InCamera — Issue 2 2011

Focus on Film

Beware The Ides of March
Papamichael and Clooney spin a political yarn


The Ides of March
Ryan Gosling (left) with George Clooney (right, poster) stars in Columbia Pictures’ Ides of March. Photo: Saeed Adyani Copyright: ©2011 IDES FILM HOLDINGS, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Phedon Papamichael, ASC met George Clooney on the set of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, which was set and filmed in Hawaii. Something clicked, and Clooney asked Papamichael to photograph his next film The Ides of March.

“I think George has a lot of respect for Alexander as a filmmaker, and he was drawn to the working method we’ve developed,” says Papamichael, who also shot Sideways for Payne. “We don’t over-complicate things and we do fewer takes, which keeps the actors fresh and the days short.”

Clooney had previously directed three films: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck and Leatherheads. Papamichael’s recent credits include Knight and Day, W., 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line.

The Ides of March is a political thriller based on a stage play by Beau Willimon. The story, set in Ohio, follows a young, idealistic staffer who learns dirty politics the hard way. The film was shot at real locations in Ohio and Michigan during the late winter. The cast includes Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, and Ryan Gosling.

The look Papamichael devised for the film is at times reminiscent of 1970s films like Three Days of the Condor, The Candidate and The Godfather, Part II. The images feature subtly moody contrast, classical movement, and composition that often place a close-up of an actor’s face within the environment.

“I like playing with the wide frame and the space around the faces, feeling things in the background,” says Papamichael. “It’s powerful when you shoot someone in close-up with the 2.40:1 frame because while you feel a lot going on right and left, it puts a lot of emphasis on a single person.”

A series of tests led the filmmakers to choose the 3-perf Super 35 format and a digital intermediate at LaserPacific with colorist Dave Cole. Papamichael and Clooney compared Panavision anamorphic, Super 35 and ARRI Alexa cameras, all in widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio before choosing to film the entire movie on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219.

The Panavision cameras were often outfitted with Primo zooms, the 4:1 or the 11:1. The approach to lighting was simple, yet striking, often depending on large soft sources and sometimes negative fill to create contrast when the natural winter light was flat and overcast. Papamichael says he used fill light “as little as possible, or as much as absolutely necessary.”

As the story evolves, the mood becomes subtly darker and more dramatic. The final shot is a slow push-in to an extreme close-up on Gosling’s character. During the push-in, Papamichael had his crew dim down the TV lighting that begins the shot and slowly remove fill. In the DI suite, Papamichael perfected the shot by asking Cole to boost the key side as the camera closed in on Gosling’s face.

“I took some dramatic license there,” says the cinematographer. “For me, the DI is not where I create the look. I use it to fine tune and extend what I did on the set.”

Papamichael says The Ides of March feels like one of those classic 1970s films, in part because of the texture. “There’s a nice amount of grain, and I’m enjoying that,” he says. “We could have come close to re-creating that with the Alexa, but why use a piece of equipment to copy or emulate the look that happens naturally when you shoot film?”

The Ides of March opened this year’s prestigious Venice International Film Festival.