To some, the name Yorgos Lanthimos may not immediately spring to mind, but his films certainly will. His latest effort, the Palme d’or-nominated The Killing of a Sacred Deer, once again reunites him with acclaimed actor Colin Farrell in a darkly comic revenger.
We sat down with Yorgos during the London Film Festival to discuss his latest film – one which will make you squirm in discomfort – as well as the ethical quandaries he faces during filming and his relationship with the absurdism that runs through all of his features. Mild spoilers ahead.
Richard Hayward: I saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer recently, and the opening scene of heart surgery stunned me. What made you choose to open the film in such a bold, audacious way?
Yorgos Lanthimos: From the very beginning of the screenplay, we had to have an operation written into Steven’s (Farrell) surgeon character, so when we shot it, it was a very complicated matter to film a real surgery. We had to sterilise everything, get vaccinated, figure out where we would put the rig, and keep out of the way of the people that needed to get in. It was a rig above the actual operation, and then when we completed the shot of the slow zoom out of the heart with all these hands going in there. I saw it and realised “We don’t need to shoot anything else”, like people calling for assistance or even zooming out any further. When we coupled it with the music – which I played on location – it felt so strong and complete as a beginning that we didn’t need to change it. I can’t justify intellectually why, because it’s a very visceral experience anyway, but it just felt we didn’t need to shoot anything else.
RH: Throughout your filmography you’ve taken inspiration from Greek tragedies, this time drawing on comparisons with Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. It’s even mentioned within The Killing of a Sacred Deer in passing, so how much did it influence your script?
YL: It’s pretty much a straightforward reference that we made to the tragedy. I knew the tragedy of course, and I like it very much, but we started the screenplay first and then realised that there are these similarities between both, so we thought it was interesting enough to include it as a reference. Those kind of themes have been explored since ancient times, and making this association to something so old in a contemporary film made us realise that those kind of questions haven’t really been answered so many years later. They still concern us, but actually, we deal with them even less and we’re kind of shocked and scandalised when we dare to present them in a contemporary setting. I found it interesting that there was this connection, so wanted to highlight this, but we did write it independently from the tragedy.
RH: From the bizarre way in which people are punished in The Lobster, the insistence on the language as a tool of power in Dogtooth, and now you’ve got the nonchalance of the Murphy family’s matter-of-fact approach to their fate. Is this stark absurdism something you purposefully try to include?
YL: It’s not so conscious for me so I can’t really agree on any one theory around it, but weirdly enough a lot of it comes logically for us. When you create a certain set-up and situation, it leads you to a certain way of solving problems. As for Dogtooth, the use of language in that way of finding different meanings for words was a necessity. We were trying to solve the problem: “How do you deal with kids being isolated from an environment, and what happens if they hear this word?” You try and come up with a solution to the situation you’ve built that would make sense to the fictional parents. This kind of extreme and strange situation, you have to solve these problems with logic, so it ends up being absurd but at the same time it’s because it starts from one thing and logically ends up there. The punishments in The Lobster, for example having John C. Reilly getting his hand burnt in a toaster, fits within the world we were creating. When I say world I don’t mean it’s a different world, it’s just that they have a different atmosphere with different rules. We try to find associations between those worlds and their atmospheres with whatever we need to show. If it’s a punishment, or a joke, we need it to somehow relate. It’s logic for us.
RH: This is your consecutive film with Colin Farrell. Was it a conscious casting decision or did he come to mind after you and had written the part of Steven?
YL: He wasn’t always. I don’t think about these things when we’re writing the screenplay, I try to focus only on that. When I feel confident that we have something complete I think about who could be in it, what it’ll look like, where we will set it and what the sound will be like. But of course, when we got to the next step he was definitely one of the people I thought of first because we had a great experience working together on The Lobster, and it made sense for me to build on that relationship and explore things further. This being a much more complex thing for him, I thought that was just a natural thing to do.
RH: And what about Barry Keoghan as Martin? How did you cast him?
YL: I saw hundred and hundreds of kids from all around the world, and Barry just stood out. He was initially older than I had imagined for the character of Martin, but that quickly went away. I couldn’t see anyone else being this kid. I desperately needed someone that was going to be complex enough to convey all different aspects of the character at the same time. I didn’t want this to become a one-dimensional evil teenager, it was necessary that it was someone you could relate to and understand a kind of warmth, and one that you might be able to understand where he was coming from. He sometimes needed to be a normal kid, and then other times feel like an avenging angel of death of some kind. It was hard to find a young actor that could embody all that – sometimes all at once – and Barry just stood out. He was perfect.
RH: With Barry and your young cast, they’re often placed in bizarrely violent and sexual scenarios. How do you approach that in an ethical way and is there anything you wouldn’t get them to do?
YL: First of all you have to make sure everyone is comfortable. The parents are always involved, so I was never in fear of doing anything that anybody would feel uncomfortable with, and also, the most important fact is that these things happen one thing at a time, so we can deal with them very practically. I’m not a fan of creating an atmosphere on set that is the same as I want to be present in the final film, so my set is never a dark place with people being gloomy. It would make the film too self-serious so I always like people to enjoy what they’re doing. I never intellectualise the situations either, and I never go into psychological manipulation or try to get the actors to feel what they’re supposed to in the film. I try to avoid that. Whatever we do is far removed from what’s on screen, and most of it is very straight forward. The cast and crew are all really respectful toward everyone and we take everyone’s feeling into consideration. We’re very cautious about it all.
RH: You’ve recently finished wrapping on The Favourite. From the synopsis alone – ‘A tale of envy and betrayal in the court of Queen Anne in early 18th century England’ – it seems quite unambiguous for a Lanthimos film. Is that the case, or is there a similar dark streak to it? What can you tell us about it?
YL: I guess the story is more straight forward, but I’m the same person making it. I suppose the best part of me making this is to make a different kind of period film and do something with the genre while still managing to be original and fresh, so although it is inspired by history and real people, we have taken a lot of liberties. We went to great lengths to write a screenplay that felt very unique, and to find writers that could create that. It was also very important to have the actors that I wanted to be a part of this thing, like Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Visually, as well, we wanted to make it so that it would stand out, which included things uncommon with the period and using language that feels more contemporary, as well as other elements that make it feel different to your average period film.
RH: Lastly, will you ever return to Greek language filmmaking, or are you happier making films in the English language?
YL: Well, at the moment it doesn’t make much sense for me to do that. It’s going to be a hard film to put together, and because my films could be set anywhere practically it just makes sense to keep making English films. If I ever thought it was important to make a film that only makes sense to it in Greece and in Greek, I would do it, but for the moment it doesn’t seem like the next thing I need to do. Maybe I could use Greece as a setting, because all the actors I work with go “Let’s go to Greece and make a film”, so again if it makes sense then we might go ahead and do that: make an English film in Greece.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is released in UK cinemas from this Friday.