Theatre & Film
Yorgos Lanthimos: The Path to the Oscars
by GreeksConnect Team
Thirteen years ago, Yorgos Lanthimos made a micro-budget film called Kinetta. Filmed in the shakiest hand-held style, it featured three actors mooching around hotels and hospitals in a rundown Greek coastal town, sometimes enacting fight scenes that resembled avant-garde choreography rehearsals. There was barely any dialogue, except when one character barked detailed directions at the others. Oh, and there was the occasional go-karting sequence.
Back then, you might have concluded that Lanthimos was the director Least Likely To. Least likely to be one of the names that first arise when film people speak about the exciting new developments in Europe. Least likely to make a sumptuous period piece that’s a scabrous, subversive addition to the prestigious costume lineage of Tom Jones, The Draughtsman’s Contract and Barry Lyndon.
In an interview with Vogue, Emma Stone said: "I was getting ready to do 'La La Land', Yorgos was like, 'I'd never considered meeting an American for the part,' so I basically begged."
Emma has nothing but praise for the "crazy and funny and dark" world that Yorgos created with such strong female characters.Emma and Rachel are competing against one another for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for their respective roles and Yorgos is up for Best Director.
'The Favourite' is up for a total of 10 accolades at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony which takes place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on February 24th.
How did Lanthimos get from Kinetta to this? He quietly sidesteps the question by pointing out that he never expected to be making films in the first place.Born in Athens, Lanthimos was brought up by his mother after his parents separated. She died when he was 17, at which point he had to look after himself, although he had a close aunt. That must have been a seismic experience for him, but he plays it down. “You just have to deal with it and you don’t really think about it too much, because you have to find work, you have to pay for your rent, you have to study. I guess it did have a huge impact on me, but it was very unconscious – you just keep going, and all of a sudden you’re 24 and doing other things.”
He developed a close-knit group of film-savvy friends and found work making commercials; he directed hundreds of them during the first decade of his career,with Efthymis Filippou, whom he met in an ad agency and who became his long-term co-writer . “I did a lot of shit,” he said. “It was a period in the early nineties where old newspapers were giving out gifts with the paper, so we’d do these cheap commercials for coffee machines that they would give subscribers, crazy things like that.” Among the ads they made were “these little strange films about people taking their work back home with them – like a butcher on the subway, all covered in blood, with his hatchet, and people start screaming”.“Starting in Greece,” he says, “you couldn’t really say, ‘I’m going to become a film-maker.’ A 15-year-old boy in Greece in the 80s and 90s? There was nothing like that happening.” The idea was so unthinkable, he says, that he never even considered it when signing up for film school; he just hoped to make commercials. “It felt like it would be a real job, instead of being in marketing or something. I thought: it’s not going to be film-making, but it’s going to be close.”
Lanthimos co-directed My Best Friend with Greek playwright Lakis Lazopoulos. Yorgos was also a member of the creative team which designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Made on tight budgets, Kinetta and Lathimos’s other Greek films taught him to work economically, and he has stuck to that principle. To this day, he avoids artificial lighting and doesn’t use makeup – unless, as in The Favourite, the actors are playing characters who are themselves manifestly slathered in powder and rouge.
Moving to London
But the necessity of doing ads for a living, Lanthimos says, meant that film-making was still “like a hobby”. International attention persuaded him that it was time for a new start. Making a decision he now says was “kind of naive”, he moved to London in 2011, before any definite projects were in place. “It wasn’t as easy as I thought.”Lanthimos now lives in north London with his wife, Ariane Labed, whom he met when she was acting in Attenberg: she has since starred in Alps and The Lobster, as well as appearing in mainstream productions such as Assassin’s Creed, and playing the lead in seabound French art film Fidelio: Alice’s Journey. Originally a theatre performer, Labed came to Greece with her theatre company and ended up staying. “She was born in Greece, but she’s French and she’s lived in Germany. She’s a bit of a nomad.” How do Lanthimos and Labed feel about living in the UK on the brink of Brexit? “We are quite perplexed about it, and we do talk about it a lot – about whether we should stay in a place that has this kind of vibe. Unfortunately, things are going dark in many European countries, so what do you do – go from one to the other depending on where the climate is better?”
