It could be said a cinematographer’s greatest attribute is flexibility. Loathe though I am attributing much credence to Twitter prompts, it’s fairly often that people ask for the strangest cinematographer CV and engender amusement, sometimes outright shock at the range of a career. Robbie Ryan offers a great example: the man who shoots Andrea Arnold, Ken Loach, and Noah Baumbach’s naturalistic dramas is not the first person you’d associate with Yorgos Lanthimos’ ornate, pulverizing period pieces. Yet recent years have seen him photograph The Favourite and, now, Poor Things, which he promoted during this year’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE.
Five years after our initial meeting at the cinematographer’s mecca, we met in a small studio and dissected the next phase of his Lanthimos partnership.
Robbie Ryan: Have you been keeping in the last five years? You haven’t changed much.
The Film Stage: Well, I’m okay.
Has cinema got better or worse the last five years?
Has it got better or worse? Oh, God.
It’s a tough question. It’s a tough question. I feel like it’s changed, obviously.
I want to answer it seriously, but I would be curious about your perspective––if you feel like, post-lockdown, post-vaccine, there was kind of a reorienting towards smaller projects that mostly involve two-to-four people talking.
[Laughs] Oh, that’s happened a lot. Yeah.
People can kind of tell…
…if something is a COVID production.
The scale of it.
Yeah, for sure. But I kind of tried to not even see what COVID did to cinema. The last five years, that has been a huge part of it––for sure. But I think I’m just more curious as to how the model of cinema has changed, with the streaming thing, and it feels like it’s narrowing all the time to this real trickle of good cinema that kind of finds its way. But yeah: it’s not, like, “the golden age of cinema,” shall we say. They’re saying it is in TV but… is it? I don’t know.
Poor Things is coming out, at least in the U.S., from Searchlight, which is now owned by Disney, which has such a huge streaming entity with the Disney+ channel.
But, well, only because they had to. Didn’t they? They didn’t cop on early enough, and then the Netflixes of the world had all those films shown on their platform earlier. “Shit, we have to catch up.” So that was inevitable. So I don’t know. What’s ironic, I find, is that the Netflixes and the Amazons are saying––well, maybe not so much Amazon––but they’re saying they need to get films in the cinema because that’s when an audience believes that that’s a tentpole film for them. Even though they’re the ones that completely sort of [Laughs] pulled the rug from underneath cinema, they’re now going, “We realize that that’s what we need.” That’s maybe going to be a good turn.
Often people try coming up with things that innovate, that are reinventing the wheel, and then you realize the wheel always worked.
In this case, movies that people know are only going to be in theaters for a long time become a thing that you have to go see.
It’s got a life.
And I think about Steven Soderbergh’s rationale for optimism: studios just haven’t figured out a better way to monetize a film than charging people $17 each to see it.
Yes, true. It’s so true. Because everybody can watch Netflix. You don’t even know how much money could have been lost or gained. That’s funny. That’s going on with Killers of the Flower Moon: the intermission has been popped in there, making a bit more money for the cinemas. [Laughs] I love that. It’s kind of anarchic.
Poor Things, I would assume, will be in theaters for at least, you know, a couple months before people get to see it.
Well, what’s interesting is that Poor Things was going to get released on the 8th of September. They had penciled it before the actor’s strike. They had said, “Okay, we’re going to have it, then it’ll get released before the festival finishes, after the screening.” So their model completely changed after the actor’s strike, obviously. But what’s kind of interesting is seeing just how long you can stretch that excitement for something. It’s like waiting for Christmas. Because in the UK it’s not coming out ‘til January the 12th. I’m going around telling people, “Oh, it’s great. Have you seen it?” “Uh, I’ll see it when it comes out in January.” Oh, God––that’s a stretch. It’s really interesting: I don’t remember it to be that long, kind of, gestation period before they released them, if you’re talking about the awards corridor. So I’m curious as to their approach this time, but it seems to be working.
I watched the NYFF press conference and really appreciated the weird positive of it: you guys get to be the stars now.
The costume people and the set designers and you.
