Yorgos Lanthimos Is Not The Leader of the Greek New Wave: An Interview With The Director Of ALPS and DOGTOOTH
Despite being one those whose anticipation was high, I couldn't manage to stay awake during a screening of Alps at Lincoln Center earlier this year. It was late in the evening and I had just come off of twelve hours of work on four hours of sleep. I snoozed and I losed. So when the opportunity arose to speak with Yorgos, and I was told the publicist would send me a copy of the film, the answer was an easy 'neh' (which sounds like no, but is actually yes). Plus, I had literally the day before faked my way through a conversation about the film, maintaining I had seen more than fifteen heavy-lidded minutes.
This was the first thing I told Yorgos when I sat down with him at the Kino offices in Manhattan. He was very understanding about the situation and laughed it off, admitting to falling asleep during movies all the time. With the ice broken, I saw my opportunity and (politely) hit him hard with the hard hitting questions. He did correct me on one potential misquote, but it was nowhere near a chastisement of Herzogian proportions. Ah, to be young and Greek again! The following is a transcript of our conversation.
JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: I'm sure you've been asked about this before, but please bear with me because it leads into my questions about Alps: Are you familiar with the Spanish film Castle of Purity (El Castillo de la Pureza)?
YORGOS LANTHIMOS: Yes, now very much so. I haven't seen the whole film yet, but I've seen parts of it.
JC: Were you aware of it beforehand? Was it any sort of influence?
YL: Of course not. We never knew it even existed. But it's been brought to our attention, especially by the Greek press, who say we ripped it off.
YL: After someone mentioned it to them, because they didn't know about it either.
JC: Do you find the Greek press treat their own harshly?
YL: Yeah. I guess most press treat their own that way, but I found it very much so in Greece. There's a lot of hostility and I don't get where it comes from. But that's how it is.
JC: Despite having a similar premise, I feel they are two very different films.
YL: That's what I thought when I watched a bit of it. So I said, what's the big deal? It's the same premise but it's a completely different film.
JC: One difference that stood out to me was that in Castle of Purity, the father's aim is to protect his children from the sin's of the outside world; we are given that motivation up front. But in Dogtooth, we're never really given an explicit reason why the children are being raised in such an odd way. Similarly in Alps, it is never explicitly stated how or why the surrogate group was formed. When the movie begins it already exists. Do you feel this information isn't important to the story you're telling?
YL: I think it's a completely different film if you start with why and how this group is formed. What I'm more interested in is what happens because this group exists and how it affects people, how it changes them. How those people interact and how far they can go. Where does everything fall apart? I think that way, you make a film that is more open, a film that is connected to many other things besides the actual story of how something began. You are free to connect it to different behaviors in society, humanity, and other systems. I find it much richer to not deal with the why.
JC: Whereas Dogtooth is an insular film, Alps takes place in a more expanded setting. That setting almost feels like the world the eldest sister escaped to in Dogtooth, and that she could easily fit in as a member of the surrogate group. Do the two films take place in the same filmic universe? And was Alps an attempt to expand on some of the themes in Dogtooth?
YL: Well, I guess they take place in the same universe because they both start in my head and my co-writer's head. We wrote Dogtooth and Alps together. So there's definitely a way that we see things, certain things we like to explore and investigate. But there's also no effort to bring in something from a previous film. Most of the time we just try and do something different, but we can't, because we are the same people. We explore different aspects of similar things. To me, Alps is the opposite journey of the same actress from Dogtooth [Aggeliki Papoulia]. In Dogtooth, she tries to break out of her family; in Alps, she tries to break into a family. But I only realized that after I made the film. There are many similarities between the films, many things that you [the viewer] can point out that we can't, but we can agree.
JC: Both films also feature women who are subjected to cruel and domineering men. Is this a conscious choice on your part? And if so, what is it about this dynamic that interests you?
YL: To me, it's more about the cliché of how society is structured. Whether it's a family, in the work place, a nation, or in politics. There's all these groups that most of the time are structured with a male leader. So I like to use that cliché to ground this absurd setup in the familiar. And I also like to revolt against these clichés; I like it when the characters revolt against structure.
JC: Speaking of clichés, Aggeliki Papoulia's character is providing a service for others, but as the film progressives it becomes apparent that she is trying to fill a void in her own life. Do you feel her character functions as a prostitute archetype? And would you consider what she does to be emotional prostitution?
