'Yuma' DP: Focus is more character than cowboy


Director of photography Phedon Papamichael doesn't view his latest work, Lionsgate's remake of "3:10 to Yuma," as a classic Western.

"It is more of a character drama," he says of the film, which stars Russell Crowe as outlaw Ben Wade, who is to be delivered to the 3:10 train on his way to trial by struggling land owner Dan Evans (Christian Bale). "It's really more about the psychology of the characters, and getting into their space and head. A power struggle of the wills against evil, and morals against immorality."

The cinematographer did watch classic Westerns in preparation for the production, and he says that his approach is most closely connected to "Once Upon a Time in the West" with its look and use of extreme close-ups on faces with extreme wide shots to play the action.

Yet in his third collaboration with James Mangold (Papamichael previously lensed the helmer's "Walk the Line" and "Identity"), the director of photography says that the pair stuck with a visual language that was more about storytelling than genre. "When I work with Mangold, we decide the best way to tell the story when we see the performance as things unfold in front of us, rather than preconceiving and predesigning the whole picture."

Papamichael likens certain approaches in "Yuma" to "Walk the Line," saying: "When we did Joaquin Phoenix onstage, there was such an energy and intensity in his face. That told us we need to be on that stage with him and the camera had to be right in there. Same with this. When you have Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and these exchanges of dialogue, it's so intimate and so focused in terms of their conflict that it really required just being on their faces."

The emphasis on the characters also applied in the rendering of the action sequences. "I'm a believer that action without a firm understanding of the character becomes unemotional and uninvolving," Papamichael says. "We spent a lot of time with the characters and establishing their emotions before we got engulfed in these action sequences.

"Even in the action sequences, we tried to be right there in their faces and stay with them so we feel like we are less of an observer and we are really right in that gunfight."

The inspiration for that approach was the "Saving Private Ryan" beach landing sequence. "That movie, more than any other movie I can think of, let the audience really feel like they were on the beach that day," Papamichael says.

In "Yuma's" action scenes, Papamichael also aimed to involve the audience by letting events unfold naturally in front of the camera. "It has a more random feel to it, so when (action) happens, it is more effective," he says. "It's not perfectly framed and telegraphing what will happen. You catch (events) as if you were there and involved. You won't know where the next hit is coming from; you won't know where the next person is popping out from. It's nice to be able to create that for the audiences."

About 90% of the film -- shot in Super 35mm -- was lensed either handheld or using a Steadicam.

The film went through a digital intermediate process at Modern Videofilm.

More recently, Papamichael directed the psychological thriller "From Within," currently in postproduction.