A story about re-activating a dead woman with her unborn baby’s brain was always going to make for a strange film but if weird is what you want, Poor Things will not disappoint, writes Adrian Pennington.
From its phantasmagorical costume and steampunk production design to the gothic visuals of its cinematography the latest film from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is a sensory treat.
Based on Alasdair Gray’s book, the script is by Tony McNamara who created the fizzing period romp The Great. It inverts the classic Frankenstein tale by making the ‘monster’ a very perceptive and beautiful woman, and her love interests, potential monsters.
“It a pretty unusual scenario to start from, and knowing his work with Tony, and their kind of humour, I knew it would be an ambitious take about sexual, emotional and spiritual awakening, with a lot of layers,” said Robbie Ryan, ISC BSC, who was Oscar-nominated for Lanthimos’ Queen Anne drama, The Favourite in 2018.
The coming-of-age story follows Bella (Emma Stone), a young woman who is brought back to life by her protective guardian, the unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) in an alternate Victorian era that flits between Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris.
The heroine lives in a “dystopian version of a Merchant Ivory film, with the idea of a grand tour,” according to McNamara in the film’s production notes.
Lanthimos set his fellow heads of department a task, which was to make it all as hand-crafted and free of digital trickery as possible. Among other things this entailed shooting it all in a studio - the old-fashioned way - with gigantic sets, shooting on 35mm film using resuscitated filmmaking techniques.
“Yorgos really wanted to create from whole cloth,” Ryan said. “Things weren’t meant to feel real or verité. It’s got its own angle, its own quirk.”
Ryan is best known for his work with Andrea Arnold on Fish Tank (2009), American Honey (2016) and forthcoming release Bird as well as for shooting Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake (2016) and the director’s last movie The Old Oak.
Unlike all those movies as well as The Favourite, Poor Things was strictly studio bound. With Lanthimos, Ryan discussed how to film scenes as if they were on location – with no lights, flags, and equipment on set other than the camera. Among other things it meant having to pre-light everything from outside the windows or on studio ceiling rails.
“From my perspective, [the challenge] was to try to light all those worlds as if it was a normal location,” Ryan said.
Behind the Scenes: Poor Things - Shooting on Film
First and foremost, Lanthimos wanted to shoot on 35mm film and moreover to use an older film stock only ever made as 16mm. The filmmakers approached Kodak who agreed to create a unique 35mm version of Ektachrome 100D 5294 colour neg. A number of the film’s opening scenes are filmed in black and white joining Oppenheimer (DP Hoyte Van Hoytema FSF NSC ASC), Maestro (DP Matthew Libatique ASC) and Asteroid City (DP Robert Yeoman ASC) in the list of 2023 titles made using a storytelling hybrid of 35mm colour and B&W stocks.
“It’s a beautiful celluloid to work with,” said Ryan. “It was quite a selective process in terms of what was shot on Ektachrome, depending partly on the set partly on lighting.”
He went through the schedule with Lanthimos and marked-up which scenes to shoot on Ektachrome. “When Bella goes on her journey, the kaleidoscope of colour comes out,” he added.
“We used the various textures, contrast and colour of the different film stocks to enhance the look and atmosphere of multiple sets and different scenes.”
Processing of the Kodak Double-X 5222B&W footage was done at Magyar Film Lab in Budapest. The exposed Ektachrome was developed at Cinegrell Berlin.
4K film scanning of the different film stocks was completed by Cinelab, along with the creation film print deliverables. The DI grade was performed by Greg Fisher at Company 3 in London.
Behind the Scenes: Poor Things - Lenses Tell their Own Story
Ryan also created the film’s language with use of various vintage lenses. Tests with Lanthimos were extensive, including going through 50 sets in a day to find the right one.
These included using antique 58mm and 85mm Petzval lenses first made around the turn of the twentieth century for stills portraiture and a number of wide-angle optics including an 8mm Nikkor lens used for Baxter’s laboratory, a wide-angle 10mm Zeiss lens and an extreme 4mm Optex Prime.
Of the Petzvals he explained, “You’ve got this really beautiful bokeh where the fall off from the focus is very shallow. The focus is all over the place and the centre usually is the only thing that’s in focus. It creates really beautiful swirly optics.”
If the moment needed something “a bit more mad”, he’d pop the Optex 4mm on the camera. As it was designed for 16mm cinematography, it’s the wrong lens for the 4-perf film 35mm format they were shooting.
“But it gave a lovely vignette with dark edges, a kind of porthole into another world, that Yorgos really liked,” Ryan told Kodak. “It does not bulge and bend the image so much as the 6mm lens we used on The Favourite, but has a huge depth-of-field, where pretty much everything in the frame was in focus from a face or object just a few inches in front of the lens right out to infinity.”
He also shot using zooms, which was a new technique for Ryan. He operated A camera and had to perfect his skills at focus pulling.
“Yorgos hates the idea of conventional film coverage. So, we blocked scenes with all sorts of dolly and crane moves that, for example, started on a close-up, zoomed back and then tracked over to a different character, which might perhaps then intercut with an extreme wide.”
The decision to frame for a 1.66:1 VistaVision aspect ratio, a departure from the standard widescreen format, allowed him to shoot intimate closeups and use the additional height to achieve more abstract shots.
Some scenes were shot on the compact Beaumonte VistaVision camera designed to work on Steadicams which has its own quirks. During the re-animation scene when Bella wakes up the camera started running out of power, which mean the physical film reel going through it was running slower too, producing a “weird animation” they ended up using in the final picture. “It looks like it’s sped up, and it was only purely by a mistake.”
Behind the Scenes: Poor Things - Studio Bound
Poor Things was filmed in August 2021 in Hungary, mainly at Origo Studios in Budapest, where elaborate interior sets, created by production designers Shona Heath and James Price, were built on stage, along with exteriors of Paris and Lisbon on different backlots.
The filmmakers started to look at cities like Budapest and Prague to use as locations, but inspired by the films of the 1930s, Lanthimos began exploring the idea of constructing their own world from scratch.
Heath found a lot of her inspiration from the satirical drawings of Albert Guillaume during the Belle Epoque era in Paris, which were futuristic for their time.
“We always tried to imagine that this story was set in a past time, but with the vision of the future,” Heath explains in the film’s notes.
Production took over numerous soundstages, where they built the complete worlds of London and Baxter’s House, the ocean liner ship, the Paris square and brothel and the Alexandria hotel and slums. For the city of Lisbon, they used the largest sound stage in continental Europe at Korda Studios in Budapest. Painted backdrops and back projection rounded out the world shot in camera.
Augmenting these old-school techniques was a virtual production screen which was the deliberately fantastical backdrop to scenes from the cruise ship. The heightened almost surreal colour palette and unabashed artificiality of films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) an influence.
Alasdair Gray was also a painter who illustrated the novel’s text. That set Lanthimos off on his visual exploration of the book’s themes which he describes as fundamentally about a woman’s freedom in society.
It’s a political film, McNamara contends, “The idea of patriarchy and of young women liberating themselves from being objectified has become so important in society. I hope that comes through.”
Produced by Film4, Element Pictures, TSG Entertainment and Searchlight Pictures, the film is on UK release in January.
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