Phedon Papamichael on shooting Alexander Payne’s black and white vision for ‘Nebraska’

Alexander Payne’s vision for “Nebraska” was always in black and white. Going way back to prep on 2004’s “Sideways,” he told his director of photography, Phedon Papamichael, that he had this little road trip movie he was keen to do free of color, which of course was appealing to Papamichael. Nearly a decade later they finally set out to make the movie, but they had a bit of a roadblock.

“Originally we intended to shoot black and white stock but Paramount requested a color version of the film as well, and that excluded us from using black and white stock,” Papamichael says. “All we were told is ‘we can’t sell a black and white movie; certain markets won’t take it,’ and we were never really able to find out who the color version is for. HBO came up. It was like, ‘HBO won’t show black and white,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, really? HBO won’t show ‘Raging Bull?'”

But Payne just told Papamichael not to concern himself with it. The movie only ever existed in their minds in black and white anyway and they didn’t even bother leaving much time to deal with the color version in the end. “I actually just said to Skip [Kimball, the digital intermediate colorist], ‘Okay, just do whatever you always wanted to do and nobody would let you do. Feel free to experiment!'”

After having tested a number of stocks and settling on the look Papamichael wanted for the film, it was off to the Arri Alexa digital camera to attempt to duplicate the visuals, trying to find a grain look similar to the stock.

“We were able to do that fairly quickly,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to distinguish it. Haskel Wexler called me and Janusz Kaminski, asking whether I shot on film, so we were able to make the Alexa look like an actual black and white film.”

It might sound like a lot of trouble to simply sap the image of color, but it meant something artistically to shoot in such stark visuals. “It just seemed appropriate for this story,” Papamichael says. “And of course with Bruce’s face and the textures and his hair glowing when he steps into the sun, I mean it’s just something that lets you focus in on these motifs we have in the story about isolation and loneliness and death and this graphic landscape with the clouds and the skies.”

Payne took Papamichael on the very Montana-to-Nebraska road trip the characters in the film embark upon to give him an idea of that landscape. It was fascinating for the DP, to drive through Main Streets of small-town America and get just a sense of emptiness.

“He just wanted me to get an impression of the vastness of this land and how long you drive without seeing anything,” Papamichael says. “We’d get into these towns where it says ‘population 22,000,’ and we’d go down Main Street, usually, and I’d never really see everybody, and I’d go, ‘You’re from here. Where is everybody? Where are all the people?’ In Italy you’d see, even if it was a small town, kids running around a piazza, some old man sitting in a cafe. There was never anybody. He goes, ‘I don’t know. I guess they’re inside watching TV.’ And then later, of course, making the movie with all these scenes of nobody communicating or making eye contact…”

There wasn’t a lot in the way of references for the movie beyond the obvious Peter Bogdanovich works. Papamichael requested a print of “Paper Moon” be brought in to make sure they weren’t over-doing the film grain look in post-production. “It’s amazing,” he says. “We just sort of forget because we’re so used to all these sleek images now, how alive that old black and white print is.” And of course there are echoes of “The Last Picture Show” throughout. Papamichael grew up on movies like “Alice in the Cities” and “Kings of the Road,” too, all of which were somewhere in his head while making the film.

“It’s very easy to find compositions [in that landscape],” he says. “I did all the framing and was able to set up most of the compositions and I said, ‘If you don’t like them, of course, we can talk about them.’ But we really found a groove, this being our third movie. There was no disagreements or anything. Once you have that scope frame and those landscapes and those lonely little figures sitting pretty, it kind of tells you what to do. It’s not that difficult to find a frame.”

The result is a first-ever Oscar nomination for the DP, in what is clearly a tight field, given that the nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers stretched to seven. And ever since the Academy discontinued the divide between black-and-white and color films in the Best Cinematography category, only 11 black and white movies have been nominated; “Nebraska” joined the company of “In Cold Blood,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Lenny,” “Raging Bull,” “Zelig,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Good Night, and Good Luck.,” “The White Ribbon” and “The Artist” on that score last week. Impressive company indeed.

For more on the photography of “Nebraska,” check out the video embedded at the top of this post.

Phedon Papamichael’s work will next be seen in George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men.”