We need a classic Cannes backdrop to add journalistic colour. “Palm trees sway in the faint breeze as superyachts interrupt the horizon.” You know the sort of thing. Robbie Ryan, Ireland’s most celebrated cinematographer, finds a perfect spot at the rear of the American Pavilion. Azure sea. Cormorants drying their wings. A bizarre selection of patriotic songs blasting from speakers: God Bless America, American Pie. Only at this event.
Does Ryan remember when he first came here?
“I do. I was sleeping on the beach,” he says. “I didn’t realise you don’t get free accommodation. I came with Red Road. They didn’t give me any place to stay. I didn’t know what the protocol was! I learned pretty quickly.”
He certainly did. Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, which won the Jury Prize here in 2006, confirmed one of the great partnerships in world cinema. Ryan, an amiable, cackling Dubliner, had already shot Arnold’s Oscar-winning short, Wasp, in 2003. The two later worked together on acclaimed features such as Fish Tank and American Honey. His energetic, fast-thinking approach to the job generated further collaborations with Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Noah Baumbach and Andrew Dominik. In 2018 he scored an Oscar nomination for Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. No Irish film professional is more sought after.
“As a personal preference, I love being dropped into an environment and having to make it work,” he says. “I love that. I am notoriously bad at prep. I am doing Andrea’s next film in three weeks. I am calling this emotional prep!”
To be fair, he is also supporting one of his upcoming films. Loach’s The Old Oak, playing in the Cannes competition, marks the fifth collaboration between the English director and the Irish cameraman.
That film will not arrive commercially until later in the year, but we can look forward to Ryan’s work on Thomas Hardiman’s Medusa Deluxe this month. Ryan here gets the opportunity to work on the cinematographer’s ultimate challenge: the one-shot movie. Or should that be pseudo-one-shot? A murder mystery set at a hairdressing competition, the film cunningly stitches together longish takes to give the impression of one continuous sequence with no cuts. I imagine this puts the director of photography in almost total control.
“The logistics kind of iron out when you’ve got it all moving. But I guess it is sort of a control thing. It’s kind of exciting because you’re always like ... Awwwww!” He makes a “How are we going to get out of this?” face.
“That’s a fun part of that process as well. But the funny thing is that this was the first time I’d ever done a film where I wasn’t the operator. I am one of those people who has to be on the camera. I don’t understand DPs” – directors of photography – “who sit back and have tons of operators. You see this in the digital world. The DP is in a tent tweaking a grade that is going to get graded down the line anyway.”
The one-shot aspect definitely adds another layer of tension to Medusa Deluxe. But it is always worth asking why such an approach is being used. It can work nicely. Recall Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark or the recent British film Boiling Point. Film-makers do, however, need to explain why they have decided to dispense with dear old montage for 90 minutes.
“I am with you on that one,” he says. “I have to be sold heavily on why it needs to be one shot. It imposes something on your viewing. You know it’s going to be this way. So you have to condition yourself for what that entails. But it does feel like it is of the moment. There are pros and cons.”
Ryan is one of those film-makers – the Spielberg tendency – who grew up experimenting with Super 8 home film cameras. He and his cousin and best pal spent summers shooting their own little masterpieces. He studied film at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, where, as he explains, he got to dabble in all disciplines of the profession. He went on to work on a few short films (including one written by this journalist) before landing that gig on Arnold’s Wasp.
“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t done that. We had a great journey, and I am doing another one with her shortly.”
Ryan is cautious about revealing much more, but the trade papers have suggested that the title is Bird and that Barry Keoghan is among the cast. We can learn something about the cinematographer’s art by comparing Ryan’s work on Arnold’s films with his contributions to Loach’s oeuvre. Both directors could be loosely dubbed social realists, but their approach to shooting could not be more different.
“She absolutely loves chaos. The more out of control it is the more she feels it’s alive. With Ken Loach it’s interesting. It is very much planned in his head. Everybody is involved, but he makes the decisions. He likes chaos. But it’s controlled chaos.”
Has he had any serious fallings-out with directors? I imagine the old-school jodhpur-wearing tyrants would yell first at their director of photography. Any of that come his way?
“With me? No, no, no, no, thankfully. On films, I’ve been blessed. Every film-maker I have worked with has been a friend and stayed a friend.”
Ryan has seen a lot of change over his career. Digital became dominant. Streaming altered distribution. And TV has risen again to lord it over film. Ryan is impressively firm on the last topic.
“My mantra is ‘never television’!” he says. “I haven’t really done any TV. It was something I never did. It seems like it takes an awful lot of your time. And then it’s only shown once – or maybe twice. I don’t really watch telly. So I don’t know any of these series that people rave about. I’m becoming really narrow minded. People really get offended when I say I haven’t seen Succession.”
Medusa Deluxe is released on Friday, June 9th