Phedon Papamichael interview: ‘Trial of the Chicago 7’ cinematographer
On paper, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” sounds like a straightforward courtroom drama, but it’s actually a stealthily complicated movie to assemble. While the central plot revolves around the men on trial on charges of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Aaron Sorkin film is non-linear and is full of quick cutaways in and out of the courtroom, requiring lots of planning beforehand.
“You’re not portraying this event in a way you would normally do it if it were not as intercut,” cinematographer Phedon Papamichael tells Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Film Cinematography panel (watch above). “It really has to be designed and the shots have to be structured to be able to function in the rhythm of the edit, which is leaving the courtroom often for a vignette that’s really five seconds and then you’re back in the courtroom. There’s no point in designing big crane shots and Steadicam shots. We very much approached it like we were a documentary crew on the ground in a similar way Haskell [Wexler] was when he integrated it into his narrative story and actually covered the event like a documentary filmmaker [in ‘Medium Cool’].”
Written and directed by Sorkin, “Chicago 7” is the second film he has helmed after 2017’s “Molly Game.” He is, of course, famous for his words, and understandably had a certain style in mind. “For Aaron, he wants to see the person speaking,” Papamichael explains. “He wanted to use longer lenses and really isolate the person away.” But the DP felt a different approach was more appropriate for this ensemble film and story.
“I felt — and also speaking with Alan Baumgarten, the editor — the importance of, this is a group that is doing something together as a group,” he continues. “And their interactions and reactions for whenever one of them is on the stand or one of them is making a statement — it’s very important not to isolate the speaking characters, but to always try to see the co-defendants, see the jury, see the people behind them that are participating. All of this is very valuable information.”
And Sorkin was onboard. “Aaron recognizes that and is very appreciative. He will come forward and say, ‘We need this, we need this reaction,’ but it’s up to me to make sure we get it and suggest it and show him, and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s great,'” Papamichael says. “For Aaron, it’s all about the rhythm of the words. He literally sits at the monitor and has his eyes closed and is just listening to the rhythm of the language until he’s good to move on. As long as he gets the words right, he knows it’s working for him.”