Robbie Ryan is on the phone from New York. Ryan serves as Director of Photography on The Favourite, working closely with director Yorgos Lanthimos
Ryan was tasked with understanding Lanthimos’ bravery and fresh approach. The challenges of shooting on film and shooting by candlelight. Luckily, the film’s location and surprisingly warm Spring weather helped achieve the look Lanthimos and Ryan wanted to capture.
Ryan talks about how Lanthimos used wide lenses to capture the antics of Queen Anne’s court in the film and how he used whip-pan shots to frame the film and freely move the camera.
What did Yorgos first tell you about the film?
We had a few meetings over the years before The Favourite, because it was a long time in the making. Actually, he made The Killing of a Sacred Deer in between. I had a few chats with him and we were meant to do a short film together. It was a long time coming. By the time we got around to saying we were going to do it, he was in the middle of that film.
I didn’t know a lot of what was going to happen. I was more stressed at the prep because I didn’t really know how we were going to film. The great thing was the first day we got to the film set, Yorgos took a still of what we were going to shoot and he said, “What do you think? Shall we shoot that?” and that’s when I knew things were going to be OK.
We took it from there, but up until that point, it was intriguingly sparse in the “What are we going to do?” stakes. I realized that’s his way and I had to glean as much information as you can.
In terms of prep, did he storyboard? What was his visual scheme?
We did a bit. We’d meet a bit in prep and we’d go through the script and we’d go through scenes. We didn’t linger too long on ideas. He wanted a definitive sense of movement. It’s difficult to say that on paper and draw it. You feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over. When you’re in prep, you don’t want to feel you’re doing the same shot every scene.
You try to come up with different things, but when you shoot a film, you forget what you talked about on the day you wanted to be special about.
You end up with a language and ingredients to put into each particular approach and you have the things that you can use to best get across what you want to in a film. The wide lenses allowed us to get across what he was thinking. It was a fresh approach from my perspective as I had not done wide lenses to that level.
You had to revel in the bravery of his conviction. He’s very confident in that way.
You see so much of the rooms and the quality of the production. There’s so much going on in his frame.
If you watch a film and it’s really grainy and then four or five shots in, you forget it’s grainy and you just enjoy the film. The same thing goes with lenses, if they’re wide at the start, you think, “that’s a bit weird” but then you become attuned to that being the language and you let it soak into you. The thing that is clever with that is you see the production design, but you also see the costume design, it might not be as close as the costume designer wanted it, but it ends up being is everything is on screen. You become a little bit like, “there’s nothing that you haven’t seen here” and it becomes a little bit claustrophobic ironically. There’s nowhere to escape with these actors. It acts, ironically as a closing in type lens, even though it’s an expansive lens.
What about the lighting and working with candlelight by night and natural light by day?
The location is quite a beautifully designed building with tall bay windows, especially up in the bedroom. We were at the mercy of the weather. We were blessed because that Spring of 2017 was an unseasonably sunny spring so we always had good light. We did have a backup plan if it got really dark. I did bring that up in prep because as you know, Spring in London can be very dark. We were blessed with sunlight.
The texture of the walls in the palace had tapestry and dark wood. There were black and white tiles, and all of that helped accentuate the skin tones of the actors because they had quite pale skin and it helped them stand out even more. The actors really shone from the light. It felt like an artist’s studio with the bright source light. It was lovely because it wasn’t hard to get a lovely look to the place thanks to the design of it.
Yorgos always wanted to shoot with candlelight so the majority of the film is flame. Whether it’s a cauldron, a candle, or a fire. These were all very much the only things that lit the film. What Yorgos does is he’s not afraid of black. If the candlelight didn’t light the background he wasn’t worried as such because it was the foreground that needed to be light.
Also, 35mm really likes black as a color. The density of the whole nighttime footage is really important in that respect and lovely for it.
Yorgos doesn’t use typical angles.
He doesn’t like convention. It’s his kryptonite. His idea of hell is to have a shot and then a reverse matching shot, you might as well go home. He never wants to shoot conventionally. He tries to see things in a fresher way. The language of cinema seems to be into a wider shot cinematographer, so he pushes further by doing lower angle shots. Someone in a Q&A said the low angle shots might be from the rabbit point of view, and that’s a great way of looking at it. I had never thought of it that way.
He likes camera movement.
The Favourite is released on November 21.