Stay Sad: Babis Makridis on Writing Pity With Oscar-Nominated Efthymis Filippou, Why There’s No “Greek Wave”

Drastic measures taken to attain a dangerous objective are a defining element in both of Babis Makridis’ feature-length auteur productions.

For his 2012 debut L, the Greek director captured the transformation of an ordinary man who loses it all and joins a violent biker gang. Still preoccupied the frustrations of the middle-aged man, Pity, his follow-up, introduces us to a lawyer who has grown accustomed to the pleasures of having those around him feel sorry for him. Both films premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and more importantly, both politely deranged sagas were co-written with the extraordinary and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Efthymis Filippou, best known for his work with Yorgos Lanthimos.

Deliciously deadpan and outrageous in a tranquil manner, Pity relies on Yannis Drakopoulos’ restrained delivery as the flustered lead whose desperate attempts to cement his victimhood become consistently less rewarding. Banking on his wife’s delicate health condition to receive the attention he is addicted to, the lawyer constructs his identity around this situation and hopes that it worsens for his personal gain. But when this steady supply of sympathy is threatened, he loses touch with his own rationality and all bets are off. Getting his fix becomes the priority whether this means manufacturing tragedies or using other people’s misfortunes to elicit compassion.

Rather than projecting this narrative onto a gritty canvas where catastrophes could appear normal, Makridis astutely pointed in the opposite direction. The lawyer is financially stable, he has a great son, a loving pet, an enviable beachfront apartment, and yet, he is concentrated on his insatiable need for sadness. His grim exploits are uncomfortably hilarious and brutally confrontational; however, the director and his cast never break character. Reassuring winks that clarify the tone are not in abundance.

In addition to telling MovieMaker about his writing partnership with his illustrious co-writer, Makridis shares his take on the concept of a Greek Weird Wave—why he believes it has to do more with a group of friends helping each other make movies in a country lacking resources, than a calculated plan to tell similar stories.

Director Babis Makridis at Pity, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Photograph by Marie Ketring, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This is the second feature you’ve co-written with Efthymis Filippou, and he of course has worked with Yorgos Lanthimos plenty of times, tell me about working with him this time around. His stories are in a category of their own.

Babis Makridis (BM): It started years ago. Efthymis is my friend, and when I prepared my first movie, L, the idea came from a friend of mine, about a man who lives in a car, and we started writing drafts together. Suddenly I met Efthymis in a coffee shop, I don’t remember where, and I said, “Come and read this, and tell me what you think about the script.” After 10 days, he sent me a new treatment for the movie, it was fucking crazy and very nice, and I said, “Let’s start it again and write it together.” That was L, our first movie together.  We finished writing, and then I started shooting, and after we finished the movie we came to each other and said, “What are we going to do next?” We shared our thoughts about what we would like to do, what we would like to explore, and the idea of Pity came to the table, based on someone else’s personal experience. We tried to find what kind of pity we wanted to explore.

MM: What were the types of pity that you talked about and what makes them different?

BM: We felt there were two kinds of pity. One is that you give pity to others and you feel okay as a person. You do it for you, not for others. You see a sick person or a poor person on the street, and you give them some dollars, and you feel okay and say, “I’m a perfect guy.” The other one has to do with what you do to receive pity to feel okay, to be the center of attention. We thought this was the more interesting kind of pity that we wanted to explore, so we started on that. We finished the writing, and he had a first draft in two weeks. He is an idea machine. He’s stuck to the table and writes, writes, writes, automatically. Then we started to exchange ideas about the ending and the beginning, and a couple of scenes in between, and we started to imagine who that guy is and what actor could play the part. We looked into Greek actors, and we did some small casting as we were writing. We had some friends come over, and we said to them, “Come on, say some lines to see how it looks.”

MM: How long was this process of testing and rewriting?

