<I>Poor Things</I>
Issue: November/December 2023

Poor Things

Poor Things, from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster), is based on the novel by Alasdair Gray. Presented by Searchlight Pictures, the film stars Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, a young woman brought back to life by daring and unconventional scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by Willem Dafoe. Ramy Youssef plays Max McCandless, Dr. Baxter’s eager-to-learn student, whom he welcomes into his home to observe and record Bella’s progress. The film also stars Mark Ruffalo as Duncan Wedderburn, a manipulative gentleman who is both infatuated with Bella, as well as frustrated by his inability to control her.

Lanthimos (pictured with Emma Stone) once again partnered with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite) to shoot the project, which was captured on three different film stocks. Yorgos Mavropsaridis, ACE, handled editing duties, continuing his collaborative relationship with the director as well. The world of Poor Things is highly stylized, though ambiguous in its time period — suggesting perhaps the 1930s — and moves back and forth between black & white and color. Here, the director and his DP share with Post their experience shooting the feature, its challenges and their favorite sequences.

Yorgos, it looks like you assembled a team of collaborators that you’ve worked with in the past for this project?

Yorgos Lanthimos: “Some of them I’ve worked with before, [and] some of them not. Actually, production design (James Price) and costume design (Holly Waddington) we hadn’t worked with before…Some of them I have. One aspect of it is, the people that you’ve worked with before, it’s great because you have a short-hand. You know each other and you are more comfortable. You are able to build on the relationship and go further. There’s trust. And then for certain aspects of film, you might want some new blood and a new kind of thinking. So I think, yeah, it’s a combination of the two.”

How long was the shoot? Were you shooting mostly on stages since much of this world was created through production design?

Robbie Ryan: “We started like September 20th and finished (around) December 15th. I think it was like a 45-day shoot, or 50.”

Yorgos Lanthimos: “Something like that. But of course, there was a lot of pre-production, and building the sets started early on. As soon as I envisioned the film, I thought that we should build the world, because it was such a specific world that we had to build most of it in a studio. Actually, I think if we could afford it, we would have built everything in the studio. There was there’s a small part of it, like a 10 percent, I think, that we used real locations, but even then we tried to kind of make them feel very similar to the sets. We added elements on location and we adapted them to look according to how the rest of the world looked. [There’s] very little that we actually shot on-location.”

What drove the decision to shoot on film?

Robbie Ryan: “Well, since The Lobster, Yorgos kind of decided that film was the way to capture cinema, and I think we both loved shooting on film. Because of The Favourite, it was a given that this one would be on film as well. We tried out some new film stocks as well. People like to say it’s more expensive, but I don’t know if I fully agree…I think (it) can be a false economy to say ‘digital is cheaper.’ I think you can kind of balance that out. I feel we were aware of what celluloid might bring expense wise, but we weren’t over using it.”

Is that a matter of really planning out your shots and not allowing for happy accidents?
Yorgos Lanthimos: “It depends really. There might be some instances where you do want that. For example, when we’re in Lisbon, the dancing scene, we were shooting with two cameras at some point. Robbie was shooting the guests while they were unaware of being filmed, which is something that you just shoot and hope that you’ll get something. I don’t think we did in the end.” 

Robbie Ryan: “We did we did cover the dance scene very well.” 

Yorgos Lanthimos: “But the rest of the time, I think we discuss when we’re there on-set. We rehearse the scene briefly with the actors, and then we figure out the kind of shots we want to do. And then it’s specific, but we also see how it goes. If some of the shots that we imagined don’t necessarily cover the things that we want to do, then we might come up with another shot. It’s a little bit of an AD nightmare, the fact that they don’t know how many shots we’re going to do in this scene. But we make that clear from the beginning.”

Robbie Ryan: “Instead of an AD telling us, ‘How many shots do you want?’ We’d say, ‘How long have we got to shoot the rest of the scene?’ And in a way, we could then figure out how to achieve that and get it done in the time we had, and to be able to move on to the next scene.”

I see you did some shooting on an LED stage. Can you talk about how much of the world was captured in-camera?

Yorgos Lanthimos: “A lot of it was painted backdrops, mainly — fully-built sets. But then there were a few moments, like on the boat, there was a huge background that needed motion, as well as movement, so we decided to do that with a huge LED screen. Sometimes we needed to add on to the world that we built because we used so many wide-angle lenses that even if the sets were huge, we would still see the ceiling of the studio. So we would basically add on the top of it…We also shot a lot of miniatures, as much as we could. Even if it was added on in VFX, it was actual stuff that we shot, we created, or painted, or made ourselves.”

Where are the miniatures used?

Yorgos Lanthimos: “The wide shots of the boat — the boat is a miniature. Alexandria itself — the islands with the carts — that’s a miniature. Alfie’s house — the whole house and the gardens are miniature.”

Robbie Ryan: “London Bridge was a miniature as well.”

What did Company 3’s Greg Fisher bring to the color grade?

Robbie Ryan: “Yorgos and myself were in the grade for about three weeks. Greg, he’s a very patient and technically-competent grader. He was able to get what Yorgos was trying to get. The Ektachome, if I remember right, we had a grade from another scanner. We like scanning stuff, and we scanned another stretch and ran it through another scanner, and we were able to see deeper into the blacks. Yorgos liked it, but it had lost a little bit of its special sort of interest…We were talking about maybe shooting each scene on a bit of Ektachrome so that we’d have that as a reference — the Ektachrome (to) sort of inform a little bit of how he would have graded the color 500.”

