Even as an admirer of bold filmmaking, cinematographer Robbie Ryan had his mettle tested on The Favourite, choreographing the moves of an unorthodox, restless camera for a demanding Greek auteur.
The outgrowth of past cinematic experiments, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest defies all expectations of the British costume drama. Set in 18thcentury England, the black comedy examines a love triangle between a Queen, a duchess and a servant.
Going into The Favourite, Ryan knew the director through conversation, and through his work—films like Dogtooth, which create their own indelible impression. Prepared to service an uncompromising vision, the DP couldn’t have anticipated the degree to which he would be tested and transformed in the process.
Finding Lanthimos’ sensibilities in alignment with his own, Ryan was pushed to break out of his cinematic boundaries, reevaluating what was possible at each step along the way. Ultimately, the most demanding assignment for the DP came in fashioning a movement embedded in the film’s vocabulary—a motion that would be physical and immersive, speaking to what Lanthimos saw in his mind’s eye, without employing the Steadicam.
Rising above every challenge with neither safety net nor reassurance, Ryan came upon a most difficult moment when his father passed away unexpectedly during production, forcing him to leave set for a week. “This DP called Stephen Murphy came in, and he did an amazing job while I wasn’t able to do it. Stephen was very much a blessing, because he came in and he didn’t know anything about the project, but he did exactly what was asked of him,” Ryan says, offering his thanks. “That was a big part of keeping the project going, really, without too much of a hitch.”
What did Yorgos Lanthimos convey to you early on, in terms of his vision for The Favourite?
He wanted to shoot on film. That was definitely a very high priority because he did work on The Lobster, which he shot digitally, and he didn’t like doing that. Then he did Sacred Deer, which he shot on film, and he got really into working [that way]. I got to talk to him more in depth after he had shot Sacred Deer, and he was exploring a lot of visual ideas that he wanted to elaborate on. So, film was very important, wide lenses were very important, camera movement was very important, and natural light was very important. I do a lot of stuff like that anyway, so to know that was good—and we knew that the period and the location was going to naturally be a good thing to explore with those ingredients.
How did the notion of reexamining the British costume drama enter your work, in terms of technique or the filmmaking tools you chose to employ?
I think it all comes down to Yorgos, really, because he’s very much got a unique eye on any subject matter he decides to approach. He was involved with the script for this for quite a while. He was developing it, and he had it in his head. I don’t think he went at it wanting to change the visual dynamic of the costume drama. It’s not really a costume drama to him; it’s more just an interesting story that he was going to be able to explore in his own visual sort of way.
Did Lanthimos establish specific visual rules that guided you in your work?
Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of things you’re not allowed to do. Knowing what he does want is the tricky one. Knowing what he doesn’t want is pretty easy because he’ll go, “Ugh, that’s awful.” Yorgos, he’s a very good man at saying things he doesn’t like, but the things that he really likes, you kind of go, “Did you like that?” And he goes, “Eh, it’s okay.” You know? He’d never give you, “That’s f*cking brilliant, man!” He holds back in that respect, and I liked him for that, to be fair.
When it came to The Favourite, what didn’t he like?
He hates the idea of conventional film coverage—that would be hell to Yorgos. He couldn’t handle that. The idea of a shot-reverse, as far as two over-the-shoulders, he’d run out of the building. He’d be very disappointed if that’s the way the journey was going to go. But him and his editor, Black Fish [Yorgos Mavropsaridis], they really were able to construct a pretty exciting [film]. You don’t know what’s coming next with that film, which I think is really nice. You’re constantly surprised, and I think that’s difficult in a costume drama, and very refreshing to see in a costume drama. He does that, whatever the genre. It’s not necessarily because costume drama has never done that sort of thing; it’s more just the fact that his idea of what he sees is a little bit different to what other people see, and that crosses all of the departments.
Of all the film’s unconventional elements, you’ve said that bringing certain camera movements to fruition was the most difficult hurdle you had to overcome. What was the director’s concept, and why was it to difficult to realize?
We explored a lot of ways of trying to have a fluid camera movement that wasn’t a Steadicam move. He showed me a film early on called Angst—the protagonist in that film has a camera rig attached to him, and the camera is fluidly spinning around him. It’s like a Mean Streets kind of rig, but it’s actually literally by the movement of your body that you can maneuver the movement of the camera.
He wanted to try and instill that in the way we shot The Favourite, but it was going to be really difficult to do that. Because of the costumes and just the physicality of it, it was not going to be possible. So we tried to come up with ways of being as fluid as we could with the camera. That was exciting because we came up with some interesting rigs—we explored different gimbal rigs and things like that.
We didn’t get exactly what he had in his head, but we had some fun trying to get there. The camera movement is a big part of the film, and I think it lends to the film. It gives it a sense of another character almost, or the wide angle-ness of the lenses. It’s almost a little bit observational.
In terms of the camera movement you’d mentioned, was all of that mapped out in advance? Did you create storyboards?
