Yorgos Lanthimos’s films have a reputation that precedes them. The Greek filmmaker rose to prominence on the festival circuit with off-beat and fascinating films like Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011) more than a decade ago. His was an exciting new voice, a rare filmmaking talent who could push and challenge an audience without alienating them. His transition to Hollywood proved no less interesting, with titles like The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Lanthimos achieved breakthrough success with mainstream audiences in 2018 with The Favourite, a film that delivered an Academy Award for Best Actress to Olivia Colman, while garnering Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Supporting Actress (Emma Stone), among a slew of others.
The Favourite also marked the first collaboration between Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who received his first Academy Award nomination for his work on that film. The pair is back together for Lanthimos’s latest film, Poor Things, which also reunites the Greek filmmaker with The Favourite co-star Emma Stone in a film no less daring. Stone plays Bella, a young woman who is brought back to life by the eccentric surgeon Dr. Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Having no memory of her prior life, Bella begins her new existence with a blank slate—yearning to ditch the confines of her home and discover the world. Ryan worked closely with Lanthimos to develop the film’s unforgettable, dreamlike landscapes. Ryan spoke with Boxoffice Pro about bringing those vistas to life, and why the film’s unique look proved to be one of the biggest technical challenges of his career.
This must have been a fascinating challenge for a cinematographer. How did you collaborate with Yorgos Lanthimos to determine the very particular look and feel of this film?
Poor Things was my second film with Yorgos Lanthimos. Working with him is like working with a cinematographer, because he knows so much about film and its different formats and lenses. I am always learning on a daily basis when we work together. This was a big change from our prior film, The Favourite, as the approach there was to use only natural light in real locations. On Poor Things, our entire process was flipped, where we ended up using a lot of lights in a set that was built in a studio. This film was done on a level I had not experienced before.
Were there any films or other works that influenced certain shots or sequences? What inspirations did you draw from in determining the film’s eclectic visual style?
Well, it’s a film based on a book about a Frankenstein-type surgeon, so we did look at the scenes of reanimation in movies like James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—a movie that, I must say, is wonderfully shot … James Whale was a cinematic genius. Because a large segment of Poor Things is set on a cruise ship, Yorgos was keen for us to look at Federico Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On (1983) as a visual reference. We also employed many zoom shots throughout the film and went back to watch a lot of movies by R.W. Fassbinder, who always used the zoom to great effect in his films.
In the black-and-white scenes, I was struck by the use of wide-angle lenses and iris shots. These distort our sense of space as viewers. Can you describe how you and the director worked to integrate those shots into the narrative?
Yorgos loves to use all types of lenses to tell a story. The wide lens, in particular, is the type of lens that he tends to lean toward. In Poor Things we tested using 16 mm [and] 4 mm lenses on the 35 mm camera we used to shoot. Because the back element does not cover the full size of the negative, you get this vignette perspective—we really liked that look and began to use it more and more throughout the shoot.
Speaking of black-and-white, this was your first time shooting in it since C’mon C’mon (2021). What lessons did you bring from that experience?
It’s not often that you get to shoot on films in black-and-white, so the fact that I got the chance to do two in a row was very nice. The biggest difference between the black-and-white we used for C’mon C’mon and Poor Things, is that we shot the latter on black-and-white negative—there’s a marked difference between the celluloid black-and-white we used in Poor Things and digital black-and-white we have in C’mon C’mon. In my opinion, there is no competition between the two, as the monochrome celluloid is always so beautiful to see in the dailies.
And the color sections have a Technicolor-like dreaminess to them—a hyperreality that naturally brings to mind a movie like The Wizard of Oz. What impression were you seeking to make with these sudden changes in look during these different parts of the movie?
Yorgos was really keen to try out different film stocks and negatives, as well as reversal [“positive” or slide] stocks. Kodak rereleased their Ektachrome reversal stock in 16 mm a few years ago, and the HBO show “Euphoria,” shot by Marcel Rev, had used the stock cut to 35 mm. That’s how we were able to get our hands on some of this newly cut 35 mm Ektachrome from Kodak. As we were shooting in Budapest, we were close to the only lab in Europe that processed reversal 35 mm, a place called Andec in Berlin. This particular film stock is quite slow, so we had to rent more lights than we had originally anticipated in order to get the film exposed correctly. It was quite a challenge, but the results are really beautiful—it was definitely worth the effort!
You’ve worked with a lot of filmmakers who prefer location shooting—how much of this film was shot on a set, and how did that change your approach to shooting?
All of Poor Things is a set construction. The entire feel of the film is meant to transport the viewer to an entirely different world that feels like it’s part of a fantasy. The sets in the film are amazing and were a joy to behold. Shona Heath and James Price, the designers, made stunning sets that brought the film to another level.
Shooting a film in those sets, the fact that the entire film was shot in a studio-built set, was the biggest challenge for me personally, as I had never done a film of this scale before. And the techniques we were using and applying, as I described with our process using the Ektachrome film, also contributed to the technical and logistical challenges of the production. I don’t want to make it seem like a complaint—shooting on celluloid is my favorite thing in the world, so these weren’t really challenges as much as they were presents.
Do you have a favorite moviegoing memory?
I’m Irish, so growing up I was always excited to go to the Savoy 1 on O’Connell Street in Dublin. It was a huge 2,900-seat purpose-built cinema in the heart of Dublin, inaugurated in 1929. One of my lasting memories of that cinema was that my mom’s friend used to work in PR for the studio films, including all the James Bond movies, and she would get me tickets to attend press screenings for these films. This meant going to the cinema with a handful of journalists at around 9:30 on a Tuesday morning, sitting in an enormous, empty cinema, and getting to see a film before anyone else did. They would even hand out these promotional black-and-white production stills from the film. It was so overwhelming to me growing up! The sad thing is they have now halved the Savoy 1 into two cinemas—a big mistake, in my opinion.