Cinematographer Robbie Ryan on capturing Nick Cave alone at Alexandra Palace
This Thursday, 23 July, sees the release of Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace, a groundbreaking concert film by Nick Cave.
Shot in June, the film shows Cave performing solo at a piano in an empty Alexandra Palace in the legendary venue’s stunning West Hall. Covering early Bad Seeds and Grinderman material, cuts from his most recent album Ghosteen and other rarities from his vast back catalogue, the film is an intimate portrait of a uniquely commanding live performer. Cave describes the film as “the final film in a trilogy – along with 20,000 Days on Earth and One More Time with Feeling – and is its luminous and heartfelt climax.”
As its trailer shows, Idiot Prayer is a visually stunning piece of work – mirroring the uncertainty of live music in 2020 with an eerie stillness as light bounces off a floor that’s normally covered by fans. This powerful visual language can be credited, in part, to the film’s cinematographer. Robbie Ryan has a monumental portfolio of work spanning over 100 film projects in his career. Most recently, Ryan’s cinematography can be seen in Oscar-nominated films like Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
In a reality where live music as we know it is hanging in the balance, this unique piece of work feels especially significant. We spoke to Robbie about navigating the “People’s Palace” and trying to capture the core intimacy of live performance.
Firstly, for readers who might not know, can you explain who you are and what a cinematographer does?
I’m Robbie Ryan and I’m a cinematographer. I’m the person who collaborates with a director to create the look of a film visually… basically I’m the one who points the camera!
You’ve done a number of music videos and music-related content over the years. What role has music played in your professional development?
Music is almost more important to me than pictures. I listen to a lot and I’m always inspired by music. Music videos are a great way to experiment with ideas and visual techniques that inform the other work I do. And they are always shot very quickly so I love the creative excitement that that time pressure brings!
Do you have any all-time favourite concert films?
I actually don’t really watch that many concert films but I do love the film about the Rumble in the Jungle where James Brown came and played an amazing gig.
And how did you get involved in this project? Did you know Nick Cave before?
My friend Fiona Crombie who was production designer on The Favourite and who has set up the production company for this project recommended me. Nick got in touch after that and we went from there.
What relationship did you have with Nick Cave’s work before starting on this project? Had you seen him live?
I had never seen Nick live before. I have friends who are very much devotees so I knew he was great performing live but this was a special way to be introduced to his work.
Cave has described this as the last in the trilogy of his other two films. Had you seen those? How did they inform the work Idiot Prayer?
I saw the black and white 3D film at the Venice Film Festival and I couldn’t handle the 3D so left early. But I got the sense that Nick was very upfront and honest. I liked that about them.
What conversations did you have with Nick ahead of shooting? How did he describe the kind of film he wanted to make?
I talked with Nick a few times on the phone. He wanted to make an honest performance film in a space that usually holds a lot of people, not necessarily on a stage. So that’s pretty much what we did! Also he said that I not make him look shit!
Are there any film references you discussed?
Well we talked a bit about his other films and some live performance lighting references that he sent me. From my side I suggested the lighting reference from the Clouzot film Inferno with the moving light which we ended up filming on Man in the Moon which I’m fond of.
Did you recce the venue to find the best spot for the performance?
I recced with the producer after we had decided that that was the venue to film.
What was the atmosphere like at an empty Alexandra Palace?
Well it’s also called “The People’s Palace”, so that says it all because it was empty of people. But there’s a sense of life having passed through there and there’s lots of pictures of past concerts on the walls so that resonated a lot. Also, there was a food bank packaging charity operating out of the same space we ended up filming in when we recced so that brought home the reality of Covid and what we were doing and why we were doing it. That was quite an emotional hit .
The lead piano setup is visually stunning. Can you talk us through the lighting and the framing of that positioning?
The piano is the centrepiece of the film so it made sense to put it in the middle of the space and it just happened to look amazing in that position. I also got lucky with the fact that the location had a brushed concrete floor that was shiny and reflective and then a ceiling with fluorescent fixtures that I could operate and turn on and off which was very useful to the lighting scheme. We rigged our own lights in the ceiling and changed them colour-wise from song to song.
From a cinematic perspective, what makes Alexandra Palace so special?
It’s a beautiful building and has a lot of history so all the spaces that we had Nick walk around at the beginning of the piece all had more resonance because they are spaces that would usually be inhabited by thousands of people.
Was it important for you to capture the hallways and carpeted staircases as well as the iconic main rooms?
I love the look of those spaces as they feel like being lost on some big cruise ship! Maybe that’s the next film… Nick Cave on a cruise liner performing!
How was the performance captured? All in one take or broken up?
Nick was very keen not to have to perform the songs too many times. And from an edit perspective to cut two live performances of the same song together is difficult. So we pretty much filmed it like a live concert each song being played once.
When we had finished Nick asked if there were any songs we would like to do again and that’s when we did different versions. We did about three songs differently visually. For example, Man in the Moon was re-done with the Clouzot lighting reference I mentioned and luckily that got in the final film. I’m a big fan of that one.
What was the atmosphere on set like during the performance?
It was a small crew and everybody was concentrated on doing their jobs. However it’s Nick Cave performing a live concert to a select few so we were a very privileged group of people who all got mesmerised!
Finding imaginative ways of bringing performances to fans is more important than ever. What do you hope Idiot Prayer shows people?
I hope that this film helps bring the intimacy of what a live performance does. The special feeling that you were there can never be replaced and shouldn’t be, but I hope this film brings a little bit of that feeling to the folk who view it. I’m a new Nick Cave fan as i didn’t really know his songs prior to filming. But for the fans who are watching Idiot Prayer, expect songs you love and cherish being performed in a beautiful intimate way by Nick at his piano. That’s enough to get any fan excited!
Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace will be streamed three times globally on Thursday 23 July. Find more info and tickets here.