“Make a Documentary of What’s Happening in Front of You”: DP Phedon Papamichael on Shooting Aaron Sorkin’s Courtroom Drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7
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The Chicago Trial 7

After the violence disrupted the Chicago National Democratic Convention in 1968, eight conspiracy accused were arrested to spark a riot – an event dramatized in Aaron Sorkin's new "The Chicago 7 Trial". Among them were the countercultural characters Abbie Hoffman (played in the movie by Sasha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne). In The Trial of the Chicago 7, writer and director Sorkin restores the chaos around the six-month trial, mixing the daily testimonies with flashbacks from protesters and police officers preparing for demonstrations in places like Grant Park. In addition to prosecuting the defendants, Sorkin investigates the strategies of prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella).

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shot most of The Trial of the Chicago 7 in Patterson, New Jersey, where the production team built a courtroom in an abandoned schoolhouse. The crew also shot in Chicago for the Grant Park demonstrations, which included footage from Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool. Papamichael's previous feature was Ford versus Ferrari. He is currently producing and directing Light Falls in Greece, where he spoke to the filmmaker on Skype.

Filmmaker: You shot Trial of the Chicago 7 during today's demonstrations.

Papamichael: Of course we could see the parallels when we started filming, but the film has become even more relevant since then. It's crazy, especially considering the script was written 13 years ago.

Filmmaker: The last time we spoke, you were wondering how to approach a 170-page script.

Papamichael: Yes, there is a lot of talk. Courtroom dramas are difficult. Basically it's a box and everyone always sits in the same places. People are against walls. The judge really has no background.

One of the big challenges was to ensure even lighting in the courtroom, which is about 60 percent of the story. The script is also non-linear. The timelines overlap, jump forward, jump back. We have these vignettes outside the courtroom, they could only be three or five seconds long. And we don't necessarily go back to the scene or the place we left. An instruction triggers a review, but we may not return to the same character.

I wanted to establish different moods in the courtroom, both psychologically in terms of characters and to show the passage of time. With certain witnesses, like the undercover cop, I got more moody like a cloudy day. The court opening day is sunnier because the defendants are optimistic. And for the final verdict, I'll play Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Hard Sunbeam as he starts reading the names of the victims of the Vietnam War. I wanted it to shine in some kind of heroic, angelic light.

Even though we were shooting in one place, I treated it like a stage. I built a huge light box outside of the two bay windows that was literally wrapped in the whole thing, and created lighting configurations that could act as indirect light as well as a light source. I always had to switch between the setups because we had to photograph scenes.

Filmmaker: You couldn't shoot chronologically?

Papamichael: No, partly because there were issues with the availability of actors, partly because we didn't have the budget for extras. For example, Michael Keaton (who plays former Attorney General Ramsey Clark) was only available in the courtroom for one day. Some scenes consist of three or four lines, others sixteen pages. I would light the 16 sides and then switch to sun mode for a cop on the stand that has a line. I couldn't turn around to finish the first scene because I didn't have the extras. There were times when I had to shoot six or seven scenes in one direction and later recreate the lighting to do the reversals.

So I made a table for court days that weren't specifically written and then assigned a lighting pattern for each day.

It was a logistical nightmare, especially since Aaron only wanted to point the camera at the person speaking. Editorial options weren't a big factor for him. When he's at the monitor, he closes his eyes and just listens to the words and says, "Cut. Great. Got it, keep going." He didn't want to do a lot of shots because he was worried that actors might start trying things out that were not written in scripts.

Filmmaker: How much were you involved in blocking the scenes?

Papamichael: In the courtroom, the blocking is pretty much set because they always sit in the same seats. Anyone who takes the floor approaches the bank, the jury, the witness. This blocking is pretty much dictated.

Filmmaker: But you don't turn it that way, you frame the dialogue. For example, getting closer to Mark Rylance when he makes a point.

Papamichael: I developed that with (James) Mangold, these little push-ins. I'm always on a slider so I can make subtle movements. I never just move the camera. I don't turn around, I don't make fancy moves that aren't motivated. The timing and speed of those little push-ins or pull-outs or a rotation where I'm on a profile swinging around revealing someone else – that's my specialty.

