Inspired by reality

Phedon Papamichael on Levan Koguashvili, Alexander Payne, Aaron Sorkin, Shane Valentino and more

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael with Anne-Katrin Titze on James Mangold’s Indiana Jones 5 production designer Adam Stockhausen (West Side Story, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch): “It’s a very controlled design environment, which is also fantastic because if it’s a great designer you feel like it’s real.”
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael with Anne-Katrin Titze on James Mangold’s Indiana Jones 5 production designer Adam Stockhausen (West Side Story, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch): “It’s a very controlled design environment, which is also fantastic because if it’s a great designer you feel like it’s real.”

From London, in late January, Phedon Papamichael took time off from his busy schedule on Indiana Jones 5 (directed by James Mangold) to discuss with me on Zoom his work with Levan Koguashvili on ]Brighton 4th (multiple winner in the 20th anniversary edition of the Tribeca Film Festival), Alexander Payne (Downsizing, Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways), Aaron Sorkin and Shane Valentino (The Trial Of The Chicago 7), production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar winner for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, nominated for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Bridge Of Spies, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave), John Cassavetes’s Love Streams and Nick Cassavetes’s Unhook The Stars (Gena Rowlands, Marisa Tomei, Gérard Depardieu) with his father in New York, and the upcoming Light Falls, starring Makis Papadimitriou that he directed.

Phedon Papamichael on Brighton 4th director Levan Koguashvili and the Georgian film industry: “We have several other projects with Levan in development.”
Phedon Papamichael on Brighton 4th director Levan Koguashvili and the Georgian film industry: “We have several other projects with Levan in development.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Phedon has received Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar nominations for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Nebraska, which also earned him a BAFTA nomination, as did James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You worked with Shane Valentino on Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7. I spoke with Shane at The Met [The Metropolitan Museum of Art], during a press preview of In Pursuit of Fashion for the Costume Institute in 2019 and he mentioned the movie to me then. So you worked with a production designer like that, building a set and then here you have bunk beds in a hostel.

Phedon Papamichael: Right!

AKT: Do you have a preference, or do you like switching from one way of working to the other?

PP: I love shooting in natural locations. With Alexander Payne we also very often just find locations and then he’s very much inspired by reality. Alexander almost never wants to change something, change a wall colour or change an artwork that was in a restaurant. He always gets into trouble with the studio going “we don’t have clearance for this artwork!” And it really upsets him.

On a location scout we meet the waitress that’s serving us and he wants to cast her in the movie. He’s very much attached to the reality of things, that’s where he draws his inspiration. I love, I enjoy that and I do love going back and forth between big produced designed movies.

The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and In Pursuit of Fashion production designer Shane Valentino at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute press preview.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and In Pursuit of Fashion production designer Shane Valentino at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute press preview. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

As you can imagine, Indiana Jones is. We have Adam Stockhausen as a production designer, who did French Dispatch and West Side Story and Budapest Hotel. So it’s a very controlled design environment, which is also fantastic because if it’s a great designer you feel like it’s real.

AKT: It’s the two sides of the way we all are in the world, isn’t it? On the one hand our imagination constructs things for our lives and on the other there is the reality we find out there. You mention Alexander Payne, who is also so very good at showing something that isn’t really traditionally pretty in any sense. There is a similarity I see.

PP: No, no, he likes that. There’s the ugliness, that sort of romanticises the banalité of things.

AKT: And that combined with a great sense of humour. I mean, Brighton 4th is just so warm, so lovely, so funny with what it shows.

PP: Yeah.

AKT: That humanity together with what is usually seen as ugly leads to something resembling Robert Frank-like imagery when you suddenly realise there’s the beauty in the mundane. There is actually another link that I am making, not one that Alexander is making. I was pushing him years ago to make a musical.

PP: Oh really?

Phedon Papamichael received a Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar nomination for Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7
Phedon Papamichael received a Best Achievement in Cinematography Oscar nomination for Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Yeah. Nebraska, the musical! No, it probably will not happen, but I would love to see it. You didn’t go to film school in Munich, did you?

