Yorgos Lanthimos: How a Greek surrealist joined the renaissance of Irish cinema

Director Yorgos Lanthimos talks about choosing projects and his new work, The Favourite

The Favourite: Emma Stone as Abigail Masham. Photograph: Yorgos Lanthimos.

The Favourite: Emma Stone as Abigail Masham. Photograph: Yorgos Lanthimos.

 

As the current awards season progresses, we will be wrapping ourselves in the flag and cheering on Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. We will be doing that because it really is a profound masterpiece. Starring the unbeatable Olivia Colman as a spiteful, petty Queen Anne, the picture took runners-up prize at the Venice Film Festival and recently clocked up five Golden Globe nominations. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, who play rivals for the Queen’s attentions, join Colman in the Globes paddock. The Favourite is soon to be everywhere.

We will also be cheering it on (here’s the flag bit) because The Favourite was produced and developed by Element Pictures in Dublin. It’s an Irish film. It’s also a British film. But it’s definitely an Irish film.

“It’s weird to try and identify a nationality for a film,” Yorgos says. “Some it’s easier than others. It’s who claims it.”

That’s how the creative world works. Despite the rumblings of nationalism on the world’s streets, the film world remains defiantly international

The film is the latest manifestation of a fruitful collaboration between Element and the Greek film-maker. Released in 2015, The Lobster, a defiantly weird satire, won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Two years later, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an even scarier film, took best screenplay at the same festival.

“We developed The Favourite for 10 years,” Ed Guiney, producer of all three collaborations, told me recently. “We attached Yorgos. We used Irish Film Board money and continued to develop it with our team in Dublin.”

It’s a fascinating development. A Greek film-maker becomes part of the Irish cinematic renaissance. That’s how the creative world works. Everybody is from everywhere. Despite the depressing rumblings of nationalism on the world’s streets, the film world remains defiantly international.

“I decided to move out of Greece and go and make English-language films,” he says. “All of a sudden I felt I could be anywhere in the world. If you have a voice and a vision you can make something anywhere in the world. The work is affected by where you are. But that’s a good thing. There are interesting influences and something else comes out than what you had in mind. If I was in Japan my films would not be exactly the same. Maybe I’ll do that.”

Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Favourite. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/ AFP/Getty Images
Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Favourite. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/ AFP/Getty Images

We speak on the day that The Favourite has its triumphant unveiling at the BFI London Film Festival. He’s changed little since I met him after the release of his (what else?) unsettling 2009 film Dogtooth. He still has the beard. He still speaks in an unhurried voice – perfect English, of course – that sneaks dark jokes into the conversation. At that stage, nobody was quite sure where he was going. Having started in advertising, he broke through when Dogtooth, concerning a husband and wife who keep their children in closeted confinement, won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2009.

“We didn’t expect that much, but that helped,” he says. “But I didn’t think it would launch an international career. Coming from a country that doesn’t have much of a film industry, it wasn’t as if your next film in Greece would be easier to make. Nobody wanted to offer the director of Dogtooth anything else – unless I was prepared to make an entirely different film to what I wanted to make.”

And yet. We note that the big Hollywood studios now turn to independent film-makers when plotting the next franchise epic. It’s not inconceivable that he might have been offered Insidious V or something involving vampires. Not that he would ever do such a thing.

“I am sent material,” he says. “But not really tent-pole films. As long as I can make the films I want to make in decent conditions I am happy. Retaining control is what matters most. Maybe something will come along and will seem fun and I will do it.”

Born in 1973, Lanthimos never imagined that he could forge a career as a film-maker in Greece. He attended film school, but assumed that he would go on to spend a lifetime shooting commercials. Eventually, he and a bunch of likeminded friends began financing their own, odd features. His debut Kinetta played at Toronto. Dogtooth introduced his cold, angular humour to a significantly wider audience.

Has he become a national hero? Have his achievements been recognised at home?

“I think it’s mixed,” he says. “Certain people don’t see it as important. Others do. Everybody has a love/hate relationship with their own country. As I said before, you can make films anywhere. I try not to look too much into it.”

