refreshing. Because when I work with another director and then go back to Mangold, there’s always something you bring back and always something you can share. And same with my gaffers, they go and work for Roger Deakins or Chivo and these are all things in our tool box and we can apply them. I think it’s nice, this learning experience. I would hate to just work for Alexander Payne or just for Mangold. I know a lot of DPs have a very long lasting relationship with their director… I mean, I do too. I mean I have five movies with Jim and five movies with Alexander. But it’s always refreshing to work with someone else. And Alexander says the same. It’s like, “I feel like I’m married to you and you get to cheat all the time.” So I’d like to do a movie and my next one, it’s in Sweden, maybe I’ll use a Swedish cinematographer. I mean, I understand that. Why do they have to be stuck with us? We do more movies than directors. I can do two movies a year; they can do one every three years. It’s not fair.

Good directors are appreciated. And I did show Ford v Ferrari to Aaron because it was just coming out while we were shooting. And he really loved it and told me specifically what he likes about it. So I did start to understand his aesthetics. It’s a tight, traditional story. It’s classic Hollywood filmmaking. It’s always important for me to understand how the cinematic mind works and be able to best serve that. Like Diane Keaton, when I did Unstrung Heroes. It was her first movie. It was so specific. Her aesthetics are so heightened. She would show me tons of still photos, but they’re not really related to the movie at all. It would be like a shot of a tree and how it fell on the ground, and “I like that pattern on the grass.”

I look at photos to get a sense of who you are visually and what you respond to. Of course, I say you always have to make adjustments and change, and it’s not always the way it’s written. A movie gets made three times. On the page, and then during the filming process, and then in editing. I would say with Aaron, less so (laughs). It’s really not three stages, it gets made on the page and then in the editing room it’ll be pretty much 90% of the way it was written. With Mangold ,we’re also classic. We’re pretty traditional. But on Walk the Line, what Joaquin did and what he offered, we had to be reactive and we had to take advantage of that.

The way I usually like to work, I don’t like to preconceive too much. I like to see the elements that are happening the day I shoot it. What is the location actually offering? What is the actor doing? How is he moving? Like Bruce Dern, how is he sitting on the steps? How is he hanging his head? And then you find his little moments that you can never sit and think of when you storyboard something or shot-list something. And whereas Gore Verbinski does that and Fincher does that and Nolan does that, and you watch those movies, and you go, “That’s great craftsmanship”. But sometimes I would lose emotional connection to the character and just admire the craftsmanship. When you can combine those two, that’s when you have a really great film. Like in Nebraska, it’s also visual and it’s black and white, but you also have the liberty to find those little moments. It’s not mechanic.

Just from a pure process perspective, do you have a preference of a way of working? Would you ever want to work with someone like Fincher who’s doing 90 takes?

PAPAMICHAEL: I would say as in theoretically, I wouldn’t prefer that. A good example — and I love Gore Verbinski. He’s super visual and fun, but I came right off of The Weather Man straight to Walk the Line. And in Weather Man, the creative process happens really when it’s the two of us scouting and taking stills. It’s more like Hitchcock. The creative work happens in pre-production. When we actually execute and make the movie, it’s really recreating the stills I took from the scout and the specific ideas he has. The rest of the filmmaking is very mechanical and technical. It stuck me the most at the transition going from Weather Man to Walk the Line. Because I flew straight down to Memphis, and then here we were. And Joaquin is on stage, and you just never knew where he’s going to go, what he’s going to do. Is he going to kick out the lights? Is he going to rip the sink out of the wall? That was never planned. That was an actual sink in the schoolhouse.

To me, that’s much more fun. I like that, and I really don’t like prepping so much. I mean, there are design shows, of course. And I’ve done them, but I like when you have to be reactive and instinctive and you can think quick. I like directors that can react quickly and think on their feet and take advantage of these things because I think that’s what great filmmakers can do. They can have something in their head and have a vision and understand the overall story and characters, but then really be reactive. And I’m sure Kurosawa was that way. I’m sure where he worked, there were things left to shoot that triggered him to change the shot. Whereas Aaron is, I mean you do have some freedom because you can be reactive and you can find it and then you can show him, or just know he’ll like it. But my ideal is somebody who is specific and knows the craft, but also is reactive and instinctive. That’s the ideal collaboration, I would say. The worst is somebody who knows a little technically, and really doesn’t know what he wants. I’d rather have somebody who knows nothing and just can say to me, “Here, I just need to get in their head. I need to work. I don’t know, maybe…” and then for me to show them. Rather than somebody struggling to find it.

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Image via Netflix

But directors like Judd didn’t really get involved visually, and Tom Shadyac. To go way back, like on Patch Adams, he’d be like, “You do your thing, whatever you do with the camera and the lights.” He would just talk to the actors. Day 1, I had come off a different director and I said, “Here, check the shot.” Back then, film cameras didn’t even have onboard monitor. And he’d have no idea. I never asked him again. He didn’t want to look through the finder at anything. But it’s all good, and that’s what’s so unique about a job. It’s never a routine, it’s never the same thing.

And the results are so different every time.

PAPAMICHAEL: And I really pride myself on — I would hate for somebody to say, “Oh, Phedon shot that.” That’s why i like Chivo’s work. He can really apply his craft many different ways, and Roger [Deakins] too. To me, both are the most interesting cinematographers

Yeah, I’d like to see Chivo make a movie again. It’s been a while.

PAPAMICHAEL: I know. And I think it may be a little while longer. I think the thing he wants to do with [Alejandro G. Iñarritu] is just too big and too expensive. I don’t know if they’ll ever do it. I guess, maybe times have changed. You know, [Chicago 7] was shot for the big screen. Initially, you go “Aw man, now it’s just gonna be on Netflix and not in theaters.” I think with what’s happened this year, I mean also tragically this movie is so relevant now. So timely, in a way. It was written 13 years ago, but now it actually couldn’t have come out at a better time. And I think Netflix is probably a way where it’s just going to get to a lot more people who are going to be able to view it. I don’t think it’s going to be like one of these event movies where you go, “Okay, lets risk it and go to a movie theater and see Tenet.” or something. It’s probably better, and it’s just more important that more people will actually get to see it. And a good thing that during lockdown, a lot of people upgraded their home viewing systems, so I’m actually happy. I’m happy that it’s going to get seen by more people this way.

Well thanks for giving me so much of your time. I really loved this movie, and I loved your work on Ford v. Ferrari.

PAPAMICHAEL: I’m glad. Well, they’re both ’60s movies. I can’t remember what I did before this. Oh, we were going to do Bob Dylan with Mangold. That didn’t happen, with Timothee Chalamet about going electric in the ’60’s, and it would have been my third ’60’s movie in a row.

That’s not happening now? 

PAPAMICHAEL: Not right now. I don’t think it’s dead, but it’s a tough one to pull off in a COVID-era because it’s all in small clubs with lots of extras in period costumes, so you’ve got lots of hair and makeup. So our next project is Indiana Jones 5, actually. Mangold’s doing that.

I’m excited to see what you guys do with that.

PAPAMICHAEL: Yeah, me too. I’m excited. I hope to get people back in the theaters and get to do movies for a while longer for the big screen. I hope it doesn’t change our viewing cinema culture forever, this event.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. You can follow him on Twitter @adamchitwood.

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