Robbie Ryan says “becoming a diplomat and a bit of a politician” was one of the key skills he learned while filming “Poor Things,” the surrealist Frankenstein-esque adventure by Yorgos Lanthimos, starring Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe. The film screened at the Camerimage cinematography festival in Torun, Poland, where director of photography Ryan and Dafoe presented it to a packed screening hall on the fest’s opening night.
“That’s something I wasn’t expecting,” adds the Irish cinematographer known for his previous collaboration with Lanthimos, also starring Stone, “The Favorite.” As Ryan explains, the crafts departments on “Poor Things” were all doing such remarkable work – from Shona Heath’s and James Price’s production design to Holly Waddington’s costumes and Johnnie Burn’s sound design – that he had to learn how to win them over to his side when he needed something special to get a shot.
Using two cranes, for example, to hoist vast lighting and diffusion structures needed for a London wintry street sequence actually shot in Hungary in summer, required a major production commitment that would affect all departments, says Ryan.
But ask for it he did, to produce a striking scene in which audiences see Stone’s Bella, a woman reanimated from the dead by the brilliant scientist Baxter (Dafoe), taking charge of her life after struggling to find her way through the world with an implanted baby’s brain.
Lanthimos threw Ryan some major curves while filming “The Favourite” in 2018, which relied on available light in a dark palace location, requiring film exposure to be pushed well beyond its usual limits. But the cinematographer says he enjoys those challenges.
“What’s great about them is they’re through the prism of celluloid,” Ryan says, “so I’m delighted to try them out. Everything to do with film I’m all about.”
Ryan faced a new test this time around working with Lanthimos, who is thoroughly committed to shooting on film, while working out how to capture the wild, puzzle-palace, psychedelia of “Poor Things,” which takes the usual conventions of the Frankenstein story to new levels.
Based on the book by Alasdair Gray, the film follows Bella from her reanimation in Baxter’s lab through her development as she learns to walk, talk, explore the world and eventually master it – all the time refusing to be bound by men’s expectations or societal rules.
Ryan says the incredibly detailed sets and designs of “Poor Things” could only have come from Lanthimos. “He’s the best director to fall in to work with in a way because he’s a purist – and not in a bad way.”
He cites shots with an 8mm fisheye lens as an example, used to explore Baxter’s lab with a moving camera. Its wide-angle scope was so extreme that the fantastically detailed Victorian-style sets had to be created to all but completely wrap around the camera – which also made hiding lights and sound gear a challenge.
“They created all these composite sets, where you can walk in the front door and every little thing is shootable.” What’s more, Ryan adds, is that sets don’t fly away to make space for the camera as it passes – instead, it must move through real rooms, halls and up and down stairs.
“One of the good things about Yorgos is, we’re both good at working in a space without having to move one wall,” Ryan says.
Achieving the period look went well beyond sets and florid costumes, for “Poor Things,” with vintage lenses originally built for 16mm cameras adapted for some scenes. VistaVision lenses for a filming technology long out of use were used in a specially constructed “Frankenstein camera,” Ryan says, which was tricky to work with.
But the result at times bordered on mystical, he adds, when the camera’s “crap batteries” began to run down as he was filming Bella awakening from the dead. The film’s slower transport speed resulted in a slightly sped-up Stone sparking to life in a way no one had quite expected.
Lanthimos was also happy to marry old and new technologies, building a miniature ship on which Bella is taken for an unwilling cruise using old-style handcraft – then lighting the ship scenes with vast LED panels that created the look of impossibly colorful and mystical seas and skies.
Throughout filming, Ryan says, the mantra was “Why can’t we do things like that anymore?”