Yorgos Lanthimos speaks with The New York Times about his primal depiction of contemporary life in his movies, including his newest film, The Favourite. Read the full feature below.
This June, the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos traveled to Ingmar Bergman’s former residence on Faro, a remote Swedish island dotted with dairy farms and ancient limestone pillars and a dwindling population of 500 full-time residents who speak a dialect of their own. He had been invited to give a talk during Bergman Week, an annual festival at which fans attend lectures and screenings and go on “Bergman Safaris,” driving on one-lane roads to the pebbly coasts and placid cabins where many of the Swedish director’s films were made. Lanthimos explored the Bergman residence with its clean lines and windows opening directly onto the Baltic Sea, examining notes in the director’s own handwriting scrawled directly upon the furniture (“I’m successful at my career, and I’m still sleepless”). He saw an original print of “Persona” in the 15-seat private theater, where Bergman’s ample leather recliner is always left empty in the front of the room, and even viewed a segment from one of his own works (“Dogtooth,” his second film), something he hardly ever does. While editing, he watches each film over and over, so by the time it’s ready to be shown, he “can’t wait until it’s the last time, for at least 10, 15 years.” His reaction was similar to the one he’d once had while rewatching “Kinetta,” his first movie: “Strange, strange, but not so bad, really.”
“It made me wonder if I might want to have a place of my own like that someday,” he told me over breakfast the morning after his latest film, the English-language period drama “The Favourite,” opened this year’s New York Film Festival. “Someplace to create and be alone. An island where writers could come to work on scripts and my editor could come to finish our projects.” If you had a place like that, I pointed out, people might want to visit it someday too. They might want to touch the director’s belongings, take photographs of the director’s notes, go on a Lanthimos Safari. The thought made him visibly uncomfortable. “Probably safer not to have anyplace, actually,” he said with a slight shrug.
A boatload of cinephile tourists, a remote and isolated location and the looming presence of an unseen authority — the combination is odd and unsettling enough to form the premise for one of Yorgos Lanthimos’s own films. Famously cryptic and publicity-shy, Lanthimos is known for creating darkly surreal and uneasily hilarious cinematic worlds that reflect our own back to us in a distorted light. “Dogtooth” (2009), made in Greece on a shoestring budget and subsequently nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, depicts life on an isolated family estate, where three adult children live under the cultlike control of their parents, who teach them that the airplanes passing overhead are actually tiny plastic toys and that no child is old enough to leave home until their upper incisor (or “dogtooth”) falls out on its own. Desperate to escape, the eldest daughter knocks her own tooth out with a dumbbell in their brightly lit bourgeois bathroom. In his first English-language film, “The Lobster” (2015), a man whose marriage has recently ended is sent to a countryside hotel, where he must find a new partner within 45 days or be transformed into the animal of his choosing. When the man breaks free to join a ragtag resistance movement in the forest surrounding the hotel, he discovers that this new community’s rules are different but no less draconian: He can live among them for as long as he likes, but any romantic or sexual activity is subject to grisly punishment. In “The Favourite,” his new film, two women vie for the affections of an impressionable, mercurial Queen Anne, well aware that losing her favor would put an end to their ambitions of power, status, even survival. Each of his films foreground the claustrophobia of the civilized and an almost primordial struggle to survive within its confines.
Ingmar Bergman might well have recognized the deep curiosity that drives these films: Like Bergman, Lanthimos is fascinated by the drive for control — in both its mundanities and extremes — and by the inscrutability of human behavior. But if Bergman’s work elevates these struggles to the realm of the metaphysical, Lanthimos’s approach is less lofty, ballasted by blood and grit. An ordinary toaster becomes a device for punishment; a woman is ferried to an ophthalmologist’s office in order to be blinded for her transgressions against the community. “All our stories begin with observations, situations that already — according to us — exist,” Efthimis Filippou, a Greek playwright and co-writer on four Lanthimos films, told me by email. “We take these situations and we exaggerate them, we make them bigger in order to describe more easily the core of our initial thought. The funny thing is that no matter how much we try to exaggerate things, real life is always far more excessive.” From this contradiction emerges the compelling argument that something stranger, wilder and older than we know animates the norms we take for granted.
This argument isn’t always persuasive for viewers, who can find the purposeful alienation and oddness of his films off-putting. On Amazon, audience ratings for his titles average around two and a half stars, an uneasy compromise between heaps of one-star and five-star ratings. Some complain about the difficulty of connecting with his characters, the bleakness of his material and the lack of clear resolutions to his plots and emotions. One review of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” begins: “These people could not have seemed more foreign, more abnormal — nor more repellent — to me had they had three heads with entrails for hair.” His films often fare better with professional critics, who regularly apply words like “ingenious” and “masterpiece” to his work and praise his deadpan wit. But Lanthimos detests the word “deadpan,” which appears in almost every review of his work. “What does it even mean?” he asked me. “Anytime people see an emotion that is not extremely emotional, they call it ‘deadpan.’ ” He sounded a bit affronted as he said this. “Most acting is very melodramatic,” he added. “It’s not what you see in people.”
