Filming the fantasy adventure The Huntsman: Winter’s War had Phedon Papamichael, ASC in the UK for the majority of 2015. And he’s currently ramping up for Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. Between those two projects, he’s putting the finishing touches on a short film he directed entitled A Beautiful Day.
Phedon has directed five features, but A Beautiful Day is actually the first short film he has directed. A friend, Angeliki Giannakopoulos, wrote the story and asked him to read it. He sensed its potential, and suggested that she direct, but despite her experience writing and directing for theater, she was daunted by the film medium. Producer Casey Cannon came onboard to co-write the script. Veteran executive producer Paul Deason helped assemble a first-rate crew, led by Phedon’s faithful comrades key grip Ray Garcia and gaffer-turned-cinematographer Cory Geryak.
“I’ve been on so many shorts juries,” Phedon says. “I’ve seen successful ones and some not-so-successful. Sometimes the simple short films are very powerful emotionally. I knew instinctively that this script would translate really well to the short film format. Usually when I read something, if it’s a good script, I can see the final product in my head. It has some personal elements that are based on Angeliki’s father, and that’s why I thought she should do it. But she asked me, and I’m glad to say that my instincts were right — I think it turned out to be pretty powerful.”
The story plays out over the course of a single day. An old man and his cat begin their morning routine. The man gives the gardener a check for the entire year, which is one of the first indications that there’s something unusual about this day. Other deviations from the norm follow. He visits a prostitute. Later, he dresses himself in a bowtie and starts driving — presumably to an event, but what kind of event? At one point he writes a check for the entirety of his bank account. Perhaps he’s contemplating his final day on Earth. But he is revealed to have other plans.
The cast features James Brolin and Frances Fisher. Geryak shot over about three days using Phedon’s Alexa Mini. First AC and longtime collaborator Jeff Porter was instrumental in finding a set of vintage Zeiss Super Speeds. Anamorphic was considered, but the necessary software for the Mini to handle the full 4:3 sensor was still in beta at that point. With the uncoated Super Speeds, generously provided by CamTec, they found the right look.
Geryak, after serving Papamichael on many projects as gaffer, relished the opportunity to collaborate in the capacity of director of photography. He recently shot Temple for another cinematographer-turned-director, Michael Barrett, ASC. On A Beautiful Day, Geryak brought in gaffer Larry Sushinski and arranged the majority of equipment. He also operated the camera for most of the shoot. "I think Phedon and I struck a very collaborative balance in how the photography was achieved," says Geryak. "He allowed me the freedom to light it as I saw fit with discussions to ensure it was in line with the vision that he had for the film."
Phedon says that his first short was a completely different and refreshing way of filmmaking. “I really enjoyed it, even more than I expected,” he says, “We found the cast had a blast portraying these characters. The economy of the shots — the way the story is told, and the pacing — are all very effective emotionally.
“The short film format is a world I had never really understood firsthand,” he says. “I found challenges and creative possibilities that you wouldn’t find on a big studio picture. Because of the proportions, every shot has to carry the story forward. It’s a more precise and simply crafted piece. When you do a big feature for 70 or 80 days, it’s a huge puzzle you’re trying to piece together while maintaining some consistency and overall style. It’s hard to keep control, and to maintain the interest of the audience for that longer period.”
The finished short is about 19 minutes long.
“Even in the editing, it’s different,” Phedon says. “When you’re editing a feature film for months, there’s no way you don’t lose perspective on the material at times. Every filmmaker, even the best, has periods of doubt and internal panic. On this film, I never felt overwhelmed. I could show it to people without getting nervous, because I knew it was working. I felt in control at every step. It’s just a totally different experience. It was a lot of fun.”
Phedon and Giannakopoulos, who is co-founder of the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, are planning to put A Beautiful Day on the festival circuit, and if all goes well, qualify it for Academy consideration.
“I’m looking forward to getting it in front of an audience,” says Phedon. “The film is representative of the social issues America is facing right now and we hope to question some moral codes, but with compassion.”