For all the cult appeal of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite seems likely to clear Lanthimos a larger corner of the mainstream than he has hitherto enjoyed. The film has done huge business on its limited US release. Indeed, in some senses, The Favourite looks like a brilliant perversion of a standard Sunday-evening period drama. Weisz is Lady Sarah Churchill, and Stone is the eventual Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham. Take out the bad words, tidy away the startling cinematography, remove some of the black jokes and you might have something your stern Aunt Masie would enjoy.

We are trying to create these three women as characters in a way that felt complex. So you wouldn’t be able to judge them in a moment. 

This is the first of Lanthimos’s films that he has not written. I wonder if Deborah Davis’s original screenplay was more conventional before the director got Tony McNamara to collaborate on a rewrite.

“Yes. I suppose so,” he says. “It was more conventional – with more historical information, more stuff about the characters, more specifics about the politics. I tried to pare down the politics and focus more on the women. I wanted to have you understand everything through them. I didn’t want to go away from them too often.”

I trust he’s looking forward to the bores who – despite the film’s unmistakably heightened tone – will enjoy pointing out the “historical inaccuracies”. The costumes are occasionally fabulous, and the language is rich. Games are always being played with the truth: Queen Anne treats rabbits as stand-ins for her many perished children. There are what used to be called lesbian love romps.

Emma Stone on the set of The Favourite. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima
Emma Stone on the set of The Favourite. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima

So what’s real and what’s invented?

“To be fair and honest, I don’t even know anymore,” he says with a crooked smile. “We are trying to create these three women as characters in a way that felt complex. So you wouldn’t be able to judge them in a moment. Is Sarah just a bitchy, powerful woman? Abigail is this ambitious, poor girl who’ll do anything? Queen Anne is just a weak monarch that can’t make a decision? That’s part of it. But there’s more. And they could have been very easily reduced to that.”

But the superstructure is drawn from history. Truth steers the invention.

“The main story is pretty close to what happened,” he says. “We don’t know if Abigail tried to poison Sarah. Anne didn’t have 17 rabbits around her symbolising lost children. There are things we can’t know.”

Robbie Ryan’s delightfully mannered cinematography should help press home the film’s oblique angle on history. We don’t want to jinx it, but the great Irish camera boffin – known for such films as I, Daniel Blake and American Honey – will surely secure a first Oscar nomination for his work here. The mad fish-eye lenses are dazzling. The candle-lit interiors kick up inevitable comparisons with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

“Well, [cinematographers] always like to start by saying: ‘I used no artificial light’. Ha ha! So that’s a very specific brief,” Lanthimos says. “But Robbie is game for anything. There were these scenes outside – where there are no candles obviously. But Robbie did ask: ‘We have these scenes in the forest. What are we going to do?’ I said: ‘Of course, Robbie. For those scenes we have to see something. So we can use lights.’ He took it impressively seriously.”

Lanthimos is currently juggling potential prospects. A few years ago, his name was mentioned in connection with a TV series on the Iran-Contra starring Colin Farrell. He admits that this is still being discussed. Other scripts are half-finished. The top-level success of The Favourite will bring him still further opportunities. But I can’t seem him shaking off that trademark misanthropy. Nor can I see him ever accepting cheap descriptions such as “trademark misanthropy”.

“Any reductive thing is annoying,” he says patiently. “Directors are many things. When people don’t understand what they’re watching, a lot of what they perceive has to do with who they themselves are. This director may say one thing here and then something very different over there.”

We shall keep an eager eye “over there”.

Five great English monarchs in movies

Henry II
The two competing challenges are from the same actor. Peter O’Toole is nicely overwrought in Becket (1964), but his turn opposite Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968) is an endless delight.

Henry V
Branagh vs Olivier. Our Ken is great in probably his best Shakespeare film, but Lord Larry’s patriotic feast – largely shot in Ireland – takes the prize.

Henry VIII
Robert Shaw is nicely gruff in A Man For all Seasons (1966), but Charles Laughton made the role his beery, haunch-of-venison own in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Elizabeth I
There are so many to choose: Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Bette Davis, Flora Robson, Quentin Crisp – and coming soon in Mary Queen of Scots – Margot Robbie. We give the prize to Cate Blanchett for the campy Elizabeth (1998).

Elizabeth II
Sarah Gadon was good in A Royal Night Out (2015). Penelope Wilton was fun in The BFG (2016). But we’re not going to pretend we’re not all thinking of Helen Mirren in The Queen (2006).

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