After Yorgos Lanthimos scored an Oscar nomination for “Dogtooth,” his jarring suburban thriller about a family that keeps its children cut off from the outside world, he made the rounds in Los Angeles. Nothing stuck. “I was going around, meeting all these people, being stressed out going from one studio to another,” the Greek filmmaker said. “You don’t really know if they appreciate your work, or if they just want to meet you because your film is hot now.”
It took a couple of years, but Lanthimos ultimately figured out a better solution for bringing his oddball visions to a wider audience: He left impoverished Greece and settled into the robust artistic community of London, developing commercially viable English-language projects while requiring that A-list actors approach him on his own terms. That’s the secret ingredient that has allowed Lanthimos, nearly a decade after “Dogtooth,” to make his biggest and most accessible commercial movie to date without an iota of compromise.
“The Favourite,” a twisted black comedy set in the British royal court of the 19th century, finds Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bickering and scheming to obtain the affections of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as their peculiar love triangle cascades into a knotted maze of seductions and gnarly physical altercations. The project was initially brought to Lanthimos by producer Ceci Dempsey following the success of “Dogtooth” nine years ago, and while the filmmaker outsourced the screenplay to Tony McNamara (whom Lanthimos hired to update Deborah Davis’ original take), “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.
Viewed alongside the director’s other English-language projects, the dystopian deadpan offering “The Lobster” and the outlandish home invasion horror of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” forms an inadvertent trilogy of Hollywood alternatives. All three movies deliver riveting, unpredictable narratives, but the familiar faces invite new viewers into the unique thrills of Lanthimos’ ever-expanding universe. 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 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 a film student in Greece in the nineties, the non-existent film industry forced him to keep his ambitions low. He enjoyed Bruce Lee movies and spaghetti westerns, but there were no arthouses to expose him to a wider set of possibilities. His sensibilities emerged from other experiences.
“I never thought that I would ever actually get to make films,” he said. “Being from Greece, it wasn’t really a reality.” 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, honing his technical instincts. “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.”
He also scored more serious work, collaborating with choreographers on filming dance performances, and directed some theater, both of which would inform the offbeat physicality and behavior at the center of his movies. “After all that, I think at some point it became more apparent that I would want to try and make a film at some point,” he said.
His solo directorial debut, 2005’s “Kinetta,” was made with a skeleton crew and a cast of three actors; the wandering plot involves three residents of a hotel who attempt to create homicides for enigmatic reasons. The movie provides the first rough glimpse of Lanthimos’ aesthetic — a disturbing self-contained world that adheres to its own logic, sounds ludicrous on paper, and somehow remains credible as it plays out onscreen. “It was really naïve how we approached it, and we hadn’t done it before,” Lanthimos said of his first production. “But with that, we proved that it’s possible. We became even more thirsty to do it, so we kept making films.” The project brought Lanthimos into the film festival world, and as “Kinetta” turned a few heads in Toronto and Berlin, he suddenly became aware of a bigger universe where his movies could exist. “I didn’t even know what this thing was and how it worked, and who were all these people that were selecting films for festival,” he said.
Back home, he made “Dogtooth,” which became the discovery of Cannes in 2009. “We never imagined that we could make films any other way, other than how we started,” he said. “We didn’t expect the success.” Rather than waiting to see how all the hype would play out, he continued to work within the constraints of the Greek film community. In 2010, he produced and acted in “Attenberg,” Athina Rachel Tsangari’s loopy portrait of two best friends contending with isolation and mortality. During that production, he met his future wife, actress Ariane Labed, who was already a fan of his work. “I was very impressed by him,” Labed said. “He has faced many obstacles, and never gives up.”
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.”
But the label never did much for the directors back home. “No Weird Wave film has met with box office success in Greece,” DeMetro said. “Greek audiences have not turned out to see these films.” On average, he added, the country produces 20-25 features per year, and only 11 have been sold for U.S. distribution since the release of “Dogtooth” in 2009. The bulk of the country’s national product — mostly broad comedies — doesn’t travel. But Lanthimos’ capacity to find a profile beyond that insular world has sunk in. “If Lanthimos has had any effect on Greek filmmakers, it is to endorse the notion that films should aim at the international festival market rather than local Greek distribution,” DeMetro said.
