With the relatively recent passings of Theo Angelopoulos and Michael Cacoyannis (January 2012 and July 2011, respectively), Yorgos Lanthimos is arguably Greece’s most celebrated contemporary director. His best known film, Dogtooth, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards. It is occasionally misidentified as his directorial debut but that honor goes to Kinetta (completed four years earlier). His latest, Alps, will be released in New York in the days ahead. Between the two, he co-produced and starred in Attenberg by writer/director Athina Rachel Tsangari (producer of all three Lanthimos films as well, and who, it’s worth mentioning, briefly appears in Slacker, as “Cousin from Greece”).
Jonathan Marlow: You’re working on a new feature…
Yorgos Lanthimos: Three features.
Marlow: Is that all?
Lanthimos: I’m developing three or four new projects. I’m currently working on the scripts. I realized that when you actually want to make a film in the normal way (with financing and everything) it takes a lot of time for development. So it’s good to have many projects lying around. You never know which one is going to happen first. You never know who is going to wake up and say, ‘OK, let’s move ahead with this one.’
Marlow: That seems like a very good strategy. Dogtooth and Alps are both very unconventional, premise-wise. Did you develop the basic notion for Alps around the time that you were shooting Dogtooth?
Lanthimos: Not while we were shooting but soon after. Efthymis [Filippou], the co-writer of Dogtooth, and I started thinking about what we wanted to do next. We wrote it in the summer right after Dogtooth premiered in Cannes. We shot it quite soon after that.
Marlow: One of the actresses in Alps, obviously, also stars in Dogtooth as does one of the leads from Attenberg, a film in which you appear. Did you always have those two actors in mind for those roles?
Lanthimos: No. Actually, they had to audition! [Laughter.] It’s true. Although it doesn’t matter how well I know them or how good I think that they are for the part. That’s not very important for me. The most important thing is to see how it works for them to just be there with the other people that are in the film. If you record that, what sense does it bring out? I always do a screen test with them, even if I know that probably Aggeliki [Papoulia], who was in Dogtooth, is going to be the lead in Alps. I leave that for last. I look for other actors or known professional actors and then I look at the ones I know last. I would notice who might be great and I try them out. The same with Ariane [Labed], who was in Attenberg. I knew her. She got the Best Actress prize in Venice so it isn’t necessary to do a screen test to see if she’s a good actress or not. It’s just how it works with the other people within that specific part, to make certain that it’s what is right for the film. Because I also never have a very specific idea of what these characters should look like or what his or her age should be. We leave that very open in the script. Of course, if it’s the father of one of the characters, OK, there will be some age difference, but…
Of course, I definitely think our films have failed in many ways. [Laughter.] I’m not afraid of that. Well, I am afraid of it but I just have to accept that you cannot make anything perfect. It’s going to fail in different ways. You just try to fail better and less often.
Marlow: There is an essential difference of age between the teacher and the student in Alps, for instance.
Lanthimos: Yes. But we really try to specify as little as possible in the script. Then we search for the appropriate people for each part. Actors or non‑professional actors, I don’t care.
Marlow: When you bring someone in to read for a part, does it create new ideas for you about where that role could go?
Lanthimos: Yes, sometimes. We try to do other stuff with them while we’re shooting or while we’re rehearsing. It depends, again, on what the actual process is, because it’s different for every film. For instance, in Alps we didn’t have many rehearsals. Hardly any rehearsals at all. If something didn’t really work on set, we tried to have enough time while shooting to figure it out. Then, if we would finish the scenes that we had for the day early, we would just come up with a new scene or an improvisation and we would shoot that. Some of these things ended up in the film and some of the scenes that were scripted were cut from the film. It’s a constant changing of things. We tried to draw from that and make it part of the film as much as possible.
Marlow: That was also the strategy with Dogtooth as well?
Lanthimos: With Dogtooth, it was different because most of the people in the cast were actors. It was also very contained in terms of the location and everything. I just felt that we had to do a lot of rehearsals. We had a month or a month-and-a-half of rehearsals in order to get them in the state that I’d like them to be. In Alps, there were many more characters and more of the cast were non‑professional actors. I liked the way that they interacted with the actors and I did not want to spoil that by starting rehearsals and making the non‑actors self-conscious. I wanted to have this tension between them. I wanted to use that on set and shoot whatever that tension created.