And what’s good about Poor Things: it really does shine in a lot of those departments. You know, it’s not the kind of film that you’d be struggling to sort of talk about. There’s a lot you can talk about, and it’s been an enjoyable trip, but I’m just really glad the actors… like, we did the Q&A last night with Willem. It was so nice to have an actor. I was like, “Yeah, quick, you can answer a very tricky question about feminism!” [Laughs] And he’s just such a great guy––he can coin a phrase and answer a question so well.
He kind of is the ideal actor to have at your side––he’s so brilliant and has such a grasp of film history, too.
Like, his energy is phenomenal. One of the great reasons I think he’s such a good person to have on the set is that he comes from that whole theater background in New York. What was his theater group?
The Wooster Group.
The Wooster Group. Yeah. I think that’s something that, really, anytime he gets a sense of that, he really enjoys the process even more. But he’s a hard worker. Willem’s on every film. “Willem’s on that one again?” He just pops up everywhere and he just loves filming. I was actually talking to him last night about his strike hiatus. He was saying he felt like it was okay, but he just missed the energy of thinking about an idea or a role; that just keeps him alive. It was true. I think it must have been tough for the actors; I’m glad it’s resolved.
Once, for a publicity house, I did this press-kit interview for Abel Ferrara’s Tommaso. The discussion was with Abel Ferrara, but Dafoe––who I obviously had never met––invited me to his home for a chat because he was so invested in that film. His stance was, “I really want to get the right word out there about this.”
Yeah. He really is a very necessary cog in helping. If you’ve got Willem onboard and he’s into it, you’re like, “It’s going to be great.” Because he’s a great person for promoting things.
When we had talked five years ago, you had a lot to say about joining this director you had never worked with before. And especially for a project that was so visually distinct, The Favourite. Poor Things continues that tradition in spades and many different forms. Watching it I was thinking back to The Favourite, which was using a lot of galvanizations––fisheye lenses and whip-pans.
Poor Things is a case where you have a lot of zooms, for instance, and there’s more POV shots as well––it almost looks like surveillance-camera footage in a rather antiquated setting.
Is that the CCTV cameras? [Laughs] Maybe, yeah. That’s true.
I had read this interview where you said that working with the zooms was kind of a new process, at least in that it’s not something that you had been so used to in previous films. And it’s interesting because, you know, we talked about the whip-pans five years ago. You had said something about how you watch a movie like Sunset Boulevard and there’s a great one there.
Yes! Yeah. I remember saying that. And obviously that title at the beginning. Because it’s tracking along and along and along, and it’s like, “Whoop!” Well, it’s about techniques, isn’t it? And I think Yorgos is a restless sort of mind when it comes to visual techniques, and he loves to kind of play with new techniques. Obviously the wide-angle lens is something that people remember from The Favourite, but the technique of the zoom and the similarities, I think, in both of them––which I think is integral to all this––is that he knows that he can get a rhythm going. And it’s the rhythm of the film which is the most important thing.
The whip-panning in The Favourite has sort of been, you know, dialed back a bit because there’s more, like, punctuation with edits, as far as––for wont of a better term––the CCTV camera. Or a zoom-out. There are whip-pans in it, but not much. Again: he’s just getting techniques that he can use so that he can get a rhythm in the edit. What’s really interesting this time is that he used to always work with existing music, and he would probably do his editing to a music piece he liked or he knew or had listened to that would suit what he’s trying to do for that particular film.
Whereas this film is the first time he’s had a composer. This 26-year-old composer Jerskin Fendrix––he’d done, like, two albums and Yorgos found his music. It’s very different to what the music in The Favourite is. But if you think about it, he’s now got a way of having a composer who’s doing exactly the type of music that he wants for the rhythm of his film. I think that’s really a new sort of step in a great direction for Yorgos’ cinema, and that’s maybe something that elevates it more than some of his other films. Because his other films were sort of tied into musical pieces that were already existing.
The film has these LED walls, particularly on the cruise ship, projecting abstract backgrounds. I was pretty delighted when they showed up, if only because they’re so beautiful. But you had said that lighting them made your life “hell.”
Shit, did I say that? Ah, that’s a tough word. Well, what’s interesting about those skies––before we go on about the technique of how we got them––is that, first of all, the VFX company is a company called Union Effects. There’s Union Effects and there’s another company, Time Based Arts, that did the VFX work; they did a great job. But a lot of the inspiration for those skies came from a guy called Chris Parks, who is basically a scientific photographer and filmmaker, and he would, you know, film a microscopic shot of a match lighting and that would look like a sun––looks like the surface of the sun. All of his stuff is so microscopic, but within the microscopic it looks like a universe.