YL: That's funny, someone else also pointed that out. I never thought of it like that. To me, the point is that no matter how altruistic a person can appear to be, there's always a selfish motivation. No matter how much you things do for other people you are doing it for yourself as well. That's why her character was portrayed in that way. Many people look at it as a service, helping people cope with death, but I think that's a small part of it. And that's why we chose to focus on this character and not the people who are grieving, or why they are accepting these services. That idea was the starting point of the film, but then we realized that the person that is offering the service is much more complex.
JC: I've read that you like to cast non-actors as often as possible. What is it they bring to the table that a professional actor can't?
YL: I think it's a whole different universe. I think in film, non-professional actors, if you choose right, they're divine, because you don't know what to expect from them, because they're naïve about the process. They are very true in many ways, but also awkward and vulnerable. The camera captures that, and it's something the professional actor can't do. The real actors I choose to be in my films, they're people who can take their skill and education and put it aside. Be present, like the non-actors. And yes, they have technique, but we work in a way so that it never interferes. We never analyze the parts or work psychologically, or with any kind of method. We just work physically, like I would with non-professional actors. For Alps especially, we had no rehearsals. If it was working between the actors I didn't want to spoil it and make everyone self-conscious about what they were doing. So we just started by shooting the scenes, and I made sure that I had enough time to change things if something didn't work. Many times we finished early, so we would just come up with new scenes to shoot with the people that were there. And that proved to be very helpful, even if most of the scenes didn't end up in the film. It was helpful in evolving the process, to get into a mood, create something new. Every day there was something new.
JC: Do you encourage your actors to improvise?
YL: Sure. Especially in Alps. The actors were not allowed to read the script more than once, so they didn't know their lines when we started shooting. They kind of learned the lines as we shot each scene. Take by take they would remember things or we would inform them, and in the end we achieved a written script, but through a learning process which happened as we were shooting.
JC: As a service, the members of the Alps take on the roles of deceased loved ones, but when they deliver their lines, their readings are completely emotionless and flat. Is there any correlation between your use of non-actors and the themes of 'acting' in the film? Because you say non-actors can be natural, but in the film, the people who are play-acting don't seem very good at it.
YL: Yeah. That's complicated. [Laughs] The thing is, I'm not saying they're natural. I never said that. You can go back and listen to it. Natural, realistic- I don't use these words when discussing a film, because everything is fake. Everybody knows that. There is so much manipulation and control. What I tried to do in Alps was to have two different levels of fake. Different people have different ways of reaching whatever is supposed to be true and real in their films. But it's always a compromise for those watching the film. So what we tried to do is distinguish these two different levels of fake. When the people in the film are supposed to be the real people in the film, and the times when they are acting as the deceased. The way I approached it was to film these scenes in a much more awkward manner that the rest of the scenes. So the scenes in which the characters appear to be acting poorly, they were done in a very awkward way in a very awkward environment. And they seem even more fake because of it. Then in the rest of the scenes I tried to create a warmer kind of situation. So it felt more natural in comparison. It's not, but it feels more real.
JC: This is despite the fact that one of the fifteen rules for Alps members included in the press release is: Must be able to make convincing facial expressions.
JC: They weren't featured in the film, but was the list of rules given to the actors before shooting? As a guide?
YL: No, we actually wrote the rules after we finished the film. We wrote them for the press kit. We thought it would be funny if we came up with these rules and saw how many times they were broken in the film.
JC: You yourself have acted in film (Attenberg). Had you acted before that? Would you consider yourself a professional actor?
YL: No, no, no. Of course not. God forbid.
JC: So you're a non-actor actor?
YL: I'm not an actor, so I guess I'm a non-actor.
JC: What made you take that role, then?
YL: Because it was Athina [Rachel Tsangari]'s film and she asked me to do it, and I had no reason not to. She thought I was the appropriate person to do it, so that's that. Since I am a believer in non-actors being in films, in principle I didn't have any objection. I trusted her. I was helping her co-produce the film and I was there, so I just did it.
JC: You weren't concerned about the nudity required?
YL: No, I'm not prude like that. It served the film, and was used in a way that made sense.
JC: Another one of the Alps rules states that members must be ready to kill or die for the honor of the group. Do you think it could ever reach such an extreme?
YL: I don't know, and I'm not good at predicting the future [for the characters]. I find it funny when I hear actors say, "I believe this character would do this or that." To me, they don't really exist before or after the film. What you see is all there is. Whatever this character would have done in the future, I have no idea and I don't really care. The film functions in the present. It would be complete bullshit if I said, yes, this character would do this or that. If we had continued writing the script, it would have gone any way we felt was right.
JC: This goes back to the question of why the group was formed in the first place. What is the motivation for such extreme behavior? If it comes to the point where someone would kill for the honor of the group, you want to know why it's so important to them.