Marlow: Did your shooting process change since Dogtooth?
Lanthimos: No, not at all. Dogtooth was very few takes. Actually, I didn’t allow the actors to even know their lines. They would just have to learn their dialogue as we were shooting and as we were doing their scenes. Eventually, they would reach a point where they would arrive at the script. But they had to do it through a process of actually performing it and then shooting it and learning it that way. So they have only read the script once.
Marlow: I know that you direct for the theater occasionally as well. Do you try to create new challenges for yourself when you take on a project like this? I think that the structure of Alps lends itself very well to what you described since there are multiple secondary characters that are brought into the narrative. The situations are unique. Not only are they non-actors but they are all role-playing in the context of the film.
Lanthimos: I never start from that. What’s the next thing that we can do? It’s always about the idea and what we want to explore. Then you just try and realize what you have and what is the best way of working to achieve something that really functions best for your material. It’s different every time. The theater is also very different. In the theater you have to work a lot with the actors because there is a lot of work to make the play seem new again and approach it in a different way.
Marlow: With Alps, there is clearly a structure of rules around the group that you do not reveal to the audience. You withhold information. During the course of the film, the rules for their behavior, their interactions, get revealed. It’s an unconventional approach. You’re asking the audience to be a participant in a similar way to what you’re asking of your cast. Unfortunately, in this country, we have a tendency to just say everything up front.
Lanthimos: Exactly. But that’s the point for me in making films or watching films. That’s the experience that I want to be involved in. I want to be engaged while watching a film. I want to be free to make choices and not be guided to a very specific way of thinking. I want to be free. I like to not know what’s going on. I enjoy that. I enjoy discovering what’s going on, discovering the rules and discovering the characters. Otherwise, I’m bored. If I know everything beforehand, if I’m told what to think, I get angry. Because I have to be moved in these specific scenes and everything has to be justified for the behavior of a character, which is not at all like that in real life. You have no idea why you see this person doing this thing. For instance, I was walking down the street yesterday and I saw this woman who was kneeling. She had a dog and she was speaking on the phone. You see this image and you just walk by. I was wondering how you could replicate that. There’s this woman is this very weird position. You don’t know why she’s like that but she’s just speaking on the phone. She doesn’t seem troubled or anything. She’s holding this dog and she’s kneeling and she’s speaking on the phone….
Marlow: This image you’re describing, you describe very perfectly something that cinema often fails to achieve. I’m reminded of the [Krzysztof] Kieslowski film Double Life of Veronique. There are these extended sequences of an old woman taking a bottle and putting it in a recycling bin. Repeatedly, the same woman and the same activity. It’s the sort of thing that most filmmakers would choose not to include. It is a moment that is seemingly disposable. But there are sequences in both Dogtooth and Alps where you achieve something similar. You’re including scenes in these films that other filmmakers would normally decide to cut. Yet, they’re integral to the entire structure of the film. In Rotterdam, I attended a screening of Dogtooth without knowing much about it. It had been recommended to me and that was the extent to which I knew about the film. But it was a public screening with Dutch subtitles. The first time that I saw it was without English subtitles. I had no idea what was going on, of course, but the story was still comprehensible.
Lanthimos: So you weren’t as confused, basically, as most audiences because people who knew the language were more confused by it! [Laughter.]
Marlow: Perhaps. It was fascinating in much the same way if you were to see a silent film that was lacking the intertitles for some reason. If a film is assembled correctly, it should still be quite clear. In fact, when I saw the film again a few months later in San Francisco (with the English subtitles) it was everything that I expected with some minor variations. Everything was perfectly clear in the way that you directed the film and cut the scenes together.
Lanthimos: That’s very interesting.
Marlow: I don’t recommend it.
Lanthimos: [Laughter.] No! It’s better to know.
Marlow: Obviously, the reception for Dogtooth at Cannes was great. Then, getting nominated for an Academy Award….
Marlow: Easily one of the most subversive films to be nominated for that category.
Lanthimos: It was a surprise.
Marlow: That experience obviously heightened the visibility of your work. I haven’t had the opportunity to see your first feature.
Lanthimos: Kinetta, yes. But the fact is that we made Alps very soon after Cannes, so it wasn’t…. There was a lot of publicity, especially in our country. But things weren’t that easy for us. We had to make Alps under more difficult conditions than we made Dogtooth. It didn’t really affect the way that we were making films at the time. Now we’re trying to make a film in the U.K. in the English language just because I’ve made three films in Greece under these difficult conditions. It’s very hard. I just want to try something different and see how a film gets made in a ‘proper’ way. Maybe have some access to things and be able to make choices about where you’re going to shoot.
