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Cinematographer Robbie Ryan on Shooting "Slow West"

Byline: Laura Blum

A lovelorn swain leaves "the cold shoulder" of his native Scotland for the American frontier, where his hearthrob and her father have set up stakes. John Maclean's coming-of-age Western trails Jay Cavendish as he wends his way across lawless Colorado in the 1870s. A "jack rabbit in a den of wolves," he is guided by a gunslinging outlaw he pays to protect him. Along the way Slow West pulls a few fast ones. You half expect Aki Kaurismäki's Leningrad cowboys to rear up.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays 16-year-old Jay. Unbeknownst to this blue-blooded lad, his sweet Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her dad (Rory McCann) are wanted dead or alive, and bounty hunters are coming out of the woodworks for them. To be sure, they're not the only mischief lurking in this lawless free-for-all. "Kick over any rock and most likely any desperado would kick you in the heart if there were a dollar under it," is how Michael Fassbender's Silas Selleck puts it. Not since Clint Eastwood roamed the genre's 60s and 70s classics has an outlaw swaggered so seductively. Just why Silas takes Jay under his wing will escape the native quester for most of the film. But what's abundantly clear to Jay early on is his chaperon's -- and the New World's -- brutishness (as seen in photos 1 - 2).

Lurching between the epic and the bugged out, the film is a Pick Up Sticks of genre conventions. Arrows and bullets rain down on the range just as suddenly as the storm clouds that trigger flash floods. A shoot-out in a general store turns out to be for the sake of its Swedish perpetrators' hungry children. Native Americans mount guerrilla attacks that are both cartoony enough to jerk a laugh and plenty pointed to make us mourn the casualties of Manifest Destiny.

Slow West's lyrical settings, intimate human takes and punchy sight gags are ideally matched to the range of cinematographer Robbie Ryan (as seen in photo 3 with actor Kodi Smit-McPhee and director John Maclean). Having launched his star alongside Andrea Arnold  (including on Fish Tank, Red Road and Wuthering Heights), the Dun Laoghaire film school grad has also teamed up with noted directors from Ken Loach (The Angels' Share, Jimmy's Hall) to Stephen Frears (on the Oscar-nominated Philomena). Ryan's many other credits span Maclean's 2011 short Pitch Black Heist. That collaboration fetched up a BAFTA Award. So it was only natural that the former Beta Band member held out for Ryan to shoot his debut feature Slow West.

When reached him by Skype, the Irish DP was on the last leg of a Midwestern shoot for Arnold's new film, American Honey. That put him a stone's throw from the South Dakota gift shop where he once bought a reproduction of a scenic Old West painting. Whether it was a Charles Remington or a Charles M. Russell is a bit hazy, but the impression it left lingered in his mind's eye. That and the Spaghetti Western films he paid winking tribute to are practically the only domestic imagery he drew on for Slow West (as seen in photo 4).

"The nearest we got to an homage was at the trading post when the Swedish couple comes and they see Silas lighting a match off of a countertop," recalled Ryan. "That was really Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West -- a scene with Charles Bronson all over it." Remembering another example, he mentioned "the flashback of the cowboy scene, where we went very 'Sergio Leone' on a wide lens close up to people's faces listening to the story."

How did Ryan's viewfinder forge a bond with the lead actors? Through working with Fassbender on Pitch Black Heist, he had already learned, "You don't have to direct him. He's brilliant. Michael's got that great wirey thing going, but he's a little bit older now, so he's got that great sense of gravitas about him." In the film it's revealed that his character used to run with a band of toughs headed by the roguishly charming Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) until there was a falling out. Per Ryan, photographing Ben is like capturing "free-style jazz: you never know what he's going to come up with next. He's off on his own planet. It's Planet Ben," he said admiringly.

About Smit-McPhee, Ryan commented, "Kodi looks really good from the front because his eyes are so striking, and they're a little father apart than most people's eyes. He has this alien look about him, and he was an alien in the middle of this place." The concept of foreignness hangs over the UK-New Zealand co-production, which bagged a grand jury prize at this year's Sundance and just screened out of competition at the Tribeca Film Festival (as seen in photos 5-7).

Ryan said Maclean was no doubt familiar with iconic Westerns by such masters as John Ford, but that the Scottish director was "trying to flesh out a genre that's been done a lot." His Western quest drew him eastward. "John had a dropbox I looked at," Ryan said. "It wasn't so much American -- more the (Ingmar) Bergmans, (Robert) Bressons and (Carl Theodor) Dreyers of the world. He was also very much into the Japanese way of approaching the Western." For prep, Ryan watched Bergman's Persona and Dreyer's Vampyr, Ordet and The Passion of Joan of Arc among other European classics, and listened to Maclean parse the likes of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

Beyond the search for fresh aesthetics and methods of storytelling, Maclean had historical reasons for researching global cinema. "America hadn't really formed yet," Ryan explained. "The West wasn't really the West of America; it was just a bunch of Swedish people, German people -- every denomination under the sun was in America at that time and finding their way. The whole film is about immigration and people coming over."

