Interview with director Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster

After Dogtooth and Alps, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English-speaking debut with The Lobster – and once again, the critics are raving. Paul Byrne talks to the man behind one of this year’s most enigmatic films…

So, how to explain ‘The Lobster’…?
Well, for anyone who has already seen director and co-writer (along with regular script buddy, Efthymis Filippou) Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous arthouse hits ‘Dogtooth’ (2009) and ‘Alps ‘(2011), the sweet surrealism and arch anthropology on display is this black comedy will come as no surprise. For the uninitiated though, ‘The Lobster’ will be a mind-melting treat, as Lanthimos once again holds society’s norms up to the light and proceeds to make funny animal shadows. In the process, he once again blurs the line between the cute and the grotesque.

It’s ‘Battle Royale’ meets ‘The Office’, Michael Haneke does ‘Fawlty Towers’, a place where Kubrick, Kafka and Keaton hook up. Or maybe ‘The Lobster’ is just a damn good Charlie Kaufman film?

“We didn’t set out with any reference points in mind,” offers Lanthimos, after I rattle off my hilarious list of mash-ups. “I think it’s more about your own sensibilities, the tastes you have built up over the years. So, it just comes naturally, and I deliberately didn’t encourage people to watch this or that in preparation of the film. I would occasionally talk about certain films or whatever, but that was more to do with a good feeling than I need you to copy this guy here.”
Having been nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes (where Lanthimos won the Jury Prize) and the Grand Prix at the Ghent International Film Festival, ‘The Lobster’ has been picking up largely rave reviews.

Set in a dystopian future, the film follows David (a paunchy Colin Farrell), newly single and therefore required to move into The Hotel, where he is given 45 days to find a new partner. To help buy more time, the singletons are given the opportunity to go on shooting parties, where the killing of another loner will grant you an extra day at the hotel. If you fail to find a partner in your alloted time, you are then turned into an animal of your choice.

As he gets to know his fellow hotel guests (John C. Reilly’s Lisping Man, Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man, Ashley Jensen’s Biscuit Woman), David soon realises that his best chance of finding a mate is to convince one particularly heartless singleton (Angeliki Papoulia) that he also has no love for humanity in his soul. It quickly becomes apparent though that true love is hard to find in this cold and unforgiving environment, and David may have to turn fugitive…

The film has been blessed with rave reviews, right from its glorious Cannes win onwards. So, are you happy with ‘The Lobster’, especially now that’s its been embraced by all the right people?
Yorgos Lanthimos: It’s very hard for me to be at ease with what I’ve made. Knowing every little stitch, all the other ideas you had for every scene, it just makes you constantly question your choices, and that makes it very, very difficult to sit back and just enjoy it. It takes a long time for me before I can watch one of my films. After about 10 years, I might be able to judge it properly, but I generally jump straight into writing my next film before I edit my last one. I want to have something to cling on to, something to look forward to, in case this film doesn’t work.

Finding a heart amidst all this head-wrecking is never easy – important to you that you allow some sentimentality in alongside all the socio-political sarcasm?
YL: Sure. I try to include the things that I feel are important for the theme of the film, the story, the characters, but I really love working with contradictions and juxtapositions. The goal is to find some other layer that you didn’t recognise early on. I’m not interested in just ticking the boxes of what a narrative should be. I just try to be true to what it is that we’re making at the time.

Unsurprisingly, Heartbreak Hotel is not a happy place to be. Did you and co-writer Efthymis Filippou have ‘The Lobster’ worked out from the beginning?
YL: We are quite precise. I’d never feel comfortable starting a film without a script that we’re happy with, that we know can be made into a film. Of course, there’s always various tweaks and changes as we progress, either through the location, or the actor has a different idea, or just the dialogue doesn’t sound right on set. And that’s true in the editing too. For instance, in the first few days, we realised that this film was kind of funnier than we thought it would be. And I didn’t want to go against the nature of that. I liked it, and I just went with it.

It’s usually tonally and structurally that you shift a little here and there as the film takes shape.
Still, an actor like Ewan MacIntosh – aka Keith from ‘The Office’ – comes with his own particular weight and residue…
YL: I had seen him in ‘The Office’, and loved his character, and that was really the reason. I wasn’t thinking about what people would think when they saw him; I just felt he would be perfect in this world. But I guess everyone with any degree of fame brings baggage. That’s true of Colin, or Rachel, and of Keith from ‘The Office’. That’s how it works for me with all the actors – these are just people I want to work with. And we always leave our characters open at the writing stage, because we don’t know who the cast is going to be yet. We want to have that freedom to find someone who brings quite a lot of the character with them.

Ben Whishaw – who plays The Limping Man – has spoken of having absolutely no character backstory from you guys – which he found both terrifying and thrilling. No Mike Leigh live-as-the-character-for-six-weeks Method acting on your sets…?
YL: The Mike Leigh approach is just a very different kind of approach to ours, and it plainly works very well for him. I just love having the element of constant surprise for the actors, and for us. You get to places you wouldn’t otherwise have found.