YL: That's why it's exciting to me- because you don't know. That's what you are trying to figure out. It's engaging. The same with the rules. You write these extreme rules and people are wondering, how far can this go?
JC: Here in the states, a lot of people have labeled you the leader of the so-called Greek new wave: How do you feel about that label?
YL: I don't like labels in general. Positive, negative, whatever. I think it's a convenient way for people to refer to certain things or package and present them, and it just narrows things down. I don't think there's a Greek new wave. At this moment it just so happens that Greece is very popular in the media, because of the troubles we are having. At the same time there are a couple of films that are quite successful internationally, which is something that wasn't happening before. It has happened in many other countries, like Romania or Iran or Korea.
To me, it's a natural thing. There's a new generation of filmmakers in Greece. They are making films under very difficult conditions so they have to help each other, like I did with Athina. We help each other make our films because that's the only way of making them. Friends have to help each other make the films, and that's that. There's no infrastructure, there's no interest, there's no proper financing. And it's not like there's a huge community. There's no movement, no common filmic language. Just different films here and there that are happening. And people are noticing them because of the country's exposure internationally.
JC: Do you feel there is anything culturally specific in your films that goes over the heads of international audiences?
YL: I wouldn't know, because I'm Greek [laughs]. I would say they are films that could take place in any part of the world. But they are Greek because the actors speak Greek, they are filmed in Greece, and they were written and made by Greek people. So there's obviously some Greekness to it, but I can't really specify. At the same time I think the themes are quite universal. So my films could take place anywhere. And I will actually try to make films in other places in the world, and draw things from different cultures, different languages, different landscapes, and see how that works with our Greek way of making film. And I still think you'll be able to notice some Greekness.
JC: Do you feel like you were influenced by what is going on in the country, politically and economically?
YL: I wasn't influenced, but you can't avoid including a reflection of what's going on around you in your work. It wasn't inspired by, but there were things we were preoccupied with, and that reality is reflected in the film.
JC: For me, the film is mainly about Aggeliki's character, but you bookend the film with scenes of the gymnast practicing her routine. Her finally getting to perform to a pop song is a deceptively happy ending, especially considering everything that led up to it. Why did you choose to focus on her at the end?
YL: It's exactly as you described it. To us, it was a nice bookend to the film, and yes, people wonder how important it is that she actually dance to a pop song considering what happened before. In general, I like endings that say things about the person who's watching the film, because how you see the end really depends on your personality. To me it is a fake happy ending. But to some other person, it could be a real happy ending. They could be happy this girl got to dance to a pop song. It tells you something about what kind of person you are. Like the end of Dogtooth, it tells you whether you are a pessimistic or an optimistic person, what you think happened to the girl in the trunk. Some say, oh, she got away and she's fine, but others say she got caught and sent back to the house. Or she died. I like the openness of it.
JC: Dogtooth won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes and was nominated for a foreign language film Oscar. Did you ever think the film would be received so well while you were making it?
YL: No, not at all. We didn't know if anyone was even going to watch it, or if it would get into any festivals. We had no idea, and we made the film accordingly. We made it exactly as we wanted to make it without thinking about anything else.
JC: Did you do the same thing with Alps, after the success of Dogtooth? Were you thinking in the back of your mind about how people were going to receive your followup?
YL: Fortunately we didn't have to, because we made it right after Cannes. Of course, we won the award in Cannes, so that was a bit of a burden [laughs]. But we had already started discussing what our next film was going to be. We started writing right after Cannes. Dogtooth kept becoming more and more successful, but fortunately by the time we reached the Oscars we had already shot Alps. We made the film exactly how we wanted, and of course that was also because once again we didn't have any financing and we had to make it on our own. That's the great thing about making films in Greece. You are free to do whatever the hell you want because you have no financiers, no industry to mess with what you're making. It's just that you don't have many means to make the film, either. We actually had to make Alps with less money than we made Dogtooth because of the crisis, which became worse. There was never any money to make films in Greece, but with the crisis it became more difficult. We had to decide whether to make the film with nothing or wait around for something to maybe happen, so we decided to go ahead and make a smaller film. We didn't really care, as long as we actually made the film.
JC: Do you have your next project lined up?
YL: Yes. Now it is getting more difficult, because Alps was also a success. Now I'm trying to set up films in the UK, in the English language, because I thought that after having made three films in Greece under such difficult conditions, and since we have the opportunity because of the success of the previous films, we should try it and see how a film is made properly. Have choices about practical things, and see how that works with our kind of filmmaking. But I don't know whether it will be better or worse. If you actually make a better film if you have money, or if it's just chance. We'll see.