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Cinematographer Robbie Ryan on the Hungry Imagination of Yorgos Lanthimos, Avoiding Prep & Post-Production, and the Perfect Whip Pan

Written by on November 29, 2018 

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Few films this year serve as a cinematographer’s showcase in quite the same way as The Favourite, which one might easily believe was designed from the top-down as an opportunity to indulge in visual touchstones, eccentricities, and a flourish by any other name. Yorgos Lanthimos’s typically anti-septic style turns burnished and gilded with the assistance of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose most notable credits — Ken Loach, Noah Baumbach, Andrea Arnold — suggest something more rough-and-tumble than this picture’s clear Barry Lyndon stylings. It’s a remarkable adaptation to environment and material for which most would be glad to take credit; to hear him tell it, however, this was a happy instance of following the leader.

Ryan and I sat down at this year’s EnergaCamerimage — ostensibly to discuss The Favourite, but, given the range of his experience, it became a mini-masterclass in the director-cinematographer relationship, the effect of prep, and whip pans.

As I turned on my recorder, Ryan was already off on the subject of film-festival attendance.

Robbie Ryan: You know what? It’s more fun when you don’t have any films in festivals, because there’s no pressure. No matter what you say, you can go into a film… that was the first time I saw The Favourite. Since we finished, I hadn’t seen it because I didn’t get to go to the grade. So I was doubly nervous. I’ve done this twice now — I did it with American Honey; I hadn’t seen anything of the edit or the grade — and I went to see that in Cannes and thought, “Oh, God, I won’t do that again.” You come out and it’s too head-wrecking. You go, “What was that about? Why was that there? Why did they edit that bit?” This constant thing. But The Favourite, it was great because I knew it would be an interesting film and it was interesting — a bit more, I thought. I’ve seen it twice now; I’ll go see it again tomorrow.

The Film Stage: Some DPs are present from pre-production to the last day of post.

[Laughs] I know.

They’re looking at grading, etc. So what’s the situation where you’re —

Not there! [Laughs] Right! I’m a real anti-prep and anti-post kind of guy. It goes down to when you shoot on film — this is the film-digital argument, right? — you kind of got it in the can. You’ve done it, you’ve shot the thing, and if you shoot film for what film is lovely for — and people like Yorgos do that — they know that it is great out of the can, so you don’t need to do a heck of a lot of it in post; all you’re really doing is balancing it and giving it a tiny bit more of contrast, whatever. Especially in these days, with the digital intermediates and all that, I’m a true believer that if there’s a grader getting paid more than I do at a daily rate, they can sort of realize the director’s vision in one of those grade suites. I’d look to come in and have a look at it, but I don’t need to do that every day.

I have done that; I’ve been there every day. What happens is: you get in one of those rooms — it’s two weeks they give you in the dark, dark room — and you come a bit… you know Stockholm Syndrome? You don’t want to go out the door because you’re just happy looking at an image. So I kind of find that I maybe don’t absolutely love that. I’ve actually got a great grader. That’s the thing: if you’ve got somebody you trust. Film is all about delegating and hoping that you get the people that are available because you know they’ll do a great job. So there’s a fantastic grader I know called Rob Pizzey, and he’s worked on a lot of things I’ve done, so he kind of knows what sort of thing I do and what not to do.

But Yorgos was there for the whole grade. I would’ve been there; I was just working. The more you do in the business, the more often you’re working when the grade is going on. On the prep side of things, I’m also not a massive fan. I’ve just done a Ken Loach film and I did three days’ prep on it. [Laughs] Whereas some people do three months’ prep. A film I did last year for Noah Baumbach was three months’ prep, and you’re like, “Ooh, I don’t need three months’ prep.” It’s a bit of a weird one. I totally understand prep if it’s a very technical job; it’s really important to be there for all the eventualities and realize it the best way it can. You have to do your due diligence, be available, and work as hard as you can to get to that stage.