A little bit, not a lot. It was funny, him and me doing prep. We’d have coffee in the morning and we’d talk a bit, we’d go through the script, and we never really got a fully definitive, “Yes, this is what we’re going to do.” We’d have a bit of an idea, and he would definitely impress what he was hoping to get on that day, or something that might be nice to try in that scene. But it was never followed on. We maybe referred back to those notes once or twice.
Once we were on the set, what Yorgos did—which really helped me and made me figure out what he was thinking—was he would always take a lot of photographs. He would take the photograph and go, “What do you think of that?” And I’d go, “Yeah, that looks great.” He says, “Well, we’ll try that move.” Then from that photograph, he’d develop what way the camera might follow the character.
Then, after a while, you get a language for it. It’s like any film: A few weeks in, you have a lot of things to fall onto, techniques that you can kind of go, “That would work with this scene,” or, “Let’s try that idea. We haven’t had a chance to use that lens yet. Let’s try that here.” So that was what the prep and the ideas part of the process would bring, a lot of different styles that you could incorporate into what that scene needed. But the main priority was a lot of camera movement, if possible. The camera was always moving.
Fisheye or extremely wide lenses obviously play a huge part in defining this film’s aesthetic.
Yeah. When we were in prep, we were working through Panavision in the UK, and they were very cool to us. They would offer up whatever lenses we might ask. The focus puller was in there testing lenses, and I said, “Yorgos wants the widest lens you can get, so get us a 10 mil.” We knew the 10 mil was good, and then they were looking for other ones, like 8 mils, and there’s a 12 mil fisheye which wasn’t very good.
Then luckily, it’s the classic story of the lens that has been on a shelf for a long time. We dust it off, and it’s this beautiful 6 mil lens, which Yorgos really enjoyed. He loved it once he saw it. To look at the lens is like looking at a piece of art, but it’s very, very big, convex glass. I’d never seen it before, and we all had lots of fun clearing the film set from everybody when that lens went on—because it saw everything, really.
What motivated the choice to shoot so wide?
Yorgos is on a wide lens part of his storytelling. He really enjoys telling the story with a wide lens. If you read between the lines what the lenses did for the film, the thing I [took from] watching the film was it felt very claustrophobic. By the nature of being able to see everything in front of you, you then get a sense that the characters are almost imprisoned in the location. Even though they have all this luxury and power, they are a little bit isolated in this world.
The wide lens is twofold. By showing you the whole room and also isolating the character in a small space—like, a small character in a big space—you get a feeling of no escape. I think one of the critiques of the film said it was like a playground that turns into a battleground that turns into a prison. I think that’s a very good explanation of what the film tries to get across with these characters. I think the wide lenses are pretty integral to that, as well.
A lot of cinematography at the minute is in a wide sense. If you look at a lot of films, they’re going for wide lenses. I think Yorgos decided to really go the extra yard, with even wider lenses. It’s a comedy as well, so it lends to a bit of an odd aspect. I just think it’s a brave choice. It’s a fun film, and I think he was certainly having fun when he put those lenses on. We were like, “Whoa, that looks kind of mad.” But it definitely fitted.
Were there other qualities you targeted in your imagery in support of the film’s very specific aesthetic and tone?
The very brave lighting and the nighttime candle work is stuff that, from my point of view, because I’d never worked with Yorgos before, I was like, “Okay, you sure this is going to be okay? Because we’ve only got like five candles. It’s a big hall. You sure we’re going to see any of this?” He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll see it.” He’d be brave enough to push the film stock two stops. I wouldn’t have necessarily done that. I would have maybe brought in other lights. So he made me come at it from a different perspective in many ways. I really relished learning how to do it a different way, and Yorgos is confident in doing it that way.
As far as trying to get across a surrealness, I think [it’s] just the story in itself, and the comic timing, and the situations that all these characters were getting into. It’s not often you get to film men throwing oranges at a guy, you know what I mean? I think costume dramas in general, they don’t have so much fun. This period was very much a decadent time. That’s sort of what attracted Yorgos, this decadence and totally off-the-radar madness that these people were let have. Life was so polarized—the poverty was extreme, and the rich was extreme. You can say that about nowadays, but I don’t think it’s even touching the levels of what society had back then.
What was the thinking behind your use of whip pans—and how did you pull them off?
Again, that’s something Yorgos was exploring a bit in the Sacred Deer film. There was only one shot where that whip pan happens, and I think he really enjoyed it. So he goes, “Ooh, I want to try that a bit more.” He really enjoyed the idea of that being a way of not having to cut away from one angle to another. It’s an unusual thing because it draws your attention to the camera, but in a way, it makes you feel like you’re being brought on a journey that you accept. You kind of go, “Oh, I’m being told to do this.” It does what editing does, but in a way it really draws attention to itself. I hadn’t ever done it before to that level.
When you’re on a wide lens, whip pan is even more focused in a way, because you see the room move. If someone explains to you a whip pan, you always imagine a blur, whereas with whip pans on a 10 mil lens, you’re not really whipping. You’re seeing the whole room move around. There’s a real unusual sense to that movement, which we all enjoyed. What Yorgos was really trying to get across was a still-to-pan-to-still, and then move.
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