INTERVIEW: Yorgos Lanthimos, Writer/Director of ‘The Lobster’

This deadpan, dystopian satire of romantic conventions marks a memorable English-language debut for the Greek filmmaker.

There’s never been a film like “The Lobster.” The latest bizarre, high-concept work from Yorgos Lanthimos, the truly unique filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth” and “Alps,” carries with it not just a clever idea but a wholly original premise: in an alternate-reality dystopian universe, single folks are forced to find a new mate in 45 days or become an animal of their choosing.

You did read that last sentence correctly, I assure you. Like Lanthimos’ previous two features, “The Lobster” is set in a world that’s been twisted ever so slightly into a Bizzaro version of our mundane reality. But what makes it work isn’t the clever concept—it’s the execution. It’s one rare enough thing to come up with a new idea, but here the follow-through, the filmmaking and performances, they’re all in sync. It’s the kind of film that may be considered a masterpiece, in due time. For now, I’m comfortable enough calling it one of the best films of the year.

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in "The Lobster."

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in “The Lobster.”

Lanthimos’ transition from his native Greek to English language filmmaking for “The Lobster” is an incredibly smooth one. Nothing’s lost in translation, and there’s even a dose of accessibility with stars in the cast such as Colin Farrell (never better), Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly. It’s easily the funniest film in years, though its humor is extremely specific and of the dark (pitch black, even) variety. But there’s hope amidst all the craziness that unfolds over the film’s two hour runtime, found, without too much straining, in its execution of a truly adorable love story that leavens all the truthful but sometimes nasty satire.

I had a chance to talk with Lanthimos over the phone last week. He shared several insights on the many readings of his work, what films he’s working on next, what the surreal opening scene of “The Lobster” means and more. The following is excerpted from our chat.

Can you fill us in on your writing process? How do you come up with these original concepts?

It’s a relatively long process and a dialogue I have with my writing partner [Efthymis Filippou]. Ever since “Dogtooth,” we discuss what we want to do next after finishing a film. We basically just exchange ideas and thoughts about things that interest us and we observe around us. It might be a tiny little idea and we discuss it and it expands from there. Then comes the story and we fill it in with scenes. Then we decide if it’s worth exploring further at that point. If so, we start on the actual screenplay.

Have you ever come up with any ideas that were just too strange?

I don’t think the strangeness comes in to it. It’s whether or not an idea is substantial enough to explore further. If we feel that they don’t fit into important issues and matters we’re interested in, or might be more superficial or just an idea for doing a story that doesn’t resonate in any other way, we’re just not that interested in exploring those.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos

Director Yorgos Lanthimos

Beyond the satirical elements about love and societal views on relationships, the film also works as a deeply humanistic examination of extremism. Was that intentional?

We did want to include all extremes. The extremes come from us trying to push certain things in order to explore them through a different point of view and reveal the absurdities of our everyday lives and things we consider normal and take for granted. That’s where it came from. We never started by saying ‘let’s do something about extremism’. We had to create a structure in this case that had to feel like a complete world because we change the rules of the world. At the same time we wanted it to look very near to ours. In pushing those elements to extremes and having strict rules for all of the parties we wanted to explore, that created an extremist environment. Of course that’s part of the film. I’m always happy when you make a film, in this case starting with something about love, relationships and single people, but it has so many different themes in it and resonates with people in so many different ways. I feel like I made something quite substantial in a way.

You’re working on two other English language features coming next. Can you tell us about their status and what to expect?

I’ve been working on two projects. We’re trying to figure out which will be next. There’s “The Favourite,” a project I’ve been developing for five years. It’s a British period film set during Queen Anne’s reign. My writing partner and I have also written a script that is a psychological thriller with supernatural elements, called “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” [note: Colin Farrell recently agreed to star in this film, and it appears this will be Lanthimos’ next film]

“The Favourite,” especially, sounds more straightforward. Will it be a challenge to make something that may be more mainstream? 

I’m very excited. It is quite different for me, but I wouldn’t say it’s straightforward [laughs]. It’s a different kind of film. Certainly my interest in it is trying to do something different with the genre. We now have an interesting screenplay. The genre is very interesting if you’re free to tackle it in the way you’d like to. That’s the aim for that one. On all fronts we’re trying to make this a distinct film. The writing is particular, the characters too, and visually we want to do something original within the genre. It’s early on, we haven’t even started making the film yet. [laughs] I always discover as I go through with it, and I never have all the answers, even for my collaborators. It’s a process of discovery for many things.

That would be three English language films in a row then. Do you think you’ll ever make another film in Greece or in another language again?

I think for now that’s the plan to make English language films. It doesn’t feel like there’s any potential in making a Greek film. Unless the film itself needs to be Greek or shot there. For now it just seems more reasonable that I keep making English language films.

Have you been courted by Hollywood to make a franchise movie yet? Will we see a “Star Wars” or Marvel film from you some day?

[laughs] No, no nothing like that. [laughs] They’re still scared. I think what we’re trying to do is keep the films at a rational kind of budget. If you do that you’re free to make the films the way you like to make them. That’s most important to me. To have the creative freedom to keep making our films and have the means to pull them off in a decent way at least.

We need to talk about the opening shot of “The Lobster.” We follow a woman who parks her car, gets out and shoots a donkey. We never see her again in the film, unless I missed something? I talked with a lot of folks who came up with theories and possible hidden clues to that opening scene. Can you explain at least a little?

[laughs] No, no I don’t think you missed anything. You just need to be more open about it [laughs]. For me, the opening shot sets up the tone for the film. It’s not related in plot. It’s just a scene that very clearly sets up the tone of the film. Then you have the title of the film and the film starts. You can think whatever you like for what is actually happening in that scene and who is who while you’re watching the film or after if you might remember it and make associations. But there isn’t a plot point that you missed or anything.

“The Lobster” opens at Cinema 21 on their big screen this Friday, with a special advance screening on Thursday available if you want to catch it early. For more details and to purchase tickets in advance, go to cinema21.com

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