Yorgos Lanthimos: “It was just simple though. It was just color…adding more contrast that it kind of resembled a little bit more the Ektachrome stuff. We wanted it to look different. That’s why we shot on different stocks, but in order to bring the negative closer to the Ektachrome, we just added quite a bit of contrast. As Robbie mentioned, the initial scans of the Ektachrome had even more character to them, although they had some technical difficulties. So we scanned it again and then we lost some of that character. It was Greg’s task to kind of bring it back to what we liked initially from it. And the black & white stuff was more straightforward. I think it was a matter of finding the little color that exists in black & white to make it so that it cuts nicer with the color stuff. Black & white is more about contrast.”

So you were shooting a range of film stocks, rather than converting color to black & white? 

Yorgos Lanthimos: “It’s black & white film stock. It's Ektachrome for some scenes, and then just negative for others scenes. So it’s three different stocks.”

Where were you getting it processed, and did that affect getting footage to editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis?

Yorgos Lanthimos: “Well, there is a lab in Budapest that we used for the black & white and negative. But we had to send the Ektachrome stuff to a small lab in Germany, right?” 

Robbie Ryan: “Yeah. Berlin. A place called Andec...It’s the only lab in Europe that can process Ektachrome, so that was tricky because we shoot on one day, and we’d get it back to see it in two days…That was still pretty quick. We were able to kind of — for insurance purposes — get the stuff back in time before we moved on.” 

Do you have favorite scenes that you would call attention to?

Robbie Ryan:  “I personally really love the ‘re-animation’ sequence, because it sort of has everything all at once. You’ve got it going from black & white to color. It’s really great. The effects — with the brain coming out — and the music is just so bombastic at that stage. I really love it because the film seems to sort of rubber stamp what kind of film it is.”

Yorgos Lanthimos:  “I always go back to that scene, and it’s because of Emma’s performance, where she goes to Baxter for the first time in the in the lab and the surgery, and the she tells him that she’s going to go away with Duncan. I just find her so funny and so special — her whole presence and how she does that. It’s just so funny to me…Where she goes, ‘May I have a moment of value time, dear God.’ And her syntax is all wrong.”

Can you talk about how the film evolves in terms of color and framing?

Robbie Ryan: “I think this is all sort of coming from where Yorgos’ visual aspects are. I’m always saying, ‘I’m just tagging along, trying to figure out what we’re doing.’ But, I find this question comes up a lot — people saying 'the evolution' of it. We shot totally out of sequence. Having to finish certain sets in time, and once the set was finished, then we couldn’t go back there. So we have to do all the scenes totally out of sequence. The way we would approach each scene, kind of, we shot similarly, I think, didn’t we? So it didn’t feel like our process was changing too much. Obviously, that’s the great thing about a script and how it makes you think a film is evolving. Yorgos’ and Tony’s (McNamara) script has that journey.”

Yorgos, this is based on a novel, which leaves room for visual interpretation. Did the film end up where you thought it would? 

Yorgos Lanthimos: “I think they always evolve into something different to what you were initially imagining. The essential vision for it is very similar, because since I first read the novel, I imagined that this would be a world that we had to build — an old-school approach, that we would build all these sets. We decided early on that we wanted it to be her point of view, so we would create a world that kind of reflected that. So all of these ideas were there from the beginning. But then people got on-board — production design, costumes, everyone — and we did a lot of research. We looked at a lot of paintings, photographs, movies, things in order to be inspired by and find solutions for various things. It took a while as well, because we had the pandemic in-between. And that, in the end, was beneficial, I think, because it gave us time to let things sit and then revisit them.

"It was a long process. As I said, the essence was imagined from the beginning, but how it actually looked and ended up being in the end was something (of) its own. I think they always take a life of themselves. The films, they tell you what they want to be. And of course, the editing is a very important process…because we are kind of finding a language. When we start filming, we’re trying to figure out what the language is, and then we kind of learn maybe quicker as time goes by. Then, during the editing, you distill that, and then maybe you can create a kind of evolution in the edit as well. It was just a long process, and it became what it became. I could never claim that it’s exactly how we imagined it. I would be totally lying. But, the main soul of it was imagined like that, I think.”

Who handled the visual effects, and do you recall the shot count?

Yorgos Lanthimos: “It was Union, but I certainly don’t [remember] the count nowadays. [It] was mostly either building the stuff, like we mentioned the LED screen on the boat — making sure that that was created beforehand so we could shoot it. But the rest of the stuff was mostly enhancing what we shot and set extensions that were from elements that we had built, or compositing the various elements of the miniatures and all those kind of things.”

What’s next for you? 

Yorgos Lanthimos: “Well, we’ve actually shot another film with Robbie as well, and Emma and Willem and Margaret Qualley are in it too, which is  very different to this one. We shot this in New Orleans a year ago. And we’re now editing that. So it’s a very different contemporary film. It’s three different stories and there’s a core of five actors that play one character in each story. So each actor plays three different characters.”