The Irish movie star you've never heard of
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan is the toast of Cannes after his superb double win
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
It's safe to say that Irish film is enjoying a purple patch on the world stage, and the Irish attendees of last weekend's Cannes Film Festival found themselves suitably covered in glory. Not only did she charm Cannes' photographer pack: already, Ruth Negga is tipped for awards-season success for her role in Loving.
However, a lesser-known talent provided the horsepower for not one, but two award-scooping films. Ken Loach won the coveted Palme d'Or (best picture award) for I, Daniel Blake, a film about an older man who has a heart attack and can no longer work. It was his second award for best picture, after 2006's The Wind That Shakes The Barley, starring Cillian Murphy. And when it came to the competition's Jury Prize, British indie queen Andrea Arnold won for her road movie American Honey. Arnold, incidentally, was the director of Michael Fassbender's breakthrough movie Fish Tank (she cast him again in Wuthering Heights). Both directors clearly have form with Irish acting talent, but they share another commonality: both of their films were shot by Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
Born and raised in Dublin, Ryan decided to become a cinematographer at the age of 14, when he, his friends and his cousins commandeered one of his father's Kodak S8 cameras and started making short films. A college course in Cinematography in Dun Laoghaire's CAD (Now IADT) only served to fuel his passion for a life behind the lens. While there, he worked with fledgling directors like Kirsten Sheridan and Dee Armstrong. A couple of years later, a momentous move to London - where "people would pay me for making short films which I had been doing for free in Ireland" - saw his career start in earnest.
Cinema audiences may not be readily familiar with his name, but even those with a cursory glance towards their Cineplex will know his work. He kickstarted his feature-film career with Graham Jones' How To Cheat In The Leaving Cert (1997).
In 2003, he shot a short film, Wasp, for the young and up-and-coming director Andrea Arnold called. The short won an Oscar for Arnold, and Ryan's collaboration with her remains one of the most celebrated in British cinema
The Dubliner first came to Loach's attention when he worked on The Angel's Share in 2011, and later on 2014's masterpiece Jimmy's Hall.
Of working with Loach, Ryan says: "(filming) is about witnessing life without being intrusive, the camera is not there, really". The secret to a great collaboration, he says, is to bring the director's vision to life.
"I don't necessarily have a vision!" says Ryan. "The director drives the cinematographer, and a good cinematographer adapts to any scenario. But I'm drawn to a style I am suited to, which is naturalistic; real stories with real people that don't involve too much artifice."
In 2012, Ryan came to the attention of Stephen Frears, celebrated director of The Snapper, and they collaborated on the Oscar-nominated Philomena. A year later, he was on a plane bound for New Zealand, where he shot the exquisite-looking western Slow West, teaming up, once again, with Fassbender in front of the lens.
Working at close range with actors seems to appeal to Ryan. "On most jobs you're always right on top, you get friendly with them and I love that proximity; it's a comfortable place to be," he told The Guardian. "You're like a middle-man: I try and sense what the director wants and interpret it for the person."
It's easy to see why the likes of Loach, Frears and Arnold earmarked him for collaboration: his is a singular and eye-catching style, eerie, and atmospheric.
"Nowadays you can just grab a DSLR or even your iPhone and make imagery," Ryan is quoted as saying. "It's a question of getting your eye to a camera. That's where you learn about composition, by shooting the world around you. If you can create an interest in the everyday world around you, then you're probably going in the right direction."
Ryan's reputation, sufficiently bolstered by his recent Cannes coup, continues to grow with every new film. Up next is Paul Duane's Best Before Death, a documentary on musician Bill Drummond.
"We're filming in some pretty strange parts of the world, and Robbie is unflappable, incredibly versatile, and carries an air of calm and good vibes with him at all times," says Duane. "The key to why people want to work with him is not only that he's an incredibly gifted cinematographer, he's also the most fun to work with."
Two shorts that Ryan has shot - Little Solider and Drop The Hand - are in post-production, while he will helm the cinematography for indie master Noah Baumbach's next film, Yeh Din Ka Kissa (starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson). The next year sounds varied and exciting for the cinematographer: sure enough, the Dubliner remains grounded.
"When you look at the crew of a film shoot, which one would you like to be?" he says. "I tell you, 'cinematographer'. As Orson Welles said: 'You get in late and you get out early.' You don't do the prep and you don't do any of the post. You just do the shoot, and that's a buzz that is really addictive."