Cinematographer Robbie Ryan On “Privileged Space” Of ‘Marriage Story’ Set & Delivering Cinema Without Being Showy

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan
Bifa/Dan Rowley/Shutterstock

Reteaming with Noah Baumbach on Marriage Story, following 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories, cinematographer Robbie Ryan aimed to craft an aesthetic that was as simple and unfussy as possible.

Starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, Baumbach’s latest centers on Nicole and Charlie, a couple going through a bicoastal divorce who strive to keep their family together, even as their marriage comes apart at the seams.

Shooting nearly a million feet of film while in production on the pic, Ryan found himself to be in a “privileged space” on set he says, while witnessing the actors’ performances. Serving as his own camera operator, the DP was hit in the gut, as he took in the most intimate and violently emotional moments of Charlie and Nicole’s uncoupling. “If I was a DP who didn’t operate camera, I’d be having a cup of tea in the room, with Noah watching the telly, and to me, that is so far removed from why I signed up,” says Ryan, who received his first Oscar nomination last season for Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. “Being in front of an actor’s face is one of the best perks of my job.”

Adam Driver in 'Marriage Story'

Aiming with the drama to capture all the detail plotted out, beat for beat, in Baumbach’s “intricate mind,” the DP delivered powerfully cinematic images for the film, while giving Driver and Johansson the space to go as deep into scenes as they ultimately did. “I really find it as cinematic a film as I’ve done, because of its love of cinema, and ironically, it’s not a showy film at all. It’s kind of like Ken Loach films, where the cinematography is trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, because it then focuses your attention on what’s in front of the camera, not what the camera’s doing,” Ryan reflects. “Not saying that Noah’s film looks like a Ken Loach film, but it’s in a similar vein of really regarding what’s in front of the cameras as something to cherish.”

DEADLINE: What were your first impressions when Noah Baumbach approached you with Marriage Story?

ROBBIE RYAN: This one, I signed up for without reading the script. Noah had dates and said, “Are you around? Do you want to do this?” And I said, “Of course I do.” So, I didn’t get to read the script until signing up for it. When I read it, the first thing that stood out was the 13-page monologue from Scarlett Johansson and I’m going, “Oh my God. That’s a lot. Poor, old Scarlett.” [laughs] When you read Noah’s scripts, there’s always very little scene description. It’s all dialogue, but it’s like, Oh my God, this is 13 pages of it. So, that was kind of funny to read. But I really reacted to them, and it was great to get on board.

Noah’s process is very intricate. We prepped for a long time, talking and talking, and kind of got our heads around what way to approach shooting it.

DEADLINE: What was key, in your visual approach to this film?

RYAN: Noah loves camera movement if you can get it, but in this film, most people are sitting in offices. So, there was going to be none of that. [laughs] We couldn’t help but be sort of static, because if you’re tracking in offices with people sitting, then it’s kind of unmotivated. Any time camera movement is there, it’s motivated by the movement of the characters, and with that happening, we got into a compositional world, more than anything else.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in 'Marriage Story'

A big influence on Noah is Persona. He loves that film, so we looked at that a bit. We tried to do it in Meyerowitz, where you’ve got this layering of faces over faces, and it’s almost to a point of it being blocking somebody’s face. So, we explored that a little bit more, and he really wanted to do that as much as he can.

I brought a bit of a new thing for him, because I’d just done The Favourite. I was going, “Oh, you’ve got to try these wide lenses. They’re much more fun.” So, to try and keep a little bit of the stuffiness of the offices not all about close-ups, we threw in a couple of wide lenses. Not a lot. But what Noah called it was “low, institutional wides.” So, that was fun to do.

It was a very simple film, in the end, but the simplicity in the finality, the getting to it was quite complicated. Because Noah’s process is quite a lot of takes. From a technical point of view, I would be filming in 20-story offices, where the light would go at four o’clock, and we hadn’t finished the scene. I’d have to be aware of that to be able to light for the scene’s reverse shots, so that you’d get out still in daylight. So, that was the biggest challenge for me, was to keep the continuity of light in a scene. Because we’re doing so many takes that the day would go very quickly, in the winter lights.