Unassuming and friendly, Lanthimos wears button-down shirts and jackets in earthy colors like tan and tobacco, and beneath the short-cropped beard his 45-year-old face retains the smoothness of boyhood. Tall enough to be imposing, he’s also laconic and shy, with a knack for making jokes so quiet that they only reveal themselves upon reflection. When I met him for lunch at Westerns Laundry, a farm-to-table restaurant tucked away on a residential block deep in the Islington neighborhood of London, he was more relaxed than he was in New York, nearly at ease. Amid the industrial ductwork left over from the restaurant’s former life as a prison laundry, he chatted with the chef about who baked today’s bread. Lanthimos and his wife, the actress Ariane Labed, frequent two restaurants run by the same owners, and both places have become anchor points in his fairly nomadic life. In lieu of an office, they are where he discusses scripts and projects with his collaborators, recreating the close-knit, informal community of artists he belonged to in Athens.
Until 2011, Lanthimos had lived in Athens his entire life, raised by his mother, who died when he was 17, thrusting him into a new world to fend for himself. Though he already had a thirst for cinema and knew that he wanted to make films, he studied marketing and finance before dropping out of the university to go to film school. It was there that he found his way to others who were “crazy enough to be convinced to make a film in Greece.” There was no real infrastructure for making films, he explained, only a bit of funding from the Greek Film Center that went to established directors. There were few models to look up to and few to hold a young filmmaker back.
He made good money filming television commercials in the years before the financial crisis and put his time toward creative work — directing dance and theater performances and making films of his own, calling on friends to borrow their cars, their houses, their clothes. Creative partnerships formed by chance: He met his longtime collaborator Filippou in the halls of an advertising agency and it was during rehearsals for the director Athina Tsangari’s second feature, “Attenberg” — a film that he co-produced and acted in — that he met Ariane, whom he would go on to marry and direct in two of his movies. “There are things to love about filmmaking in Greece,” he told me. “People are generous: If you get along well with others, the people around you will give more than they might otherwise be willing to give, more than they’re supposed to.”
Moving to England on the back of the success of “Dogtooth” gave Lanthimos access to bigger budgets and internationally known stars like Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz — but in many ways, he has shaped his English-language productions to suit the spontaneous practices he developed in Greece, rather than remodeling himself to Hollywood’s specifications. He likes to shoot with natural light, inviting the contingency of unplanned weather to enter his scenes, and he rarely makes use of the expensive cinematic lighting that productions order by default. “I do walk outside and see the lighting people, the equipment just sitting around,” he says. “It’s such a waste of their time, of the film’s money.” He steers clear of movie makeup, preferring to let the “real face” of his actors show through, unadulterated, the hair unfussy and requiring little touch-up work. One consequence of these decisions is that his sets are unusually quiet and intimate, and without setting up lights or pausing to reapply makeup, he explains, they are able to get much more of the actual work done. “We can do the scene over and over again, immediately, nobody has to stand around waiting. And the actors love it.”
The atmosphere he creates has more in common with an experimental theater troupe than a typical multimillion-dollar movie set. Lanthimos works to bring an actor’s instincts to the surface — and he shrugs off questions about a character’s psychological motivation, back story and context as effortlessly as he does questions about himself. “If you want to [expletive] annoy him, ask him character back-story questions,” Colin Farrell told me, laughing, of his first experience working with Lanthimos on the set of “The Lobster,” where Lanthimos refused to tell him what happened in the scene before the one they were filming. “He doesn’t really feel the need, you know. For him a story is born and dies between the first and last page.” Lanthimos is “trying to give space to mystery,” Ariane Labed, his wife, told me. “Yorgos does not explain things, even to the actors really, and they’re not used to that. But then they go through this experience, and they discover that having gaps in their characters’ journeys, they actually have more room for their own imaginations, [their] own mistakes, [their] own doubts, and I think that’s why actors are amazing in Yorgos’s films. They’re on the line.”