PP: No, I applied to the film school in Munich and I didn’t get in so I just moved to New York. I mean, I knew some people, my father was working with Cassavetes, so I didn’t go completely without … But I never got to work with him because John was very sick already at the time and passed away shortly after, actually. But I ended up working with my father on a movie I directed.

He was a production designer. And then Nick Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands and Gérard Depardieu, we did a movie with my father. I was the DP and he was the production designer, so we had a bit more family tradition going on.

AKT: I have to ask you one more question about the cheese in Georgia. Is it really that good? He [Kakhi played by Levan Tediashvili in Brighton 4th] smuggles pounds of cheese into the US!

PP: No. I mean, the Sulguni, which he takes is nice, mild. You can get it saltier. I don’t really like when it’s salty. It’s a hard cheese and it’s nice when it’s mild and a bit moist. It can get dry and salty. But they make very nice other cheeses and they also make great wine. In general the cuisine is excellent. It’s one of the reasons we’re living in Georgia now. I’ve also bought some land in the wine country and we’re growing almonds.

AKT: Oh wow!

Phedon Papamichael on Alexander Payne: “We also very often just find locations and then he’s very much inspired by reality.”
Phedon Papamichael on Alexander Payne: “We also very often just find locations and then he’s very much inspired by reality.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

PP: And I’m planning on creating a film studio in Georgia and I have a production company there as well. I’m really trying to support the Georgian film industry.

AKT: There have recently been some great films shot in Georgia [Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, Juja Dobrachkous’s Bebia, à Mon Seul désir].

PP: Yes, excellent. They have a great tradition that goes way back. Then we have several other projects with Levan in development. Hopefully Putin will stay put.

AKT: And the world won’t blow up, that would be nice.

PP: Yeah, we hope the world won’t blow up, especially right in our neighbourhood. And that we get to do some more movies in the future, and I’d love to give you a ring next time we’re in New York.

AKT: That would be nice. You also directed a film in Greece called Light Falls that’s coming our way?

PP: I directed it, I can’t even remember, I think it was September 2020. Then because of Indiana Jones I’ve been busy. I’ve done an edit but it’s not finished. As soon as I finish this movie, I’ll be back in Georgia in March to finish the editing and do the sound and the music score and do the final mix in Georgia with a local sound mixer. And then probably go to Berlin and do colour correction. It’s an Albanian-Greek-Georgian co-production with Georgian actors, Albanian actors. Makis [Papadimitriou] is an excellent Greek actor, one of the best currently working.

Brighton 4th poster
Brighton 4th poster

It’s a dark film, it’s pretty intense, tone-wise it’s very different to Brighton 4th. It’s not a comedy, although I do have some scripts, one that’s sort of a road movie between Greece and Georgia, a comedy. There’s a lot of cultural connection, both being orthodox. Same as in New York, we have lots of Georgian emigrants in Athens.

My wife loves Greece and we just got another apartment in Athens. I’m going to be spending much less time in Los Angeles. I’m kind of a bit over it right now. Also there’s nothing filming there really, unless you’re just working on Marvel movies. And I’m trying to avoid going to Atlanta and Vancouver and Los Angeles, so I think I’m going to spend more time in Europe and New York.

AKT: Apropos New York in the Eighties, did you know 99 Records? Bush Tetras, Liquid Liquid?

PP: No, when I was in New York, there used to be a Club called ABC No Rio, where John Lurie and The Lounge Lizards used to play, but also Madonna. This was in ’83. These musicians Bo Harwood and Bobbi Permanent who wrote a lot of the scores for the Cassavetes movies, for Love Streams, we would hang out. The music scene I really discovered more in Los Angeles when I moved there in ’84 and there was a lot going on then.

Read what Phedon Papamichael had to say on filming Brighton 4th, the Georgian spirit. and the John Cassavetes style.

Read what Levan Koguashvili had to say on his love of Italian Neorealism, working with the amazing Phedon Papamichael, Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani, Frédéric Boyer, Sophia Loren in Lady Liberty, Kakhi Kavsadze and when Georgian men sing, and the comedy of cheese.

Read what Levan Koguashvili had to say on the hearse, Brighton Beach shops, loving signs and the Strand Bookstore, Robert Frank, depth, levels, and action and The Big Lebowski.

Brighton 4th is now available on Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, and Kino Now.

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