DEADLINE: Could you elaborate on your approach to lighting and color palette? The melancholy orange and yellow hues in the subway scene with Adam and Scarlett were quite striking.

RYAN: I’m kind of a firm believer of lighting the locations sort of as they are. So, for instance, the subway is the subway. We actually snuck on the subway to shoot that because it’s very, very expensive to shoot on the subway. So, we ran on there and just photographed it at like one o’clock in the morning. But I’m a bit of a believer of lighting for whatever’s in existence there, and obviously that comes down to the production design. So, Jade Healy, the production designer’s work, was quite a driving force in that.

Then obviously, the costumes and the warmth of LA was a big thing, as opposed to the steeliness of New York. They’re quite obvious sort of comparisons, but it suits a lot of the story, and I think it’s intrinsic in the way Noah wrote it, those two coastal differences. We tried to enhance that as much as we could. I think LA sunlight, compared to the New York kind of dark grayness, is very apparent for anybody traveling coast to coast.

DEADLINE: It’s rare to see a film rooted in, and driven by, two equally rich points of view. Were there concrete ways in which having two competing protagonists influenced your camerawork?

RYAN: I think so. I think just the strength of the characters is what drives the camera composition, and Scarlett’s character has a little bit more freedom to breathe. She’s re-finding her life, so there’s a bit more levity to her stuff, whereas the realization of, “Everything’s going the wrong way” for Adam’s character really helped the status of his kind of camera movements.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver star in 'Marriage Story'

Noah loves trying to be as subtle with the camera as he can, but making sure people know what he’s doing. [With] Adam, what we did a lot was in-camera fades to black. Noah is obsessive about digital fades to black not being very good, so we ended up [practically] doing the fades to black, and I really liked them because actually, I agree with him, that they do have a certain different quality to them. Usually, quite a lot of stuff is done in post these days, so you’d leave it to that time, but when there’s fingers on the triggers of the iris, I was like, “Ooh! You have Scarlett Johansson crying. I’d better fade at the right time, or she’s going to have to do it again.” So, that added a little pressure, but it was fun, and I really love doing in-camera stuff, as much as possible.

DEADLINE: What was it like shooting the most intense fight scene between Charlie and Nicole? To my understanding, that scene was shot over the course of two days, with maybe 50 takes.

RYAN: I don’t think that was 50 takes, but I think it’s close enough. It’s always between 30 and 50, so for those two to do that…It was myself, the grip and the boom operator in the room, and the three of us felt like we needed therapy after that scene. It was very emotional, and to watch those two actors doing that was quite a privilege. [But] you couldn’t look at them afterwards, because it was such a painful thing for them to go through that you’re like, “Oh my God.”

It’s almost melodramatic, but I think arguments like that tend to go melodramatic, and only when you’re in it do you feel that it’s real to that level. So, for them to be able to translate that onto repetitive takes is pretty impressive.

What Noah does in that scene, which I really regard him for, is that he always wanted one particular part of the film to go into extreme close-up. It’s not like we shot the whole scene in that close-up; it was just [one] particular bit of dialogue. So, we kind of concentrated on that for like 30 takes.

DEADLINE: Did Baumbach reduce to a skeleton crew for that scene, just due to the sensitivity of it?

RYAN: Well, it’s a tiny location. Noah will be in a room off, like the bedroom, [with] the script supervisor, and then it was basically me, a grip and a boom op. You had to because it was quite a small space, but wide enough lenses, and the camera was moving quite a bit in that.

DEADLINE: I understand that Driver’s performance of “Being Alive” toward the end of the film was also captured in one take.

RYAN: Yeah, the majority. I think maybe there’s a couple of cuts in there, but we would do it in its entirety. Adam’s sung in films before, but I think that was maybe more challenging for him than the fight scene, because it was all on him to really go full Sondheim. At least Scarlett’s version of Sondheim had her backing singers, and there were a few dance moves in her one. [laughs] His one was pretty bare and quite intimate, what he was having to do.

DEADLINE: What’s coming up next for you?

RYAN: I’m doing a film with Mike Mills at the minute. It’s a very small film, but it’s really nice. It’s only like 20 or 30 people on the crew, and it kind of travels around the country, so I’m enjoying that.

This article was printed from