“The Lobster” Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos on Death, Love, & International Cinema
The man behind cult favorite “Dogtooth” talks about his new work with Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.
Much has been made of the recent renaissance in Greek cinema and one of its most prominent directors is Yorgos Lanthimos, especially since his second feature, Dogtooth(2009), introduced the wider world to his askew vision.
Mr. Lanthimos’s fourth film, The Lobster (2015), is a devious reflection on the social constructs of relationships. In a parallel society, single men and women are obliged to couple within an allotted time period or risk being irreversibly turned into an animal of their choice. Notions of compatibility rapidly descend into satire and the characters eventually revolt. That The Lobster provokes audiences into finding their own allegories shouldn’t be surprising. The film reminded a Hungarian friend of former communist years, specifically the matter-of-fact nature of absurd policies and forced clapping over bullshit achievements.
The fate of a foreign Oscar nominee can result in tears once the razzmatazz has receded, yet The Lobster marks a triumphant shift in scale. Ironically, I recently declined to pitch for an American version of Dogtooth, fearing that remaking a film by a peer was akin to cheating with a friend’s partner. Maybe because of my abstinence, the Hellenic director asked me to interview him for this article. Besides hearing more about The Lobster, I was also introduced to the works of Nikos Papatakis and Alexis Damianos, which proves that I’m not the prized pundit on Greek cinema I thought I was.
— Peter Strickland
Peter Strickland: One of the many things I admire about The Lobster is that I can’t really place it near any other film. Someone mentioned Luis Buñuel, but I didn’t quite see that. The one connection that I made was Antonin Artaud and the Theater of Cruelty. I liked how the film just came out of nowhere.
Yorgos Lanthimos: That’s a great compliment because I’m striving to make something different, but not for the sake of making something different. Obviously, we have all these images and influences, most of which can be completely unconscious. And I’m trying to honor that but at the same time avoid doing something similar. It’s very common to explain films by comparing them to other films. That’s how people understand films, I think, or are able to talk about them.
PS: If I look back at my teenage years when I had no sense of film history — that’s when films had the biggest impact. It might be a combination of having no sense of history and also just being at an age when you’re very perceptive. But then I’ve been kind of numbed over the years, and it’s hard to come to something fresh. Everything has its trail of influences.
The Lobster is quite a brutal view of how society influences or constricts love—
YL Or provides the structure you have to operate within in order to succeed or be happy.
PS: Yeah, I guess love is not the word, maybe settling down—
YL Yes. (laughter)
PS: Someone mentioned Franz Kafka, which you must have heard many times, not just about The Lobster, but about your other works too. I’m based in Hungary now, and it’s interesting how people view Kafka in Central and Eastern Europe. They don’t see his work as surreal or absurd. They see him as a social realist; they can see how these things happen. But if you’ve never lived under any kind of autocratic system, the bureaucracy just looks so confounding and bizarre. Greece obviously has a very different history — I’m not trying to make any direct links — but it’s no coincidence that many of the greatest absurdists come from countries that have these regimes: Eugène Ionesco from Romania, Kafka from what is now the Czech Republic, and a lot of the Russians.
YL: That’s the interesting thing with interaction between cultures and how people perceive things. People make those remarks about your work and sometimes you’re trying to explain that the film’s reality is only slightly skewed or slightly enhanced. And then people think that you’re joking. But that’s the way I’ve experienced it or perceived it. It’s fascinating to see how people view work that springs from another culture.
And then transporting it into another culture. I’m obviously Greek, but I made this film in English, and — well, I don’t know what the film’s ethnicity is — it was shot in Ireland. The cast is from all around the world, which was intentional because the whole story just felt right being something contemporary and close to the societies that we live in, that I live in.
PS: My grandparents in Greece had an arranged marriage and what you see in The Lobster is only a few degrees further from that. How did you choose the actors?
YL: Because it is a contemporary film in English and it takes place in a society now or slightly in the future or however you want to see it or call it, I could choose actors from any country. I could just think of people I wanted to work with. It was a relatively easy process, and I was lucky because they were very supportive and committed.
This was my first film made under different conditions and that was difficult for me. I made all my previous films in Greece with just a few friends trying to put some money together (our own money) and most of them didn’t get paid or only got paid very little. We just had the absolutely necessary stuff — we were asking for favors, shooting in friends’ houses, borrowing equipment, props, clothes — that kind of situation.
So making my first film within an industry, with financing — and a crew that views what they do as a proper job (who want to finish at a certain time and go home, to whom one film may mean nothing more than the next) — that was a difficult situation to get into. Having strong support from the actors was really helpful throughout the process. Their instincts were great, they understood the material, and nobody came in having a completely different idea of what this was supposed to be. Not that we ever discussed what it was supposed to be … I mean, you say a few basic things like, “This is how I like to work. I don’t want to discuss too much about the meaning of things or characters or backgrounds or how you’re supposed to do this — is that okay with you?” And then you hope it will work out.
PS: That’s interesting. So it’s more reactive with the actors. Rather than feeding them information, you just give them the situation and they react to that.
YL: Yeah, but the script has quite a voice of its own, so it’s hard to think of something completely different and not fitting. I’m sure there are cases like that, and I will hopefully encounter them again, as I have in the past, but this time around it just worked out very organically and naturally. “Let’s go do it and see how it comes out. And then we can work on that and tweak or shift things in this or the other direction.”
Also we had no time to rehearse because the actors were from all over the world. We didn’t have the time or the money to get them there for days of rehearsals before we started filming. It was very fortunate that it worked out the way it did.
PS: It’s a famously difficult step for a “continental” European filmmaker — or in general, a director who’s not English, American or Australian — to make a film that is considered Western. Throughout the history of film, there have been many failed attempts by highly regarded “foreign” film directors to move over to Hollywood. Obviously you pulled it off very well, but were you fearful of that big step up, and its traps?
YL: I think most of the cases that you’re referring to are of filmmakers who entered situations in which they didn’t have the same control over their work that they did when making films back home. I came into a new place trying to create the circumstances to make films almost the same way that I used to in Greece, only with a bit more support. You create the scale of the film and surround yourself with people who know you as a filmmaker, who will maintain the essence of your previous work and try to transport that to your new projects.
With The Lobster, we had a screenplay that I wrote with Efthymis Filippou, the same writer that I had worked with before — on Dogtooth (2009) and on Alps (2011) — and we had absolute control over it, of course. You know, we listened to suggestions or notes or whatever, but the whole process was very respectful toward the filmmaker, and I think that’s important.
This interview is excerpted from BOMB. Read the complete article here.