For “The Favourite,” Lanthimos gathered the central cast together for three weeks of rehearsal, where they delivered their lines while trying to tie themselves in knots, jumping from carpet tile to carpet tile, or writhing around on the floor. “He had us do all sorts of things that keep you from thinking about what your lines mean,” Olivia Colman, who plays Queen Anne, told me. “It was completely unique.” These gamelike exercises were also ways of forcing an actor’s reflexes to the surface, submerging that part of the mind that analyzes and questions, or turns away from the moment and toward a script or director for answers. “The best way to describe it is, it becomes completely unconscious … completely instinctual,” explains Rachel Weisz, who first worked with Lanthimos in “The Lobster” and appears in “The Favourite” as Sarah Churchill, the queen’s confidante and lover. “If you asked me afterward what had just happened, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. And in fact, the experience of watching the two films, the ones I’ve been in, are unlike other films in that I’m completely surprised by what I did. Usually when you film you have a sense of what you’ve done, but with Yorgos you have no sense. If that makes sense.”
Like the stories themselves, which thrust characters, existentially underprepared, into disorienting situations, Lanthimos’s direction forces actors to inhabit their roles with convincing immediacy, giving them an authentic vulnerability. It reflects the broader connection between his films and theater, a temporary structure assembled by bodies that are clumsily, complicatedly occupying space. In a scene from last year’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Lanthimos’s take on a horror film, the wife (played by Nicole Kidman) feigns unconsciousness in their bedroom at her surgeon husband’s request; she rolls over, limp and lifeless, her head hanging off the edge of the bed as he caresses her. As he pulls her body ungracefully toward him, her hair dragging across the comforter, her foot catches on a pillow and it falls over, a piece of reality quietly disheveling the fantasy. Auteurs like Luca Guadagnino or Paolo Sorrentino, with their swooping, reeling shots and kinetic dance sequences, may get more credit for capturing bodily experience on film, but Lanthimos arguably shows greater fidelity to our actual bodies, stubborn and awkwardly choreographed by fate, etiquette and overarching structures of power — not glamorous bodies but bodies of ungainly yearning.
Lanthimos’s latest project seems likely to win over even his most skeptical viewers: Brimming with an exhilarating sense of struggle, “The Favourite” ’s brash reimagining of Queen Anne’s court has a raw, magnetic likability to it. As Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone expressively vied for Olivia Colman’s affections, they evoked throaty, full-body laughs from the audience at the screening I attended, rather than the tight, pressurized laughter I heard while watching his earlier films. The Lanthimos aesthetic transposes seamlessly to a historical setting: the sense of remoteness, the intricate system of rules and manners, the powerful force that oppresses everyone, including the individual chosen to wield it. But if in previous films that looming force was inhuman (social, familial or supernatural), in “The Favourite” that power has its origins in human tendencies — loneliness, lustfulness and our susceptibility to manipulation. Power, of the state and of the individual, circulates in a wild and destabilizing way among the three women as they plot and beguile and wield themselves like weapons. Words are used as shoves or slaps; sex becomes a literal power grab, upsetting a fragile and transient order.
“The Favourite” is a first for Lanthimos — as a foray into period drama, as the director of a script that he did not originate himself — and it marks a true shift in his emotional palette. Rather than keep the viewer at arm’s length, this new film works to draw you into the palace intrigue. You root for Abigail, the newcomer and underdog, as she tries to secure her livelihood, and then you root for Sarah just as strongly as she struggles to maintain her position by banishing her competition from the court. But as the hierarchy churns, the effort to get on top and stay there starts feeling less like rowdy fun and more like a form of imprisonment, implicating the viewer as well in its casual cruelty: Why do we as observers choose favorites, when this partiality so clearly limits our ability to see the whole? The ending, when it arrives, is inevitable yet unexpected. It is quietly, inscrutably heartbreaking — one of the only moments in a Lanthimos film that is not funny, not at all. “They’re not so helpless in this film as in my others,” Lanthimos told me breezily as we left the restaurant. “But they’re still trapped.”
He was heading back home after our lunch, to work out issues with the version of “The Favourite” that will be shown on airplanes — they wanted to censor every other thing, even blurring the naked bodies of the cherubs in the palace art. But whether he felt that he owed me more time in lieu of self-explanation, or because he was in the mood to talk, he went out of his way to walk with me to my next appointment. He led us away from the high streets and down narrower residential rows where the hedges are a thick, towering green, trimmed into forcefully geometric shapes. He pointed out the bramble taking back the edge of an ad hoc park and the local town hall where he and Ariane were married. In these quiet slivers of street, London no longer feels modern: It’s a pileup of the old and the new and the very old, the ground beneath our feet named by Saxon villagers. I could tell that I was being led though a terrain that was deeply personal, emotional, meaningful, but without an explanation of what I was seeing, I had to reconstruct the links myself. It’s a kind of closeness at a distance, the same feeling I experience when I watch one of his films. When I mentioned that he seemed at home here, in his element among the mixture of old and new, the council flats facing meticulously preserved historical buildings, he seemed pleased, as if I’d noticed something so important to him that he didn’t mind allowing a stranger a glimpse. He thought for a moment, and then he replied with a slight smile: “At home, yes. But not so at home that it’s become boring.”