The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s latest collaboration with Phedon Papamichael, ASC, is a family-centered drama infused with the chaotic relationships and dark humor that moviegoers have come to expect from the director who also made Sideways, About Schmidt (AC Jan. ’03) and Election.
The story takes place in Hawaii, where a successful lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney), must reconnect with his daughters, Alexandra (Shaine Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller), after his wife suffers an accident and falls into a coma. When Alexandra reveals that his wife was cheating on him, King sets out to track down her lover. His journey, which coincides with his need to make a decision about a family estate on Kauai of which he is the sole trustee, leads him to face some hard truths about love and family.
Papamichael recently spoke with AC about his creative partnership with Payne, which began with Sideways and continued to evolve on The Descendants.
American Cinematographer: Tell us why your collaboration with Alexander Payne works.
Phedon Papamichael, ASC: We have a great collaboration, despite the fact that we aren’t always on the same page aesthetically. My main thing is that I really want to serve the director. Some cinematographers really want to put their own imprint on a project to some degree. I certainly express my opinions, but I very much enjoy helping a director get what he wants. I’m not always determined to convince the director that there is a different way of going about it; I get satisfaction from finding out what somebody likes and giving that to them. It’s important to me that I don’t turn it into my thing. I want to get to the bottom of what makes a director tick.
How do you discover that?
Papamichael: Preproduction is the most important thing in that regard. I start by discovering what kind of movies the director likes. That gives me some insight into how he likes to tell stories. Alexander and I don’t shotlist or storyboard. We spend a lot of time cooking pasta, drinking wine and watching movies!
How did you arrive at a visual style for The Descendants?
Papamichael: We saw a unique opportunity to show Honolulu as it is rarely, if ever, shown in cinema: not glamorized or idealized. It’s a modern American city with traffic jams and skyscrapers, and a few miles away, there’s an almost absurdly bizarre and beautiful tropical paradise. There’s an extreme contrast in wealth and poverty. Go up the coast 30 miles, and you’ll see native people living in tent cities. We didn’t want to be too obvious about it, but these contrasts are some of the themes we wanted to represent visually.
The look of the movie is pretty straightforward. It’s all about the performances and the intimacy of the characters, and the photography was designed in part to be unobtrusive. Alexander has a very particular visual style that reflects his point of view. I suggested that we
go widescreen because I thought it was very important to feel the power of the land, and to make the power of nature very present visually. The landscapes are juxtaposed with tight, claustrophobic interiors.
So you shot Super 35mm?
Papamichael: We shot 3-perf Super 35mm with the Panaflex Platinum and Primo prime and 4:1 and 11:1 zoom lenses. I used a ½ [Tiffen] Black Pro-Mist on the lens throughout to take a little of the sharpness off. Alexander likes the image to have a bit of texture; he always wants it to look a little like an older film. We used Kodak Vision3 [500T] 5219 for night scenes and [200T] 5213 for day interiors and day exteriors. I used polarizers and definitely went for the lushness, the color and saturation of the land.
Our second-unit cinematographer, Radan Popovic, traveled around collecting a huge amount of images — graphic shots of buildings, traffic, people on the streets and at the beach, and landscapes in Kauai — and quite a few of them ended up in the film.
Did you go with natural light on all the exteriors?
Papamichael: Yes. I almost never light electrically on exteriors, and it was challenging on this film because the light and the weather change so rapidly in Hawaii. It would very often go from dark skies to rain to full sun within minutes. That affected the interiors as well. There were a lot of fluctuations that presented challenges for me, and also for our DI colorist at Modern VideoFilm, Joe Finley, and the dailies timer at FotoKem, Kay Sievert. Alexander had never done a DI before, and it was fun to show him the capabilities.
What was your approach to interiors?
Papamichael: Inside I stuck to my usual approach: all big sources, very natural-looking. I like to make sure the audience is never really aware of the source. I don’t want the image to look stylized or ‘lit.’ I use all the window sources, and the motivation is always correct — you’ll never see me do two people opposite each other, both backlit.
We were dealing with a lot of contrast on this movie, especially in the interiors that opened out to views of the sea. There was a huge range of exposure. We used the full 16 stops of the 5213! Our goal was to try to bring the levels up inside without it looking lit, and to try to control the exteriors with big guns — 18Ks that were either bounced or pushed through big 12-bys. We used Half Grid, Full Grid and, if we bounced, bleached muslin or Ultrabounce. We also made extensive use of Daylight Blue bounces. I started using them on 3:10 to Yuma [AC Oct. ’07] and found that they look very natural. It’s a little closer to the look of blue skies, and it feels like a natural bounce off the water. For close-ups outside, we often handheld 4-by-8s or 4-by-4s and had people walking with white or Daylight Blue bounce.
What kind of set does Payne maintain?
Papamichael: Alexander creates an intimate atmosphere. It’s very important to him that everyone feels the filmmaking process is not a machine, and that we are not making a product. He literally knows the name of every driver and every security guard on the first day. We didn’t have hordes of hair-and-makeup people, and last touches were forbidden. We were just making this small film in a very genuine way. There was no video village and no video assist. On the set, we had the operator, the assistant, the boom operator, the actors and Alexander. His style is very economical. There was usually a brief conversation about how we were going to cover the scene, and then we usually did three to seven takes. Everyone was open to reacting to what the actors did and taking advantage of the moment. We crafted it piece by piece. It’s the kind of filmmaking I really like to do.
You’ve got another intimate drama in theaters now, too, Clooney’s Ides of March.
Papamichael: On big-budget studio projects, you can get some satisfaction from pulling off this gigantic enterprise, but on a movie like The Descendants, you feel like you’ve told a piece of the story every day. I like being able to bounce back and forth between large and small projects, but movies like The Descendants and Ides of March are a little closer to my heart.
3-perf Super 35mm
Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, 200T 5213