This Friday sees the return of Greek wunderkind Yorgos Lanthimos, the filmmaker behind the Academy Award nominated stunner “Dogtooth.” He’s back in select theaters with that film’s anticipated follow-up, the equally oddball ensemble drama, “Alps.”
His latest finds him re-teaming with “Dogooth” co-writer Efthymis Filippou for a tale that concerns a nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast and a coach who have formed a service for hire: They stand in for dead people by appointment at the behest of relatives, friends or colleagues of the deceased. Everyone operates under a discipline regime demanded by their leader the paramedic, except for the nurse who threatens his rule.
Indiewire ran a snippet from our long chat with Lanthimos last month, where he teased three upcoming projects of his, all in English. Below find our full interview with the filmmaker, in which he explains his move to England, what inspired him to follow-up his breakthrough with what is arguably his most challenging film to date, and what he thinks about the state of the Greek film industry.
The Guardian in their review of “Alps” described you as the laughing mortician of contemporary Greek culture. What’s your take on that?
Well you know it’s not that specific. It’s great when other people can define or give characterizations to what you do, but I don’t think there’s any point (or at least I can’t find one) in making films with such concrete notions of what it is that I do, and how I do it. These things are interesting to read, but I just have to work much more instinctively. I never know what it is exactly I’m doing. I don’t want to analyze it too much. I just want it to feel right and be spontaneous as much as possible.
Yes of course I know what works for me, and what kind of tone I want my films to have. But all these terms are not something that I use.
So you’re of the viewpoint that your instincts are influenced by your surroundings?
With that said, what do you make of the recent surge of films coming out of Greece and their success on the festival circuit?
Not much. I just think it’s a happy coincidence. There’s a new generation of filmmakers which is just natural. The other people are getting older and dying, so there’s a younger generation making films that are different. I think that within that there are good films and bad films. I think the fact that Greece is very popular at the moment because of the financial crisis has helped people who look into this country and try to find the positive stuff. Having a couple of films that were successful internationally has made the film community aware of the films coming out of Greece. I think there’s a movement, but I don’t think there’s a common film language. There’s nothing that ties all these films together other than they’re Greek films.
There is a through line with your films however. Only three films in and many have already pegged you as an auteur. How do you characterize your body of work this early in your career?
I just do whatever I feel is work and whatever I’m interested in exploring. I just try to be true to what I like to do. It gets difficult more and more, because you start to have a body of work and start thinking, ‘What do people expect from me.’ Maybe it’d be easier to make films if I had a criteria people expected of me. At one point it starts becoming more difficult in a way to be true to yourself and just do what you want to do.
We were fortunate enough to shoot “Alps” — write the script and shoot it — right after “Dogtooth” premiered in Cannes. So we didn’t just sit around and wait to figure out what to do because “Dogtooth” was successful. We just wanted to make another film fast, so we just went ahead and did it.
We actually made “Alps” under much worse conditions that we did on “Dogtooth” — the opposite of what you’d expect. The fact was that we didn’t all of a sudden have more money, we had less money because of the crisis. So we had to deal with that and go ahead and make the film.
Now we’re setting up a film in the UK, in the English language just to try something different. I’ve made three films in Greece in very similar conditions, very hard conditions. Because of the success of the previous films, we have the opportunity to do a film in a different way, with a kind of proper financial structure. I don’t know if it’s going to be worse or better. We’ll figure that out [laughs]. I’ve definitely noticed that it takes much longer.
I’m even thinking of making a short film beforehand, just because I want to do something creative and not deal with the practicalities of making a film.
What can you divulge about your English language debut?
Actually I have three projects going on at the moment.
The only thing I can say is that they’re all very different from one another. There’s one that we’re writing with Efthymis who wrote “Dogtooth” and “Alps” with me. It will be like one of our worlds, but a bigger one this time. It has a bit of a fantasy or science fiction element to it. At the same time I’m attached to a British period film, which is very different. Who knows how that’s going to turn out?
Did you write that as well?
No, that’s a project that was offered to me. We’re rewriting the script at this moment with other writers. And the third is a book adaptation, which is very early on.
Also in English?
Yeah. I’ve moved to London so I’m trying to set up things there, thinking that it might be the sane thing to do. It might end up that it’s not.
That begs the question: why England over America? Is it just a matter of distance?
Well I think it’s that England is still Europe. It is more familiar in a way. It was easy for me to do the intermediates steps, like meeting and interacting with people even from Greece. I could easily go back and forth.
I have nothing against doing it in the U.S., though not in the Hollywood system at the moment. I wouldn’t go there to pursue these kind of projects. I do meet people from there, and I do investigate the possibilities of doing something there. But that’s a different ballgame to me. It’s like making a different kind of genre.
And then there’s the other thing — the independent market in America. I’d like to pursue that, but it’s practically harder for me. Up to a point there was a discussion to bring “Alps” to New York with producers here, which we abandoned because it couldn’t happen as fast as we wanted it.
I’m very open to making films anywhere in the world. Not just because it’s hard to make films in Greece. Even if it was easy, I would want to expand and explore different cultures. Maybe the next film is going to be in Asia, which I love. I’d love to be able to move around the world and really draw from all these different places.
Going back to “Alps” — the plot begs the question: what the hell inspired it?
To us it doesn’t seem so unique [laughs]. It seems unique enough to explore, but I think it just seemed natural to us. This one just came by discussion with Efthymis. We had shown “Dogtooth” in Cannes and were thinking about what we could do next. There was a discussion about what happens when you did — does anyone remember you; how long does it take for people to forget about you? At some point Efthymis had an idea about people who have lost someone, asking from someone else to write them letters, pretending to be someone that had died to keep some kind of connection with them. I thought that was interesting, but I wanted to make it cinematic and engaging.
So I thought about the story of the nurse in the hospital. It seemed much more interesting and complex if she actually physically tried to stand in for these people. It could be associated with so many different things, not just death. It became about these people who are offering this service.
You’re not really one for exposition. Both this and “Dogtooth” start in the thick of the tale. What’s your reasoning behind that approach?
I just find it much more engaging and interesting. I just find it boring when they start explaining everything from the beginning. Not just that it’s predictable, it’s also that you’re directed precisely on what to feel. I just find it boring and sometimes annoying when I’m being treated like an idiot.
I find it much more interesting if people are able to explore and get lost in the film. I want them to discover things little by little, and have to the space to think of different things while watching the film. It happens in real life. Everything that you see in front of you doesn’t come with a set of instructions. I don’t know who you are and how you’re going to react to various things.
There’s so much mystery in life. I thought when you’re watching a film, that was supposed to be the idea.
Is that why your characters are all so mysterious? The actors all create these complex portrayals, but in writing them, you don’t give much away in terms of motivation and background.
It’s the same kind of logic. I find them much more interesting and much more true in a way. Again, you don’t really know why people do what they do. It’s about discovering these people.
Do actors come to you with a slew of questions before starting on a project?
Not any more. They used to [laughs].
Whoever they are, I try to work with them very physically and build on what we have. We just try things out.
Now call me crazy but I find your films pretty hilarious.
Thank you! I think they’re very funny, and that’s how I make them. Some people can’t see throughout the dark element, and that’s fine with me too. It’s easy for one person to fall on side of it, and easy for another person to fall on the other side of it. You can’t say clearly that it’s comedy or drama, it’s about the tone. It’s true to the things we want to explore.
How would you describe your own sense of humor?
I don’t know. You’re asking me to do these big journalistic things [laughs]. It’s what you see.