A lot of those skies come from his scientific photography––as an inspiration––and we actually did use some of them, incorporated into our sky. So that is a really interesting thing. And then, you know, the fact that we were able to not use green screen and maybe do it for real with a backdrop––like an LED wall like we did, which is a very big wall––made it even better for everybody involved. Because the actors were watching it, we were all seeing it, and it just felt like, “Wow, this is where the ship is now.” Because the ship was the only set that really didn’t have an exterior like you could imagine. Whereas London had the street, which is integral; you could see everything around. Paris, again: you walk out the bordello door and you’re into the square.
Everywhere else had something that was out the windows. Whereas the ship literally was like: what could you do except have a green screen or a backdrop? Yorgos was really keen on using older techniques but giving them a 2023 spin. So to go on to how technically that was hard: it was just because of the space. The studio we were filming in had this big ship and it filled the whole space, so the distance to the LED wall was quite short––it was only about five meters away, sometimes even closer. We were filming on Ektachrome stock, which is very slow stock––it’s a hundred ASA––so I knew I needed a lot of light. But then what I realized is: you have to completely try and keep that light off the LED screen, because it just lights up. It flattens the screen. All of a sudden you’ve got extremely expensive technical equipment that is almost made redundant because of these lights. It was just very hard to get the balance and, you know, get it right; hopefully it worked out.
That presents an interesting dichotomy that can sometimes exist between a director and a DP: the former has this vision for what they want film to look like. And when it comes to a physical element, like an LED wall, it’s incontrovertibly present––it’s there and you, as the DP, have to work with it.
Are there conversations that you have, with Lanthimos or really any director, where… I don’t want to call it a “tension,” necessarily, because maybe there’s no tension, but you do have to tell them “this is very difficult,” and be rather upfront with them?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. The thing with Yorgos is: he’s so masterful at and knowledgeable about cinematography, all I have to do is tell him, “This isn’t working out.” And honesty’s a really important thing with Yorgos. You’ve got to be upfront and say, “This has happened, this might be a problem,” and he’s really good at dealing with that. He doesn’t go off-the-handle. He’s just sort of like, “Okay, it’s a setback. What do we do? Or how do we get around it?” So it’s always about communication and honesty. That, I think, is a really great sort of relationship with a director if you can have that.
I would imagine part of the job’s pleasure is finally getting it right. So for these lengthy walls, could you describe a bit the process of figuring that out?
Um… pff. It was totally trial-and-error. You would kind of put a light up, hoping that would be the right way to do it. And the thing is: Yorgos likes to film a lot with wide lenses, so you see a lot of the environment and we did replace a lot of skies above, but it was just sort of trying to be integral to getting the lighting naturalistic in an… unreal world. [Laughs] But just getting the most out of the technology and not… I think I should have maybe, if I’d known a bit more about it, would have maybe gone, “Okay, what we have to do is have a complete skirt all the way around here and it comes all the way out this far.” But then it might block out something, so one idea cancels out another idea; one problem getting solved maybe creates a new problem.
So that’s what I found with that: it’s like the unraveling of trying to figure it out just created more problems, and really you go, “Okay, I just need to turn the lights off and try and mix it up.” Which was really, really great about this process for this film––and it’s not just from the cinematography department. It was from production design. They’ve never had a chance. Like, Shona Heath had never done a feature film before; James Price has done a lot of films as an art director. So they were taking a leap into a new world and being sort of challenged on a big scale, but they totally were comfortable in doing that, knowing that Yorgos was pushing them and wanting them to be as mad as they could.
And I think that landed on most of the departments. Because we were all in the studio, pretty much the only film in the studio at the time, we were like a college campus. We’d go to lunch like, “How’s your day?” [Laughs] It was a really nice collaboration, and everybody felt on the same sort of place. It wasn’t like somebody was made way more experienced than anybody else. We were all at a good stepping-off point.
