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Home / News / Oscar nominee Robbie Ryan in awe of Irish goodwill

Oscar nominee Robbie Ryan in awe of Irish goodwill

Irishman Robbie Ryan, one of the world’s leading cinematographers, is nominated for his second Oscar this weekend for his work on Poor Things. He tells Harry Guerin about mixing the green and the gold.

Fittingly, when Poor Things cinematographer Robbie Ryan heard the news about his second Oscar nomination, he was at work.

“I’ve been on a film in Scotland,” says the Dubliner on a flying visit home ahead of Sunday’s ceremony. “We were in a house and the camera assistants on the job are from Dublin and they’re hilarious. They had the phone coming up with the next category. So, they’re filming me watching that – ‘Oh yeah, Oppenheimer…’ Poor Things came up last so it was like, ‘S***, maybe it’s not going to get it…'”

It was only a split second of doubt, mind. From the minute Poor Things had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September – going on to win top honour The Golden Lion – Ryan was seen as a frontrunner for an Oscar nod along with director Yorgos Lanthimos, star Emma Stone, and Irish producers Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe from the Dublin-based Element Pictures.

Having received his first Oscar nomination in 2019 for his work on Lanthimos, Stone, and Element’s The Favourite, Ryan had a good feeling “as a betting man” that the movie planets would align again for their latest adventure in the screen trade – but even he was surprised at the extent of Poor Things‘ shortlist success. In the end, the dark fantasy received another 10 Academy Award nominations alongside his own, setting a new record for an Irish-produced film.

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“It’s mental – 11 nominations for a film about a woman who’s got her baby’s brain in her head?!” he laughs. “It’s like a presidential campaign, the Oscars thing. There’s tonnes and tonnes of awards dos before you get to that so you can see the run of it. But still, nobody’s for sure. To sort of guarantee it in that business is never fully the best way to go, so I’m very appreciative of it.”

If anything, Ryan says, his second Oscar nomination is the sweeter of the two.

“This film feels much more close to the heart in a way because everybody’s gotten a result out of it!” he explains. “It’s just been like a family affair for a long time. Yorgos handpicks crew, and the crew he’s handpicked this time are all really good people and we’re all tight. There’s definitely a special feeling in that respect. And a lot of people, it’s their first-ever film! The composer, Jerskin Fendrix, never made a film score in his life. Shona Heath, the production designer, has never done a feature film. She’s amazing. I actually introduced her and Yorgos because she’d done a short film. Yorgos takes a punt a lot.”

Helping others to make their name in the business is how Ryan himself came through the ranks 25-plus years ago. As a teenager, he dreamed of being a cinematographer – and then did something about it by going to IADT Dún Laoghaire. Working his way up after graduation, his big break came when director Andrea Arnold asked him to go behind the lens on her 2004 short film Wasp. It won an Oscar the following year and Ryan and Arnold were on a roll that has continued ever since.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere without Andrea Arnold, absolutely not,” he says bluntly. “I got in when she was just blossoming as a director and beginning to become the – for want of a better term – auteur that she has become. I would never be here unless it was for her, for that fortuitous meeting.”

Robbie Ryan congratulates Andrea Arnold at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival after she won the Jury Prize for their road movie American Honey Photo: Getty Images

Since then, Ryan has worked all over the world on over 100 projects. There are two hallmarks of his CV: he is asked back by the same directors time and time again – Arnold, Lanthimos, and Ken Loach among them – and he has never worked in television.

“I’m very blessed, especially with the people I’ve worked with, the directors have been so [good]. I’ve never had a bad time on a film set. The job I do is so amazing because you’re really more than likely going to be in front of an actor doing something amazing. A lot of other people on a film set are off doing other things, they may not even be on set. The camera is the focus, it’s the central piece, so to be on that… I’m just all about, ‘Let’s do the best we can on the project we’re doing and work hard’. It’s a lot of working hard. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into the films, but it doesn’t feel like work, never felt like work.”

“What I love about making films is the stories,” he continues. “The film that gets finished and that gets shown and that people watch and enjoy is one thing; and then the film that you work on and that you enjoy and meet people and make connections with is another thing. They’re great when it has a bit of a life and that’s why I only do cinema.

“Cinema, basically, has this great routine of you make it, you release it, and it goes through festivals – it has a bit of a life there. Then it gets maybe into the cinema, has a bit of a life there, and then it gets onto (lowers voice) streaming or what used to be DVDs or whatever. So, by the time it gets there, it’s had a bit of a life. That, to me, is the only way I want to work, where you kind of sense that bit of enjoyment of a festival, and a crowd, and a cinema. The fact that things go straight to TV or straight to streaming, to me, is not a good turn of events.”

Ryan has talked about Poor Things more than any other film he has made. Its release coincided with the actors’ strike in the US and meant he and his behind-the-scenes colleagues had to step into the promotional breach, seeing life from the other side of the camera.

“Two months of craft chat!” he smiles. “It was funny watching all of us not really know how to do it and then we got a bit better and then the actors came back and we all kind of got dissolved! But, to be fair, it was a good film for those Q&As for craft[speople] because it’s on the screen. Everything’s up there to joyfully watch.”

Not that Ryan was blowing his own trumpet during sit-downs – he was happier to have others be the focus.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (standing) and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (seated behind lens) on the set of Poor Things Photo: Atsushi Nishijima / Searchlight Pictures

“The thing I keep saying in all these feckin’ interviews is that Yorgos is a genius cinematographer, right?! He’d wipe the floor with me knowing more than I do! I am a good sort of lieutenant/ facilitator – I can facilitate what he wants, and it means he doesn’t have to totally bother about it. That’s where our relationship lies, and I love that. I know I’m kind of – not being high falutin’ – in the presence of somebody who knows a lot of stuff – that you go, ‘Ok, that’s great’, and I can kind of tap into it. He’s extremely giving, he’s always very collaborative, he wants to collaborate – but he wants you to get your A-game going.”

Ryan brought that A-game to what is already considered a modern classic. Poor Things‘ “bit of life” will extend far beyond the opening of the envelopes in Los Angeles on Sunday. So too will the thrill he gets when Irish people congratulate him on making Hollywood’s version of the all-stars once again.

“I love that. The whole buzz coming from the Oscar nominations was all from Ireland. I’ve got loads of friends all over the world, thankfully, but the feeling when it’s Irish, where you just get the buzz because it’s the family… Ireland is like your family and they’re all of a sudden like, ‘Oh, so happy for you!’ It’s a really, really heartwarming thing. And that, to me, is important. I love it. And look at us now: Ireland’s always been a creative space, the writing coming out of Ireland’s always been amazing, and it’s just sort of transferred into cinema in a good way.”

Robbie Ryan has played a big part in that and will continue to do so in the years ahead. In the meantime, he’ll fly the flag at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night, determined to savour the experience more than he did with his first Oscar nomination in 2019.

Robbie Ryan receives the red carpet treatment as he flies out from Dublin Airport to the Oscars Photo: Aer Lingus

“Going in a second time, I will do it a different way,” he concludes mischievously. “The first time, I was kind of like, ‘Wow! What’s going to happen next?! What’s going to happen next?!’ I know how to play this a bit better. I’ve got plans!”

He’s ready for his close-up.

The 96th Academy Awards take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday night and will be broadcast on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player on Monday from 9:35pm.

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