THESSALONIKI – More than 20 years after interviewing a fellow Greek American to work on one of his films, without, however hiring him, award-winning director Alexander Payne called director of photography Phedon Papamichael, who was on holiday in Greece at the time, and asked him if he’d be interested in working on something with him. That ‘something’ was ?Sideways,? the enchanting 2004 comedy drama starring Paul Giamatti, which put Payne on the world cinema map and earned him an Academy Award (for best writing and adapted screenplay, which he shared with Jim Taylor), a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.
The two Greek Americans are now back with another critically acclaimed drama about a man’s journey of self, ?The Descendants,? starring George Clooney, which opened the Thessaloniki International Film Festival on Friday night.
Speaking to the press in the northern port city on Saturday, Payne announced that he was currently working on a third movie, ?a very small comedy,? which Papamichael will also be filming, though he did not release any other details. He did, however, express his wish to do a film in Greece at some time in the future. ?I would like to move here, to learn the language well and to do a film,? Payne said. ?I do have one idea,? he added, without elaborating.
What has gelled Payne and Papamichael together so firmly, other than their shared Greek roots?
?Photographic talent,? said Payne of what he looked for, and found, in Papamichael, ?but also ? because we become partners ? friendship.?
The cinematographer and director of photography of, among others, ?Walk the Line,? ?W.,? ?The Pursuit of Happyness? and ?27 Missing Kisses,? recalled how he had been interviewed by Payne in 1986, but that the director decided to go with someone else instead.
?We had seen each other occasionally ? we lived in the same neighborhood and would just bump into each other at various cafes, and Alexander went to school with a number of directors I had worked with,? said Papamichael.
For Payne, another plus in the collaboration is having a cinematographer who understands directing ? Papamichael most recently directed ?Arcadia Lost,? a film set in Greece and starring Nick Nolte.
?I need all the ideas I can get; all the collaboration,? Payne said of working with people who have directed films themselves. ?It’s wonderful to have fellow filmmakers around.?
Payne’s California-based production company, Ad Hominem Enterprises, bought the rights to the book ?The Descendants? by Kaui Hart Hemmings two years before even considering filming as in it he saw the potential for the kind of film he likes, ?something small, without Hollywood gimmicks, without contrivance.?
His attention, however, was focused instead on a scenario that he had been working on for three years ? which explains the long time gap between ?Sideways? and ?The Descendants? ? and it was not until he realized that he would not get the funding for his own project that he decided to do the Hawaii-based drama.
Working with a star is like driving a Maserati after being used to a Fiat, according to Payne, who worked with Jack Nicholson in ?About Schmidt? in 2002 and now, in ?Descendants,? with George Clooney, whom Payne had rejected for the role of the aging playboy actor in ?Sideways.?
?George Clooney is handsome, but I wonder whether if he wasn’t a movie star, if he worked at a gas station, for example, if people would still think he was as handsome as he is,? Payne quipped, adding that good looks was not, in the case of Clooney’s ?Descendants? character Matt King, a cliche, but that people of that class in Hawaii do tend to be good-looking. ?They grow up on the beach, surfing and playing volleyball,? said Payne.
On the collaboration, Payne said: ?Many directors told me when they heard I was going to work with George, ‘you’re in for such as wonderful experience,’? said Payne. ?And it was. He is a professional, a great star, a good collaborator, very inventive with ideas, really cooperative, always says ‘yes.’ I can’t imagine a better experience with a star. And this was only my second experience with a big star. I had Jack Nicholson two movies ago. He was the same; very professional. As a director I learn a lot from these big stars, because they’ve been on so many more movies than I have. They know filmmaking so well. Anything I ask them to do they do exactly. It forces me to become a better director.?
On the crisis
Looking at the dire straits that Greece is in, is ?horrifying, heartbreaking and frustrating,? said Payne, who is in the country during one its most intense political crises this weekend, ?and there doesn’t seem to be a solution.?
?I have to tell you I’ve been very touched to be here; it’s been meaningful for me to be here, even for three days, to talk to people, to feel it, to feel a little more solidarity,? added Payne. ?We Greeks of the Diaspora read the paper every day, scratch our heads, very heartbroken, but feeling very much in solidarity. I’m American and I have a much different life than if my grandparents had not emigrated ? I’m not saying better, just different ? but it’s in situations like this that my Greek DNA and my Greek heart are reawakened.?
For Papamichael, who spends much more time in Greece, both on holiday with his family and working, ?you can’t be negative about it; you have to keep working hard.?