All-Seeing Eyes: How Director Yorgos Lanthimos and DP Robbie Ryan Defy Period Film Aesthetics in The Favourite

A caustic, royal love triangle is the new target of industrious Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ delectably wicked gaze.

Boasting absurd and hilarious turns by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite (yes with a “u” to keep it British proper), is a sumptuously realized saga of personal vendettas and selfish desires in 18th century Britain. Imagined by screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the film marks the first time Lanthimos didn’t pen a project himself. Rest assured, however, his mischievous sensibilities found a match in this text. 

Tonally in tune with his most sardonic visions, this costume dramedy presented an opportunity for the lauded filmmaker to push his visual language in unexplored directions by challenging the very tropes he was stepping in for the first time. “The fact that it was a period film made us want to defy the perception of what period films should look like,” Lanthimos said.

“On this one, I went a little bit further in using some quite extreme wide angle lenses,” said Lanthimos. “There was also a difference in camera movements, which I had already started developing with my previous film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” 

His partner on the cinematography front was Irish DP Robbie Ryan, known for his work with Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach. Lanthimos and Ryan had met for coffee a couple times over the last few years to discuss their mutual interest in working together. Even thought the intentions were there, this didn’t materialize until The Favourite came into place.  

“With [Yorgos] being Greek, and the royal family being so English, I was always a bit curious as to how he would make it,” Ryan told MovieMaker. He knew Lanthimos would have an original angle on this tale about Queen Anne. The cinematographer explained that the director is tuned into the things he doesn’t like doing in his film, which makes it more difficult to get into his brain.  

“Yorgos doesn’t like to shoot things conventionally,” said Ryan. “He doesn’t like Shot-Reverse-Shot at all. I got a sense from talking to him that it wasn’t going to be a routine kind of film for coverage.”

Lanthimos shared the things he’d discovered about lenses and movement from the making of The Killing of a Sacred Deer with Ryan, and expressed his wish go further in that direction. The DP, however, didn’t get to see that film at the time because it was still being graded as they filmed The Favourite (Lanthimos was essentially making two movies at once). 

“He was very, very busy. He would finish filming for the day on The Favourite, and then he would go back and do all the post-production work on Sacred Deer,” said Ryan. At Cannes 2017, Ryan finally got to see Lanthimos’ previous effort and appreciated the visual progression from one film to the next. “Things that he was trying out with Sacred Deer were fleshed out a bit more in The Favourite.”

Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Masham (Joe Alwyn) dance in the gorgeous candle-lit halls of the Hatfield House.

In preparation for the shoot, the director and DP decided not to create storyboards as part of their approach—with the exception of some technically complex scenes that required more practical descriptions. Instead, they wrote down each shot, noted the angles and planned the route the camera would follow. They kept that as a guide, but every scene would eventually force them to rethink what they had previously decided on and adapt. Most of the changes came following the rehearsals at the locations, all of which Robbie attended to get a sense of the space and the actors in it. This flexible process was the basis of their creative relationship. 

“It created a language between the two of us, from which it became very easy to know which of these ideas we were going to use for each scene. Even if it was different from what we thought initially would happen, being on the location with the actors and seeing how the scenes played out helped a lot,” said Lanthimos. Their original ideas developed further as elements came into place, and continued to evolve as they were filming.

Having said that, there were certain rules they set up to formally shape how images would be crafted. A major one concerned the lenses they were going to use. First, they did a few tests to figure out which were the most appropriate and how they would react with different camera movements. 

“We knew that we wanted to use wide-angle lenses—even with medium shots—and we would only use longer lenses for very tight shots,” explained Lanthimos. “We basically used one lens for the close ups (a 75mm), and for all of the other shots, we went from a 6mm all the way up to a 21mm, and sometimes even a 27mm. We didn’t really film much on the in-between lenses, so that gave us quite a particular structure to work with.” 

These specific choices had to do with the framing of each shot. Lanthimos had a precise plan in mind for where people were in the frame, how the camera focused on them, and how the framing helps direct the audience’s attention. Breaking preconceived notions regarding period pieces also meant to employ distinct camera movements, including panning the camera from one actor to the other, or panning from one actor to a wider shot of a room within the same shot. 

“It’s the all-seeing eye,” said Ryan to describe The Favourite’s visual language. “It’s a wide vision of an intimate, small world.” By being so expansive in an optical manner, Ryan thinks, it produces a feeling of confinement. “For a film that’s shot on very wide angles, it feels even more claustrophobic, because you’re seeing the whole location and the whole environment. I can’t quite explain it, but that’s the impression I got from seeing the film. You want to get out of that house because it’s all around you, you can’t escape it.”

One major reference Lanthimos provided to illustrate how he wanted the camera to interact with the cast and sets was the 1983 German horror Angst. Ryan had never seen the cult classic until the director showed footage of it on YouTube. “The thing that was interesting to him about Angst was the movement achieved by spinning a camera body rig around the main actor,” he said. “Wherever the person moved, the camera spun around him. It wasn’t like anybody else was operating it; it was attached to him.” Lanthimos was really keen on trying to replicate that effect, but with actresses wearing delicate costumes, a body rig with a 35mm camera was not plausible. 