As things turned out, Lanthimos ended up not close to cinema but with a prime position on the map of contemporary auteurdom. Since his extraordinary second feature, Dogtooth (2009), Lanthimos has been notorious for a wild imagination and a sometimes aggressive form of absurdism. 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.
But how did Lanthimos’s own imagination become so strange? His film-watching seems nothing out of the ordinary: he has talked about growing up on John Hughes, Bruce Lee and Indiana Jones, before discoveringTarkovsky, Cassavetes… the usual canon. What was he reading at a formative age? “Kafka, Beckett, Céline, normal stuff. Camus, Dostoevsky...” He was also a fan of the late British playwright Sarah Kane: her Phaedra’s Love, classical myth retold in unvarnished modern language, was something he drew on for the tone of The Favourite. As for reading today, he gives a weary chuckle. “I don’t have time to read much. I’m trying to read The Brothers Karamazov again, for a year now – I keep getting halfway, and then there’s a lot of work and I forget it and I have to go back to the beginning.”
Lanthimos tends to shy away from explaining the meaning behind his work, or assess its widening appeal, but his decision to develop projects on a bigger scale has stemmed from a careful negotiation of the opportunities at his disposal.
As “Dogtooth” gained momentum internationally, Lanthimos dove into his next project, “Alps,” a bizarre and immersive thriller about people imitating recently deceased individuals to help their relatives mourn. It found supportive audiences in Venice and Toronto a few months after “Dogtooth” lost the best foreign language Oscar, and Lanthimos found himself back in a familiar place.“Alps” got a cursory release in the U.S., but faded shortly afterward. “It fell through the cracks as another small Greek film with no money,” he said. Though he and Tsangari enjoyed some modicum of media coverage as the leaders of the so-called “Greek Weird Wave,” they never embraced the term. “The weird wave was a product of the financial crisis in Greece, when an outrageous austerity was imposed upon the people of Greece,” said Jimmy DeMetro, who runs the Hellenic Film Society in New York. “It is only natural that filmmakers tried to understand what happened and why, and it was equally natural that they should turn to exaggeration to comment on what they and their entire country was experiencing.” In reality, says Lanthimos, the participants had little in common other than that “we were able to access a lot of art cinema, more than previous generations. But obviously there is a cultural thing: it’s maybe Mediterranean, but there is a culture that is more open to certain things, with less restrictions and taboos, which maybe Anglo-Saxons and other cultures aren’t.”
In Lanthimos’ first English-language film, The Lobster (2015), which proved a significant art-house hit, 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. “The Favourite” is a delightful consolidation of Lanthimos’ recurring themes: the corrosive effects of power and greed that transform obsessive people into grim punchlines of their own making. He’s the rare awards player unwilling to make concessions and celebrated for exactly that. Not since the emergence of Lars Von Trier has a filmmaker managed to disturb and thrill audiences in equal measures while broadening his profile at the same time. “I just try and decide what I’m interested in and what excites me,” he said. “I don’t worry about how it’s going to be perceived.”
Lanthimos was offered the project by producers Ceci Dempsey and Ed Guiney, based in the UK and Ireland respectively; it was while The Favourite was in development that he showed them his outline for The Lobster, and he ended up making that film, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer, before The Favourite. Dempsey had already been developing Deborah Davis’s original script for The Favourite for 10 years. As Guiney tells me, Lanthimos was approached on the strength of Dogtooth, not least because of his gift for claustrophobic scenarios in which “you put a small group of people in a hothouse situation and watch them react”.
Lanthimos, 45, is soft-spoken and a little bear-like – more teddy than grizzly – with a gentle, somewhat impassive face that doesn’t give too much away. Cordial but quietly reserved, he hardly comes across like an international maestro of the extreme. Wearing beige trousers and a blazer-like navy jacket, he’s more like a thoughtful, conservatively styled academic – the disarming sort whose work turns out to focus on themes of transgression, violence and madness.