Shooting ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ to the Rhythm of Aaron Sorkin’s Layered Script

For cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, going from “Ford v Ferrari” to “The Trial of the Chicago 7” was more than merely shifting gears and genres within the period lane of the late 1960s. Shooting the timely conspiracy trial, showing Vietnam War protesters outside the 1968 Democratic Convention that turned horribly violent, required a new mindset and rapport with writer-director Aaron Sorkin, making his second outing behind the camera following “Molly’s Game.”

In fact, on “Chicago 7,” Sorkin’s technical inexperience demanded more visual heavy lifting from the cinematographer. Finally, Papamichael was able to facilitate Sorkin’s vision, just as he’s done all along with his frequent collaborators James Mangold (“Ford v Ferrari,” “Walk the Line”) and Alexander Payne (the Oscar-nominated “Nebraska”).

Papamichael realized on day one that “Aaron is all about the rhythm and the language,” he said. “And therefore he doesn’t want any shots that are not just on the person who’s speaking. And, you also have to be conscious not to design shots that will lengthen the way it’s covered because it will mess with his rhythm.”

Sorkin gathered his talented ensemble of actors (led by Sacha Baron Cohen as counterculture activist Abbie Hoffman and Eddie Redmayne as political activist Tom Hayden) to run through a courtroom scene without any blocking, after which he turned to his cinematographer and asked: ‘We good?”

It immediately became clear to Papamichael that he needed to visualize Sorkin’s script in a way that wasn’t too static yet also provided editor Alan Baumgarten (“Molly’s Game”) with enough footage of the ensemble in the courtroom, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz, Mark Rylance as attorney/civil rights activist William Kunstler, Jeremy Strong as Hoffman cohort Jerry Rubin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen as Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Aaron Sorkin, left, and Phedon Papamichael, right)

Niko Tavernise/Netflix © 2020

Sorkin’s multi-layered script balances three story threads: the overheated courtroom drama, how the peaceful demonstrations turned violent, and the bitter political rivalry between Hayden and Hoffman. “Aaron’s the first to admit how much he relied on me, but I was also aware that he sees very specific things,” said Papamichael. “And, as long as we’re capturing that, he’s fine with whatever else happens. He doesn’t want anything else that’s not in his head. He’ll close his eyes when the scene is going on, sitting in front of the monitor, and if he’s fine, we move on.” And Sorkin usually got what he wanted in two or three takes.

Papamichael used the same large-format setup that he experimented with on “Ford v Ferrari”: the Alexa LF with expanded, anamorphic lenses to cover the full sensor, providing a similar period distortion and grainy look. He shot with three cameras to capture as much as possible in the courtroom (a set build by production designer Shane Valentino in an empty church nave in Paterson, New Jersey).

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Niko Tavernise/Netflix © 2020

“The expanded anamorphics give you beautiful fall off in terms of the depth of field,” he said, “but it also gives that widescreen aspect ratio with classic anamorphic lens and vignetting.” The cinematographer convinced Sorkin that this was preferable to a long lens, because he was able to rake through the courtroom to pick up groups of characters in clusters.

“We’re in a courtroom, we have a lot of people sitting in a row next to each other, and I wanted to get closeups that didn’t isolate them,” Papamichael added. “You get their reactions and look exchanges in the defendant’s bench (against the wall and under the windows) or in the jury box, so I had to block shoot it, meaning several scenes in one direction that didn’t show extras because I didn’t [always] have extras available.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Niko Tavernise/Netflix© 2020

Papamichael said the courtroom scenes were part of a jigsaw puzzle, intercut with the protests and riots, and other revealing flashbacks (including Hoffman’s guerrilla performance). Aside from the legendary theatrics, the cinematographer wanted to convey “how terribly long this event was, lasting from September through mid-February in 1969. So I created a lot of different looks, and I controlled the exterior completely by building a gigantic box outside those big windows, and I was able to turn over from hard sunlight to a moody overcast, fall day, to a rainy winter day, all within minutes by having all those units in place. The biggest challenge was creating this timeline.”

By contrast, shooting the riot scenes was more of an improvised, vérité approach, following the crowd of actors and extras as Chicago police and the National Guard. Fortunately, they got to film in the actual Grant Park, the nearby bridges, and in front of the Hilton, the site of the Democratic Convention. Papamichael was inspired by Haskell Wexler’s iconic “Medium Cool” doc of the event, and they interspersed archival footage that was processed in black-and-white.

The riot was scripted to function as rapidly intercut vignettes and nothing was storyboarded or shot-listed and they used all of the footage from the three days of shooting. “We would set the crowd, work out their beats [including a sexual assault], and I would send out two operators hand-held, to immerse and free-style, just like a news crew would,” Papamichael said. “The actual event had 10,000 people in the park, but I only had 150 extras, so it was helpful not to get pretty wide. Actually, it was a nice, sunny day if you look at Wexler’s footage. Unfortunately, we were there in October and I was battling with leaves turning brown, but the use of [smoke for the tear gas] helped.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Niko Tavernise/Netflix© 2020

For Sorkin, there was always a particular beat that was important, such as the baton-hits that caused bloody head injuries or a bottle hitting the pavement, or the throwing of a Molotov cocktail. “The bottle was a key image for him because it sets off the violence coming from the otherwise peaceful demonstrators, which our heroes/defendants could control or stop at that point,” Papamichael said. “There is a specific mention in the screenplay that refers to those moments: ‘Let the blood flow all over the city.’”

But the critical turning point occurs when Kunstler grills Hayden during a practice interrogation scene the night before his appearance as a witness. Once again, though, the cinematographer had to finesse covering all the defendants when Sorkin only cared about turning the camera on Hayden and Kunstler. “I got all the defendants in the room, and since I was in charge of selecting the shots, the actors all came up to me and asked about their individual closeups,” Papamichael said. “And Aaron didn’t want to see them, so I gave you the early presence of everyone assembled around the room, but no reactions when Kunstler grills Tom. Ultimately, I’m serving the director and I’m trying to get the result as close to his vision and what he imagined.”

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