The Favourite looks to be an Oscar front-runner as February 24 approaches. From its pitch-perfect performances to the lavish production design, it’s a quirky descent into royal debauchery. The way the film is shot is particularly striking, featuring consistent whip-pans and ultra-wide lenses – Yorgos Lanthimos couldn’t have put his visual ideas to work without his talented cinematographer, also nominated this year, Robbie Ryan. With an immense spread of genres, from American Honey to I, Daniel Blake, his eye is versatile. We chatted to him about the Oscars controversy, working with Lanthimos and his love of shooting on film.
I normally say to everyone I interview that I hope they’ll be okay with the Scottish accent, but I think I’ll be in safe hands with you.
[Laughs] “Get tae fuuuck” [laughs] It’s great to hear from you.
First off, congratulations on your Oscar nomination! How are you feeling?
It’s great isn’t it? My sister’s been coming to all these do’s with me and she’s getting so much travel with it all. It’s a great film getting loads of reception; but yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve never been in this sort of situation before so it’s all a first time for me. It has its good points and its bad points, but it’s great for the film.
What are the bad points? Constant travel?
Yeah, I mean you’ve got to admire how much promotion has to be done, and admire the patience of the people putting in so much work to promote a film. I’d never seen the like of it. That’s the way filmmaking has to be done, and I don’t know if it’s a great thing, but it is the way it is. I’ve always seen it but to be up close to it like that is quite eye opening. But it’s not bad! It’s all for a good cause, obviously – making money for someone! [Laughs]
Do you have any thoughts about the Oscars cutting categories from their broadcast?
I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I think every category should be represented, and I think it’s a little bit unfortunate that some people will have to go into the commercial break for whatever reason. I’m not as shocked by it as other people; like when the BAFTAs is shown, they’re two hours after the actual show is on, so everyone knows, in this age of social media, who’s won – they are watching the show. The TV seems to be a bit old to me nowadays, whereas most people are tuning into twitter and finding out about news. I’m sort of surprised, in that sense, it’s become such a big deal, but I do think all categories should be given a fair whack of it – that’s the place where people can be seen and have their moment.
You know, I love cinematography; you’re actually the first cinematographer I’ve ever interviewed!
Oh really? Brilliant [laughs], let’s hope it won’t be the last one then!
Yorgos Lanthimos has mostly collaborated with Thimios Bakatakis. His films have quite a distinctive visual style, how did feel to be stepping into those shoes with the director?
I was nervous about it. Absolutely. I didn’t really know what way it was going to pan out. I’d always imagined working with someone who only really has one DP would be really tricky, because, where do you go with it? But the thing with Yorgos is he’s really like a cinematographer himself so, I think this films looks very similar to The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Lobster – it’s the same but different. But it’s all been coming from Yorgos really; in all these interviews I’ll say I was just a glorified camera operator and I still stick to that adage. He’s the visual genius, and we’re all just chasing after him as he comes up with amazing visual ideas. I think, maybe, that was partly the reason he chose a new way to go with a new DP; all I know is when we started he was very open to ideas and we collaborated to an extent, but really, it’s more of a matter of fitting into his visual world. I didn’t have a clue what was going on until his first day of shooting, but he would have a camera on him all the time and he goes and takes a picture and asks: “Can we shoot it like this?” and I’d be like: “Oh okay I get it.” So whatever his photographs are I’d be able to copy and elaborate on and we got the language going from there. Once I knew that was the way to get in his head, it made things going forward a lot easier.
You’ve worked across several genres; how do you approach a new project?
Well it’s great that they’re varied, if I did the same thing all the time I’d go crazy! Luckily there’s a variety of directors who are doing interesting stuff and I got bundled in with them and they’re friends to me now. Whenever one of them does a film you’re like, touch wood I get the phone call. For instance, a friend of mine, John Maclean, he did Slow West, which was a western – now he’s doing a sort of samurai movie, and I’ve never done one of them before so it’s great to learn new things and try out new visual ideas. I’m from a handheld background so my photography was always a bit loose whereas the photography in The Favourite is very structured and considered – that was really a challenge for me and I loved it. I really think from doing all the handheld stuff to the tracks and the camera pans and stuff, I’d love to do more stuff that’s composed like that. I’m getting old as well Cameron so the camera on the shoulder gets quite tiring [laughs]. But the ideal for a cinematographer is to be able to adapt to every environment, and it really shakes it up.
You mentioned the pans, and there are the fish-eye-style shots too; can you tell me a bit about those?
Well that’s Yorgos again; he’s very keen on wide-angle photography. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer he started using the wider lenses and then he really wanted to push that further. He said he wanted an even wider lens than the one he used previously, so we found this thing called a 6mm, in Panavision; it’s really wide. He loved that, so we used it a little bit at the beginning and as the shoot went along he embraced it and said: “It’s exactly what I want.” So we started shooting like crazy mental with the lens; every time we looked at it we’d be like “ooo that looks pretty wild”. He was brave enough to go with it and we’ve had quite a few remarks on it. It’s not too gimmicky, it really serves the purpose of the story and gets across the bubble [Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman] is living in and the absurdity of her world. There’s a lot of talk about what they mean, but generally it’s just this expansive lens that shows the whole environment and the claustrophobia. It’s a really beautiful lens.
Is the 6mm something you’d like to return to using in the future?