BM: I think the whole process was about two years to have a draft that we liked. Then we started the pre-production, the locations, and everything else. New ideas came as we were searching for things, so we put them in the script. Then the casting started, and that gave us ideas too, so we started writing again. We did a lot of drafts until the final one. The final one was maybe done one month before shooting. This is the way we work. We don’t say, “Let’s work tomorrow or today.” We meet and we discuss. We have some drinks, and discuss ideas. I finish writing something, and I send it to Efthymis to change it, because if two guys write, they’re going to be doing it in a different way. It’s nothing very special that we do, as we write. We watch people a bit. Efthymis stands in a corner and watches people. He has a great bionic eye or ear. That’s the way we found ideas, and by watching ourselves too.

Pity is Makridis’s second feature film, following 2012’s L. He was previously credited as a collaborator on Yorgos Lanthimos’ Alps and Dogtooth

MM: The acting in Pity is so specifically deadpan and emotionally flat, which makes audiences uncomfortable, because they don’t know when to laugh or not. How do you direct performances to achieve this tone?

BM: I don’t do a lot of rehearsals, because if you do rehearsals, you’re going to lose what you just mentioned, because the actor makes it up in their mind, and then it’s very difficult to get off of that in the shooting. We get the actors, we do two or three readings of the script, and I say to them what I want, but not too many things. In this way, when we first gather the actors, I play them a song and say to them, “This is the mood of the movie.”  There are no true rehearsals. We get to the shooting, and all the other things are prepared, the camera angles and everything, we do a photo storyboard, and the actors get in the frame, I speak a little bit to them, to deliver the lines and not do a lot of expressions. I like the actors to be enigmatic—“What’s going on their mind?” No one knows. I play a little bit with the faces. I like the faces to express things. That’s why I chose Yannis, because he looks a little bit funny, he has big eyes, you don’t have do a lot of things for him to put a smile on your face. In the first meeting, I said to Yannis, “Watch some of Buster Keaton’s movies.” I gave him some DVDs of Aki Kaurismäki’s movies to watch as well. That’s all that we do.

MM: Another great aspect of the film is the way the production design and all the spaces the character inhabits enhance the notion of his love for pity. He lives by the beach where it’s always sunny. It’s a beautiful place that should make him happy but doesn’t.

BM: Yes, you get the idea. This was the idea, that the location and everything in his life must look beautiful and bright, with no hint of misery or sadness in the environment. It was the first idea that we had when we were writing, that it would be summer, everything must look bright, and the house must be middle class, he’s not a poor guy, everything’s good in his life. His son is a good son, and he’s a great piano player, so he doesn’t like that. In a way, he tries to destroy the beauty that he has in his environment. In Athens, there’s a big road over the sea that has lots of houses. We searched a lot to find the right spot, so when you see out of the windows, the sea is almost inside the room. We wanted the summer feeling. The film was shot in November, and thank God there was still sun and everything looked bright. One scene, we shot it when it was raining, and we had to shoot it again, because we didn’t want anything to look miserable, sad, or dark. The guy tried to destroy that. That was the meaning of what he’s doing. He’s doing things to destroy the beauty that he has in his environment.

MM: Why do you think anyone would enjoy self-victimization? Psychologically, what did you find compelling about a character like this, which is clearly at the extreme end of the spectrum, but to an extent is also strangely relatable.

BM: I think all of us have these kinds of feelings deep in our souls. We like to be a little bit sad, so that people pay attention to us. I know a lot of people who do that. I did it when I was a young man. I acted like I was sad so that the girls would come and say, “What’s going on?” It’s a funny thing, but yes, I did that. I have a friend who, when I gave him the story, said to me, “Babis, I’ll tell you something, when I was in London as a student, I would say to girls that I had cancer, so I could fuck them.” That is extreme, but you see it a lot. Children do it a lot. They always complain about things so that they get attention. The elderly do it a lot, and maybe you do it, without knowing. When this feeling is extreme, it has to do with childhood, things that happened when you’re young. I’ll give you an example about that. Imagine that you’re born, and when you’re one month old, your father or your mother dies. If you grow up with this tragic thing in your life, everyone that’s around you, an uncle, the neighbor, your friends, they’re going to treat you in a special way. They’re going to give you nice shoes and you are going to get all the toys you want. They’re going to take you to the nicest schools. They’re going to give you sweets, small things just to make you feel okay.