Marlow: It changes a lot of things.
Lanthimos: Yes, it changes a lot of things. I don’t know if it’s for the best. Because, as I said, I realize that all of a sudden you just have to wait. You have to rely on other people to decide when are you going to make your film and if you’re going to make it. Whereas before, OK, you have no money, you have nothing. But you have your friends and you decide to go ahead and make a film. But, again, you don’t have many means to make the film. It’s a completely different experience. Until I’ve actually done it, I don’t know what to say about the other way of making a film. Even with the Oscar nomination and everything, we weren’t able to even finance Alps. It happened gradually.
I want to be engaged while watching a film. I want to be free to make choices and not be guided to a very specific way of thinking. I want to be free. I like to not know what’s going on. I enjoy that. I enjoy discovering what’s going on, discovering the rules and discovering the characters. Otherwise, I’m bored. If I know everything beforehand, if I’m told what to think, I get angry.
Marlow: What is your post‑production process? If you were doing a lot of ‘on set’ work with the actors, the editing period was likely extensive.
Lanthimos: Yes, there was a long period of editing. But it’s not so much about spending time on editing the thing. I just like to take some time off in‑between edits to clear my mind and be able to look at it with fresh eyes.
Marlow: That makes perfect sense.
Lanthimos: Also, we have to do other jobs to survive because we don’t really make money with these films. We have to make commercials in-between and make some money and be able to pay for the film. It works like that. Anyway, the film wasn’t really fully financed even after it was in Venice in competition. After the award and everything, then money started coming in and we were able to pay the people.
Marlow: It is your own production company, I presume?
Lanthimos: It’s a finance production company. We help each other make our films, but it is kind of our own. It’s familiar.
Marlow: Do you have any interest in acting beyond your appearance in Attenberg?
Lanthimos: Not really.
Marlow: That was an, ‘OK, I’ll be in your film?’
Lanthimos: Yes. I don’t know if it’s a one‑time thing but it would have to be something….
Marlow: It depends on who calls? If Martin Scorsese asks, ‘Perhaps….’
Lanthimos: Yes, that could happen. Who knows?
Marlow: You like writing and directing. You definitely have an aptitude for it. You seem to do pretty well at it.
Lanthimos: [Laughter.] It’s OK. It’s fine. I wish I could just be constantly doing that and not having to do other things and focus more on actually developing films. It hasn’t happened so far.
Marlow: If you have three projects that are various stages of development, are you open to the idea of some company or studio hiring you to do something else that you didn’t write?
Lanthimos: One of them is like that. I’m attached to a British period film about Queen Anne. That’s a project that I didn’t generate. I was just interested in the story. I just felt that it would be very interesting to try and make a different costume drama from the ones that you’ve seen so far. So we’re rewriting the script at the moment. Who knows what’s going to happen because, on these projects, you don’t even know especially when they’re expensive and they need a lot of financing. It depends on maybe major actors being in them and how all of these things come together. I really have no idea. We’ll find out.
Marlow: It’s impossible to make a film for the budgets that you’ve made your last two or even three features and make it a period film.
Lanthimos: That’s completely impossible. We can barely make a contemporary film! [Laughter.]
Marlow: Then the other two projects, these are things that….
Lanthimos: It’s another one that I’m writing again with Efthymis. We wrote Dogtooth and Alps together. It’s kind of our world.
Marlow: It seems like you constructed very self‑contained worlds in Dogtooth and Alps. Could it be considered a trilogy?
Lanthimos: I don’t care about naming it a trilogy or anything. It’s just another thing that we’re making together. Some people already see it as a trilogy because there are many thematic things in Kinetta that are similar to Alps. But then, if I do them with Efthymis, then the trilogy is the next three films. I don’t know about these things!
Marlow: That’s the thing that critics spend a lot of time agonizing over. It’s largely nonsense.
Lanthimos: [Laughter.] Exactly! So I don’t care. It’s going to be another one with him and then there’s a book that we might adapt. I never write on my own. I always need a writer to do the hard part: the writing!
Marlow: You seem to really like the ‘collaboration’ aspect of it.
