Interview by Clare Shearer
Illustrations by Elena Stonaker
“I’m not interested in just trying to
represent reality as it is.
I can see that right in front of me.”
— Yorgos Lanthimos
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.
CS: In The Lobster, you create this world that functions under one specific law, which is that a person is incomplete unless they’re part of a couple. Were you trying to bring our attention to the absurdity of societal norms as a whole by satirizing the concept of a couple?
YL: We started from the obvious thing, which was relationships—romantic relationships in particular—and love—couples questioning whether there is love. How do you find it? How do you realize when you’ve found it? And constructing this whole world around these kinds of questions. Then you touch up on all these other themes that have to do with how we construct our lives, our world, societies and the rules we live by. What is the relationship that we have with the rules and the norms? So hopefully it goes beyond couples and relationships in the end.
CS: To make a larger comment on how society is our dictator and possibly also our prison?
YL: I hope so. We don’t try to include that literally in every scene or in the story, but I think because the story takes place in a relatively complete world—and we’ve constructed that—it allows a second level of thought about these issues. And about a lot of other things, including freedom of choice. It depends, then, on each person, what they see in it according to their own experiences, beliefs, education, perception.
It’s really hard for me to talk about my films because there are a lot of things that are very intuitive and subconscious, things that someone can read that I’m not aware of. So sometimes it’s so much better when someone else comes in and says, “I understand it this way.” There’s no wrong or right. It’s just this thing that we put out there into the world, and hopefully each person will be able to experience it a different way. I have one reality, and I think certain things about it, but the best thing and the greatest thing about the experience of watching films—or any other kind of art in general—is that you can understand things on your own and have your own version of it. We allow that space for people.
“It’s really hard for me to talk
about my films because there are a lot
of things that are very intuitive
and subconscious, things that someone
can read that I’m not aware of.”
— Yorgos Lanthimos
CS: In The Hotel, everyone must pair off according to a specific physical trait: a limp or a smile. Or a characteristic: liking butter biscuits or skiing. It’s very cold and impersonal.
YL: Sometimes we see people in such a superficial way, and we try to connect by something quite superficial and silly, reducing people into something which might be characteristic. It becomes very inhuman. Then we are talking about people trying to find other people—that cliché phrase “find their other half.”
CS: Is there any specific impulse in having the single people turn into animals as punishment?
YL: It was just us trying to find a punishment that was along the lines of how this world, or The Hotel, was presented to people—as something positive, another chance for them to find love. It’s a happy place. It’s a nice place. Although it really isn’t, there’s a facade that tries to pass as that. We’re also getting into the heads of the people who created this world, and trying to find something that would more positive than executing someone or imprisoning them for life. There’s a positive twist to becoming an animal, which is of use to the world. You’re not useful as a human anymore, but maybe you can be useful as an animal. You can still be around. It was those kind of thoughts that led us, instead of finding something gruesome, to discover a different kind of punishment.
CS: The dialogue in your films with Efthymis—Dogtooth, Alps and The Lobster—is very cold, stilted, cut and dry. There’s no emotional resonance in what people are saying to each other. It’s an unusual way to talk to people who you’re close with personally and spatially. Is this purposeful?
YL: Again, I don’t know if we ever think about it like that. Our natural way of approaching things is a strange process because much of it comes from very real things that we’ve heard or observed around us. But when you bring everything together—the situation, the story, how you view and stage certain things, how you create the dialogue—the whole thing becomes something slightly different and skewed from reality, which is why I’m interested in making cinema anyway. I’m not interested in just trying to represent reality as it is. I can see that right in front of me. I don’t think there’s any use of another product that’s exactly the same as life. You can shed light onto different things if you’re trying to make something different. You can discover certain truths that cannot be discovered just by recreating reality. So with every element, I tried to have a different feel. Some of them might be very realistic, and some might be a bit more stylized. Then you have all these different levels from sound to image to voiceover to music, and hopefully you create this unique tone that represents the world of the film.
CS: In that same vein, your films are so technically beautiful. Yet the way the camera works is disarming because it doesn’t always follow the characters—someone will stand up or move, and their head will be cut out of the frame.
YL: It’s about focusing on the things that you’re interested in, not conventionally covering whatever is happening. There might be a scene where someone is speaking, but it’s more interesting to observe the one who is listening. Or maybe you can focus more on the words if you’re watching the scene behind them, and then the words mean something different and sound different. I’m trying to discover all those things again. Trying to reveal something different from what is literally happening.
CS: In terms of film, books or music, who are you influenced by?
YL: I’m not sure about direct influences, but I’m definitely inspired by a lot of things. I love the films of Robert Bresson, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard. I’m not sure if I’m influenced directly because they are such different filmmakers, but I’m very moved by the things they do, and I try to do my own thing as well and maybe borrow their philosophy about how to make things. You discover that you share certain views with those great filmmakers and that is enough to make you happy, though you might not make something as great as they do.
“You discover that you share certain views
with those great filmmakers, and that
is enough to make you happy, though you might
not make something as great as they do.”
— Yorgos Lanthimos
I listen to a lot of music, but wasn’t able to use a lot of music in my films up to now. The Lobster was the first time I managed to find a way to use music and, by using music, opening things up instead of reducing them. Because I think that’s what music usually does in films—it’s just emotive and descriptive of what’s happening. I find it quite insulting—even myself as a viewer—if someone’s really pounding on me about how I should think and feel about everything. And that’s why I could never really use music as soundtrack in any of my films. But I think this time I managed, with the use of the voiceover and music, to create a third tone by adding more elements.
There are different tonalities in every element, so the music doesn’t say the same thing as the image or the dialogue or the voiceover says. It says something maybe completely contradicting and then, in conjunction with all the other elements, means something new. And, hopefully, all of these elements added together create a new tone and feel for the film.
CS: I do feel like your films create a tone I’ve never experienced before, and it’s actually not comfortable to watch—it sets you on edge at the same time that it draws you in.
YL: Well, that’s quite an exciting thing, being uncomfortable when it is not clear why you’re uncomfortable. It’s not because you are shocked or provoked in an on-the-nose kind of way, but because you don’t know exactly how you’re supposed to take certain things. You have to do a little bit of work and make a decision about how you feel, and maybe you don’t even have time to make that decision because you’re transported into a different situation.
We’re also trying to alternate between various tones and situations within the films, from something quite ridiculous and funny to something that may be quite violent or dark, so you don’t really have time to get used to one thing and make up your mind. And with that kind of atmosphere, you enter a different scene and feel and tone, and you bring something different from before. That makes things more complex, but I hope in an interesting and engaging way.