From reading Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer and by studying how Bresson and Dreyer structured their films, Maclean adopted certain filmic techniques, Ryan said. "Details that might be considered B-roll in a normal shoot were high on the priority list in the way we shot our film," he gave by way of example. Camera angles also leaned on the greats. "One thing John would always refer to was the Bresson three-quarter top angle. I'd go, 'John, do you want the three-quarter top angle?' He'd go, 'Yep.' "

This angle is valuable to the movie not least because it -- combined with the 1.66:1 aspect ratio Ryan shot on -- is "compositionally friendly to portraiture." Known to painters as the "golden ratio," its squarish format worked with the relatively static tripod shots to make Slow West's compositions pop. Was Ryan conscious about symmetry during the shoot? "I instinctively think about composition," he allowed, "but a lot of time it's reactive to what's on set and what a character is doing."

Mostly, though, Ryan "just tried to get inside John's head." The DP soon learned that Maclean had a distinct vision, and that his storyboards would largely govern how Ryan filmed. As reflected in the title, the Slow West shoot "was a bit more studied" than other pictures he'd worked on. Yet at the same time there was economy to the process. "Often there was one take," noted Ryan. I was always going, 'Don't you want to shoot some of this or that for the edit?' And he'd go, 'Nope, I'm happy.' "

The entire movie was shot with a tripod. For Ryan, capturing the many walking horse shots meant rigging his camera to accommodate four-legged characters -- and building lots of tracks. "More often than not, the shots were off of a track and a crane arm, not a remote head, just an arm with a device that I would operate to get it horse height (as seen in photos 8-9). We also had a stabilized head, but actually the track and basic stuff was often better for what we wanted." Fortunately for Ryan and his team, the New Zealand crews had worked on complex productions such as Avatar and The Lord of the Rings, and were both highly skilled and at the ready. "I always feel guilty about asking for a 100-foot track, but these guys were so excited about building it, they'd finish it within seconds," Ryan enthused.

Curiously, one asset New Zealand didn't have was a laboratory for developing celluloid. "We were told we'd have to send our negatives to Thailand," the DP remembered. There went the production's hopes of shooting on film. Yet using the ALEXA Classic camera with Panavision Primo vintage and Ultra Speed Z lenses had its advantages; and that's to say nothing of the giant mushroom sequence with Jay, shot with a Frazier lens. "With digital you can see all the detail," said Ryan, which might be a part of why it looks a little 3-D. Nothing is falling into the background; it's all in your face."

Whatever New Zealand lacked in labs, it more than made up for in scenery. This despite the fact that the filmmakers initially worried audiences wouldn't buy South Island as the American West. Bathed in neon greens and yellows and domed by turquoise skies with white, pillowy clouds, the landscape looks downright hallucinogenic in parts. One sequence that picks up on the chartreuse motif involves a sight gag with absinthe. "You can't help but go to town with the greens," laughed Ryan. "It's like The Wizard of Oz." Asked if New Zealand really looks like that, he said, "Totally. I call it, 'Scotland turned up to 11.' We were coming into the Spring, and that part of the world is just mental color."

Astonishingly, though, Maclean never told his cinematographer to make the movie look surreal. "It's a bit like comedy, which is all about how straight you play it," Ryan mused. "We shot it as straight as anything else, but the way the story unfolds was a bit surreal." Pressed about the fairytale-like constellation imagery, including that of stars getting shot out of the night sky at gunpoint, Ryan granted, "John mentioned 'fairytale' a lot. We wanted to give it a little surrealness of seeing into the dark more than is possible."

Given that one-third of the movie takes place during nightime, the filmmakers frequently shot day-for-night. "Night shoots would have meant bigger lighting set-ups," explained Ryan, adding, "The day-for-night setup gives you a lot of detail for a little amount of work. Shooting on digital really helps you visualize what was difficult to do on celluloid back in the day when the only way to do it was through labs and prints. Now you can tone it the way you like."

By the same token, the digital medium let Ryan "sculpt the light and play with it a bit more than film would have allowed" for the flashback sequences on the Scottish coast. Here, contrasted with New Zealand's citrusy palette, warm reds and shadowy grays prevailed. Take Rose's house, for example, which Ryan "lit as if by candlelight and firelight" in a visual reference to Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller and to his own award-winning work on Wuthering Heights.

Vintage movies are both a passion and a professional tool for the 40-something DP, who chose his career at age 14. Asked what advice he has for today's budding cinematographers, he offered, "Look back at early cinema. There was a great time before sound arrived when the camera was the most experimental that it has ever been. Don't think there's one way to tell a story, because that's just conforming. Try and be out there as much as you possibly can. If you can tell a story and set a tone a certain way early on, the audience is more receptive." 

Photo Credits:

Photo 1: (L to R) Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck and Kobi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish in "Slow West." Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.

Photo 2: Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck in "Slow West".  Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.

Photo 3: (L to R) Cinematographer Robbie Ryan BSC/ISC on the set of "Slow West, with actor Kodi Smit-McPhee and director John Maclean." Photo courtesy of Robbie Ryan

Photo 4: (L to R) Kobi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish and Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck in "Slow West." Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.

Photo 5: Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck in "Slow West." Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.

Photo 6: Ben Mendelsohn as Payne in in "Slow West." Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.

Photo 7: (L to R) Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck and Kobi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish in "Slow West." Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.

Photo 8: Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck in "Slow West." Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.

Photo 9: (L to R) Kobi Smit-McPhee as Jay Cavendish and Michael Fassbender as Silas Selleck in "Slow West." Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh courtesy of A24.