Lanthimos: I don’t think I could actually write anything on my own. Or I could but it wouldn’t be any good. It’s not so hard to type, of course, but the actual script wouldn’t turn out that great.
Marlow: Is that because of the ability to talk through things and bounce ideas off someone?
Lanthimos: Definitely. It’s a very different talent to be able to write interesting dialogue that reflects the tone that you want in the film and also have structure and an interesting story. I’m not the best person to do the whole thing. I like to collaborate with people and discuss it and even have conflicts and realize things. It even helps when you discuss because you realize things about why you’re doing something and why it feels right or wrong. Sometimes you don’t really know. But when you start trying to convince someone, you realize if it’s right or wrong. Sometimes you realize maybe you’re wrong. You have to go the other way. It’s very worthwhile when I’m working with a writer.
Marlow: In that process because Alps and Dogtooth are very much centered on key scenes and elements that bring you from one scene to another, do you start with…? For Dogtooth, did you have a visual idea of the dance sequence towards the end of the film? Did you know that certain things have to get you to someplace or do you start from the beginning and work your way through, chronologically?
Lanthimos: It’s definitely not visual. To us, I guess it’s first the idea. I had the idea for Dogtooth and I went to Efthymis to write it. It’s an idea about a certain situation or condition or a structure or a behavior and then, especially with Efthymis, we discuss it and maybe discover the characters. We just write scenes that reflect this situation or condition. It’s not even a story in the beginning. So we know that it works but it’s writing and it is dialogue and it’s scenes. Then we see what works and then we make a structure. It’s complicated and confusing the way that we work. We do have a structure but then we defy it completely and continue writing scenes and then we realize that we want to go someplace differently so we have to change the structure. We don’t do it in a very conventional way like having just a story and a structure and how it should work. We write the scenes for that. We write scenes that reflect all of the things that we want to do and find then the structure that they work within.
Marlow: It allows for things to be much more inventive and creative, clearly, because the results speak to the process with which you’re working.
Lanthimos: It’s difficult sometimes just because we work on it even during the editing. We change things around because it’s not like a very strong narrative that you cannot change. It’s more the feel of things that create this structure. There’s a buildup. It doesn’t rely on very dramatic things happening. There are a few in the film….
Marlow: You were doing dance films at one point. When you’re working with dance companies, is the process similar to music composition in the sense that there’s an emotional place where a particular scene is going to be most effective and you have the ability and process to find that place?
Lanthimos: It works a lot like that. It is more restrictive than film because you do have a story that you have to somehow communicate and follow. But many times and for many different scenes, it works like that. We have them written in a certain way and then we do change them around in the editing process just because it feels right. They start being infused with a different meaning just by the way they put one-next-to-the-other. It has a completely different feeling if one scene is next to this scene or the other scene. It just creates this whole different narrative. We do try to experiment a lot with that as much as we can.
Marlow: Was it frustrating at all with Dogtooth that number of folks that wrote about the film felt obliged to try and make it into some political allegory and a reflection of Greek culture?
Lanthimos: It’s not frustrating because that’s one of the reasons I like to make the films open in a way.
Marlow: In order to leave it open to interpretation?
Lanthimos: It’s not as broad as ‘open to interpretation.’ It is open and it is specific at the same time. We make the film and there’s a specific idea and there’s a specific story and there’s a specific tone in the film, but in the same way it’s not so directed to the way you have to think about it. So I like that people are able to associate it with different things. We didn’t make it as an allegory to anything, but it’s great that a film can actually work like that and we do make it in a way that it can work.
Marlow: What’s funny to me is that we watch it from the time when you made it. In 20 years, we’ll be watching it from that perspective and they will look at it in a completely different way because the film is open to being read in a different way. There are culture touch points, like the fact that she is watching Flashdance and Red Shoes. It will perhaps mean less in 20 years or have a different context. Also, the fact that you don’t spell that out, her dance. There are people who will encounter what she’s doing in different ways in relation to when they happen to see the film.
That’s also challenging. You’re asking a lot of the audience. You expect your audience to be smart enough to embrace the world that you’ve created and not all audiences are that.
That’s good, I guess.
Lanthimos: That’s good.
Marlow: Do you have a root premise for this film? Is there a similar setup to Alps and Dogtooth?