But with a lot of films I do, they’re not as technically challenging, so what you end up doing is going with directors on — I’m going to get in trouble for saying this — the first recommendation, where they haven’t seen the place, either. So you’re trying to work with them, whether they like it or not. Really, it’d be better if you came after they found all those things. That’s what Ken does: he organizes, sorts it all out, says, “I’ll show it to you,” and then we go look at it for a day and we’re grand. It’s all about how much a director needs that comfort of knowing their collaborators are with them all the time. It’s important.

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What I liked most about this film is the sense of being photographed by people who know this environment well. It’s overbearing. I’d like to know about acclimating to those spaces.

I did five weeks for this film, so I did the prep. We went to locations a lot, did tests in there — your classic, normal prep. I didn’t mind it for that one. I’d never worked with Yorgos before, so I was really trying to get my head around it. I was more nervous at the end of that prep than I’ve been on any other film because I did not know how we were going to shoot it. Yorgos will answer your questions. You’ll get a sense of what he’s thinking. At the same time, you don’t quite know what’s going on in his head. Then what happened was, the first day of the shoot, he was there to take a still, he showed it to me, and says, “Do you want to shoot that shot?” I go, “Oh, God, this is going to be okay, because he takes pictures and that’s his viewfinder.”

From there on, I got the rhythm and I got more comfortable with what was going on. Then it was like being in a situation where you go, “Should we do that?” And he goes, “No, don’t do that.” Yorgos is a very confident DP in his own right. Across the board, what you’re saying about feeling like you’re being dropped in… in his last film, certainly, you know you’re in good hands. You’re being told, on every level, something that he wants to tell, and I think you totally get that from that film. It’s all departments. His editing is fantastic as well. What was interesting about shooting the film was the use of jump cuts — time jumps — and that wasn’t scripted like that; they discovered stuff in the edit. There’s quite a lot of dissolving going on. None of that stuff was talked about, but you can see on the shoot that he got what he wanted, and now he’s playing with it.

You’ve talked about him as a very ready filmmaker: knowing he wanted to shoot on film, knowing the lenses, having ideas about natural light. For you, what are the benefits of a director coming to you with that?

Great. I’m in trouble now, because I’m going onto a film where I have to come up with the ideas, and it’s more nerve-wracking. I did a film in-between, but the Ken Loach thing is exactly the same: he’ll stand here, find the viewfinder, pick the lens. My most valuable piece of equipment on a Ken Loach film is a piece of chalk, because you put chalk where he’s just stood with the lens that he’s chosen. That’s a definitive style, and that’s a director who knows exactly what way he has to shoot it. Yorgos isn’t to that level; he wants to play and try things.

Each film, over the last few, have been progressing whatever things he’s been enjoying shooting with. Sacred Deer, the wide lenses started to come into the film a lot. On this one, he wants to push it further. The camera movement is the same, and he did one whip pan in Sacred Deer — it’s kind of near the end of the film, so he must’ve gone, “Oh, I should’ve done that…” He really wanted to go for that one this one and ended up doing quite a lot of it. He’s a very hungry imagination, to do things in a different way.

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They’re good whip pans.

Thank you. They’re hard to do. You know what I was watching the other day? Sunset Blvd. A fantastic one at the start of that film. It starts off with the curb, with “Sunset Blvd.” written on the curb. Then it goes down the road, travels for, must be, half a kilometer down this road, then the camera tilts up and, straightaway, these police cars come past — the camera does exactly what we do in The Favourite, where it whips with one of the cars, and it’s the most perfect whip pan. You think, “That’s a pretty ballsy shot because it’s pretty hard to do.” We’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s been done very well in other places; he’s just kind of good at finding techniques you haven’t seen in a while.

I imagine it’s humbling to see a movie made decades ago —

So many were so much more crafted. You keep hearing all of that, and we have technology that can do so many wonderful things — but it’s also, in a way, where you minimize technology, how do you make it really good? It’s like Jack White. Have you heard the interview where he used to be an upholsterer? And he was obsessed with how little an amount of pins he could upholster a chair with, and he got it down to three. That’s why, you kind of realize, all of his chords are three chords. It’s about minimizing, I think. If you can get it to its simplest and then see where you can go from it, it’s usually more effective.