When he isn’t helming feature films, Makridis directs music videos and commercials, including recently a national project for Mastercard

MM: Because they feel guilty?

BM: Yeah, maybe they feel guilty, or they do it for themselves, to feel okay, but they don’t want to see you sad, and maybe in this way you become addicted to that. You grow up, and you’re addicted to that, and you can’t live without that. You didn’t know your dad, you don’t know him at all, you don’t know what the guy was like, you didn’t manage to have a connection, but because everyone treated you like that, it becomes your DNA. Suddenly, as you grow up, you do it without knowing, because you can’t live without that, you can’t go on in life without that, because you’re used to it. It’s like a drug.

MM: How does this relate to how you perceive The Lawyer, the protagonist in the film?

BM: For our hero, maybe after his wife’s accident, the past came back to him, and something happened when he was a young boy. We don’t see a mother in the movie. Maybe something happened and suddenly he remembered it again after that, and he started doing all the fucking things that he does to get attention. I think all of us have this, all of us. The other strange thing is that there are people, and I do it too, who put on a sad song, some dark music, and dance to the sadness. It’s crazy, but you like it, you love the darkness, the sweet melancholy that some things give you. I still like dancing to sad music. You go to clubs and there are people dressed in black like the dark wave that happened in the ’80s. They all feel miserable and it’s very dark. There is something very strange about human nature that we like darkness. We are born in this way. In a way, the movie explores a little bit about that. For the ending, when the dog comes up, I think it’s an experiment. I saw it now at the screenings, when the dog appears, the people yell in relief, and I think, everyone wants happiness in their life. But for the hero, it’s a threat that the dog comes back. In a way, it’s an optimistic movie. Life’s good, happiness is good, and there’s no way to avoid it. Whatever you do, something good is going to come. I think it’s an experiment for the viewers. If the viewers don’t like that the dog appears, it would be very strange.

MM: For over a decade now, critics and journalist have been pushing forward the idea that there is a “Greek Weird Wave”. There are undeniable similarities between some recent Greek films, and sometimes the same actors appear in multiple projects, or, like in your case, two directors share the same co-writer. Considering all of these factors, do you think there is a wave or would you call it that?

BM: To tell you the truth, I don’t know what’s happening. There are lots of films being made in Greece, with different styles and different subjects. We are all friends, and Athens is a small city. Argyris is a great friend of mine, Yorgos is a great friend of mine, he baptized my son, and Efthymis is of course a friend of mine. Makis is my best friend. We see each other every day. He was also in my first movie L.

When he was going to make Suntan, Argyris called me and said, “Is Makis a good actor?” I said, “Yes. He’s a great actor, take him.” We all exchange ideas and thoughts, and we help each other. In the editing room, we call each other and we watch the films that everyone makes, and discuss what is going wrong and what we don’t understand. If this thing is a wave, then yes, we have a wave, but I don’t think we have a wave.

We have people that do different kinds of movies. I don’t think Suntan had anything to do with my film. It’s a different kind of film, and I like it. Athina’s films have nothing to do with my films. But when you have the same co-writer, you’re going to find similarities, like with my films and Yorgos’. There’s no way to avoid that. In this film, with Efthymis, we tried to do something a little bit new. We tried to make it something a little different. I think we made it in a new way, and I don’t know if people get it, but I get it, and maybe the next film is going to be something completely different, who knows? We never know what’s going to happen, but I don’t think there is a wave.

Sure, there’s this thing about helping each other going on. We’re friends. We discuss the projects with each other, we exchange scripts and we discuss them. I think that gives Greek movies now a push. It’s the helping thing that happened. We don’t have the money to do it. I didn’t have the money to do this movie. I put money in myself and I didn’t get paid when I was shooting the movie. This helping each other thing is maybe based on our love for cinema, which helps us a lot. I don’t know if there’s a wave. Yes, there’s a huge thing going-on right now, but I hope it’s not just a fad. Maybe we’ll continue, and if it’s a fad, it’s going to stop in some years, but I think we’ll continue. MM

Pity premiered in the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2018, and is currently seeking U.S. distribution. Featured image photograph by Marie Ketring, all other images courtesy of Sundance Institute. 

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