Exclusive Interview: Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael Talks Ford V Ferrari

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Ford v Ferrari will mark director James Mangold’s fifth (or sixth, see below) collaboration with Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The two have worked together frequently over the last 15 years, including such acclaimed films as Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma.

We Got This Covered had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Papamichael right before the movie had its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. Be sure to check out our conversation down below and enjoy.

This is your sixth collaboration with James Man-

(Mr. Papamichael raises his hand to correct me, with all five fingers pressed out)

Fifth?

Phedon Papamichael: Logan I did – we did the ending; I didn’t do Logan. I didn’t do Wolverine’s because I try to stay away from superhero [films]. That’s why I’m attracted to Mangold, Alexander Payne, and the filmmakers I choose. Not that I snob those films, but I like stories about real people, and real human characters.

So how has your relationship with [Mangold] evolved over the years? Are you guys on a similar wavelength by this point?

Phedon Papamichael: Right from the get-go on Identity, you know, because he’s a verbal person; he’s a writer also; he’s very much an actor’s director, very precise with the performances. Often when you have that, you expect that he’s not so in tune with camera movement. I noticed very early on in the set up [that wasn’t the case]. I framed something and he’d go, “cut that down a little bit lower.” He has a very astute sense of composition. Then, of course, as I got to know more about him, I realized he’s a photographer; he’s the son of a painter – I’m the son of a painter – he went to CalArts, you know, he didn’t grow up in a big studio. He started with low-budget film, like he’s an indie filmmaker first who then went on to very successfully tackle many different genres in Hollywood. But he always has that indie filmmaker spirit.

I started a similar way; I didn’t go to film school, I started with Roger Corman then a lot of smaller European films that you probably never saw. But we discovered that we have very similar tastes, we’re about the same age, grew up with the same influences: love French New Wave, Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa. We have a common language and it’s really refreshing and fun for me to work with someone like that. While we’re setting up something, I’ll say to my operator, “bring the camera more right” on my headset. And in the meanwhile, Mangold, who doesn’t know what I’m saying, will tell him “move the camera a little bit more to the right!” We’re very in sync on all of that. And we’re also very instinctive in not predesigning – of course, this is a race car movie, so you have to preface the race sequences, you have to know how many cars to build and how to budget it – but we’re very much about seeing the actors, seeing the dynamics, and finding those moments which he can’t really pre-plan. The joy comes from picking those moments and having the camera right there when something happens. Have you seen the film yet?

I have not. I was going to try and hide that fact.

Phedon Papamichael: No that’s okay, because I knew some of [the interviewers] hadn’t. But look, it’s a classic Hollywood, old school movie for the big screen. It’s got great racing sequences and stuff, but its strength is the characters, and all of this action would be meaningless if you’re not centering it or feeling the context of your main characters. We’ve all seen great car races and great fight scenes and all of that, but this is a good buddy movie. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, somebody said in a review; it’s a fun Western with beautiful settings, but it’s their relationship and that’s what makes this movie special.

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