You’ve said that you’re kind of an anti-prep, anti-post DP––for instance you don’t often participate in a color grade. But with The Favourite you maybe wish you could have been there.
I would’ve enjoyed it, but I know for a fact Yorgos knows what he was going to do, and there was no lighting. So it was literally like, “What is there to do except grade it to the way he would like it to be done?” And I knew he’d do that. Amazing. Obviously it is amazingly graded, but this film: I did everything. I was there for the whole prep, I was there for the whole post, and because we were working on another film, I was tuned into all the VFX meetings and I was on the Zooms for all those. I’ve actually sort of swam around a bit more. A job like Poor Things, you benefit from all of those things, and it was a great process for that project because I was willing to give it the time. It was a lot of homework. The prep on that was… necessary.
Then what happened was: COVID was knocking around as well and I was over in the camera rental house. The lady who was in the camera rental house had COVID, but there was, like, an outbreak. I went back to the office because my friend had just arrived. Someone was like, “Nobody should go there. They just got COVID.” I was like, “I was just over there.” [Laughs] The worst statement I’ve ever made. If I kept shut up, I would’ve been fine. But I stupidly said, “I was over there just now.” They go, “Okay, you’ve got to go to a hotel. You’ve got to stay in a hotel.” And then I missed ten days of pre-production.
But ironically, I think it worked out okay––because our second-unit DP is a guy called György Réder, and he took over and, you know, they did a lot of costume and makeup tests. Yorgos was just able to play with the cameras and they filmed in the studio, in the location. And I was, like, on the phone going, “How’s it going?” But I was in this lovely villa taking time off. [Laughs] Then I got back and, a week later, we started filming. So I had a nice ten-day hiatus, and I still kind of didn’t do all the work. [Laughs]
COVID’s been an interesting thing where you would have, pre-COVID, gone, “That’s a total disaster. How are we going to keep moving on this?” And then what’s great about the film industry is: it’s totally flexible. “Okay, well, that shit’s happened. We’ll get somebody else in for that.” And even with directors getting COVID, they direct from Zoom. It’s possible, but it’s not enjoyable. But it’s funny how we adapt.
I don’t want to say you’ve become his go-to cinematographer, but there’s two more features you’ve shot with him.
Because there’s Kinds of Kindness, right?
That’s what we did last year, yes.
And then I had read there was some “secret film” you shot.
Yeah, that’s a little bit of misconception. There was a film shot in Greece that he made called Bleat.
And that was in the New York Film Festival. That was shot with another DP; I didn’t have anything to do with that. So there’s been a bit of a confusion on the interweb about that. But we had definitely done one more––I’ve done three films with Yorgos––and listen: I would never, ever think I’m a “go-to person,” but if I get the phone call I’m delighted to get onboard. Always. Yorgos has got a huge taste in interesting source material, and he’s got quite a few options on a few books that’s he working on with writers all over the place. It’s really exciting, and I think he’s smart to do that because he’s like, “Okay, is this the one to go to now or not?” He sort of develops things with different people.
I’ve worked with a lot of writer-directors, you know? And writer-directors are great but you get, I call it, “a terrible case of auteuritis.” [Laughs] Where, basically, they get stuck. They say, “Okay, this is the script I want to do next” and people are maybe not warming to it, so they hit this wall. “What do I do?” The thing about a good filmmaker is: if you want to keep going, you’ve got to have something else ready to go. I think it’s a common stumbling block for writer-directors: they just can’t finish the script, or it becomes this thing that’s really painful. I really feel for writer-directors, because sometimes they don’t do something for eight years that they’re not on a film set. And they really like being on a film set, but they’re obsessed with trying to get this thing done and they can’t. It’s a pain. So yeah: auteuritis.
Do you envision Kind of Kindness being in a similar key?
No, it’s very different. Very different.
The premise is intriguing.
Is there a premise?
Just the conceit of reusing the same actors story after story.
Oh, okay. Because I’ve heard that. I thought I let that one out a bit. What else do you know about it?
[Pause] That’s it.
[Laughs] It’s widescreen. He’s let that one out a bit. It’s shot anamorphic, so that’s a totally different process. I haven’t seen it myself; I’m looking forward to seeing it. It’s nearly finished its edit.
Poor Things is now in limited release and Kind of Kindness opens next year.