Still, Ryan did get to experience a new tool he wasn’t familiar with prior to The Favourite, and which facilitated some of the most complex moves. “We used this piece of equipment which I hadn’t used before, which is called a gimbal rig. With a gimbal rig, you have to wear a suit, like a stedicam jacket. It had these articulated exoskeleton arms with high-tension springs that sprung out from your back and hold up this gimbal rig which had a 35mm camera on it,” described Ryan. Getting the gimbal to work optimally was one of the DP’s most strenuous battles on set.

Ryan admits that he’s the most comfortable working on a handled camera, which he’s used quite a bit on Andrea Arnold’s dramas. On The Favourite, however, Yorgos Lanthimos decided not to have that at all, instead adapting to what the director wanted. It was an adjustment Ryan was eager to embrace, being the versatile DP that he is. “I enjoyed coming up with very elaborate tracking moves that don’t necessarily seem to be elaborate. The actual construction of that was quite tricky for us,” he noted. “The most exciting part of the process was trying to figure out the best way to get the camera to move in the way that Yorgos wanted.”

Yorgos Lanthimos turns his lens on the Queen (Yorgos Lanthimos) and her Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz).

The Favourite’s primary location was the Hatfield House, a large country house in Hertfordshire, England built in the 17th century. Lighting the vast halls inside this property represented a major challenge because of Lanthimos’s dogma. “I don’t like using artificial lighting, so all of the lighting in the film is lit with natural light and candle light, with a couple of exceptions (scenes that are outside in the garden or the forest at night) where you wouldn’t see anything without lights,” said Lanthimos.

“That’s kind of a rule of mine that I carry with me a lot.” He is aware of how extreme working in those huge spaces with no lights is, but he is more than pleased with the results. “I think it works beautifully,” he said enthusiastically. 

On a similar note, Lanthimos and his team also tried to limit the color palette of the sets in order to make them look stark; normally the spaces they used were inhabited with plenty of objects, furniture, and paintings. They decluttered the rooms and hallways so that the limited palette of the backgrounds would complement that of the costumes, which are mostly black and white. “The tapestries of the actual locations were green and gold. We just tried to limit it to a certain extent, so that the visuals were quite sharp in that sense,” added Lanthimos. Color is mostly seen in the waistcoats that are under the men’s coats or in their golden shoes.

According to Ryan, what was lovely about the darker walls made of wood was that daylight would come through the big windows and light the characters, but not necessarily much else. The backgrounds soaked up all the light, and that gave a lush quality to the images. He also pointed out that Lanthimos had chosen those locations for the lighting more than anything else, as he really enjoyed the idea of having the light source be the large windows from one direction. 

“The palette was kind of down to the location more than anything. The great thing about shooting on film is that it renders what it sees very beautifully. It doesn’t show a heck of a lot more to what’s already there, and it somehow wraps it all up in a nice beautiful image,” said Ryan, who also recognized the help provided by fellow DP Stephen Murphy, who took over the cinematography for a week while he was out dealing with a family bereavement. 

Aside from its aesthetic benefits, Ryan prefers shooting on film because it reduces the number of people in the production and removes some of the anxiety brought associated with digital moviemaking. “It strips back a lot of the technical side of the process,” said the cinematographer. He believes it is ideal to shoot with the least amount monitors around possible, and film allows that because no one is trying to fix the footage on set. “The loader is there to take the film and box it up and send it to a laboratory, so all of the DIT or the on-set grading doesn’t exist, which is to me a very nice benefit.” 

Once you’ve filmed it, he said, you forget about it until the next day, when you the records back. It’s only then that he and his crew think about what is right or wrong. It’s a different mindset, because you’re not thinking about it in the moment you’re filming it. I think that’s a huge difference, because it means you can concentrate on what you need to get done in the day,” adds Ryan. There is one no one pouring over each shot problem—solving visual elements. 

“When you’re on set shooting digital, people tend to get a little bit obsessed with looking at the monitor and trying to grade it on set. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all going to get graded down two, three or maybe six months later. I love the fact that film cancels that out instantly,” Ryan concluded. 

Lanthimos and Ryan’s artistic partnership was based on the director’s need for someone willing to step out of conventions, and in that regard he found a remarkable risk-taker in Ryan. “I like is when DPs are fearless, bold, and eager to try new things. When they dare to go into places that they might feel are uncomfortable or dangerous. Ultimately, you’re rewarded in the end,” said the helmer. Before considering Ryan, he had seen most of his repertoire, not only in feature films but also in music videos and commercials. Even if Lanthimos was asking for something quite different to he had done up to that point, Ryan delivered both in craft and courage.  

For his part, Ryan was glad to have devoted himself to The Favourite’s success. That meant aligning his talent and skills with Lanthimos’s overall enterprise. “The best approach is always being able to adapt to a director’s particular style. To not necessarily impose your own style on that director. Unless they’re looking for something, it’s better that you try and adapt to their thinking,” he said. “Hopefully, whatever you can bring to a project will filter through into whatever their ideas are, and it’s a nice fusing.”  MM

The Favourite opened in theaters November 23, 2018, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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