I used an anamorphic widescreen ratio of 2.40 with the Alexa LF, a combination that I discovered at Ford versus Ferrari and that I really liked. Aaron always asked for “long lenses,” but I prefer to be physically close to the camera. You can create an intimate close-up but keep the surroundings in it alive.

For a courtroom drama in particular, I want more than frontal close-ups, I always want to include the other players. At least get a feel for how they're reacting. We're usually a bit low and to avoid it getting too cute we have "dirty" close-ups when we are on the floor and clean close-ups of the judge because he's away from everyone. I tried not to shoot flat. I've always tried to rake and get angles, at least a flag, a stenographer, the judge with the witness or the judge with the witness and the jury or the prosecutor with the defendants.

Filmmaker: Early on, you have a two-minute take in which the main characters are introduced in the courtroom.

Papamichael: The other really interesting shot is the last. It looks like a techno crane, it starts at Schultz while Hayden reads the names. We pull back slowly, wave to the sketch artists, the defendants, go to the back of the courtroom and then seem to be in a very long shot.

I couldn't install a crane there. Since we weren't on a stage, I couldn't pull the walls or the ceiling. Instead, we built a wooden ramp, blocked it at the start of the shot with the crowd, and cleared the crowd as my steadicam driver backed up the ramp. A very low tech way of getting the image Aaron wanted.

Filmmaker: How did you approach the demonstration scenes in Chicago, where you mix archival material and new material?

Papamichael: We filmed the bridge crossing and the Grant Park demonstration in three days. There were no shot designs, they weren't shot as sequences. It was more, let it work for three seconds. Let it work for ten seconds. It's almost like a commercial, you have to shoot it that way. You can't create a sweeping crane motion because it doesn't match the rhythm and tempo of his writing.

Aaron had some key visual elements that were very important to him. Once we got those beats, I always tried to get extras. It was great that we were in the original location, but I didn't try to match the original footage. We shot handhelds with the LF and the Minis. For the riot scenes, I sent my two operators into the crowd and told them, "Make a documentary of what is happening in front of you." I wanted to restore that energy, but with anamorphic lenses. When we put it together, we even changed some of Haskell's footage from Medium Cool from 16mm color to black and white.

Filmmaker: Did you finish post-production before the pandemic hit?

Papamichael: I was caught in Europe. I did a commercial in Sweden when our children's school closed. So we visited my mother in Greece. We came with a small bag, then Europe was blocked. The school became Zoom School so we thought we might as well stay. Of course, we didn't expect to stay five months. The shops were all closed. The children have outgrown their shoes.

I wanted to fly to the US, but that option went away when I couldn't return to Europe. My colorist Skip Kimball might be the only person in the room anyway. I worked with Skip in Nebraska from London, so we started exploring similar remote strategies. I was working on Screenbox in a boutique paint shop in Athens where I do advertising.

At that point, Netflix bought it, so we really focused on HD. We didn't need any suitable projectors. The only problem was that we didn't have accurate monitors. We have referenced and calibrated, but I've never been in the position I've been comparing apples to apples. I saw the trailer when it came out and thought it looked good. It looks dark the way I wanted it to be.

Filmmaker: You shot that thought because you thought it was a theatrical release.

Papamichael: I always shoot for the big screen, I haven't done anything that should only be streamed. Paramount would release this in theaters. It was supposed to open the New York Film Festival. I know there have been some limited movie screenings. Netflix had a film print job, not just DCPs, but I had no hand in it.

It may seem disappointing that there isn't a widespread movie theater show, but to get it out to the people before the elections, Netflix was probably the better platform. More people will see.

Filmmaker: Do you feel comfortable returning to a set?

Papamichael: I am currently directing and directing a film in Greece. We are all tested several times, every morning your temperature is taken. If you check out ok you will be given a bracelet. It seems practical to knock on wood. I'm in the middle of the movie now.

In September I started shooting again and doing advertising. In Greece we did a huge Perrier job with Cary Fukunaga as a director. He brought his Bond stunt team from England, horses and riders from Budapest, models from Brazil and hundreds of extras. We made it. It was hot, lots of tight spaces, but I'm fine with that. I think it's a risk that doesn't seem too outrageous. I think with the right procedures we can make films again.

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