I should, of course, thank you on behalf of Ireland for giving Colin Farrell his first critically-acclaimed film in pretty much a decade. 
YL: Oh, my pleasure. He even put on a paunch for us, which was brave of him. He kept it a little for ‘True Detective’, but it shows you just how committed Colin was to the part.

So, this is your first English-language film, you’ve upped sticks from Athens to London, you’ve got a mildly famous cast – John C. Reilly’s in there too, alongside the likes of Rachel Weisz, Whishaw, Olivia Colman – and you’re shooting in the wilds of Kerry. A piece of cake, or heart of darkness?
YL: I think the latter was more common [laughs]. I know it looks easy from the outside, but any films – certainly most films that I’ve made – there are so many things you have to worry about every day, it just never ends. But, at the end of the day, when you hit the pillow, there are moments of joy, realising what you’re actually doing. But when you’re in it, it can get pretty rough.
For that first week or so, in this beautiful hotel in a beautiful part of Ireland, it was joyous. But then, as time ticked on, it becomes ‘The Shining’. You spend three months there, far away from anything, eating the same food every day, just waiting for each Sunday to make it to Kenmare to eat something nice. So, it was difficult, but in the end, it’s worth it, of course.

Did you feel any need to shift gears and appeal to a bigger audience, given that this is your first English-speaking film?
YL: Not at all. We just did what we always did, and we were completely free, creatively. We never said to ourselves, hey, let’s try and have a hit here. The only fact is that I decided to move to England and start making English-speaking films because I felt it would be easier to actually make my films. Back in Greece, we’re making films largely on favours, and friends aren’t getting paid the way they should be, if at all. I didn’t want to continue making films that way. We’d pay people by doing free work for them, as there was very little support from the Greek Film Centre or commercial production companies. ‘Alps’ was made with €150,000 initially, and when it was sold, we were able to pay people a little bit more later.

How big was ‘The Lobster’s budget?
YL: It was around four million euro, but that meant getting a lot of different finances around Euorpe involved. Which means you have to go to these countries and shoot some of your film there. It was the only way to put this film together though. In actual numbers, it might look like a much bigger production, but once you actually pay everyone, you end up with pretty much the same budget on the set.

Do you feel you’ve moved up the food chain now, given that ‘The Lobster’ has been so well received?
YL: The fact that ‘The Lobster’ works has made a difference. To be honest, I never thought I would have to go through so many steps to get here. ‘Dogtooth’ was pretty successful around the world, and lots of people knew about it, and ‘Alps’ did well too. They were critically very appreciated too, but people were holding back until I proved myself in the English language world. And I think that hurdle has been jumped now. So, it’s probably a little bit easier now, but, our material is never going to be easy, as such, to get made.

So, you haven’t been given the key to the golden toilets yet…?
YL: I don’t know when that time comes, and I’m not sure that I’ll ever have the key to that particular toilet. I’m not making golden toilet kind of movies. I’m happy to say.

The move from Greece to London, bringing your skeleton crew with you, is this now your base, or are you happy to keep on travelling?
YL: You never know where you’re going to end up making a film, so, I would always have to be ready to travel light. And to move house. It’s all part of the job, and it’s something I’m pretty happy to do. For now. When I get older and grumpier, I’m sure I’m going to make everyone come to me.

How did you end up hooking up with Ireland’s Element Pictures for ‘The Lobster’?
YL: We met through another project, which we had been developing for years – a period piece that takes place during Queen Anne’s reign. We had been working on that for a few years when Efthymis and I finished the script for ‘The Lobster’. We had such a good relationship with Element, I brought it to them, and they were very helpful, very positive. They’re very supportive of the filmmaker, and they’re happy to let him make the film that he wants to make. Which is just a perfect way to work.
We’re going to be doing the next one together, and we’re developing another project together…

I stopped listening to your answers right around the words ‘Queen’ and ‘Anne’. That’s going to be something of a departure for you, right?
YL: Well, Kubrick did Barry Lyndon, right? I’m not sure that many people know many things about Queen Anne and that period – not that we’re being completely true to the history – so, there’s a great story there to be told.

You’ve spoken about how much you love uncertainty in your work – has that always been there?
YL: I learnt really early, when I was doing plays in the theatre, how to work with the actors. I realised certain things about how actors work, and how they feel comfortable about certain things and not others, and that pushed me to find ways to achieve that on a film set. Uncertainty is important for that spark, and so I’m not crazy about talking about backstory, or motivations, and all that. Reality doesn’t work like that. There are so many unknown factors that have to be taken into consideration, and I think it’s actually very limiting for an actor to have every single hair explained. You discover completely new angles by having that uncertainty.

That uncertainty can be disconcerting for the audience, of course. You get your rocks off on that, right?
YL: Absolutely. You need to be think for yourself, and hopefully, it’ll all make sense by the end. I’d rather be one step behind or to the side than one step ahead when it comes to movies…

So, you’re basically a jazz filmmaker…
YL: Yeah, I can live with that. My films are very rarely in four-four time. And I like to get the musicians to swap instruments too.

‘The Lobster’ hits Irish cinemas October 16th 2015

Words: Paul Byrne