‘Nebraska’ Cinematographer Explains Why Bruce Dern’s Face Is Better in Black & White

Phedon Papamichael with TheWrap about working with Alexander Payne and why Dern makes the perfect muse

OscarWrap2014-Nominations_minThis story first appeared in OscarWrap: Nominations Preview.

Director Alexander Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael always saw “Nebraska” in black and white, although the studio didn’t initially share their vision. But they prevailed, making flat Midwestern plains and prairie as compelling a character as Bruce Dern‘s alcoholic would-be sweepstakes winner in the film. Drawing on movies such as “Paper Moon” and “The Last Picture Show,” they created vibrant black-and-white images that give the film a wry, melancholy quality.

Papamichael, who also teamed with the director on “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” praises Payne’s sense of experimentation and collaboration. The cinematographer has directed four movies of his own, in addition to shooting such films as “This Is 40” and “The Ides of March.”

Also read: How Bruce Dern Found Redemption With Alexander Payne in ‘Nebraska’

He spoke with TheWrap about the poetry of black-and-white imagery, what his mother thought of “Nebraska” and why Dern makes the perfect muse.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael on the set of NebraskaThe black-and-white cinematography is so striking, but studios don’t exactly love films that aren’t in color. Was it difficult to get permission to shoot it in that way?
Paramount was a little concerned, but we fought for it. Alexander said to me if the Academy Award [for writing “The Descendants”] means anything, it should mean we get to do a cheap indie movie in black and white. We were eventually allowed to do it, but some markets requested color versions, so we shot it in color. We worked off a black-and-white monitor on the set, so the dailies only ever existed in black and white.

Why did this story need to be told without color?

We always saw it that way. The other day my mom saw the movie, and she’s a very tough critic. She said, “I know why you wanted to make it in black and white. It wouldn’t have been good in color.” The landscape in the Midwest is monochromatic, so the black and white adds poetry to it. It stylizes everything. It’s less realistic, but in a way 
it feels more realistic. It helps you focus in on the characters, and it creates a tone of loneliness and isolation in combination with these vast open landscapes, which we able to capture by using these anamorphic lenses from the ’70s.

Without color photography, Bruce Dern‘s face just pops. Do you think it helped make that character more vivid?

Exactly. Without the distractions of color, it helps bring out these little textures he has in his face. I remember the first test I had with Bruce. I hadn’t met him before, and we were out in a parking lot; he stepped up on his mark, and I slid in for a close up and turned to get the backlight — and his hair just glowed, and his face was illuminated. I knew we had something magical.

Also read: TheWrap Screening Series: ‘Nebraska’ Star Bruce Dern on Alexander Payne and Comforting Marilyn Monroe

At a screening TheWrap hosted, Bruce said you and Alexander told him, “Don’t show us anything — let us find it.” What does that mean?
It means don’t try too hard. It’s apparent there’s a lot there. Every time he took four steps to the camera, it was clear we had a very rich storytelling subject in front of us. We didn’t want him to push it. We just wanted him to be present.

Was he pleased with the way you photographed him?
I think he’s happy. His daughter, Laura Dern, came up to me and said, “Thank you for capturing my dad this way, he’s never been photographed like this before.”

This is your third film with Alexander. What is he like as a collaborator?
He’s very special, very generous and very respectful — not just with the key people. He creates an environment where he knows everybody’s names and tries to create a little film family. Once a week, during pre-production, he’d create these movie nights where he’d have everybody over to see the movie that he wants to share, and he cooks and we drink wine.

This being the third picture we’ve done, we’ve found a way to appreciate each other’s aesthetics. He trusts me, and he’s given me more freedom to apply more of my own sense of composition to shots.

You both share Greek heritage. Does that strengthen your working relationship?
There’s a connection there. He’s very
proud of and wants to hold onto his Greek heritage. So even though we’re from different backgrounds, it helps us see things in a similar way.