Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” generated a lot of buzz at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it also won the festival’s jury prize. On Saturday, Nov. 17, the Greek director received Stockholm Visionary Award at Stockholm Film Festival. The following is an edited Q&A Lanthimos gave before receiving the prize.
In 2009 you had a great breakthrough at Cannes winning with “Dogtooth,” a film that also won the Bronze horse here in Stockholm and was then nominated for a foreign-language Oscar. This year you returned to Cannes with “The Lobster,” in the main competition, your first film in a foreign language and with a star cast. What has changed in the universe of Yorgos Lanthimos during these six years?
I made three films in Greece in a very particular way because that was the only way they could be made. And after the third film I understood I had to start making English-language films, because that was the only way I could progress and evolve and have more choices on certain things. That was the big decision, to move to England and have London as my base. It took a while for the transition, but eventually we made this film, and I’m glad we were free creatively to do the film we wanted to. I definitely tried to keep the creative level as we’ve had before. And I worked with people who allowed me to have that.
“Dogtooth” was partly perceived as a dark commentary on the Greek recession. How important is the Greek origin and heritage for the way your films play out, be it “Dogtooth” or “The Lobster”?
It wasn’t like a prognosis or anything, it was just a coincidence. People wan to see more things in films than what’s actually there, and that’s absolutely fine. That’s why we try to leave the films open, so that people can start to think and associate. These associations are valid, but it’s not a part of how we created the films.
I know you were interested in films early on, but how did you grow up?
I guess I come from a quite normal, lower-middle-class family, nothing adventurous in my upbringing. At the time when I grew up in Greece you couldn’t even think about becoming a filmmaker, because there weren’t many films being made, and there was no industry, there’s still isn’t. So I tried to take a side way, I started to make commercials very young and managed to make a living. And I learned the technical part through commercials, because there isn’t a good film school in Greece either. So I was trying to be this proper person that would have a job at marketing, earn a living, and slightly find a way into film in a country where you not supposed to do that when you’re young. Before “Kinetta,” my first film, we said: “Why not just get a camera, we’re quite experienced technically,” and so we just went ahead and made the film with friends that didn’t get paid. That’s how I made my first film, and subsequently the next two.
In “The Lobster,” Colin Farrell is playing the film’s only named character, David, a newly dumped architect, a person desperately searching for love, but all the time runs the risk of loneliness. When did you first have the idea, and how did it come to you?
I’ve written the last three films with Efthymis Filippou, a very good friend of mine. All the ideas come through conversations, we tell each other things that we observe around us, and things we’re interested in. And then someone picks something up and creates a little story, and so things grow. Sometimes we just start writing scenes, to see if there’s anything of interest, and then make up a whole story about it.
With “The Lobster,” we started from the idea about what would happen if people who’ve become singles would go to a hotel to find someone – as simple as that. And then we had to build a whole world around that, quite a long process, piecing things together.
I guess we observe people but also ourselves. Trying to (bring) in all the things we know and experience and make them into something that eventually will reveal much about the absurdity of our everyday life. And it’s very close, I believe, to the real thing we experience, apart from the animal thing.
In “The Lobster,” you’re working with well-known actors (Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly). How was the experience having all these famous people on the set?
It was wonderful, the most positive experience I had in this film. Because I was quite worried working with all those people which I didn’t really know, and which I hadn’t met much, and we didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse beforehand. So most actors came directly on set, and some came halfway through the film, so they had to tune in immediately. But I was very lucky. I only worked with people who liked my previous work, and from the script they knew what to expect. They’re are very talented, very committed and hard-working, there wasn’t a even the a smallest glitch, it was an amazing experience.
There’s often a disturbing tone in your films, an unpredictable shift from the seemingly harmless to the deeply threatening. John C Reilly, playing the lisp in the film, talked at the press conference in Cannes about an oppressive quality, a constant feeling that something terribly is going to happened. Is that your aim and how do you achieve this tension?
I’m not entirely sure. You do have something in mind, but then you have so many elements to balance through, from filming to editing to mixing. I guess we’re most interested in different kind of tones, and especially in this film because it’s the first time that I use music as a soundtrack, and voiceover. The idea about this oppressive world was of course important.
Do yo think that love has to be blind to be functional?
I don’t have such beliefs, I’m just wondering about things, that’s why I made this film, I’m just trying to find an answer, like the rest of the people, whether there is love, and how do you find it, how do you realize it, and what are you prepared to do for it.
Your next film will be “The Favourite,”correct?
Probably, maybe, I’m going to be very vague about this.
But it’s with Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman, both from “The Lobster” again?
Probably. It’s inspired by the real Queen Anne, so it’s about these three women in the court of Queen Anne, 1700, so it’s taken from a real story, now being made into some quite different. There was a screenplay originally, but I developed the story for five years with another writer, so we completely rewrote the screenplay, it’s again “our” project. But I’m not entirely sure that’s going to be the next one, and who’s going to be in it, it depends on a lot of things.