Lanthimos: It’s similar. It has more of a fantasy/science fiction feel to it. Nothing too elaborate, as you can imagine, but it’s set up in a bigger world. We keep changing the rules at this stage. We’re writing in English and it’s going to be completely an English-language film. We’re trying to just see how we can make a film that is financed. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll all fall apart and we’ll do it in China! Whoever is interested in it? The things that we make, they could be anywhere in the world. It would take a different meaning in a different location. It would draw from the ambiance of the location where it was shot but the thematics and the starting point would be the same. Also, that’s interesting to me. To be able to have a strong subject and then, just by placing it in a different part of the world….
Marlow: Right. It would inevitably draw from the surrounding culture.
Lanthimos: It draws from the culture and all the people in the landscape.
Marlow: As a filmmaker, I imagine that would be very interesting for you, there’ll be a whole other thing that becomes the texture of the work. Because you’ll be discovering things as well while you’re….
Lanthimos: Exactly, yes. So I find that very interesting.
We had to make ‘Alps’ under more difficult conditions than we made ‘Dogtooth.’ It didn’t really affect the way that we were making films at the time. Now we’re trying to make a film in the U.K. in the English language just because I’ve made three films in Greece under these difficult conditions. It’s very hard. I just want to try something different and see how a film gets made in a ‘proper’ way. Maybe have some access to things and be able to make choices about where you’re going to shoot.
Marlow: Yes. If it works out.
Lanthimos: So I don’t know where it’s going to be shot. It depends.
Marlow: Were there any particular filmmakers that inspired you to become a filmmaker? Was there anything that you were seeing when you were growing up in Athens that was particularly inspirational and made you feel like this was something that you wanted to do with your life?
Lanthimos: Not really. I wasn’t a cinephile from a young age and watching [Andrei] Tarkovsky since I was 13 years old or anything like that. It was a fascination, of course. The only thing that I could admit to is that I could direct commercials. It was something that could actually made sense to your parents. I would never say, ‘When I become a filmmaker….’ I started, basically, by doing commercials and things like that. In school, I did discover various directors but I had already made the decision to become a film and television director. Of course, I became acquainted with all these great filmmakers while I was studying film….
Marlow: You went to film school in Greece, I presume?
Lanthimos: Yes. I attended the film school that we have there. It is a small, private film school. It’s not much, I have to admit.
Marlow: Well, the industry there is not….
Lanthimos: There’s no industry. This word doesn’t exist for filmmaking in Greece! There’s no proper education, there’s no infrastructure, there’s no….
Marlow: But, in some ways, there is a certain freedom in that?
Lanthimos: Yes. It helps you just because you’re absolutely free to do whatever the hell you want. Nobody gives you anything and you’re totally free. But that could work in any country.
Marlow: I’ve seen many examples of that in other countries and those films are not watchable. Of course, you live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. That probably doesn’t hurt.
Lanthimos: Yes, London is beautiful. I don’t know. It’s also how people see from the outside. For me, Athens, it is very hard to work there.
Marlow: How long have you been in London, then? That was a subtle segue. It is a beautiful place.
Lanthimos: We moved nine months ago. When you look at it from the outside, Greece and Athens seem very seductive. But it is truly a very tough place to live and a very hard place to be able to create something. There’s no support whatsoever.
Marlow: The decision for London was opportunistic, basically?
Lanthimos: It was a choice. I could decide to go to Paris. I don’t know. It’s also the language that I’m more familiar with. It’s the fact that I have an agent there so I was able to find my way around companies and producers. They seemed to be interested in working with me. I liked London as a city, really. It was a city that I could see myself living in, because of the culture, the restaurants….
Marlow: Yes. The restaurants are good. The weather could be better.
Lanthimos: …the history. The weather is actually very, very good the last few years due to the environmental catastrophe. Most of the winter was quite sunny. There’s even a drought now in London. There was a very mild winter. Most of the times that I was visiting Greece, it was rainy and cold and I was going back to London and it was sunny. The weather has improved. Not because of good things…
Marlow: So you’re very comfortable with your choice.
Lanthimos: For the time being, I’m comfortable. But I do feel like I could be anywhere and go anywhere and make films anywhere. I might actually enjoy that. Maybe I’ll make a couple of films now in the U.K. Then I can go to Asia or whatever. I’d love to do that.
Marlow: You have meetings here. Will you go from here to Los Angeles and do meetings there as well?
Lanthimos: No, not this time. I’ve