Oh yeah, I’d imagine if I was to work with Yorgos again or whatever film he does next, I think the 6mm will be on the list – he’s a big fan of it. I don’t know how much of a phase it is, but at the minute it suits his storytelling.
It’s very effective in the movie; it really strikes a visual chord.
I think it helps create the period, you know? It’s known for being an era of debauched madness and that’s maybe reflected in the madness of the lens; but it certainly gives it a sort of freshness.
That helps though because period films are, sadly, a bit marginalised.
People talk about Barry Lyndon with this but I think it’s to do with the more fresh approach of the film to a period drama. It’s not stuck with the storytelling, it’s not sticking to the truth. This is what could have happened, but it’s not totally correct, and we don’t want to know if we’re correct either. There’s a lot departments looking at it in a fresher way and it’s a good thing; it might give a kick up the arse to the period dramas; especially with our royal family! [Laughs]
You shot the film on 35mm, is that correct?
Yeah, Yorgos likes to shoot on film all the time now. He doesn’t like the digital look so much, and I agree with him – if the film can afford it and everybody is on board then it’s brilliant. It always adds a lot to the production value of the film, I find.
So you prefer film to digital – is it a more challenging but rewarding experience in a way?
Oh yeah. The thing with digital is, it’s such powerful technology, and the image is so good. It’s almost like: “Seen it, done it now.” You get bored of it pretty quickly. Whereas with film, you shoot it then you don’t see it for a few days or until the next day, maybe. You forget about the image, you move on and I love that part of the process of shooting on film, whereas with digital you can look at it straight away – assess it, grade it, you can do everything to it. That’s great, and that’s a really good thing about the digital format that it solves a lot of problems on site. But with film, you put our trust in it. I’ve never shot a film and thought: “Shit I wish I shot that digitally.”
I’ve read that you don’t take a lot of credit for the lighting in The Favourite, because of things like the big windows that helped you out
There was no lighting [laughs] but plenty of candles, 80,000 apparently.
But you are very talented with natural lighting, from I, Daniel Blake to The Meyerowitz Stories.
Oh well thank you. It’s sort of my go-to thing to not have too much artificial lighting involved. Each film has a different approach, but Yorgos is really determined not to use any lighting. He used a location that’s really good for natural light, so he’s willing to take the chance not to use artificial light. I agree, as soon as you bring in artificial light, it tends to look like you’ve lit it. I’m better at working out how to best make use of the natural lighting than incorporating artificial light. I much prefer being given something to deal with than creating something to deal with [laughs]. If you’re in a location and there’s lights up the stairs and one’s dying, you just do your best with what you have and what the natural light is. When it goes dark, you just have to do something else – I like the finality of what you get with natural light, and sometimes it becomes ugly. But that’s the thing you get with digital as well – digital can really make everything look really nice, but what happened to those films that looked really ugly?
There’s shots in The Favourite that are practically lit by a single candle; how is that to film?
What Yorgos and did and what I learned from him is that he was pushing the film stock a lot. Like we’d be looking at the candle, the equipment would be reading it as nothing there but then he’d say: “Well there is something there, I can see it with my naked eye.” So in the development we’d push it, and it makes it a bit grainier but he doesn’t mind the grain. You do get the actor to hold the candle closer to the camera but in the big, long, dark corridors, we’d maybe add an extra couple of candles to help it along. But we’d always try to do it with as little artificial light as we could. To be fair, the big dance scene had a bit of a soft light from above to get an ambience, and I was shit-scared we wouldn’t see anything. He wasn’t very happy with that, but we had to help it out a bit – but not much! But Yorgos also knows it might be a necessity so he’s reasonable to that extent; the mantra was “lets not use lights”. But we did mostly stick to that.
I was reading that at some points you were strapped into a rig?
I was yeah. There are all these Gimbal rigs now, which are like steady, stablised head things and they’re all made for smaller cameras. We were shooting on a 35mm, and there was this one stablised rig that could take a 35mm camera, but it meant I had to wear a sort of jacket with exo-skeleton arms and the rig would hang off of these arms. The displacement of the weight was crazy, I felt like I was wearing a corset. I’d put it on and be like: “Jesus!” Luckily it would only be for a minute on the roll, but you’d be exhausted. But it’s an interesting piece of kit and that technology is getting so much faster and better. But unfortunately it’s not really jumping forward for film necessarily, it’s making leaps for digital big time. But film is getting a little bit pushed out the door.
Would you like to work with Yorgos again?
At the drop of a hat, yeah. If I got the call I’d jump at it. He’s a really interesting director, you learn a lot from working with him. He never makes things that are not that interesting; whether you like his films or not, they’re definitely fresh and in this day and age, it’s hard to find people like that, you know?
What can we expect to see from you next?
The next film you’ll see is one I’ve done with Ken Loach, I’ve also done a film with Noah Baumbach too and I’m on one with Sally Potter at the minute.
You’ve cast your net quite wide!
I know; it’s great that the work’s been there. Also, Ken wanted to shoot on film, Noah wanted to shoot on film and Sally is digital – if I can get two films a year done, then I’m a happy man.
“Its exceptional A-List cast might be the major draw for some people, but The Favourite has so much more to offer beyond that.” – Be sure to check out Sarah’s full ★★★★★ review of Lanthimos’ The Favourite from her screening at London Film Festival last year!