Idiomatic Idiosyncrasy: Yorgos Lanthimos Talks The Lobster, Greek Cinema and Musical Subtlety

Whether depicting a family sheltering their children into madness, a group of people selling an unorthodox yet efficient cure for grief, or a world a in which single people are destined to become fauna—the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, in whatever language, confront those who brave them with absurdist premises that challenge what we consider “normal.”

Pushing ideas to extremes, his films—the best-known amongst them 2009’s Dogtooth and 2011’s Alps—and make evident the irrationality behind many human codes of conduct. In The Lobster, which won the Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Lanthimos leaves Greece behind as the physical location anchoring his previous work—but where he goes isn’t immediately identifiable. With a larger international cast lead by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, the film imagines a reality in which one’s sole purpose is to find a romantic partner or be transformed into an animal. There is no middle ground within the rules of this fictional society, as Farrell’s David finds; the only other choice is to escape the system and be doomed to life in a shadowy forest with other rebel “loners.”

Faced with such dire circumstances, Lanthimos’ characters react in darkly comedic ways, characteristic of the tone that has given him a place among the world’s most unconventional auteurs. MovieMaker talked to Lanthimos about the benefits of working with the expanded resources an international production affords, his decision to make music a larger part of the tonal equation than in previous work, and the rules he follows to remain in control on set.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In your previous films, the idiosyncrasies of the stories were only observed by, and affected, your central characters. They didn’t apply to those outside of those groups. In The Lobster we are supposed to believe that the entire world, event that beyond what we see on screen, functions under these rules. How does this expansion in terms of scope change your creative process?

Yorgos Lanthimos (YL): First of all, we didn’t write that consciously or on purpose. It was just that the film’s central idea made it necessary for us to create a bigger world and, because of that, make a slightly larger-scale film. To me it does make it slightly more challenging because, again, we were making a very small film that had to look large-scale. We had to find the ways of making it work with very few means. But other than that most of the process was very similar to what we were used to before. I worked the same way with the actors, writing the film, editing the film. It was just a little bit more difficult to get the details right.

Rachel Weisz as "Short-Sighted Woman" in The Lobster

Rachel Weisz as “Short-Sighted Woman” in The Lobster

MM: Could any of the ideas in your previous films expand to a larger world, or do you think of them as contained entities, only applicable to the characters in the story and not to the world at large?

YL: Well, in Dogtooth there is the hypothesis that there might be a larger world affected by this, but we don’t know. We never decided ourselves whether that was the case or not, and we certainly didn’t show it. In Alps, it’s just the real world and we focus on this group of people that have a very specific way of earning their living. It’s different. Kinetta, again, focuses on a few characters in one specific place. There is not a generalized view of a different world. So I think The Lobster is, in my work, kind of unique in the way that it does present a different world with very specific rules.

MM: In terms of the cinematography, your previous films have a more realistic aesthetic. The Lobster is visually very different on the surface, but shares similar elements. Tell me about working with the same cinematographer as Dogtooth, Thimios Bakatakis, to create a new particular style.

YL: We always try to create certain rules for how we film every film, and it just has to come out of the material itself. There are specific ideas in each film, and we basically try to limit ourselves in order to not have every choice in the world when we are making a film or we are filming a scene.

So this film, for me, was mainly about having a certain kind of voyeuristic look to it. We decided to just try and keep the camera as much as away from the actors as possible and not have it in their face. Usually we had the camera either lower or higher than their eye lines. We used long lenses, and a few times very wide-angle lenses—extreme choices. We created a visual language that we felt was particular to this film.

At the same time, I think that because we are the same people, there are many similarities. I do have a very particular taste and sensibility about how I like my films framed, the rhythm, and the kind of coverage that I do, which I don’t want to be extensive. I want to focus on certain aspects of a scene and create a certain tone. We made this film taking all that into consideration.

MM: Did you feel that having a slightly larger budget gave you more creative tools? Did this modify in any way the way you work on set?

YL: It did somewhat give us more tools, but it wasn’t that huge of a difference. Also, we’ve developed a certain taste for using natural light. We did the same here. We only used lights in the nighttime scenes, because it those would be impossible to film without any lights, but that was very minimal as well. We worked with natural light both because of the aesthetic results that I like, but also because that way we were able to move around quicker and more freely. I enjoy that kind of work, where we are only focused on creating the scene with the actors, and being able to film the angles I want to film very quickly, and not have long periods of waiting setting things up. We did that as well this time.

We were able to use dollies a few times, which we hadn’t really in the past because we couldn’t afford them. But I think [the use of dolly] is kind of seamless in this film. I don’t think many people realize that we’ve used them, because we did it in very specific places and usually with the motivation of a character that’s moving around. They felt similarly static to the actual static shots [laughs]. Character movement motivated camera movement, so it was very organic, not this external thing. Other than that, there wasn’t much difference in the way we filmed it. I think the actors enjoyed it very much because they didn’t sit around waiting to be lit. The camera would just move from here to there and they would just go again right away.

Jessica Barden and Colin Farrell in The Lobster

Jessica Barden and Colin Farrell in The Lobster

MM: Colin Farrell is definitely the star of the film and does a fantastic job, but there is another actor in The Lobster that I find interesting: Angeliki Papoulia, who starred in Dogtooth and Alps, appears here as the character of the Heartless Woman. Tell me about your decision to bring her on board once again. Similarly, Ariane Labed also worked with you in Alps and appears here as the Maid.

