Yorgos Lanthimos: ‘I just think it’s interesting to start a dialogue’

The Greek director talks about directing The Lobster, his first English-language feature, and asking audiences to step outside the box.

Diana Lodderhose

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster (2015)

It’s been four years since acclaimed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos moved to London.

Fresh off of the back of the critical success of Alps, which picked up the Osella for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, the filmmaker was keen to break from his native language and start making films in English.

“It was a very deliberate move,” says the director, whose macabre films such as Dogtooth (winner of Un Certain Regard in Cannes 2009), Alps and Kinetta have established a cult following across the globe. “I was intent on my next film being in the English language.”

And while for some directors the step up from local-language independent to the big leagues is sometimes too big of a hurdle to jump, Lanthimos, a master of Greek surrealism, handles the transition almost seamlessly with his English-language debut The Lobster. Boasting a stellar cast including Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly, the dystopian love story set in the near future examines a world where single people are obliged to find a partner in 45 days or they are transformed into animals and released into the woods.

The film marks the third collaboration between Lanthimos and Greek screenwriter Efthimis Filippou (Dogtooth, Alps) and has already been lauded on the international festival circuit: It debuted in competition at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where it picked up the Jury Prize and left the Croisette with a plethora of top notch reviews.

“It’s about exposing aspects of human life and situations and thoughts that you have,” explains Lanthimos of The Lobster. “Hopefully people watching will start thinking themselves about those things and come up with their own answers. Whatever we have observed in our behaviour and the way we have constructed this world, we want to make people wonder whether all of those things are true.”

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster (2015)

Producers Lee Magiday and Ed Guiney of Dublin and London-based Element Pictures and London-based Scarlet Films’ Ceci Dempsey were working with Lanthimos on another project when he and Filippou presented them with the idea for The Lobster.  

“We wanted to do something about a relationship and couples and the way people view them,” says Lanthimos, noting that the concept evolved over a long process of observations and discussions between himself and Filippou. “It wasn’t one particular thing that inspired us.”

The duo wrote a treatment and offered it to Element and Scarlet and they immediately came on board. “It was a very interesting look at how we are as people,” says Magiday. “Being single, being alone or being involved with someone and the fears and constraints society puts on that. It was a truly original love story.”

Element were able to offer up funding from their MEDIA slate financing for the duo to write a script. “We wanted to support Yorgos and Efthimis to write the screenplay in their own unique way.” Magiday says. “The MEDIA funding helped us as producers to do that right away rather than going through a more lengthy process to engage development funding.”  

She says it was Lanthimos’ voice and unique way of looking at the world that was the key driver for Element and Scarlet’s interest in his vision. “We were interested in him and the fact that he was driven by the human condition and the way in which he looks at the world, keen to provoke reactions rather than offer up answers.”

Financing the project, however, became a challenge, recalls Lanthimos. “For some reason I guess people wanted me to prove myself in English-language films,” he suggests.

Magiday says they were keen to create a process where the budget was in a range whereby he could keep creative control. “We wanted to drive the financing out of the European marketplace, where his previous films had been so critically successful.” she says. They took the project to Rotterdam to present it to the market in a “very low-key” way, before any cast were attached.

“We didn’t want to put too much pressure on the project as a film that was driven by cast, we wanted to drive it very much as a Yorgos Lanthimos project. And we wanted to protect him as a filmmaker first and foremost,” says Magiday.

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster (2015)

The Lobster became an Irish-UK-Greek-French-Dutch co-production; physical production was done in Ireland; editing in the UK; picture and sound post in Holland; and VFX in France. “We worked hard with our co-producers on this co-production structure,” says Magiday, “to enable Yorgos the freedom to work creatively.”

Lanthimos admits that the film may not be the most straight-forward and commercial film but despite this, casting the film, he says, was relatively easy. He decided very early on that he wanted to work with Farrell and Weisz. “I was very lucky that many of these actors were aware of my work and read the script and were genuinely interested in it,” he says. “Literally I got all of the actors I wanted to work with for this film. The language didn’t matter at this point as the film takes part in this world, this contemporary world we had created.”

The cast is certainly reflective of a contemporary world, with a diverse range of actors from the UK (Weisz, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen and Ben Whishaw), Ireland (Farrell), France (Léa Seydoux and Ariane Labed), the US (Reilly) and Greece (Angeliki Papoulia) all composing Lanthimos’ world.

“Casting became the simplest part of the equation,” says Lanthimos. “Most of them I didn’t know and we didn’t have the time or money to bring everyone in for rehearsals beforehand but I was extremely lucky as they were all wonderful. They all got the film and were very supportive and helpful.”

The Lobster was shot in County Kerry in southwest Ireland over 35 days and while the project scales up from anything Lanthimos had done before and represents his first English-language film there was, says Magiday, no doubt that he would deliver what he intended with the film.

“Yorgos works incredibly hard and there was no doubt that he would make the film particular to his own voice” she says. “There has never been a question about his transition to English for us. His dialogue is so particular and he has a very specific ear for how he hears language,” adding that Filippou was on set for most of the shoot. “They would talk constantly about how things sounded and how the dialogue worked.”

Magiday says that they totally believed in the world Lanthimos was creating. “The real challenge for Yorgos was filming in a different location with crew he didn’t know and working on a film of a different scale.”

“My previous films were so small,” says Lanthimos, noting that in the past he had had just a few friends on board a project making it for the love of film with little money and a lot of flexibility. “It was very different working in an environment where there are rules and structures,” he admits. “And sometimes it’s hard to go around them but in the end, it worked.”

And while the film stepped up in terms of scale and ambition, the international film circuit crystallised his effort when Cannes selected the film to feature in the main Competition in May. While Lanthimos is no stranger to the festival (Dogtooth won Un Certain Regard in 2009), The Lobster represented the first time one of his films was selected for this prestigious section of the festival.

When the illustrious Cannes jury, which this year featured the likes of the Coen Brothers, Jake Gyllenhaal and Guillermo del Toro, awarded The Lobster with the Jury prize, Lanthimos’ position as an international director was cemented.

“I always expect people to be torn when they see one of my films and divided in some way,” says Lanthimos. “And I’m sure that there are people who really like what we do and others who don’t. But it was great to meet people who appreciate what we are doing on some levels and get recognised for it.”

He adds: “I wouldn’t be making films if I just wanted to express some specific ideas, then I would be writing essays or something. I just think it’s interesting to start a dialogue.”

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