Have you seen Pandora’s Box? They restored it. That film’s unbelievable. What happened was, there’s a lot of exciting things pre-sound, from a camera point of view, but also pre-code. They all change, become more subliminal — the suggestiveness. I watched Cape Fear, the original, recently. That is such a good film and, nowadays, probably wouldn’t get past the censors. It’s suggesting a lot but not doing it in the picture. That’s brilliant.

You have a working relationship with Loach. With Lanthimos, you are taking the job of someone with whom he’s worked many times over. What kind of conversations are had at the outset when someone has such a distinct style? Did you have to earn his trust?

I don’t know. He’s a very open guy. I think he made his decision that we were going to work together and I remember saying to him, “I’m a bit worried about this.” He had a collaborator, Thimios Bakatakis, since college, I think, and I feel a bit like the new girlfriend. [Laughs] He said, “Yeah, well, that means this could be like the honeymoon. At least it’s fun now and if it’s not afterward, so be it.” I think he was at a point where he wanted to… I know that because I’ve collaborated with friends form college and you get to that point where you know each other so well.

It’s a funny thing, with cinema, where it’s expected that the DP-director duo should stay together all the time. In a way, it’s like a DP can go off with any director they like; directors can’t go off with DPs because it looks like they’re being disloyal. A DP jumps from director to director because that’s the beauty of our job — we can keep working — whereas directors have a down period a lot of the time. I totally get it. I’m delighted if I get asked again. That’s my main thing: if somebody asks, I’m delighted, but I used to feel like, “Why’d you go off with another DP?” I think I’ve grown up a bit. You can see why a director might go off with a different DP: it’s a look they want to try on a bit. But with Yorgos, I think he’s just, again, a super-confident DP. I said he should be his own, and he goes, “Well, I don’t really want to have that extra thing.” He just wants to know that the person there is tuned-in to what he wants.

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There was a passing comment in another interview where you acknowledged not always getting what is in Lanthimos’ head — surely a natural part of any big production. In any situation like that, how do you know when to stop, take what you can, and move on?

As far as pushing them?

For example: trying to get the shot, but maybe weather isn’t what you want.

At that stage, everybody’s striving to do the same thing at the same time. They’re not like, “I want to do this. I want to wait for this.” You’re at the mercy. That film was shot at the mercy of the weather, so we got absolutely blessed. We were shooting in a pretty big, dark house in its own right. When it wasn’t a bright day, the ambience levels are so low and I was quite concerned about that. I said, “Maybe we should have a back-up plan”; he says, “Yeah… we’ll see.” Obviously, production-wise, you have to hire lights to have a back-up plan, but he was really, “I don’t want to have light.” All right. What do we do?

So we had small lights in case it got really dark, but we were blessed because it was really sunny, spring, so every day was like a blue sky — really great ambience. It made life totally easy. He will only use things if it is of the utmost necessity, and he’ll come up with a clever idea of doing it a different way — or something like that. The thing about Yorgos is: he’s very, very on-the-spot, change-his-mind to figure out the best approach to what’s going on. You guess that he’s not loving something. Or I don’t know, actually. Me and the AD would always go, “When’s he going to do the slow-motion?” Because you never know when he’s going to ask for slow-motion because it’s all in his head. I wasn’t going to go, “I think we should shoot the ducks in slow-motion.” It wasn’t me. He goes, “We should shoot the ducks in slow-motion” and I go, “Okay.”

That’s the kind of day-to-day world we were in, and I found it great; I was quite happy with that. But Yorgos has really been on this big kick. There was a stabilized libra head on a dolly, and he really wanted to do the whole thing off of that. I was kind of up for that, but I’ve never really done too much of those. The whole thing only works really well on wheels and I’m really shit on wheels, but I got the hang of that. The worst thing was, with something like that piece of equipment, the actors and that piece of equipment are over there, but you’re sent to another side of the room to work off the monitor, so you’re totally disconnected from where the actual action is playing out. That freaked me out; I couldn’t handle that. I really wanted to be on the camera. I’m so used to that from always being on the handheld camera. That one didn’t work out so well, that piece of equipment. [Laughs]

The Favourite is now in limited release and expands in the coming weeks.


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