Phedon Papamichael Talks about Career and New Film, Downsizing

December 3, 2017
Vasilis Papoutsis

LOS ANGELES, CA – Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael received an Academy Award nomination for his work on Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska, and he is also the cinematographer for Payne’s latest film Downsizing, staring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, coming to theaters December 22nd.

Papamichael was born in Athens to a Greek father and a German mother, and the family spent summers near the seaside resort Porto Cheli, next to Costa. They later moved to Germany and Papamichael studied Fine Arts there.

He grew up around artists and filmmakers. His father, Phedon Sr., was an art director and worked with his first cousin John Cassavetes in films like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. “My father was a true artist,” Papamichael said.“Temperamental and passionate. He was always interested in young people, he enjoyed been a mentor to them. My godfather was Spiros Mercouri,whose sister Melina was the famous actress known for films like Never on Sunday and Phaedra. He started out as a photojournalist before he crossed over to cinematographyand started working on experimental films. His first short film the 35mm black & white SPUD earned him an award for Best Cinematography at the Cork Film Festival in Ireland. After a discussion withCassavetes, he decided to move to Los Angeles. “Although I did not work with him, Cassavetes was surely an influence for me. We would play backgammon and cards and talk about film. He particularly enjoyed talking about European cinema,” he told TNH.

Papamichael’s career in feature films began as a Director of Photography for Roger Corman. “We filmed seven B movies in 2 years. That was my film school education.” He met Alexander Payne at UCLA “but Alexander did not hire me to photograph his student film. Later on, I was hired on another project and Payne was the boom guy. Twenty years later, he changed his mind and he called me to film Sideways,” which became an indie sensation. “Working on the film was like a dream,” he told TNH. “Every film with Payne is a family affair.”

During the filming of Sideways they talked about another film Payne had in his mind, Nebraska. “Alexander insisted that the film had to be in black and white, not a popular choice with the studio, and I agreed that black and white was the best choice. As Orson Wells said black and white is the actor’s best friend.” Paramount eventually relented but they cut the film’s budget. The film was a favor with film critics and received 6 Academy Award nominations and Papamichael received his first nomination in cinematography, as well as a BAFTA and ASC nominations. Downsizing is the fourth collaboration with Payne, but this is a different experience. It is Payne’s first movie using extensively special effects and there is a much bigger budget than the modest budgets Payne had worked under before. It also features a star cast with Jason Sudeikis, Hong Chau, and Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz working alongside Damon and Wiig. The premise of the movie suggests a solution to one’s financial difficulties by “downsizing,” literally shrinking in physical size. A downsized person has more financial flexibility and the opportunity to obtain goods that he or she would not able to affordbefore. Speaking about the film, Papamichael said that “this is the first $80 million art movie.” Despite the special effects “this is still an Alexander Payne movie. It deals with the average American guy, the human drama, the antihero.” Even though “downsizing allows you to live better and buy a house at Leisureland, it also shows that by reducing scale, humans can reduce their carbon footprint, consumption and waste making this planet more sustainable.”

Papamichael also has a career as a director. “I directed my first film The Sketch Artist in 1992 when I was 29 years old, and I was able to hire my father to do the production design.” Father and son were able to work together again at Nick Cassavetes’, John’s son’s, first feature Unhook the Stars. The film is a character study about Mildred an elderly woman who has spent her life caring for others, starring Gena Rowlands, Marisa Tomei and Gerard Depardieu. Phedon Papamichael’s family originates from a village near Leonidio in Laconia and his dream was to move to Greece permanently. “I moved to Greece for a year and worked mostly in commercials but it became apparent that I would not be able to generate nearly enough income from the work I was doing there. I wanted to make a film in Greece but ended up doing it in Georgia as they offered much better incentives and support.” Downsizing made the rounds in the international film festival circuit. Payne and Papamichael presented the film at the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival and the film received glowing reviews from film critics at Venice Film Festival.


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