YL: I wanted to work with some of the people that I’ve worked with before, like Ariane and Angeliki. It’s about having a friend on board as well, someone you know very well. You feel more comfortable communicating certain things, or not having to communicate anything and that being OK. It’s funny because with Angeliki, every time that we’ve made a film we have done screen tests, although I knew her really well from Dogtooth and Alps, in order for me to be sure. It’s not just about having a friend and knowing she is a great actress, you need to be sure that the part is right and that is going to work well. Angeliki is great in a way that she would do anything, and is so passionate about it. She is so giving, committed and generous, and that is great to watch.

It’s the same with Ariane. In the beginning, before we started to work on The Lobster, I though that these two would be the only actors I would have on my side and have a shorthand with, and that I might have difficulties with the other actors that I hadn’t worked with before. But it ended up being exactly the opposite. The rest of the actors were so committed, understanding, and supportive. They immediately got the tone of the film and they understood the material. They were there because of my previous work and they appreciated my previous work, so it worked out much better than I had ever anticipated with them as well. It was an interesting mix to see them blend with actors like Angeliki and Arianne, whom I’m much more familiar with. To see them seamlessly integrating and not having to do much about that was great.

Ariane Labed and Farrell in The Lobster

Ariane Labed and Farrell in The Lobster

MM: Last year during the New York Film Festival, your close collaborator and fellow Greek filmmaker Athina Tsangari said in a conversation that she wanted to kill the term “Greek Weird Wave” because it was a term created by critics outside of Greece. What’s your take on that? Was there ever a movement or just a group of films with peculiar ideas that came out around the same time?

YL: I quite agree with Athina on that. I think there was a need, which comes from outside the filmmakers themselves, to identify a certain kind of movement—wrongly. And also to kind of unify it, and try to attribute certain characteristics to all of the films although they are very different. The truth is that there is a younger generation of Greek filmmakers—that’s obvious—and there are more films being made in Greece because there are ways now to make cheaper films.

Filmmakers have realized that they don’t need to expect to be funded and supported. You can have your friends help you out, you can make your films, and they can be shown around the world. Of course there is a period now with more films are being made, younger filmmakers are making more films than before, but that doesn’t constitute a movement. There is not so much in common between the filmmakers. Maybe there are small individual groups of friends that help each other, but it’s not one big community all doing this one thing together.

I think the films themselves are so different that there aren’t the aesthetic or ideological characteristics that characterize a movement. Trying to discover a new ethnic cinema and trying to unify it kind of weakens it, I think, because they are such individual filmmakers that you don’t need to do that.

MM: After talking to people about The Lobster for over a year since it premiered at Cannes, what are some of the misconceptions or elements of the film that people have mentioned to you?

YL: I haven’t discovered one big thing. Sometimes there are a few misunderstandings that I think are more telling about the people bringing them up. I was having this interview recently on the phone and the journalist asked me, “So when Colin tries to have a relationship with the ‘donkey killer…’” and then he continued, ”blah, blah, blah.” I realized he was talking about the Heartless Woman. He thought the Heartless Woman was the same woman as the one that killed the donkey in the opening scene. It’s an honest mistake. That woman has short hair and the Heartless Woman has short hair, and maybe they look a little bit alike.

At the same time, I saw an effort by someone to associate the first scene in the film, which is a stand-alone, with a character in the rest of the film. He can’t accept that this is just a stand-alone scene and that it has nothing to do with the characters afterwards. It just sets up a tone and then the film starts. You don’t really know who this woman was and why she killed the donkey, but you see someone trying to make that association. He might find some things that support that association, but that was never intended. There are things like that which I find interesting. They are subconsciously propelled by the need of people to make certain associations than an actual mistake.

MM: The music in The Lobster is such a striking element. There are heartbreaking Greek ballads in the slow-motion sequences, as well a horror-like instrumental score that contrasts with the scenes. Why did you feel these would enhance the tone of the film?

YL: I was never really able to use music like that in my previous films. I always tried, but I found it in the end quite limiting for the films. I found that using music in the traditional sense—music that really enhances the tone of the scene—just made every scene, and in the end the film overall, more limited and less open to different tonalities. I was never able to use music. Every time I tried to use music I thought it made the scenes worse, much more contained and one-dimensional.

For some reason I had a sense that in this film I was going to be able to use music, because I wanted to use it in a way that was very present and almost like another character in itself. I thought that it would be very different most of the time, tonally, to what was going on in the scenes or what was going on in the voiceover, which is something I also used for the first time here. What I did was try to not hide the music in the background, but make it very present, and use music that was of different tonality to the scene or the voiceover.

Then, all of these elements together would create this new tonality for the scene and the film itself. I was trying to work with contradictions and in an old-fashioned way. I remembered Hitchcock films and how intense the music was sometimes, and many times not so relevant to the scene, maybe even over the top. I tried to use that kind of language in my own way.

Léa Seydoux as "Loner Leader" in The Lobster

Léa Seydoux as “Loner Leader” in The Lobster

MM: I’m sure you get asked this all the time. What’s your go-to answer when people asked what animal you’d like to become, if the world in The Lobster was real and you didn’t “make it?”

YL: That doesn’t bother me because it’s not very related to the film. I’m bothered when I have to limit the meaning of the film with an answer. It also doesn’t really affect me that much because it’s not really possible that I’ll become an animal very soon, but when people ask that, I say I’d like to become some kind of bird because I do like to fly and I dream about it a lot. That’s usually my answer. I’m tempted to change it every time, but that’s too much work, so I just say a bird or an eagle.

MM: Given the success The Lobster has had abroad and the fact that your next projects are English-language films, do you plan to go back to Greece to make more films there, or will you continue working only in English?

YL: I don’t know. If the film itself asks for it, yes, but for the time being I think it makes more sense that I make English-language films. You never know, maybe a film needs to take place in Greece, or a film cannot be made anywhere else other than Greece, or in the way that we are making films there. MM

The Lobster opens in theaters May 13, 2016, courtesy of A24.

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