Born in Athens, Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos is a critically-acclaimed filmmaker known for Dogtooth (2009), Alps (2011) and The Lobster (2015). Throughout the 1990s, he directed a series of videos for Greek dance-theater companies, TV commercials, music videos, short films and experimental plays. He has received critical praise for each of his feature films, and Dogtooth went on to receive a 2010 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
The first English-language film from Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster (2015) is set in a dystopian present in which single people are obliged to find a romantic partner at the city-designated Hotel within 45 days, or are transformed into animals. Starring Rachel Weisz, Colin Farrell and Léa Seydoux, the film won various critical awards, including the Jury Prize at Cannes.
Efthymis Filippou is a Greek writer known for his collaborative screenplays with Yorgos Lanthimos for Dogtooth, Alps and The Lobster, all of which garnered awards at major film festivals.
A 2009 film by Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth won Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the 2010 foreign language Academy Award. Starring a cast of Greek theater actors, the film follows three adult children whose mother and father isolate their family in a walled compound and enforce their own twisted rules and reality.
A 2011 feature film by Yorgos Lanthimos, Alps concerns a business scheme through which employees impersonate a recently deceased person to help families through their grief. Alps won best screenplay for Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Lion.
In The Lobster, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos conceives a hyper-stylized world organized around one law: everyone must have a romantic partner. Single people, including films’ protagonist David (Colin Farrell), are sent to The Hotel on the city’s outskirts, a sort of rehab for the unmarried. There, they have 45 days to find ‘love’ or be transformed into an animal of their choice.
Absurd circumstances coupled with dark humor are the signature of Lanthimos and his writing partner, Efthymis Filippou. Oscar-nominated Dogtooth examined the deep psychological implications of three adult children living on their parents’ compound; Alps followed a business that replaces dead family members as a grief-recovery service. These scripts thrive on the strange pathologies of human behavior, accentuated by frigid dialogue and austere framing.
Ultimately, The Lobster interrogates love: Is it real or a social construct? Are we victims of its perpetration? What would that mean for us? True to life, the film leaves its biggest questions ambiguous. The instinct to define, to understand this work within the structures of myth, history or society, is precisely what Lanthimos eschews.
When I talked with Lanthimos, he was in Athens writing a new film with Filippou. He spoke with me about growing up in Greece, his distinctive style and creating space for interpretation.
Clare Shearer: When and how did you start making films?
Yorgos Lanthimos: Growing up in Greece, it was not very common for a young boy to say, “I’m going to become a filmmaker.” At least back then, there weren’t many filmmakers and no industry. So I was interested in films, but it started with a plan that sounded more feasible—to study film and television in order to make commercials, which is a real job where someone can make a living. That’s why I went to film school. But, of course, in school I became more and more in love with films. Although I did start making a lot of commercials very early on—that’s where I got my technical experience—I always had in mind that I wanted to make a film.
So, at some point, we just started making our own films—a few friends asking for favors, using friends’ houses, clothing and cars. By making commercials, investing the money we were making and working with friends, we were able to eventually make our first film without much other support, which in Greece was negligible anyway. That’s how we made Kineta, Dogtooth and Alps.
“I tried to keep a lot of the spirit of how we
made films in Greece… we were free to
discover the language, our voice and our way
of making things.”
— Yorgos Lanthimos
CS: So this film, The Lobster, represents the next step in that you had the support and funding to film on location around the world.
YL: Yes, after making those three films in Greece the way we had to make them, I felt that it was time to evolve and progress. It became clear to me that this would be feasible outside of Greece by making a film in English and getting the support and the structure from somewhere that already exists.
I tried to keep a lot of the spirit of how we made films in Greece because it had a lot of positives. We were free to discover the language, our voice and our way of making things. I tried to carry that on to this next step, which was a slightly bigger film. In actual figures it might seem much bigger, but when you enter a proper industry professional structure, you do end up spending a lot of money where you weren’t spending it when you were making films with your friends. So it wasn’t a huge difference from our films in Greece. It was just more properly made with much more support.
CS: You did manage to keep the same voice, aesthetic and feel. You write your films with Efthymis Filippou and create these very specific, nearly surreal microcosms. How do you conceptualize those worlds together?
YL: It’s quite organic how it’s done. First of all, we never decided, “Okay, we’re gonna make these types of films.” We know each other from advertising. He used to be a copywriter at one of the agencies, and we were very good friends. The first screenplay that we worked together on was Dogtooth. I went to him with the idea and asked him whether he wanted to write a screenplay. He’d never written a screenplay before, so we basically started by learning how we wanted to work with each other, how we wanted to do this thing, and figured it out step by step. After making Dogtooth, we realized that we liked making films and tried to evolve and make it better and more frequent.
It always starts with conversations where we tell each other ideas we’re interested in—situations, things that we’ve observed, behaviors. And then small ideas come out of that, like, what if we explored this theme by creating this situation? And we just develop it like that—bouncing ideas off each other in order to make a whole universe or story. It depends on the film how we approach it. If it needs to be a slightly skewed world with different rules, then we might start with that. If it’s more about a journey of a character or a certain behavior, then we focus more on that.