After “Alps,” Lanthimos fled to the U.K., where actors flocked to him, and his output took off. Cate Blanchett expressed interest, as did Rachel Weisz, though it took her some time to come around on his screenplay for “The Lobster,” where she acts opposite Colin Farrell in a bizarro future where being single is a crime. Nicole Kidman was keen on embracing his unorthodox approach for “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” and he wrapped production on “The Favourite” before the Kidman project even hit Cannes.
Lanthimos said he never writes projects with specific actors in mind. “I don’t want to be limited by that, and you don’t know if they’re going to be available,” he said. Much has been made about his unusual rehearsal process on “The Favourite,” when he gave experimental commands to his cast as they ran through the screenplay. “By the end, we all knew the script by heart because we had said the words over and over without really any intention behind them,” Stone said, during a Q&A for “The Favourite” at Telluride. “It was a very interesting way to learn that we were safe with each other, we could rely on each other, and we knew what we were saying when we started to shoot. It resembled nothing of what we actually shot.”
Lanthimos has embraced the freedom to bring his non-traditional methods to a grander scale, fusing several artistic disciplines into a single package. While critics and audiences struggle to categorize his work, there has always been a method to the madness. “I did have a lot of years watching and appreciating dance and theater and all of those kind of things, and it has informed the way that I work with actors and the way I approach things,” he said. Lanthimos’ movies take outrageous swings that in lesser hands might throw off the tone of his stories, or simplify them.
In “The Favourite,” Weisz’s Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, engages in a baffling contemporary dance to please her queen — but the endeavor never collapses into Zucker brothers-level parody because the actors play it straight, and the filmmaker compliments them with a consistent environment. Lanthimos recruited Argentinean choreographer Constanza Macras to develop the sequence. “I knew that physicality would be very important in order to create this film in a way that would feel like its own world and it wouldn’t be like another period piece that people speak and walk in a certain way,” he said.
That was also the reason why he wanted a new writer to tackle Davis’ script, which had been floating around since the nineties. “The initial script was very historically accurate and there was a lot of information about the politics of the time,” he said. “I really wanted to make it much more focused on these three women, that’s what was most interesting to me — their relationship with politics and power, and how their relationships affect the much bigger picture.”
As he kept talking, the typically press-shy Lanthimos found his way to a bigger picture. “I wanted to make all that quite simpler so that it’s a film that feels relevant to us today, so you could imagine this happening anywhere in the world or anytime or place,” he said. “Pare down the politics so it’s easier to understand the repercussions that come from the decisions that these three, or the actions that these three women take.” Look hard enough and there’s an actual morality play lurking at the center of Lanthimos’ cinema. For Stone, “The Favourite” presents “this constant dance between who is really in charge among these three people,” she said. “It was fascinating to explore that.”
Lanthimos has been chiseling away at a few scripts, including another one with McNamara, but hasn’t settled on his next move. When he finishes a new draft, he reads it out loud to Labed at home. “That’s when I understand certain things,” he said. Labed added that the influx of budgetary resources and stars hasn’t shifted his formula. “It simply gives him more tools to create his vision,” she said. “It is not going to change anything. I don’t think he creates with a bigger audience in mind.”
And yet, with his Greek days behind him, the audiences keep coming. “Lanthimos’ success is bittersweet for many of his colleagues in Greece,” DeMetro said. “He confirms the notion that makes them feel somewhat uncomfortable, that only when a filmmaker leaves Greece does he stand a chance to achieve wide attention and recognition.” But even if the language has changed, and the demand for his work ticks upward every year, his approach hasn’t shifted. “It’s hard for me to find a script that’s perfectly suited to me, so even if it’s a good script I’ll still have to work on it with someone and shape it, making it the film that I want to make,” he said. “So in that respect, I prefer to do the stuff that I’ve generated anyway.”
He would much rather hide behind the veneer of his work. “I’d make the film and let it speak for itself,” he said. But with “The Favourite,” he had grown more comfortable with the pressures of awards season. “If people like the film, great,” he said. “If we’re nominated, great. If we’re not, fine.” He was eager to get back to developing new ideas. “I work on things and whatever feels ripe, you go ahead and make it,” he said, “and then, you move on to the next one.”
Fox Searchlight releases “The Favourite” theatrically on November 23, 2018.